Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Truth Recovery in Northern IrelandCritically Interpreting the Past$

Kirk Simpson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780719078620

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719078620.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM MANCHESTER SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.manchester.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Manchester University Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in MSO for personal use (for details see http://www.manchester.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 21 February 2018



(p.123) 6 Conclusion
Truth Recovery in Northern Ireland

Kirk Simpson

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Northern Irish conflict, as an illustrative example of a wider phenomenon in transitional contexts, highlights the refusal of many post-conflict societies to face up to the legacy of political violence and suffering. This chapter provides an explanation of why dealing with the past is such a complex but necessary historical odyssey and examines the importance of communicatively rational transitional justice in Northern Ireland. This chapter refreshes the book's main thesis, addressing what the core features of effectively and critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland are, and suggesting that the ideas outlined in this book—communicative justice—are a potential answer to the crises. In particular, this conclusion refocuses on the important contribution that the unique Habermasian model of truth recovery can make to Northern Ireland's emergence from a long period of brutal conflict.

Keywords:   Northern Irish conflict, post-conflict societies, political violence, rational transitional justice, communicative justice, Habermas model

The Northern Irish conflict, as an illustrative example of a wider phenomenon in transitional contexts, highlights the refusal of many post-conflict societies to face up to the legacy of political violence and suffering. The deleterious effects of long campaigns of paramilitary and counter-paramilitary violence upon victims in Northern Ireland and beyond are shocking, and often graphic.Throughout this book, however, the description and analysis of the often dull, disconnected, colourless and emotionless world that victims have simply ‘endured’ — for that has been all many can do, some for as long as forty years — is reflective of the fact that despite the burden of grief and loss, victims’ issues have become increasingly peripheralised. Unable to discover their voice or denied the opportunity to do so, and lacking receptive audiences, it seems that no-one within policymaking or governmental circles in Northern Ireland has heard what victims are saying; and additionally they have felt that no-one could or would try to understand (Donnan, 2005).The two governments (British and Irish) and other political actors (including ‘ordinary’ citizens) in Northern Ireland — acknowledging that this is an enormous generalisation — seem to be telling victims that they no longer have the right to experience or verbalise their pain, given that the Troubles are supposedly over. Many victims have expressed the view that violence, trauma and grief have robbed them of their notion of self-identity, and ineluctably altered the people they were before tragedy struck (Dawson, 2003; Donnan and Simpson, 2007). Yet there remains hope that emotional and social recuperation can be achieved. The previous five chapters of this book have attempted to provide an in-depth and comprehensive conceptual overview of some of the core mechanisms by which this reclamation can be achieved in post-conflict Northern Ireland — legally, socially, culturally and politically Though many people and politicians are prematurely celebrating the ‘endgame’ of the peace process in Northern Ireland, it is both prudent and morally compelling to acknowledge and remember that many victims are still (p.124) battling the emotionally destructive legacy of deeply held trauma as a consequence of sustained illegal and illegitimate political violence. There is of course much to admire in the Northern Irish context, and although the focus of this book has been by definition critical, it would be churlish not to concede that Northern Ireland has the potential to offer transferable lessons for other societies struggling with internally violent conflicts. However, just as I have stressed the need to resist the imposition of frameworks for truth recovery that have been used elsewhere (South Africa, to provide just one example) in Northern Ireland, so too it is crucial to note that this book has been a tentative, first step towards the beginnings of an enormous project; and that, consequently, it would be presumptuous and impolitic to suggest the simple exportation of the complex models that I have devised and explained here. One of the fundamental issues in relation to critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland is the need for society finally to accept that the transition itself will not be expeditious or without political pain and discomfort. It is, rather, the start of a long and difficult journey from the present to the past and back again. As such, self-congratulatory political complacency is potentially perilous.

In this concluding chapter, therefore, an explanation of why dealing with the past is such a complex but necessary historical odyssey is offered, and in summarising the arguments made in the previous chapters, further analysis of the importance of communicatively rational transitional justice in Northern Ireland is provided. This chapter therefore refreshes the book’s main thesis, addressing what the core features of effectively and critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland are, and suggesting that the ideas outlined in this book — ‘communicative justice’ — are a potential answer to the crises of meaning that can occur in a society that is searching for the truth of its violent past. In particular, this conclusion refocuses on the important contribution that the unique Habermasian model of truth recovery can make to Northern Ireland’s emergence from a long period of brutal conflict, and again stresses the need for language and narrative to be reclaimed and rearticulated by victims of political violence. The project of implementing inclusive processes of truth recovery in Northern Ireland involves complex processes of unpacking dominant paradigms of memory, often those which have been created and imposed by governments, forceful ex-paramilitary groups with both sophisticated discourses of transition and clear articulations of their objectives, or major political parties. Reconfiguring public memory and history so that it is reflective of the diverse needs of victims of political violence in Northern Ireland is an enterprise that is inextricably linked to critical interpretation, and which can contribute to the recovery of consensual truth.

(p.125) The value of history

As Borradori (2004) has so cogently argued, there is nothing more philosophical than history. To critically interpret the past, as has been argued throughout this book, history in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to be sealed off, obscured, or to be constructed or manufactured according to facile or pernicious, politically partisan agendas. It must be framed within a philosophy of discovery and reflexive understanding that can help to create and solidify peace. In Stephen Spielberg’s groundbreaking and seminal film on the Holocaust — Schindler’s List (1993) — one of the central protagonists is Amon Goth (who was a German Schutzstaffel (SS) Hauptsturmfuhrer). Goth served as a commandant at the Plazow concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland (the character is played by English actor Ralph Fiennes in Spielberg’s production). The film has been widely recognised and praised as incredibly powerful, and it contemporaneously helped to resuscitate social memory and oral culture not only amongst Jewish victims of the Holocaust but within wider non-Jewish communities in Europe, north America, south America, and Africa who felt themselves to be victims of human rights abuses; and also the ‘unaffected’, who were awakened, however temporarily, from culturally and politically induced ambivalence or apathy, and realised that they had consented, if not colluded, in the process of mass forgetting. It thus quickly became apparent that the question still held: when did the ‘transition’ from the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust begin and end? How can one begin to access the truth of such unbearable experience, not only in relation to the Holocaust but also in relation to other gross human rights violations and genocides? Did the Nuremberg trials — which were emblematic of the retributive justice model — satiate victims’ desires for justice? Can such a model offer an understanding of what motivated perpetrators of such terrible crimes (often those, who in Arendt’s terms, were otherwise ‘banal’ individuals)?

