St Patrick’s Symposium

At the invitation of the John Hewitt Society, the Chair, Professor Brandon Hamber, was asked to speak at the St Patrick’s Symposium on 15 March 2021. The Symposium focused on the topic of Reminiscence.

The event “At Home with St. Patrick” in Armagh differed from other St. Patrick’s festivals by examining and celebrating who St. Patrick was, his values, his life and his legacy. This holistic approach aimed to offer insights that can reflect on life in the contemporary world.

Drawing on this broad idea, the Chair’s lecture focused on the topic of “Nostalgia, Conflict and Dreaming of Never Again”. The lecture explored the complicated process of remembering conflict, and the tension between solidarity and relationship building within communities (which can be remembered nostalgically) and the horrors of the political conflict itself.

CAIN live archive

Ulster University has confirmed that its highly regarded CAIN archive will be retained as a live and curated archive, made possible by support from Initiatives of Change. The funding follows a consultation in 2019 and comprehensive efforts by the University and the CAIN team to secure the long-term future of the archive. The funding will directly support a significant modernisation of the site, including the introduction of cutting-edge archival content management systems not available when the CAIN site was first pioneering online archives, over two decades ago. The University is also making funds available to invest in the technology that will enhance the experience for all those who use the popular platform.

Read more here.

Photo by Eamon Melaugh

Moment of Truth

On 12 December 2020, Professor Hamber published a long article in the Belfast Telegraph focusing on the issue of dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, reproduced below.

Moment of Truth…Victims of Northern Ireland’s Troubled Past Can’t Wait Forever

I started working in Northern Ireland in 1996, the first question I was always asked was: “Did Northern Ireland need a South African Truth and
Reconciliation Commission (TRC)?” This was understandable, as I was at the time working in South Africa with victims testifying before the TRC that ran from 1995 until 2003. The troubling thing, however, is that I am still regularly asked that same question nearly 25 years later. During this time, how many victims have died without knowing the truth, or obtaining justice for atrocities?

The failure to deal effectively with the past remains a stain on the copybook of the Northern Ireland peace process. A potted history of the saga highlights how punishingly slow it has been.

The most significant Government-backed process was the Consultative Group of the Past that delivered its report in January 2009. But it ended up shelved, mainly due to its controversial recommendation around compensation for all those who lost relatives in the conflict.

Handing over of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report

Creeping headway was made over the following years, building upon the report in the failed Haass O’Sullivan talks in 2013 and subsequently.
In December 2014, the political parties devised the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). It made a comprehensive set of proposals. The recommendations included setting up structures to collect the stories of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, investigating unresolved cases, seeking information for victims from responsible groups, ensuring statements of acknowledgment for past hurts and identifying steps to build reconciliation. The SHA was put in a draft Bill in 2016. A public consultation started some two years later in May 2018. Over 17,000 written responses were received in the 21-week consultation. In between, the UN Special Rapporteur responsible for transitional justice significantly made two visits to Northern Ireland, tabling recommendations in November 2016. The British Government responded, “the recommendations can be best achieved through the full implementation of the SHA”.

In July 2019, a detailed summary of the consultation on the SHA was published. The British Government noted there was “an obligation to seek to address the legacy of the past” and it remained fully committed to the SHA.

But in March 2020, apparently motivated by political pressures from British Army veterans, the Government rowed back. The Secretary of State essentially proposed to pull the SHA apart, largely removing a focus of justice and investigation, favouring information recovery and storytelling under a broad, and undefined, banner of reconciliation. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee rightly took issue with the approach, but then they argued for yet another consultation. Reading this abridged history, it is hard not to conclude that the dealing with the past process is nothing more than a protracted and shameful tale of delay and avoidance. How painfully frustrating must this be for victims and survivors.

This does not mean that a South African-style truth commission is the right answer. The exact structure of the South African commission, including its ability to grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed to gross violations of human rights, is unlikely to work in Northern Ireland. Amnesty meant that some victims had to forgo retributive justice for truth in the name of the wider peace process. Closing down the potential for victims to get their cases to court, or preventing public inquiries, in exchange for a truth-recovery process is an unlikely (and arguably unnecessary) option in Northern Ireland. The public nature of parts of the South African process, with perpetrators and victims testifying openly, might also be a tall order for the more closed culture in Northern Ireland.

