“Ending Conflict in Ireland – Lessons for the World?”
By Keith Best
I was first elected to the British Parliament in 1979 and found myself in the company of political giants like John Hume, Seamus Mallon and Gerry Fitt who came from a particular tradition. Their integrity and fervour for their home territory engendered an early interest in me in Northern Ireland and, of course, it was a time at the height of what we now call the Troubles but was then described as terrorism. I was delighted, therefore, that my first real job in Westminster was as Secretary of the Conservative Northern Ireland Committee under the chairmanship of John Biggs-Davison, an unusual combination of a Unionist and Roman Catholic who wrote his own history of the times called The Hand is Red. I came to Northern Ireland to the British Army Headquarters in Lisburn. Security was tight but northing prepared me for the shock of seeing in my own country a military post sandbagged from floor to ceiling with netting over the top to prevent airborne missiles from striking home and heavily armoured vehicles in which we travelled. This was war on home territory.
We are so much wiser with the benefit of hindsight. We can see clearly how we could have avoided tragedies which we see only with the clarity of history. But do we really learn so that we do not makes the same mistakes again? Sadly, history indicates that we do not – but hope springs eternal and the more we have conferences such as this the more we can examine the past and draw conclusions which, if we then promulgate them, can at least alert our leaders and opinion formers and the wider public about the dangers of current or potential actions.
100 years agothe Anglo-Irish Treaty concluded the Irish War of Independence and ushered in the Irish Free State. Sadly, that also brought further conflict and bloodshed of which this island has seen far too much since its beginnings.
This morning I walked just five minutes away to the Bogside to see the posters, slogans and wall murals as well as the large sign announcing that one is entering Free Derry. And, of course, the memorials to the Hunger Strikers and to Bloody Sunday where I paid my respects. Anyone who goes there will realise that, although next 30 January marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the aftermath is still feltand this remains a living wound. I was moved by seeing top of the list of the thirteen who were killed that day the name of Patrick Doherty, aged 31, whose son is a fellow speaker here today (although only seven months’ old at the time). Having served in both airborne and commando forces myself, to my mind their use in war as shock troops means that it was a terrible and misguided decision to put them into a situation in support of the civil power. It was almost inevitable that something along the lines that did happen could have happened. That does not condone what was done but demonstrates how insensitivity can make its own contribution towards tragedy.
Forgiveness is the key to reconciliation as we have seen so poignantly in South Africa and other countries which have suffered deep conflict. I was struck by the comments of one of our participants in the UPF meeting in July who said that she could not see how the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement could have happened. I believe that she is not alone. Anyone who studies conflict, especially within a community such as a civil war or where neighbour is pitched against neighbour will understand the abiding sense of enmity and injustice that prevails down the generations which makes any healing process so much more difficult. That makes the Agreement even more remarkable and valuable – to be nurtured and not easily traded away. How many could predict during the bitterness and bloodshed of apartheid that there would be a Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa?
I knew Eric Lomax who suffered at the hand of the Japanese and wrote the Railway Man which was then made into the film of that name with Colin Firth. He was a patron of Freedom from Torture of which I was Chief Executive. His loathing of the Japanese was so deep that he would leave a restaurant if a Japanese entered. Then, by chance, he was able to meet his principal tormentor who had tortured him. You all will know the story of how they became reconciled and the book ends with the memorable comment “Remembering is not enough, if it simply hardens hate. Sometimes the hating has to stop.”
In 1984 I was present at the Conservative Party Conference when the bomb destined for Margaret Thatcher and the Cabinet killed, among others, my then Parliamentary colleague Sir Anthony Berry. His daughter, Jo, whose journey will be well known to many of you, has recently published a reminiscence: “Two days after the bomb killed my dad, I realised I hadn’t just lost my father, who I was very close to, but I also felt I was catapulted into a war, into a conflict, and I couldn’t go back to being the person I had been any more. Part of me died in that bomb. I could feel the pain of war, the pain of every bomb which went off, the pain of terrorism. I made a very silent, private vow that I would find a way to bring something positive out of what had happened, and I’d find a way to contribute to peace. I would also try and understand those who had killed him. A new journey had started; I had a choice to be revengeful, have an enemy to blame or take responsibility for my feelings, give up having an enemy, and understand those who had killed my dad.”