As Ferguson (2006) has noted, despite the Holocaust, genocidal campaigns and those of vicious political violence have subsequently occurred in Cambodia, Chile, Argentina, the Soviet Union, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland, to name but a few. Spielberg’s work arguably helped to deconstruct the idea — whether as an act of artistic intention or inadvertently — that it was acceptable to think of a particular period or situation in which human rights abuses occurred as simply ‘solved’ by the passage of time, allied to some notional mechanism of retributive justice (usually high-profile criminal prosecutions of ‘ringleaders’). While films and the emotions they evoke might be dismissed by critics as populist and inaccurate ephemera, the notion of transitional justice and truth recovery can in fact, as has been argued throughout this book, be ontologised in a wholly different way. Rigorous democratic societies are compelled to ask themselves why the past (p.126) should ever be forgotten. The reconstruction of social memory and the historical truth of political violence via heuristic and dialogical interpretive methods are pertinent and particularly instructive in post-conflict contexts. The Nazis, as a totalitarian regime, sought as one of their primary goals the elimination of history, trying to replace it with warped and fabricated fauxmythical cults of destruction and conquest which would support and uphold the supposed thousand-year Reich. Their bombast was such that they did not realise the latent power of critical interpretation, which once activated revealed a strong and fervent desire on the part of victims to re-insert their experiences and themselves into history, and to have their stories made widely known.

In Spielberg’s film Fiennes, as Goth, makes a short speech to assembled prisoners after having ordered the vicious, motiveless shooting of a female civil engineer. It is an extract of dialogue that is relevant to this debate (earlier, in a shockingly visceral scene, Goth has idly, casually and randomly executed Jewish prisoners from the balcony of his quarters with the use of an assault rifle). The quotation is provided here in its totality, and it is done so not only because it underlines the dangers of eliding history, or histories, but also because it was in the aftermath of the Nazi period that Habermas (as a German) started to formulate his ideas and began, in earnest, his intellectual and philosophical journey towards communicative rationality.

Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Casimir the Great - so called - told the Jews they could come to Krakow They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts.With nothing they came and with nothing they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. By this evening those six centuries will be a rumour. They never happened. Today is history.

The texture of Goth’s grotesque discourse is not entirely anomalous in the context of post-conflict societies. This might be regarded by some as a provocative point, but it is one which must be faced if Northern Irish society and other countries that are in political and legal transition after protracted periods of ethnic hatred and long campaigns of political violence - is successfully to critically interpret its past. In Northern Ireland, as things currently stand, ‘today’ cannot, and must not, ‘be history’. If it is, the people of Northern Ireland will be left with no capacity for reflective understanding, either of self or the political ‘other’, of structural and individual agency, or of the conditions in which such brutal violence occurred and could occur again. In particular, victims of political violence will be indefinitely locked within a constricting paradigm of remembrance that does nothing to satisfy their (p.127) need for truth; and potentially more dangerously, one which seeks their metaphorical (if not actual) ‘disappearance’. While Goth’s abhorrent and virulent strain of racism and genocidal lust was focused upon Jewish people, and was a small part of a systematised programme to eradicate an entire population, partisan political dynamics in post conflict Northern Ireland could — potentially — allow for the creation of ‘false’ and insidious, inaccurate histories. Human rights abuses are often ‘ranked’ according to some sort of relative numerical scale. It would be absurd in statistically quantifiable terms to argue that in practice, the abominable crimes of the Holocaust were repeated in Northern Ireland. Yet, in a country with a small population, the deaths of over 3,000 people was enormously traumatising. More pertinently, the establishment and implementation of indiscriminate murderous ideologies did in fact mirror, in some form, the fascistic logic of the Totalitarian Nazis. Similarly — and my own ethnographic research experience of talking to victims of political violence supports this — the individual subjectivity of grief and loss of a loved one is in no way ameliorated (although it might evoke empathy) by the knowledge that much more radical programmes of extermination previously existed in continental Europe. Without critical interpretation of the past in Northern Ireland, systematically distorted and manipulative fiction designed and delivered by dominant political partisans could serve as the ‘authentic’ story of the past, and could be used to legitimise or even celebrate morally unacceptable and despicable actions such as paramilitary assassinations and executions. Unless victims are empowered to tell their stories publicly, the activities of perpetrators of political violence who killed innocent civilians in Northern Ireland could become, in Goth’s terms, merely ‘a rumour’. The relationship between the past and a workable philosophy of both addressing and dealing with its troubling legacy therefore has a crucial and direct impact on the human rights of victims, and also for future arrangements for macro- and micro-level government and social and political interaction (particularly intercommunal) in Northern Ireland. A peaceful, democratic regime can be measured by the extent to which it allows its people — especially victims in post-conflict contexts — to negotiate a sense of freedom with one another; and additionally that regime’s recognition that this freedom must be constructed within a fluid dialogical process of intersubjective interchange, beyond the corridors and boundaries of legislative and governmental power. The campaign against the resurrection of violence in Northern Ireland is not over. It has not, as I have argued throughout, even reached a feasible ‘endgame phase’, despite the repeated rhetoric of policymakers and politicians. Complacency on the part of Northern Irish civilians will lead ineluctably to the creation of a weakened public sphere, and permit new governments or political actors to grab the levers of power. The invariable by-product of this is a silencing of the past, and a muted, disenfranchised citizenry doomed to suffer the imposition of (p.128) false and dichotomised histories. More worryingly, it leaves a minority population of victims denied a precious opportunity both to seek and receive emotional and political reparation, to have their voices heard and to reclaim language, and to move towards personal and internal reconciliations with their own troubled past. Yet still, certain factions in Northern Irish society demand alternatively that a line is drawn under the past; that newly restored local government should pursue a policy of least resistance, whatever that might be (and this option is usually supported by those who have been seduced by the economic aphrodisiac of political and legal transition); or that political parties and actors should compete with one another to create and sustain dominant but unrepresentative master narratives of the past. All of this is spurious, nugatory rationale, and furthermore it is dangerous to the interests of victims of political violence, whose grief - if unaddressed and unabated - will remain incubated, displaced and unresolved. These propositions therefore do an enormous and morally objectionable disservice to vulnerable minority populations (the victims of political violence). Within this book, it has been argued that although there are potentially huge obstacles in the quest to reach an idealised end point of rational consensus, they are not insurmountable, and there is the scope for conceptual and practical mechanisms that transcend division via Habermasian communicative interchange.