The South African process had other failings. The administrative treatment of victims and the lack of follow-up was a problem. Sometimes a simplistic language of reconciliation and healing was used that implied that truth and testimony alone could mend a deeply divided society, rather than coupling this with a long-term political process and socio-economic transformation, ensuring equality between black and white South Africans.

On the positive side, South Africans were confronted on television and radio directly with the past and could not ignore it. We had to face the harm we did to one another and listen to the stories of survivors. The five volumes of the South African TRC report, built on the testimony of approximately 22,000 victims (not just the 1,800 who testified publicly), tells a detailed and thematic story of human rights violations. The report and the extensive archive provide a historically authoritative record that cannot be erased.

One of the biggest successes of the process, however, was when the TRC challenged narrow assumptions about the past. I recall a survivor whom we worked with over many years. She believed, as did most of us who knew her, that the police were responsible for her 18-year-old son’s assassination as they had routinely threatened him. Through the TRC it transpired, however, that her son, an underground ANC operative, was shot dead by his own Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) unit, the then military wing of the ANC. His killers, who the family knew well, accused him of being a spy. Whether these allegations were correct or not, as they have never been proved, the news was shattering for the family. The personal price of truth was enormous. However, as much as it pains me to write this, the TRC did its job in this case.

There were many cases of this kind that challenged dominant narratives. For example, during apartheid it was common to hear about MK activists who had killed themselves in operations. It turned out through the TRC that some of these deaths were the result of state entrapment. The state also carried out what were called “false flag operations”. Sections of the security police undertook illegal acts, such as sabotage and arson, to give credibility to their agents; they also blamed MK activists for bomb blasts they had planted. It was these types of cases that brought home how “dirty” the war was in South Africa. But they also helped to create a “grey” picture of the past, challenging the blinkered view some had of the state and political groups they supported. Arguably, this loosened the narratives of the past, opening the door for new understandings.

Confronting the truth in this way is risky and unsettling. But is foot-dragging risk-free? In Northern Ireland, the past continues to dominate the present. Every day, we hear stories of tensions concerning unresolved cases, memorials and commemorations. Politicians and the public are in continuous narrative battles about who was the most responsible for the hurts of the past and why. Victims also cannot be asked to forget. A significant amount of work has been done by the community sector to fill the gap created by political indecisiveness. But still the unresolved past remains a threat to a stable future, particularly as new challenges, such as Brexit or border polls, loom.

International lessons unequivocally suggest the past will not go away over time. Many countries, where little has been done politically to address the past, such as those in the Balkans, remain polarised. Unresolved cases, as we have seen in Chile and Argentina, are also transferred generationally with new family members continuing the struggle for truth and justice. By any international standards, the undeniable pattern of evasion and political obfuscation of truth is fundamentally unjust to all victims seeking answers.
Inaction on the past is not a neutral act, it is an active denial of rights to victims. It is also creating ongoing political tensions in itself. Something must be done.

The South African process is not a blueprint and had its problems, but South Africans developed it to meet their specific set of needs at a critical historical moment. South African politicians showed leadership and courage to undertake a concerted and holistic attempt to deal with the past.
In Northern Ireland, a set of workable, locally developed and previously politically agreed proposals have been made in the Stormont House Agreement. These proposals are not perfect, but surely it is time for the governments and political parties to show some backbone and act in unison finally, supporting a way forward on dealing with the past? At the very least, no one can accuse them of rushing into anything.

Published by Brandon Hamber in the Belfast Telegraph, 12 December 2020.

The Passing of John Hume

John Hume is undoubtedly one of the most significant politicians of the last 50 years. It was sad to hear of his passing today, and my thoughts are first with Pat Hume and the family.