The moving story of how she contacted Patrick Magee, who had been charged with the bombing, and the many platforms on which they have appeared together is too lengthy to relate here. In this month’s edition of the Uniting for Peace Newsletter Jo Berry, who is also the Founder of Building Bridges for Peace and an Executive Committee Member of Uniting for Peace, wrote:
“I believe in the power of empathy, for when I empathise with you, I want for you all I wish for my loved ones and me. Being empathic is a call for action. When we see beyond the individual situation, when we are not attached to any truth, when we know the truth of all narratives, we create a new story for the world. This new story sees humanity in all and asks us to challenge behaviour without blaming, judgment or violence. Then the question is how we prevent violent conflict, heal conflict and build bridges across the divide. How do we create a peaceful world?” Jo encapsulates that enigmatic injunction from the Sermon on the Mount “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.”
The words “I forgive you” are easily said but carry enormous import. In one respect they represent a personal sacrifice because they involve a conscious relinquishing of a search for vengeance or justice which sometimes can amount to the same thing. For many that is something to which they continue to cling. Yet forgiveness can also represent giving up a burden because hatred and resentment can eat away at the soul – they can become so enveloping that they can change a personality. To shed the burden of continuing resentment can be a release as many have found. It can lead to a seemingly impossible situation in which perpetrator and victim can work together in a common enterprise.
In 1993 Lyndi Fourie was killed in the Heidelberg Tavern Massacre in Cape Town, aged 23. Nine years later, her mother, Ginn Fourie, heard a radio interview with the man who had ordered the attack: the former Director of Operations of the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, who was in Cape Town to promote his biography, Child of this Soil. She went there with what she described as a justifiable right of revenge. Listening to him, however, she realised that he was at heart not an evil man and when he took responsibility for the attack she admired his humanity, integrity and spirituality, forgave him and they ended up working together on the Lyndi Fourie Foundationshe set up.Beyond that, at his invitation, she went to his village and asked forgiveness for the impacts of colonialism, which ultimately had incubated the apartheid system.She not only gave up her justifiable right of revenge but also showed empathy for the historical wrongs that gave rise to the current hurt.The Foundation now works around the world.
There are so many stories such as these in which forgiveness and reconciliation have broken down mistrust, hatred and deep enmity that it has to be a model to which we must work. Yet, as the previous story brings home, we do not operate in a vacuum in just our own time with our own experience of injustice – we are creatures of our history which passes down the generations and, although we may not like that history, we cannot disown it – we have to face it and deal with it. As it was put so eloquently by Amanda Gorman in her poem The Hill We Climb at President Biden’s Inauguration:
Peace is desired by all but is an elusive concept in humanity which is so often motivated by a sense of competitiveness, acquisition, entitlementand mistrust that, unless tempered, can translate into conflict. The eternal truth, however, which is there for all to see and which is examined in this conference is that peace cannot be achieved without reconciliation – without a coming together of former antagonists and a discovery of common ground that unites rather than divides. It does not mean that all must think alike, pray alike, be alike but it does mean that we need to understand those around us and what is behind their aspirations and views.
I am a barrister by profession and part of my training and practice at the Bar was always to put myself in the place of my opponent – not, I hasten to add, for altruistic reasons but in order better to know the other side’s strengths and weaknesses that I needed to meet or exploit. Yet in so doing I came instinctively to learn why people held views with such vehemence from their own perspective. Most barristers cut their teeth in magistrates’ courts often dealing with motoring cases involving two drivers after a collision. It was amazing how two people could honestly have such totally conflicting accounts of what actually happened! Yet, so often it was the case that they were individually convinced of the veracity of their own story. Partly, this is due to the way in which the mind plays tricks with us and that every time we recall an event we are not actually repeating the same circumstances but are reconstructing the event in our own mind, each time informed by new evidence as to whether one car was a particular colour or not or the sequence of events. This is a proven scientific thesis: we cannot possibly remember every tiny detail we see but our memories would feel incomplete if there were big swathes of uncertainty, so the brain fills in the details as best it can, borrowing from other memories and the imagination in order to build what feels like a complete picture. That is hardly the basis for establishing a common position! So it is that we must rely on external factors that we trust to ensure that we are not proceeding on a self-induced false premise.
Let us learn from history and learn from each other and know that the true strength of character is not mere assertion and a self-assured certainty but an understanding of our own frailty as human beings and the expectations of others so that, as Martin Luther King Jnr said in his address on 22 March 1964 in St. Louis “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”