Habermas, truth recovery and critically interpreting the past

Habermas himself has often recalled (as a young German) recoiling in shock at the findings of the Nuremberg trials, sickened not only by what human beings could do to one another, but in particular the evil and depravity of which his compatriots were capable (Borradori, 2004).This goes a small way to accounting for his focus on developing a universal moral framework that would act as an impervious defence against the institution of systematised violence. Habermas has been quoted as saying of that period ‘We believed that a spiritual and moral renewal was indispensable and inevitable’ (Habermas, quoted in Borradori, 2004: 9). It is this which has arguably been crucial to his subsequent desire to design and implement a framework for communicative rationality that can help to avert genocidal and political violence. In transitional Northern Ireland, moral renewal is also crucial. The key challenge is how to achieve that renewal in a country in which politicians and policymakers often erroneously dismiss the past as ‘unmasterable’.

As I have argued throughout this book in opposition to such a position, vtigwgmhtitsbmakigwg is entirely possible in Northern Ireland — involving a process of silence-breaking, confidence-building and storytelling leading eventually to direct dialogue with perpetrators of political violence, and consensual material and memorial representations of widely acknowledged (p.129) and accepted history. Irish republicans in Northern Ireland have repeatedly called for ‘normalisation’. In their case this has pertained to a widespread review of the security situation and has also meant a removal of large numbers of British Army personnel. Unionists too have articulated a version of this discourse, but through their prism of analysis ‘normalisation’ has traditionally meant a return to some sort of halcyon or chimerical unionist dominated government, certainly until the more pragmatic approach of the DUP as late as 2006–07. Both iterations of normalisation are crucially flawed, as indeed is the concept itself. A society which has experienced the deep psychological scarring that Northern Ireland has cannot simply be ‘normalised’ via a process of dichotomised or partisan political restructuring. This is, in Habermasian terms, a ‘traumatic refusal’ to face the dark shadows of the past. Critics argue that post-conflict generations of Northern Irish citizens should not be exposed to the baggage of violent history, but as Habermas argued in relation to the Holocaust, the passage of time is no panacea for unresolved social, cultural and political wounds. It is absurd to suggest that the ‘next generation’ of Northern Irish citizens will not seek to question the reasons why society was plunged into a murderous morass for over three decades. Many people will have lost parents, relatives, grandparents, neighbours and siblings. Irish history has an especially pervasive character, occupying a pivotal position in the national psyche north and south of the border, and it will embed itself in cultural discourses and ritualised commemoration as it has done for centuries irrespective of policymakers’ desires to try to ignore or marginalise it. With the passing of time, it is crucial to note that memory does not become ‘correspondingly distantiated’, because as Habermas has noted, ‘regardless of one’s subjective perspective, its point of departure is still the same’ (Habermas, quoted in Borradori, 2004: 10). In the Northern Irish case, this could be television footage of dismembered bits of bodies being scooped up and deposited in plastic bin bags after the PIRA bombings of Bloody Friday; or the innocent civilians on the streets of Londonderry riddled with bullets by British shock combat troops.

Despite the best efforts of various groups to mould the imagery of suffering in Northern Ireland to fit with their particularist narratives, they cannot erase entirely the visual legacy of the past without considerable effort. In anthropological terms, in any case, even in the absence of such media records, stories would be disseminated within families and other social networks. In short, the past must be faced. Truth, or some consensual agreement thereof, must be discovered. The relationship between political fundamentalism and terrorism/paramilitarism in Northern Ireland was actualised by a communicative pathology, a total failure on the part of ‘each side’ to the conflict to recognise the dangers of systematically distorted discourse that fed upon fear, loathing and hatred. As Habermas has argued, (p.130) ‘the spiral of violence begins as a spiral of distorted communication that leads through the spiral of uncontrolled reciprocal mistrust, to the breakdown of communication’ (Habermas, quoted in Borradori, 2004: 35). The obvious remedy to this problem is to attempt to build enduring trust among affected citizens (particularly victims of political violence). This, however, cannot occur whilst terror and repression continue, and this is precisely why the transitional post-conflict phase in Northern Ireland is so fundamental to the prospects of bringing a total and complete ending to nearly one hundred years of relational distance. Victims in Northern Ireland have been plagued by ontological insecurity, never really knowing who their enemy was. This was also, to a lesser extent, the case for the majority of a politically divided citizenry. Truth recovery can help to ameliorate this problem, it if is properly conceived and implemented. Victims can at last be able to identify not only those whom they deem responsible for the ruination of their lives; but also to identify themselves as an integral and indispensable part of the new political order.

Paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, despite its rhetorical grasp on either anti or pro-state ideology, was in some cases a cynical cover for individual greed and criminal opportunism. This will be especially difficult for victims to digest, and it is why it is imperative to underline once again that the process of critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland will not be quick or easy. Religious identity was often used as an instrumental cover for assassinations and obscene forms of torture, including at one point the worst spree of gang serial killings in the history of the United Kingdom (though this has been covered in an earlier chapter, it is salient to note again that debate still rages over the extent to which political murder was sectarian and religiously based (Dillon, 1989)). From a politically normative and moral standpoint, there can be no excuse for terrorist activity, and it has already been argued in this book that structural factors, whilst pieces of a complex puzzle, cannot and must not be used as superficial, systematically distorted or facile ‘get out clauses’ for individuals who possessed agency in a democratic society. What truth recovery in Northern Ireland should set out to achieve is wider and deeper public understanding of the nature of this agency and responsibility, and remove the ‘safety net’ of peer pressure, structural and socio-economic factors and ‘tipping point’ vengeance rationale, in order that more informed and critical understandings of paramilitary motivation during the conflict is offered to victims. Post-conflict administrations and policymakers should not use the speed of political transition to blur society’s view of past paramilitary activity, for that would be manifestly unjust and negate the value of rational truth recovery and reconciliation.

The reification of past political violence in Northern Ireland as in any way heroic is to risk the establishment of the ‘permanent present’ — an Orwellian static ‘sameness’ of partisan, infallible historical narratives that exclude the (p.131) alternative stories of victims. As Yelvington (2002: 227) has argued persuasively, an imposed focus on the post-conflict future at the expense of the past heightens ‘with respect to relations of domination and subordination, the stakes surrounding the sense of competing parties’ places in history and the articulation of the past’. History cannot and should not be ‘remade’ in Northern Ireland by the politically powerful at the expense of the powerless in order to provide victims and perpetrators with a false moral equivalence. Although the dangers of epistemological relativism have been discussed throughout this book, it is worth repeating that a postmodern relativist conception of transitional reconciliation processes involves forms of cynical immediacy, and could be used to select particular events from history to ‘fit’ certain master narratives. Such analysis would lack any retrospective critical interpretation. As Harvey (1989: 54) has argued:

Eschewing the idea of progress, postmodernism abandons all sense of historical continuity and memory, while simultaneously developing an incredible ability to plunder history and absorb whatever it finds there as some core aspect of the present.

Truth recovery in Northern Ireland should instead be reliant upon the establishment of a strong foundation of common public cross-communal understanding and moral conviction amongst a vibrant post-conflict public sphere, free from the malign interference of paramilitary groups, governments, or international businesses seeking to exploit cheap labour markets (the Northern Irish economy suffered greatly during the Troubles and corporations have not been slow to realise the euphemistically named ‘development potential’). Northern Ireland must strive instead to become an ‘open society’ (Habermas, 1984). In such a potentially vibrant atmosphere and rigorous public sphere, citizens of the post-conflict period in Northern Ireland could enjoy the benefits of comparatively high rates of social and political mobility, and profit from communicatively structured deliberative democracy that is formulated upon notions of truth and moral merit. The importance of ‘history’ is especially useful here. A process of critically interpreting the past must take account of the fact that individual recollections are often inescapably subjective. Crucially, though, a workable definition of history, even in a deeply divided society, can be distinguished by the maximising of consensual content. The term ‘objectivity’ is potentially problematic in terms of truth recovery for many reasons that have been outlined in detail earlier in this book, but the philosophy of critical history is consonant with contemporary critical theory. Both point to the possibility of implementing a firm political and social structure in which citizens can set about establishing meritorious and valid versions of the past that enable political progress and reconciliation in the present. The risk in the transitional context in Northern Ireland is that society will become closed, shielded from critical scrutiny and (p.132) historical interpretation by the machinations of dominant political actors, and suffering from a lack of democratic participation because of the potential for widespread apathy on the part of the citizenry. Closed societies are characterised by forms of totalitarian and restrictive ideologies, especially in relation to the excavation of the past, with hierarchies of power very clearly delineated and often politically and socially impenetrable. Such societies also usually demonstrate a weak grasp of history, relying upon fabrication and myth in support of tendentious party political rhetoric and the imposition, rather than the consensual establishment, of social and legal programmes for change. Closed societies are founded upon warped, biased discursive representations of the past that remain unchallengeable in the public sphere.

The core political, social and legal objective in post-conflict Northern Ireland is to overcome these obstacles, and to create an open society in which government, policymakers and citizens show a clear commitment to a sufficiently strong cross-community consensual moral backdrop, which regrettably does not yet exist. Cross-communal co-operation is by no means absent from the contemporary political landscape in Northern Ireland, but it has been corrupted not only by a protracted period of violence but also by the common disbelief in the idea that validity claims are raised by the ethnic or political ‘other’ in the interests of the greater good. Some form of inter and also intracommunity trust is thus absolutely central to the project of democratic reconstruction in Northern Ireland. It can be developed through the channels that have been outlined in this book — public storytelling, dialogical truth recovery, the material manifestations of consensual history and the resistance of dominant group imposed historiography. Critics of the model that is proposed in this book will question why a heuristic and hermeneutic paradigm of reflection and understanding should assume precedence in any project of truth recovery. It is for precisely this reason: it functions in everyday interactions and conversations (Habermas, 1984; 1996; Borradori, 2004). It is a pre-existing social and linguistic base upon which hope for reconciliation can be built, beyond mere rhetoric. It has been explained in detail in Chapter 4, but it is important to re-iterate that point briefly here in summarising the main thesis of this book. Within the confines of public storytelling and intersubjective dialogical interchange, it is possible that the apparent chasm between different understandings of individual and collective self (‘my community’) and the ‘other’ (‘their community’) in Northern Ireland can be bridged. To begin with, the assumption that groups in Northern Ireland — Protestant, Catholic, unionist, loyalist, nationalist, republican — all possess homogenous identities is a classic example of essentialism and Anderson’s (1991) notion of the ‘imagined community’. The interpretive pre-understandings of victims, perpetrators and the ‘unaffected’ must be pulled apart and reshaped so that Northern Ireland does not fall prey to the perpetuation of these single identity discourses. Victims of (p.133) political violence can be encouraged, whatever the level of their trepidation and resistance, to embrace a dialogical process in which they can, in a therapeutic way, acknowledge the limitations of their own speculative ideas about the heinous crimes that robbed them of loved ones. This is not in any way a critique of victims — the inefficacy of police investigations often meant that conjecture was all that they were left with, but it is no substitute for truth. As Habermas (quoted in Borradori, 2004: 37) has argued:

Struggling with the difficulties of understanding, people must, step by step, widen their original perspectives and ultimately bring them together. And they can succeed in such a ‘fusion of horizons’ by virtue of their peculiar capacity to take up the roles of ‘speaker’ and ‘hearer’. Taking up these roles in a dialogue, they engage in a fundamental symmetry, which, at bottom, all speech situations require.

Note that whilst Habermas mentions fundamental symmetry, it is not my interpretation that in the Northern Irish context this equates to any form of moral equality between victims and perpetrators of political violence. Rather, political and social balance can be achieved if victims can reach the end-point of the Habermasian model outlined in this book, in which they engage directly in dialogue with the perpetrators of political violence, thus ending their previously asymmetrical and disempowered relationship with the both the apparatus and the agents of paramilitary violence, whose very presence has peripheralised victims for years, if not decades.

In the course of mutual perspective-taking there can develop a common horizon of background assumptions in which both sides accomplish an interpretation that is not ethnocentrically adopted or converted but, rather, intersubjectively shared. (Habermas, quoted in Borradori, 2004: 37)

This ‘common’ horizon is arguably a morally universalist framework in which perpetrators of political violence ask victims and the public for clemency and forgiveness, and recognise as a result of a process of rational intersubjective discourse that paramilitary activity was unjustifiable and unacceptable. According to Habermasian logic, this should occur after communicatively rational dialogue in which the force of better argument (that of the victims) triumphs. Critical interpretation of the past using a Habermasian framework therefore provides an unprecedented opportunity to end the cycle of violence — a proposition at one point considered nearly impossible in Northern Ireland — without reproducing an ethnic/political conflict in new and insupportable frameworks of metanarratives and distorted historical understanding (‘the conflict about the conflict’). The Schmittian existentialist idea that political reconstruction consists simply of the assertion of one collective group identity and history over another is (p.134) poisonous and potentially deal-breaking in relation to post-conflict peacemaking in many contexts, not least of all Northern Ireland.

As Fisher (2007) has noted, the Schmittian position has hugely unfortunate and insidious political overtones of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’, which is consonant with a malevolent and aggressive strategy of ‘othering’. This approach cannot fully account for the effervescence of both collective and individual, micro-level violent activity because it is primarily concerned with the ‘master cleavages’ of political antipathy and the indictment of ‘high-level’ perpetrators. It is not acceptable for victims that former paramilitaries or state actors responsible for illegal acts of violence are essentialised as unwilling proxies or ciphers for manipulative puppeteers. This totalising narrative crucially misunderstands the nuance of political violence. In any process of truth recovery, there must be a firm desire on the part of governments and of the public sphere to access the atomised experience of victims so that the controversial issue of perpetrator agency can be explored, without collapsing all explanations for conflict into socio-cultural master narratives that are reliant upon Schmittian notions of macro-level political control. This can only be achieved through meaningful critical intersubjective and Habermasian communicatively rational dialogue.

Indeed, a focus on macro-level agency and the ideological identity of aggregated collectivities as explanations for violent conflict has arguably been hugely damaging to other transitional situations, in many cases prompting disproportionate military responses that are based on the notion of essentialised, abstract culturally or ethnically antipathetic groups who are erroneously believed to hold exactly the same loyalties and political beliefs (the post-9/11 climate for example). It is difficult to suggest whether or not these overtones are deliberate or inadvertent, although Habermas has certainly not held back in adopting a very strong anti-Schmitt position (Borradori, 2004).This friend-foe framework of state versus state (or perhaps more pertinently in the case of Northern Ireland, state versus anti-state) and its related analysis, in which the authority of the collective political sphere in managing and directing intercommunal violence is stressed, must not be allowed to gain credence in Northern Ireland, because it disregards the complex and interconnected phenomenon of private individual and microlevel agency as both causal and sustaining factors in conflicts (as noted in Chapter 2). Unfortunately, once a conflict has come to an apparent end, the master narratives of macro cleavages and divisions provide expedient methods for transitional administrations or dominant political actors to reconstruct the complexities and ambiguities of systematic violence.

There is also some danger that, in the supposed ‘endgame’ of transition in Northern Ireland, the goal of the two governments (both British and Irish) or other dominant political actors will simply be to ensure that victims, as a minority group, are ‘tolerated’, but that such toleration will be temporally (p.135) bound (as with Las Madres in Argentina). The very idea of ‘tolerance’ — offered to victims as some sort of ‘prize’ or ‘incentive’ — wrongly suggests that any monolithic political or social entity in Northern Ireland has it within its gift to distribute toleration as it determines fit. This is inimical to both historical critical interpretation and critical theory more generally. Victims of political violence in Northern Ireland must not be required to ask the general public or governments for tolerance, nor to have to accept it in any way as a final or acceptable outcome of their journey towards meaningful, communicatively rational truth recovery. As has been repeatedly articulated within this book, the suggestion that Northern Irish society should simply permit the airing of unheard public stories of grief and a limited process of truth recovery in exchange for the satiation of the ultimate objective of hermetically sealing the past (which is sold to victims and the wider public as the most effective pathway to peace) is repugnant.