John Hume was the product of social upheaval linked to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland from 1960s onwards, and he rose to prominence from humble roots when he took a stand against violence, in many ways similar to those that significantly influenced his thinking, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

John Hume at the unveiling of a plaque to mark those he brought to Derry as part of the Tip O’Neill lecture series at Ulster University including Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mary McAleese, John Kerry and Kofi Annan, among many others

Growing up in South Africa, and moving to Northern Ireland only in 2001, I came late to the work and philosophy of John Hume. However, when I first started to work in Derry in 1996, his home city, his legacy was impossible to ignore. This continues and is no more acute than today as he leaves the political stage forever.

In 1998, shortly after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, when I was still based in South Africa but was in Northern Ireland over the winter, I first met Pat Hume. She called at the door of my wife’s sisters house where we were having a New Year’s Eve party, just to say hello and wish us well. The down to earth nature of the Hume family was immediately apparent. Little did I know at the time that my history would become tied into the work of John Hume.

Thomas “Tip” P. O’Neill and John Hume

In 2015, I was appointed the John Hume and Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace at Ulster University. The Chair honours John Hume and his pivotal role in the peace process, and Thomas P. O’Neill who, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, was a significant force for enlisting the United States in advancing peace in Northern Ireland. The two men worked together to bring the US into the peace process. The Chair recognises the contribution of both men to conflict transformation and peacebuilding by recording and sharing the lessons learned and continuing the process of peace and reconciliation for future generations. The Chair’s reach extends now to South Africa, Colombia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Basque Country and Uganda, among others.

Every activity I, therefore, undertake in my professional life is tied to John Hume’s legacy, and hopefully my contribution to peace locally and globally, as modest as it is, is a fitting tribute to his life and work, along with that of Tip O’Neill.

On hearing of the death of John, I wanted to make a few personal reflections, mostly about his work, which I have tried to better understand since being appointed the Hume O’Neill Chair. In the last few years, in particular, I have been reading some of Hume’s speeches and watching video clips. His contribution is immense. Anyone who says that John Hume only ever made one speech, has never taken the time to mull over his words. I was also fortunate enough to be asked to write the Foreword to Sean Farren’s edited book “John Hume: In His Own Words”. This book, which is a collection of original speeches, particularly helped me to develop a deeper understanding of Hume’s politics. Some of my reflections below I also recorded in the book but wanted to share some today.

Launch of International Fund for Ireland(IFI) Annual Review, IFI is one of the main donors of the Hume O’Neill Chair

I was fortunate enough to meet John and Pat Hume many times since 1998 thanks to their association with Ulster University and the Magee Campus in particular. What always came across is their strong belief in social justice, political tolerance and the peaceful resolution of conflict. I have further identified four key approaches routinely mentioned by John Hume to achieve this.

Firstly, Hume is committed to the idea that dialogue is essential and that conflicts can only be resolved through open discussion, even in contexts of sharp differences of opinion. Underpinning this is the idea that, certainly in Ireland, there is an inter-dependency between people that is inescapable.

Secondly, he believes that inter-dependence stretched globally. The European Union was an example of how unity and inter-dependence could be fostered. This also led Hume to recognise the importance of the US and its familial and historical connections to Ireland, as key to the peace process and stimulating economic growth, which was necessary to ensure and ultimately sustain peace. This global commitment, in part, explains his relationship with Tip O’Neill. But more profoundly this global commitment developed into Hume’s form of nationalism, that is, a conviction that people and not place or geography defined nationhood.

Thirdly, Hume opposes the use of violence. In his speeches, Hume continually highlights with great compassion the cost of violence to individuals routinely quoting statistics of death. He also notes other impacts, i.e. that violence “has cost us jobs” and that peace cannot be built on “the ruins of a shattered economy”. There are other elements of practicality in his views on non-violence, that is, that republican violence distracted from the social injustices in the society and would “only strengthen Unionism”.

