By Peter Grande
For three gory decades, Catholic Republicans were pitted against Protestant Unionists in a violent sectarian conflict over the national identity of Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Although the Good Friday Agreement ended armed conflict in 1998, tensions remain. Almost every political issue, from criminal justice to Brexit, is a door into an argument regarding the Troubles. In many ways, the Troubles never truly ended. As of 2018, there were 1,186 unsolved murders from the conflict—1,186 families without closure (Winters). In a country about as populous as West Virginia, the impact is massive. Communities are lined with “peace walls” to separate Republicans and Unionists; schools remain segregated between Catholics and Protestants (“The Irish Times view on schools…”). The residual wounds of the Troubles continue to bleed.
Northern Ireland’s precarious peace would be strengthened by a community-based Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that offers closure to victims, amnesty to repentant perpetrators, and restorative justice to a recovering region.
In its search for truth, Northern Ireland’s TRC must strike a balance between the often-conflicting values of justice for victims and mercy for wrongdoers. Several proposals have offered unconditional clemency to perpetrators in exchange for telling the truth, but a TRC must offer the victims more than truth alone—it must also offer restitution. Anything less will result in grudges held and peace unkept. Simultaneously, the TRC must not venture too far down the road toward punitive justice, which disincentivizes participation, impedes truth-seeking, and catalyzes further violence. For example, when Gerry Adams, a Republican politician, was arrested in 2014 for alleged involvement in a 1972 murder, Bobby Storey, a former Republican paramilitary 2 commander, threatened a return to violence (Keefe 378-379). Retributive justice, exemplified by the arrest of Adams, would be viewed as oppression if pursued at a societal level, sparking further violence and drawing a war-torn country back into a vicious cycle.
For a TRC to succeed in Northern Ireland, justice and mercy must coexist. It must respect the victims’ desire for restitution, while still offering perpetrators a second chance. This crucial middle ground was demonstrated by the Towards Understanding and Healing (TUH) Initiative, a pilot program funded by the EU to foster reconciliation in the town of Derry through community dialogues about the Troubles. Unionists and Republicans, victims and wrongdoers, told their stories and the result was shocking: formerly violent paramilitary fighters begged for forgiveness and publicly repented (Maiangwa and Byrne 98). Rather than retributive justice, victims sought “emotional justice” (98). The process humanized every side of the Troubles, and humanization begat reconciliation (100).
A TRC could replicate the reconciliation achieved in the TUH forums, but on a national level, with one Unionist and one Republican representative of each of Northern Ireland’s six counties managing the commission’s business in their local area through truth-seeking, mediation, and reconciliation. A balance between Unionists and Republicans is necessary to secure the respect of both constituencies. Ethicist Nigel Biggar offers a three-step model for the reconciliation process: the victim issues a “communicative punishment,” a statement describing his or her suffering; the wrongdoer, having heard the victim’s story, can express remorse; finally, the victim can forgive the wrongdoer (Biggar 564). The commission would apply this model to cross-community dialogue as practiced in the TUH, permitting repentant wrongdoers to engage 3 in dialogue with victims, thereby initiating the reconciliation process. Victims and wrongdoers can then negotiate material reparations mediated by the commission.
The precedent of the TUH attests to the efficacy of victim-perpetrator dialogue in Northern Ireland. With mutual empathy, truth and restitution are no longer a pipe dream. A TRC can achieve reconciliation by allowing Unionists and Republicans to recognize their shared humanity. Until this happens, a lasting peace will never be reached.
Biggar, Nigel. “Forgiving Enemies in Ireland.” Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 36, no. 4 December 2008, pp. 559-579. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40378021
Keefe, Patrick Radden. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. New York, Anchor Books, 2020.
Maiangwa, Benjamin and Sean Byrne. “Peacebuilding and Reconciliation through Storytelling in Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of the Republic of Ireland.” Storytelling, Self, Society, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 85–110. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.13110/storselfsoci.11.1.0085
“The Irish Times view on schools in Northern Ireland: segregated classrooms.” Editorial. Irish Times, 18 February 2022, https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/the-irish-times-view-on-schools-in-northern-ireland-segregated-classrooms-1.4806363
Winters, Rory. “New figures reveal scale of unsolved killings from the Troubles.” The Detail, 9 April 2018, https://www.thedetail.tv/articles/new-figures-reveal-scale-of-unsolved-killings-from-the-troubles