The notion of ‘tolerance’ has, at least in part, its roots in the absolutist monarchies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when supposedly ‘benevolent’ rulers ‘allowed’ subjects to practise their religious beliefs, usually according to certain preconditions. The word ‘tolerance’ is often used in the contemporary context, and is generally universally acknowledged as a ‘good thing’, but despite its ostensible liberal overtones it has a somewhat noxious genesis, at least in political and legal terms. ‘Tolerance’ can in no way be argued to be the same thing as full acceptance. At best, it smacks of a form of relaxed and neglectful paternalism. At worst, however, it is a dangerous mechanism of social control that can result in the eventual exile of minority communities if they do not adhere to the terms and limitations of ‘tolerance’ as outlined by the politically powerful (as in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia). Truth recovery is not and should not be about mere ‘tolerance’, suggesting as it does that the practice of those who are to be ‘tolerated’ is in some way deviant or abnormal. It should be about dialogue, discovery, critical interpretation, acknowledgement, potential forgiveness and historical consensus. One cannot expect victims of political violence in Northern Ireland merely to seek the toleration of the unaffected. Rather, those untouched by political violence or who desire to draw a ‘line under the past’ must confront this inalienable fact: there is clear evidence that many victims in Northern Ireland are ready to tell their stories, and there is a process — outlined in this book — by which they can be enabled to claim the emotional and political reparation that is rightfully theirs, regardless of how much that upsets the grand plans of government or the political and economic trajectories as mapped out by strategic political actors.

Victims should also never be compelled to ask for ‘acts of mercy’, especially from perpetrators of political violence. They might have been substantially and significantly weakened by the tragedy and experience of political violence, but they should not enter the Habermasian model of truth (p.136) recovery in a disempowered condition, or feeling in any way unequal. It is perpetrators who should, ideally, approach such proceedings with a concrete desire to express remorse, and to try to offer some form of emotional recompense for victims, notably through engaging meaningfully in dialogue and telling the truth about their involvement in past political violence. Similarly, the Northern Irish public, to re-iterate, must not allow ‘compassion fatigue’ to set in. The self-praising post-conflict climate of political and economic stability in Northern Ireland is predicated upon a political project that has thus far muted victims. As a consequence, it is vulnerable to government or partisan ideology that suggests, subtly or otherwise, that pressure should be applied upon victims until they accept the supposed political, social and legal inevitability of burying the past. To ensure the establishment of a rigorous democratic system in which public participation and historical interpretation is encouraged, the citizenry in Northern Ireland would be better advised to rally in support of the victims, and to back them fully in their quest for truth.

The concept of temporally or spatially bound ‘allowance’ for victims is an authoritarian, autocratic philosophy of conflict resolution and as such should be repudiated in the Northern Irish context. As Habermas (quoted in Borradori, 2004: 41) has argued ‘within a democratic community whose citizens reciprocally grant one another equal rights, no room is left for an authority allowed to one-sidedly determine the boundaries of what is to be tolerated’. In post-conflict Northern Ireland, the Habermasian Truth Recovery Panels (as noted in Chapter 4) should possess the capacity (and even then, this power can be rescinded by a strong public sphere should the citizenry decide that the Panels have overstepped their mandate) to outline the parameters within which dialogic interchange will take place. This process cannot, however, determine in any way those who choose to come forward and self-identify as victims. According to the Habermasian template outlined in this book, this would be an undeniable right of all citizens in Northern Ireland.

Such individual autonomy cannot and should not be taken for granted. In post-conflict contexts, governments and transitional administrations often move rapidly to redefine the contours of permissible political debate, usually through the facade of legislation that is ostensibly designed to ‘protect’ victims and society from an uncomfortable confrontation with the past, and which policymakers fear could result in uncontrollable oppositional discourse. Counter-hegemonic stories of the past, told publicly, could potentially remove the sheen from carefully crafted and choreographed peace processes, and could be disruptive to government plans for the unduly expeditious ‘resolution’ of conflict. The independence of citizens, in Habermasian terms, can therefore only be acquired through meaningful human relationships — that is, direct deliberative discourse between people. Following this logic, victims can only reclaim their place amongst the new political order by engaging in public dialogue. For communicative justice to (p.137) be effective in Northern Ireland, the vital pillar of public storytelling must be firmly in place. Having reclaimed language and their voices, as discussed in Chapter 3, victims can enter the Habermasian process with newfound levels of confidence and reasonable belief and expectation that within the communicative confines of the Truth Recovery Panels there will be an unbreakable commitment to rational debate, justice and the pursuit of the truth. Communicative justice should and can be established as a process that not only permits but which actively encourages the formation of freely achieved historical and political consensus. In terms of both dealing with and critically interpreting the past in Northern Ireland, it is the central and core aspect of the three-strand approach that I have outlined in this book — public storytelling by victims of political violence; a programme of rational dialogical interchange (communicative justice) mediated by Truth Recovery Panels; and consensual memorialisation that reflects any agreement and reconciliation that has been achieved within the Habermasian process.