Finally, he consistently speaks of reconciliation. Hume’s view seems to start instrumentally concerning reconciliation, that is that Irish Unity is only possible through different traditions coming together. A United Ireland for Hume would be achieved not by overcoming “the Northern Protestant but to seek his help and cooperation”. However, as his thinking develops, it is clear he becomes more committed to the principle of reconciliation at all costs. Hume sees the “road of reconciliation” as the only “real road forward”.

At the core of these beliefs, however, is a profoundly pragmatic view of the world, not a rose-tinted idea of social harmony. Reconciliation for Hume is not only people-to-people relationship building. Hume sees reconciliation as needing institutional, political and social support. Hume noted in 1983 that many “furiously abhor the work of reconciliation” for this very reason. We know today, not only in Northern Ireland but globally, that some still see reconciliation negatively: a sop to the aggressors; a false coming together; selling out one’s principles; or some idealistic peacenik concept. However, John Hume suggests we have no other choice than to foster reconciliation if we are, for better or worse, destined to share our society with others.

John Hume challenges us all to recognise that reconciliation is profoundly difficult and tricky yet at the heart of sustainable peace, noting in a speech at Dublin Castle in 1983:

Let that reconciliation start today in this room – between ourselves. Goodwill alone – and I know we have with us today the goodwill of the mass of the people of this island – will not suffice. We must apply all the resources of our collective intelligence, imagination, generosity and determination to this great enterprise and be seen to do it. We must mean business and we must be seen to desperately mean business.

To this end, as I reflect sadly today on the passing of John Hume, I am reminded of these weighty words and feel inspired to play my small part in upholding his legacy. I hope others with more political influence will use this moment to reflect and rise to the challenge. Rest in peace, John, and thank you for all the hard lessons you continue to teach us, and for the hope your words and deeds continue to convey.

Professor Brandon Hamber (third from left) with (from left), Gorka Espiau Former advisor to the Basque President, Prof. Paul Carmichael, Prof. Deirdre Heenan, Prof. Richard Barnett, former Vice-Chancellor and John Hume.

Summer School Input

Today, 10 July 2020, the Hume O’Neill Chair, Professor Brandon Hamber, made an online input to the “Summer Institute in Northern Ireland: Lessons in Community Peacebuilding”. The Institute was moved online due to the Covid-19 context. The Institute is led by Professor Marie Breen-Smyth and is based at the University of Massachusetts (Boston) in partnership with a consortium of local residents and International Peace Education Resources (IPER). Professor Hamber’s input focused on the issue of Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland.

Briefing: Historical Institutional Abuse

Professor Patricia Lundy and Professor Brandon Hamber have now published a Policy Brief based on work on historical institutional abuse and transitional justice.

This policy briefing draws upon the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry to explicate the nexus of historical institutional abuse inquiries with transitional justice approaches. Through detailed analysis of empirical research with those who gave testimony to the Inquiry, the briefing explores to what extent the Inquiry was victim-centric, participatory and responsive. Drawing on lessons from transitional justice, the brief outlines five recommendations that could strengthen the victim-centred nature of approaches to dealing with the legacy of historical child abuse. The brief concludes that addressing victims’ needs should be the linchpin for both transitional justice and historical institutional abuse approaches.

To download the Policy Brief, click here.

To download the longer Research Article, click here.

Seminar: UK Combat Impunity

The third seminar in the Dealing with the Past series entitled “Is the UK heading towards combat impunity?” was hosted online on 5 June 2020, with some 65 people joining online.

In the seminar Dr Thomas Hansen, Lecturer in Law and member of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University, focused on a number of initiatives and measures aimed at protecting military service personnel from investigation and prosecution currently being considered by the UK, including a Statute of Limitations, derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in future armed conflicts; amending the Human Rights Act, and restricting UK courts’ ability to adjudicate civil claims originating from conflicts abroad.

Dr Hansen argued that these measures, if implemented, are problematic from a human rights and rule of perspective and undermines the UK’s role as a strong defender of human rights in the global arena and a champion of the international rule of law.

The seminar is part of the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) and INCORE, in partnership with Healing Through Remembering and the John Hume and Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace, online seminar series. The seminar was chaired by Professor Brandon Hamber. The seminar can now be watched online.