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A Truth Commission to Heal Historic Wounds

May 28, 2000|Edward McGlynn Gaffney Jr. | Edward McGlynn Gaffney Jr. is a law professor at Valparaiso University

Decades of terrorism, known in Northern Ireland as "The Troubles," finally came to a halt almost six years ago, with a unilateral cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams spoke of "taking the gun out of Irish politics forever." Unionist paramilitaries quickly announced they, too, would refrain from violence. Since then, there have been sporadic outbursts from time to time, but they have been roundly and speedily condemned. Though all have had enough of war, peace remains elusive. Perhaps this is so because, as St. Augustine wrote, peace is not the absence of war but the fruit of justice.

On May 6, the IRA vowed to put its weapons "completely and verifiably" out of commission and allow independent inspection of arms depots. The British government promptly named two diplomats, Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, and Cyril Ramaphosa, former secretary-general of the African National Congress, to oversee the inspections. This is welcome indeed. Unionists have long chafed at the prospect of settling into government with representatives of their adversaries before the IRA had handed in their formidable arsenal. The IRA's latest move toward renunciation of force should allay the fears of unionist hard-liners and get the peace process moving again.

At this delicate stage of affairs, the northern tip of an island off the European continent should look to the process invoked in the southernmost tip of the African continent. South Africa is determined to confront the full horror of its recent past as a means of being delivered from the nightmares of apartheid. The means chosen to achieve this has been a national commission on truth and reconciliation.

It is critical that truth-telling antecedes reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu cannot yet say all South Africans are reconciled to one another. But the work of the commission he chaired has accomplished at least this: No one can ever deny the government committed heinous acts of violence against its own people.

In the rush to achieve the legitimate goal of release of prisoners from both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland, last year's Belfast agreement did not call for a truth and reconciliation commission. But it is not too late. Without it, all parties, British and Irish, may continue to mask their responsibility for gross violations of human dignity during the three decades of the Troubles.

Some might cite President Abraham Lincoln's famous attempt to overcome the Civil War's ravages by a generous policy of general amnesty for all who had rebelled against the Union. This policy was the logical extension of Lincoln's description of the nation's postwar tasks in his second inaugural address: "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

According to this line of thinking, the safest path forward after deep division is to forget about the past. In its root meaning, amnesty means forgetting. At some future date, the Irish may be blessed with the gift of amnesia about historical wounds. But now may not be the time.

As President Bill Clinton learned during his visit to Ireland in 1997, both communities in Northern Ireland, nationalists and unionists, suffered grievances at the hands of the other. The memories of injury run deep and, in many cases, bind community together. This is akin to how Civil War stories preserve communal identity in areas of the U.S. South. The very nomenclature for the conflict--"War between the States" or "War of Northern Aggression"--is laden with feeling.

The nationalist community is deeply scarred by the trauma of continuing colonialism that Americans rejected more than two centuries ago. Though the unionist community is more numerous in the north, it, too, considers itself a besieged minority within the entire Irish population. Both communities fear abandonment, by Dublin on the part of nationalists, by London on the part of unionists.

The remembrances of injustices are, in many cases, historical. Nationalist farmers trace the inferiority of their lands not merely to the partition of 1922 but to the eviction of their ancestors by the Britons and the plantation of Scots on better farmland in 1606. Nationalists recall the atrocities of Oliver Cromwell, who slaughtered women and children later in the 17th century. Or they reach back to the first appearance of the "bloody British" in 1170, in the person of a Norman general known as "Strongbow," with no mention of the fact that Strongbow was invited to enter a raging conflict among Irish tribal chieftains by one of the contending parties.

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