In Habermasian terms, the political violence that occurred in Northern Ireland was a gross deformation of the natural order of society, which it is possible to argue, was and remains innately good. Crucially — a small minority aside — it is a society that is widely and openly antipathetic towards the idea of political violence. For that reason, the legacy of the conflict is especially perplexing. As noted, it has not been the aim of this book to unpack in great detail the rationale or causes of the ‘Troubles’, but rather to trace their outworkings and to try to move towards healing some of the deep wounds of the past. Widespread intercommunal and pro and anti-state violence took place, and as such, it is incumbent upon those policymakers or politicians tasked with rebuilding fractured communities that they establish a framework for critically analysing the past and maximising the benefits for all citizens. This is particularly important for victims, who have been emotionally vandalised, not only during the conflict, but in the post-conflict phase by the refusal of both governments (British and Irish) to critically confront the past. The defects in the social and political communicative process that contributed to, and undoubtedly helped sustain, three decades of intercommunal violence cannot be allowed to persist. In their place, rational dialogue must be the anchor that grounds post-conflict processes of truth recovery, and must offer real hope that peace will be maintained. Partisan histories as representations of the past are intellectually and philosophically fascist programmes of manipulation that offer only ideologically tainted and embedded fiction in place of truth. To combat this, post-conflict society in Northern Ireland must strive to integrate consensual and rationally negotiated versions of the past within the consciousness of the present (see Morphy (p.138) and Morphy, 1984). As noted in Chapter 3, the role of language is central to the project of democratic reconstruction and victim empowerment. ‘Everyday’ language use often hides what it claims to reveal (Yelvington, 2002), especially in political terms. In reclaiming language and rediscovering their voices, victims of violence must try to rebuild that which has been shattered; to retrieve crucial aspects of their past; and transmit these memories in public (Phelps, 2004). This is not an easily accomplished objective, but it should be underlined that it is a fundamental one. In the context of hasty political reconstruction, as in post-conflict Northern Ireland, victims have to be aware of the psychological baggage of culturally dominant models of understanding and pre-existing historical ‘categories’, into which they will be forced. Without this recognition, there is the possibility that predetermined paradigms of government sponsored historical ‘discovery’ can impinge upon the rational outcomes of trauma narratives. Crucially, the discourse ‘void’ amongst victims of political violence in Northern Ireland cannot and should not be read as an absence of available stories — in my own ethnographic experience, quite the reverse is true (Simpson and Donnan, 2006; Donnan and Simpson, 2007). As Troulliot (1995) argued, societies must be keenly aware of imposed or deliberately produced silences, and the nuances that these hide. Malevolent actors with designs on post-conflict political power should be prevented from creating artificial, synthetic versions of the past. Victims’ public storytelling is essential to the rebuttal of such influences. Unscrupulous ‘memory entrepreneurs’ will profess to speak ‘on behalf’ of entire communities, but this is a complex political sleight of hand intended to solidify particularlist interests.

The politically powerful, in trying to erase the victims from the historical record, can use established and culturally bound (but potent) frames of remembrance as a political commodity in the present, producing symbolic imagery and texts in deliberate attempts to appeal to ‘their community’ and to dominate the truth recovery debate. This disallows individuals, not least those who are politically opposed to partisan group attempts to foster master narratives, from ‘self-situating’ in historical terms. The self, in Northern Ireland, has been commonly regarded as communally divided, but here it is important to note that this argument is somewhat flawed. There is arguably already some form of pre-existing consensus, a socio-political group with more in common than any of the other factions in Northern Ireland, and that is the victims of political violence, whether they be Protestant, Loyalist, unionist, Catholic, nationalist or republican. Only trenchant and systematically distorted processes of communication have precluded citizens from forging strong enduring links across these divides.

It remains in the interests of politicians and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland to accentuate and emphasise these invisible differences, and there is no better repository for this than supposed ‘cultural’ disharmony This is a (p.139) term used casually, without ever being seriously critiqued by the citizenry as dubious and specious rationale for prohibiting victims from sharing their experiences across the ‘two communities’. Victims, as Handler (1994: 11) argued, must begin to speak to the powerful ‘in a language that power understands’. Cross-cultural and cross-communal unison amongst victims, allied to meaningful processes of public storytelling, would certainly be one method of achieving this. Victims could then be enabled to abandon false dichotomies, and to state publicly with confidence that they are no longer willing to be subjugated, or to be essentialised as belonging to one particular ‘tribe’. If a united group identity does exist in post-conflict Northern Ireland, perhaps that of the victims of political violence is as close to a coherent one as might be hoped for.

This victim identity in Northern Ireland is an incredibly valuable resource. In Weiner’s (1992) terms, it is an ‘inalienable possession’.Yet it is a possession that has been subject to legal, political and social larceny and piracy, as governments, politicians and policymakers shamelessly use ‘shrunken’ definitions and caricatures of victims to fulfil transitional political and legal objectives (often which are of little or no benefit to the victims). The adoption or assumption of the identity of victim by political instrumentalists does an enormous disservice to attempts to find a feasible conflict resolution model in Northern Ireland. Regrettably, such identity assimilation can be used to further fortify and deepen divisions between unionists and nationalists. Politicians with vested interests in the creation of conformist narratives are not beyond using victim identity as uniform typologies of belonging, with common and largely undifferentiated expedience of suffering. Brubaker and Cooper (2000: 2) have rejected this limited vocabulary of identity, and the notion of ‘flat’ and empty objectification, going so far as to suggest that identity is an ambiguous category that can have very negative ramifications for social analysis:

The analysis of identity politics … requires relatively unambiguous analytical categories. Whatever its suggestiveness, whatever its indispensability in certain practical contexts, ‘identity’ is too ambiguous, too torn between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ meanings, essentialist connotations and constructivist qualifiers to serve well the demands of social analysis.

In this regard, Brubaker and Cooper make an important and enormously valuable point. The coalescence of ambiguity and essentialisation in terms of victim identity can serve transitional policymakers well in helping them to externalise and ostracise victims. Such an approach eschews critical nuance and individual subjectivity in favour of immovable categories of political belonging, thus rendering victims’ issues much less problematic for those keen to expedite the transition. However, in support of critical interpretation of the past, the stigmatisation and objectification of victims’ historical (p.140) memory has to be compared directly with their own personally defined notions of selfhood. Post-conflict society in Northern Ireland must become sensitive to the idea that what can be ‘counted’ as valid memory or history can be accomplished via the three-stage process I have outlined in this book. The model I have devised has potential for circumnavigating the usual dependence on clashing political and social interpretations of the past, which are commonly intractable.

