Friday, May 15, 2009

Forum: Northern Ireland - what future for peace?

Since arriving in the United Kingdom I've had the privilege of attending an audience participation show called Forum, broadcast weekly on the international news service Press TV. I always try to ask a question as I think it is an excellent opportunity to engage with some leading thinkers and opinion-makers. You can see my question in the clip above or if you are interested in exploring the issue more you can download the full length episode here.

In this broadcast of 24 March 2009 the panel discusses the impact of British involvement in Northern Ireland and Ireland. The debate got pretty heated, with some vicious comments coming from the audience invoking the imperialistic behaviour of the British government stretching back 300 years.

As a South African I am keenly aware of Britain's colonial past and I do not romanticise the expansive Empire one bit. In Northern Ireland, British militarism was in many instances just as oppressive as in faraway Africa. The events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, where 27 civil rights activists were gunned down was one of many atrocities in this region. But the Irish Republican Army also committed some shocking acts of violent terror during the Troubles. It was an awful mess and the cyclical nature of the conflict left both sides morally compromised.

The pannelists seemed to agree that the framework for peace in the region was lasting and sustainable (despite recent sporadic violence by bittereinders calling themselves the 'Real IRA'). My question to the them concerned something greater than merely a cessation of hostilities. I was wondering if any attempts are ever made to reconcile the Protestant and Irish Catholic communities.

The answer I got was that a TRC-type model could never happen, as the wounds are still too raw. I disagree in that this process needs to take place while victims are still alive to tell their stories. So much of people's hurt comes from years of being ignored and you need to give voice to this anger, even if it makes you uncomfortable to hear it out in the open. The attainment of complete 'truth' is not as important here as acknowledging that an injustice was done and compensating victims for their losses.


  1. Interesting article. From the little I saw the show doesn't seem very genuinely concerned about the topic-more like 'oh, lets discuss the rascals at the north'. Perhaps I am being too harsh. Your thoughts...? (my opinion simply from the snippet above)It was all presented a bit tabloid-y

  2. Hi David
    Many parallels and also many differences between the processes in SA and Northern Ireland. I am sure it is true that the conflict has left many wounds that will take a long time to heal. I don't believe either that the recent activity by the Real IRA will bring the peace process to an end. But a 'TRC'-type process might not work (yet) in such a small community.

  3. Mica

    I agree that the medium has its limitations in terms of the depth of analysis, but no, I don't think it was needlessly sensational. Sometimes these shows seek to polarise the discussion (as you will see in subsequent episodes which I will post), but I felt each panelist gave a nuanced view. It is long, but you can watch the whole episode and I recommend doing so as it is very interesting.

    'rascals in the north' [?] Perhaps you are being too harsh :)

  4. Mark

    A TRC would struggle in this context because of the extraordinary insularity of the communities and the lack of shared space (from what I have heard second-hand). For instance, there don't seem to be too many mixed Protestant/Catholic schools.

    Consider how in SA even with separate development and petty apartheid you still had a high interaction level between black and white through the contact of domestic workers with house wives or farm workers with farmers, etc. Obviously there was a lot of discrimination and abuse in these settings, but the peoples at least interacted. This doesn't seem to happen in N.Ireland, as far as I can tell.

    I still feel that it is something worth attempting because the alternative of official amnesia, like in post-Franco Spain, really cannot work. People have competing narratives and the venom with which they tell these narratives is quite disturbing to me. I fear that if the core misunderstandings are not dealt with, even on a superficial level, that violence in the region will never completely disappear.

    I'm not sure I see why the size of the community matters in the way you suggest. Could you elaborate?

    I would be interested to research what reconciliation efforts, if any, have been made by independent NGOs or civic groups or the govt itself.

    I should probably read up FAR more on this before attempting any kind of meaningful discussion!

  5. I suppose in a small community (million and a half people?) where 'everyone knows everybody', almost everyone was touched in someways by the troubles (also true in SA I guess), and going over the events could perhaps reinflame the situation in a context where the leadership for reconciliation may still be thinly spread. I may be too cautious in this, and I do like your idea of trying something...
    I think the impetus for peace itself came more from civil society in the first place (rather than from the politicians, who failed the people of Northern Ireland/the North for many years), so I am sure that is ground to build on.
    I think you have some good insights - maybe you should study it further and go to Belfast at some point...! I think you could help promote linkages and learning between SA and NI!

  6. Interesting article by SA political scientist Tom Lodge comparing the two countries. "Northern Ireland: Between Peace and Reconciliation". Lodge is now living in Ireland so is well-placed to speak meaningfully on this issue:

  7. Lodge: "Unifying symbols or common enthusiasms that have cross-sectional appeal play no role in Northern Irish peacemaking. Only a tenth or so of the Catholic community feel they are "British" and an even smaller proportion of Protestants would define their nationality as "Irish". Protestants and Catholics even disagree on what they should call Northern Ireland. None of the major local sporting codes have cross-communal participation and even the Northern Irish fans of Scottish and English premier-league football teams are split along sectarian affinities. Different flags fly in different neighbourhoods and children in different neighbourhoods mainly attend different denominational schools."