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.

Reconciliation: A Global Perspective

The fifth seminar in the Dealing with the Past series entitled “Reconciliation and Dealing with the Past: A global perspective” was hosted online on 28 July 2020, 55 people attended.

The seminar was given by Dr Fanie du Toit, Senior Research Fellow and Former Executive Director, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa & Technical Advisor (Community Dialogue), and part of the In Transformation Initiative, Myanmar. The seminar discussed three prominent conceptual models of reconciliation which have been used internationally as a guiding metaphor for political transition from war or oppression to something “new”. It included references to the South African, Iraqi and Myanmar cases, each of which continue to pose their unique challenges to prevailing theories on reconciliation. The seminar explored the idea of reconciliation as understood as a complex, ever-evolving form of inter-dependence.

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.

Book launch: Family Betrayals

The Chair facilitated a discussion with Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd at the Belfast launch of “Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals” on 17 October 2019. The discussion focused on key aspects of the book, and particularly Dr Verwoerd’s challenges of coming to terms with the fact that HF Verwoerd, his grandfather, was the South African Prime Minister who is widely considered the architect of the apartheid system. Topics for discussion included key questions of the responsibilities of those who benefitted from the apartheid system, the question of “betrayal” when you take a different path to peacebuilding from those around you, as well as the relevance of the book to wider contexts.

Beyond rainbow-ism in South Africa

Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd addressing the audience with the painting “The Black Christ” in the background

On November 2019 the Chair hosted an important civic lecture on the Magee Campus. The lecture was given by Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa entitled “Beyond rainbow-ism in South Africa: a restitutional reading of the ‘Black Christ'”.

The intriguing title referred to a 1962 protest art work in which Albert Luthuli – then president of the African National Congress and Nobel Peace Prize winner – controversially replaces (a typically pale-skinned figure of) Jesus on the cross.  The then Minister of Justice, John Vorster, is portrayed as the soldier in the background, with Prime Minister Verwoerd as the centurion-with-the-spear.

In the lecture, as South Africa’s post-1994 dream of a “rainbow nation” is increasingly being challenged, Wilhelm treated this painting as an icon to help explore some of the deep wounds of the past that have not been fully recognised, let alone addressed, especially within the white “beneficiary community”.  Since the centurion-with-the-spear is also his grandfather he focused on the intergenerational challenge of restitutional shared responsibility with this relational dynamic in the foreground. The lecture was deeply moving and thought provoking, and is available online.

A New Dawn for South Africa?

Professor Hamber published today in the Irish Times a piece about the Presidential shifts in South Africa and the collapse of the Stormont Talks. The article begins “In a strange way the South Africa and Northern Ireland peace processes have always been linked. In the 1990s both were heralded as examples of how deep divisions could be overcome, and co-operation fostered between former enemies. Other connections were more direct, such as the former ANC lead negotiator and now new South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s role in the decommissioning processes as an inspector on behalf of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Two decades later, however, both peace processes have lost their shine…”

To read the rest, click here.

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