The loss of a critical attitude to history can open the way for barbarism, most damagingly in the form of programmes of political violence (Borradori, 2004).The approach that I have taken in outlining a three-strand truth recovery process in this book is consistent with the core principles of critical theory. There is a responsibility for writers and commentators, and not least of all citizens, to use this theory in a diagnostic fashion — analysing the past in ways that deconstruct myths propagated by the self-serving politically powerful. The protection of fundamental human rights is at stake, and to miss the opportunity to safeguard these rights would be an egregious abrogation of collective moral and political duty. The hopes of victims cannot be harvested and then jettisoned because of the ‘imperatives’ of post-conflict state building. In reclaiming language, and by articulating their narratives in public, victims can no longer be fooled by the often duplicitous language of political power. Political relativists who would try to use sophisticated or opaque discourse or legislation to block critical interpretation of the past, and to manufacture moral equivalence between victims and perpetrators would hopefully be prevented from such distortion by the rigour of the Habermasian model. In the post-conflict context (and not just in Northern Ireland) relativism can be the enemy of human rights. As Ishay (2004: 11) has argued so forcefully:

Cultural relativism is a recurrent product of a historical failure to promote universal human rights discourse in practice, rather than a legitimate alternative to the comprehensive vision offered by a universal stand on justice.

If a relativist path is pursued by government and policymakers in Northern Ireland, the restored cross-community devolved government will enjoy only frail legitimacy, and quarantined victim narratives will become subterranean sources of constant dissatisfaction. Northern Ireland, in a situation like this, would therefore become politically dysfunctional, even though ostensibly it might appear that the conflict has been ‘solved’. Eliminationist ideology that excludes victims’ stories cannot be allowed to take hold during the transition in Northern Ireland. The Habermasian model would seek to pacify the corrupted sense of uncritical history by stressing the primacy of the narrative form, which can result in the production of an idealised but distinct moral framework within which the meaning of the past can be rescued. As Braun (1994: 194) has noted: (p.141)

For Habermas, present-day historical consciousness is based not on political but moral legitimation. While neoconservative historians try to sublimate the politico-moral authority of the present in references to historical ‘facts,’ Habermas is concerned with the ‘public use of history’ in the form of historical consciousness and identity related to a moral absolute.

The need to interpret the past critically, is, I have argued throughout this book, absolutely fundamental to the prospects for democratic reconstruction and meaningful truth recovery in Northern Ireland and in other post-conflict societies. The difficulties that are inherent in representing and dealing with the past adequately are culturally and socially pressing in the continued hunt for communicatively rational legitimisation of political and legal authority in post-conflict Northern Ireland. The value of victims’ individual concepts and perceptions of transitional culture and their individual and collective memory of violence should be elevated to a position of social, legal and political priority. The need for victims to formulate coherent narratives from the fragments of chaotic and traumatising experience is obvious, unless Northern Irish society is content for the residue of violence, in the words of William James (as long ago as 1894), to let ‘traumata’ create ‘thorns in the spirit’ of both individuals and the social collective. In this context, it is easy to concur with Olick and Robbins (1998: 344), who in relation to victims of political violence have argued that:

We know these victims are particularly fragile, and we often feel we owe them both protection from easily-provoked and easily-understood fear as well as every help towards healing. In some cases, this involves material and symbolic restitution, compensation, apology and the like; in others it means merely lending a willing ear, helping them to give voice to their experiences and promising never to forget.

One might suggest, however, that we might go further than this. Throughout this book I have made a case which, although consonant with the sentiment expressed by Olick and Robbins, is considerably more forceful in terms of emphasising just how important it is that victims are offered a full range of reparation — emotional, linguistic, and financial. Regrettably, as has been discussed in Chapter 2, in other transitional contexts there has nothing ‘mere’ about lending a ‘willing ear’ to help give voice to the experiences and trauma of victims. Rather, it seems that this gesture has been utterly beyond many post-conflict governments and its citizens. Northern Ireland offers a chance to right this wrong. Government, policymakers, political actors and citizens should pay heed to the warnings offered by Adorno (1986), who emphasised the dangers of allowing unresolved pasts to fester. Adorno — at one time a mentor to Habermas and a central figure in the Frankfurt School — was deeply worried about the potential perpetuation of fascist inclinations within the newly reconstructed German democratic state, which he feared would be (p.142) the result of a society which had not mastered its past by uncovering and confronting the horrors of genocide.

In conclusion, it is of primary importance to stress — at risk of repetition - that victims of political violence are not single identity, homogenous collectivities that can be, or should be, subject to an expedient and expeditious process of ‘conflict resolution’ that neglects all of the fundamental tenets of truth recovery that I have outlined in this book. The Northern Irish Troubles cannot be simply wished way or expunged, no matter the strength of the political antiseptic that the enemies of critical history might use. The Northern Ireland conflict remains an enormously damaging phenomenon, and a huge challenge to those who would seek the re-establishment of narratives and paradigms of universal morality as boundary markers that are capable of copper-fastening peace and stability, and protecting human rights. It is politically and socially impossible and unethical to try to impose reductionist versions of history that inaccurately aggregate victims’ experiences, or which attempt to ignore them altogether. The project of critically uncovering the nature and the texture of public and private memory, especially as regards political violence, are enormously complex. Successfully dealing with the past, as Olick and Robbins (1998: 346) have argued, is not easily achieved:

It means remembering both that ‘memory’ occurs in public and private, at the tops and at the bottoms, as reminiscence and as commemoration, as personal testimony and national narrative, and that each of these forms is important.

The transitional period in Northern Ireland has presented the perfect opportunity for this multi-layered critical interpretation of the past. It can only be hoped that this book, as a tentative first step towards enduring peace, democratic reconstruction, and most crucially emotional relief and some form of resolution and reparation for victims, has made some contribution — however small — to the prospects for society in Northern Ireland to seize this unprecedented opportunity for lasting reconciliation.