With 10 years of peace, Northern Ireland strives for more

Ten years after Northern Ireland sealed the historic Good Friday peace deal, its power-sharing government is thriving under two former adversaries. In fact, Martin McGuinness and the Rev. Ian Paisley have such a harmonious partnership that the smiling pair have become known as the “Chuckle Brothers.”

But change in the upper echelons of power has outpaced change in society. In Belfast, 25-foot-high steel “peace walls” attest to lingering sectarian divisions.

“There was a plan to remove some of these barriers for the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but it won’t happen because people … won’t feel safe without [them],” says Martin Melaugh, who directs the University of Ulster’s online archive on the conflict. “There’s a lot to be optimistic about, but significant sections of the community are still not reconciled.”

Such divisions have prompted renewed efforts to promote reconciliation among the rival nationalists, who – like Mr. McGuinness – seek a united Ireland, and unionists, who – like Reverend Paisley – want to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The most recent initiative is the government-appointed Consultative Group on the Past, an independent 10-member group that will this summer release recommendations now being compiled on how best to deal with the legacy of the 30-year Troubles. From 1968 until the Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998, violence killed some 3,500 people as paramilitary groups within the minority Catholic nationalist community reacted against perceived injustices from the majority Protestant unionists.

“Dealing with our troubled history is a difficult and emotive issue for many people in our society,” says Denis Bradley, the first vice chairman of the country’s independent police watchdog who heads the group along with Lord Robin Eames, the former head of the Church of Ireland. “Finding a way to deal with the past is going to be a monumental challenge, but it is a challenge our group is determined to meet.”

Formed in June 2007, the group has met with victims and survivors, as well as representatives of the British and Irish governments, political parties, and paramilitary groups.

Sorting out contentious issues

There remain many contentious issues, ranging from specific terms for the conflict (Was it a “war”?) to how those who lost their lives fighting in it are characterized (Should dead paramilitaries be regarded as victims?).

Sinn Féin, McGuinness’s party and the political wing of the provisional Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, insists that members of paramilitary groups are equally victims.

“The key to dealing with this issue is ensuring that there is no hierarchy of victims,” says Francie Molloy, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the spokesperson on victims’ issues for Sinn Féin. “This includes acknowledging the fact that the British State are protagonists in this conflict…. That needs to be recognized … if progress is to be made.”

But William McCrea, an assembly member from Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, disagrees with any attempt to give victim status to paramilitaries. “Those who went out to deliberately maim and murder can never be equated to those innocent people who suffered at their hands,” he says.

But Brandon Hamber, a conflict resolution researcher at the University of Ulster, says such disagreements don’t worry him.

“I think it is quite normal that people would be coming from different political perspectives,” says Dr. Hamber, pointing out that in his native South Africa groups as diverse as the Inkatha Freedom Party and the pro-apartheid National Party both supported the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) despite initial resistance.

The key, he says, is figuring out how Northern Ireland can “ensure that truth can be delivered in a way that has political and social backing, independence, and integrity.”

$71 million for peace initiatives

Numerous ad hoc groups throughout Northern Ireland have operated long before the Consultative Group on the Past was formed, employing models such as collective storytelling, befriending services, and a Day of Reflection.

Now, the government’s prioritization of reconciliation is bringing these groups increased support and funding, which will grow by more than 60 percent to £36 million ($71 million) over the next three years. In addition, there’s now more support in health services related to trauma, and four victim commissioners were appointed in January to act as a conduit between victims and state policy.

Some are concerned, however, that official policy and independent initiatives such as the Consultative Group could outpace the psychological healing process they say victims need to undergo.

“The Consultative Group on the Past is looking at society moving on from the period of conflict, but victims would be concerned … that society would move on and leave them behind,” saysWilliam Redpath, deputy head of the government’s Victims Unit, established in 2000.

‘Awe-inspiring’ moments of healing

But aside from the larger contentious issues, an unlikely outlet offers proof that healing is possible: reality TV.

In 2006, a three-part BBC series called “Facing the Truth” offered some victims an opportunity to face those responsible for violence during the Troubles.

The meetings were mediated by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu; Donna Hicks, of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Studies; and Lesley Belinda, a British woman who traveled to Rwanda to meet the killers of her Tutsi husband.

In the final program, Archbishop Tutu presided over a handshake between former unionist paramilitary Michael Stone and the widow of Dermot Hackett, whom he was convicted of murdering. As their hands were clasped, Mr. Stone said “I’m very sorry,” and Sylvia Hackett ran from the studio crying, overcome by the healing moment.

“It was awe-inspiring,” says Tutu, recalling the experience via e-mail from South Africa. “Something quite out of this world pervaded the atmosphere and indeed it was of God. It reminded me of similar instances in our TRC process.”

But forgiveness is only one aspect of reconciliation, which involves deeper changes in a society that remains divided by peace walls, segregated education, and political tribalism.

“We need to look beyond victims and perpetrators, because it creates the impression that as long as they are addressing the past then everything is okay,” says Dr. Hamber. “Whatever happened in the past happened because of a complex political system in which all sorts of people had a part to play. Of course the process needs to be victim-centered but it also needs to be society-wide.”

Nevertheless, Hamber and Tutu remain optimistic about Northern Ireland’s reconciliation.

“I believe it is going to last because of course it is [already] happening,” says Tutu. “Whoever thought they would see Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing jokes, let alone being in the same administration?”