Professor John Brewer
Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice
I have had a busy day at two conferences. In the morning I attended the Sinn Fein conference in the Europa Hotel on Belfast as a City of Equals; in the afternoon a workshop at the Lyric Theatre by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice on victims and memory. The juxtaposition of these two events is worthy of comment.
Sinn Fein’s conference was designed to reach out to the Protestant Unionist community and to begin discussion about Northern Ireland’s shared future. It says something about the difficulty of achieving a shared society however, that Unionist politicians boycotted the event and a small group of Loyalists protested outside. But it was significant for the prospects of realising this goal that the audience was full of civil society groups, some from the PUL community, representing churches, victims groups, conflict resolution experts and the like.
This was important because politicians are not hope-makers. We have relied too long on our politicians here to paint a vision of a post-conflict society; they didn’t do it after the Good Friday Agreement and most are not doing it now. Politicians are bad hope-makers. For one thing they tend to be focused on the here-and-now. For another, the spaces in which politicians speak tend to limit their capacity to outline a vision for the future. The adversarial nature of parliamentary assemblies reduces politics to point scoring.
The real place to discuss and debate the future, the space where hope can be mentioned as a guiding principle, is the civil sphere – amongst precisely the sort of people who attended Sinn Fein’s conference.
But it must be, as Tom Hartley said to me, ordinary communities speaking to one another not the gatekeepers who take it upon themselves to speak on people’s behalf without checking first what they really want them to say.
What I liked about Sinn Fein’s conference was also the recognition that the future can only be inherited by dealing with the past. We should not strive forward into the future and leave people behind in a two or three speed peace process as my colleague in the Institute Pete Shirlow put it.
But should we go into the future at the pace of the slowest person?
The Director of the Institute, Hastings Donnan said something so significant at the Lyric Theatre workshop that it bears repeating. The past is a collection of narratives about human tragedy, in which some people suffered so the rest of us can experience the gains of peace. These human tragedies should not be turned into a sectarian distortion of the past, for all sides suffered. Their tears are the same, as Pete Shirlow put it in the morning conference.
I want to link the two conferences though. It is very easy to say that we need to deal with the past, much harder to know what this means and to put it into practice. It is often a code for the way we deal with victims/survivors/the injured. There are some people who use this group as a means to try to overturn the gains made in the peace process – of turning the clock back.
Turning the clock back is no way to deal with the past. Victims/survivors/the injured will not regain their limbs, or have their loved ones return. One way of dealing with the past is to ask victims what they want – and to let their voices speak not those politicians who put themselves forward as their spokespeople. And I did so of the victims at the afternoon conference.
One victim, called Alex, answered in a way that should have humbled the politicians who refused to attend the morning event and those protesting outside – he wanted the three “r’s”: respect, recognition and reparations. But he also said that he knew that the future would ask him to make compromises, and that he was prepared to make them for the sake of his grandchildren.
We need the civil sphere to begin the debate that the politicians are scared of; and in the civil sphere we need moral beacons like Alex to be heard not their so-called gatekeepers.
To be a moral beacon is to rise above the darkness of past pain and to point a light for the rest of us to follow into a brighter future. The future is a frightening place, sometimes more so than the past. Moral beacons like Alex shine a light to help everyone cope with their fears, politicians included.
So do we take our lead from the victims, the very moral beacons we claim to be supporting or do we let their spokespeople set the agenda?
As for me and mine – we are on the side of the moral beacons. Where do you stand?