Reconciliation is an essential process for conflict transformation. It is about building relationships, with the focus on emotional and psychological aspects of conflict.

Reconciliation encompasses different challenges, such as the notion of truth, mercy, and justice. And seeking truth about the past can generate tensions. In the case of Northern Ireland, the narrative can be different (or perceived as such), depending upon the community affected.

Projects or actions encouraging the truth about the past can thus be difficult to realise, since different communities will struggle to agree on a shared narrative.

Reconciliation is a complex process involving healing as well as encouraging peace and opportunities for all, while also implementing mechanisms for justice.

A reconciliation process has to address controversial and sensitive issues that would not be seen as such in other more settled societies. For example, the notion of victim and perpetrator is more challenging, since a perpetrator can  —  in the context of a deeply divided society  —  also be a victim. This lack of agreement on basic notions makes the pursuit of justice more difficult.

Reconciliation is connected with a bigger and necessary project — dealing with the past. Yet this issue has been left aside in the politics of Northern Ireland. Though it is worth bearing in mind that the end of violent conflict is recent, and it can be very difficult to deal with a past that is very present for many people.

The Belfast/Good Friday in 1998 can be seen as an historical step. But the idea of dealing with the past is absent from it, arguably because it was deemed that the multi-party negotiations were already complicated enough.

Attempts to address the issues surrounding reconciliation and in turn promote reconciliation within society can be broken down into three overriding sections:

  1. Political agreements and strategies
  2. Third-party recommendations and strategies
  3. Projects for reconciliation 

Political agreements and strategies 

Over the past decade multiple political agreements have been drawn up, which all make commitments to the peace process and reconciliation. At a conference in early 2014 hosted by the Commission for Victims and Survivors, Professor Kieran McEvoy (School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast) explained that as a result, the issue of dealing with the past has been done in a piecemeal approach. One of the significant attempts he referenced was the Haass–O’Sullivan negotiations in 2013.

Haass–O’Sullivan negotiations (2013)

Prof. McEvoy described the Haass–O’Sullivan negotiations as an attempt by politicians to take responsibility for dealing with the past. He considers this a positive step, since it acknowledges that a collective action is needed across the political spectrum. There is a consensus to act. The idea was therefore to have a five-party agreement. But the agreement was not accepted by all parties, as hoped for.

These negotiations actually originated with a strategy in May 2013, named “Together: Building a United Community”, which called for the formation of a panel of parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, to deal with issues of parades, flags and emblems, and dealing with the past.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister invited Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan to serve as chair and vice-chair of this panel. Working over six months, they met up and organised broad consultations with the five biggest political parties, and invited submissions from interested individuals and groups.

The main approach was to build on the previous agreements, such as the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday, by dealing with the issues ignored so far. One of the strong outcomes of the negotiations was a consensus of the need to deal with the past, as well as to deal with present contentious issues that divide Northern Ireland. The following set of institutions for this work were proposed:

  1. Historical Investigations Unit
  2. Independent Commission for Information Retrieval
  3. Implementation and Reconciliation Group

Shortcomings of the Haass–O’Sullivan negotiations illustrate what still needs to be addressed. For instance, Brian Rowan (security correspondent for BBC Northern Ireland) mooted whether we can live with imperfect truth, as “there is more than one truth — and that there will never be an agreed narrative”.

Stormont House Agreement (2014)

The Stormont House Agreement aimed to address issues surrounding identity and welfare reform. The agreement built upon the recommendations and findings of the previously outlined Haass–O’Sullivan negotiations. The agreement aimed to provide an approach to dealing with the past through promotion of the principles of reconciliation: truth, justice, and acknowledgment of suffering of victims and survivors.  Based on such principles the agreement proposed:

  1. an oral History Archive
  2. a pension for those physically injured during the Troubles period
  3. an independent Historical Investigations Unit,
  4. an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and Implementation and Reconciliation group. 

Fresh Start Agreement (2015)

The Fresh Start Agreement was published  to serve as  a roadmap for the implementation and further reiteration of many aspects of the previous Stormont House Agreement. It included a commitment to a “shared future”, in which the UK government pledged to provide an extra £6 million over a five-year period to “to support executive delivery of confidence and relationship building measures within and between communities contributing to conditions that will allow removal of peace walls and creation of a shared future”.

New Decade, New Approach Deal (2020) 

The New Decade, New Approach Deal was the most recent agreement that restored the power-sharing executive after a three-year hiatus. Conditions surrounding the topic of reconciliation were also included within the framework of the agreement. Language emerged as a key focus with commitments to establish:  

  1. an Office of Identity and Cultural expression
  2. a Commissioner for both the Irish language and Ulster Scots/ Ulster British traditions
  3. official status is also to be granted to Irish and Ulster Scots

Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition Report (2021) 

Further commitments to reconciliation are displayed in the 2021 Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition report. The commission, consisting of 7 representatives from the 5 main political parties in Northern Ireland and 8 independent members. The report proposes various recommendations for the Northern Ireland Executive surrounding the issues of flags, identity, culture, and tradition — all of which can be stated to have a positive impact on the process of reconciliation within society. For example:

  1. the legal duty of good relations should be defined by law
  2. recognition of the shared heritage of British, Ulster-Scots, and Irish within society and command equal respect
  3. everyone should have the right to remember their dead and that this should be carried out in a respectful, dignified way that seeks to avoid causing pain or hurt to others
  4. include the role of sport and integrated education within the vision and objectives for building a shared society.

Third-party strategies and recommendations 

Healing through Remembering

The Healing through Remembering project was inspired by the visits of Dr Alex Boraine, of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in February 1999 and March 2000. He met groups and individuals in Northern Ireland, and tried to identify any bearing they may have on the conflict. In parallel, a small group was formed, and it produced a report, “All Truth is Bitter”. A consensus emerged from this report: the need for parameters within which the people of Northern Ireland would have an opportunity to establish a mechanism to identify their own truth, a common narrative.

The Healing through Remembering report was launched in June 2002, with six recommendations:

  1. network of commemoration and remembering projects
  2. Day of Reconciliation
  3. collective storytelling and archiving process
  4. permanent living memorial museum
  5. acknowledgement
  6. Healing through Remembering initiative

This led to the establishment of five sub-groups, which published several reports in 2006 and 2007. An important one is “Making Peace with the Past: Options for Truth Recovery Regarding the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland”, produced by the Truth Recovery and Acknowledgement sub-group.

Consultative Group on the Past

Another major effort was the Consultative Group on the Past. This independent group was established in 2006, in order to seek views across the community in Northern Ireland on the best way to deal with the legacy of the past. Their final report contained 31 recommendations.

In September 2007, the Consultative Group invited individuals and groups affected by the conflict (in Great Britain and in the Republic of Ireland, in addition to within Northern Ireland), to share their views on the legacy of the previous 40 years, to learn lessons, and identify some actions that might be useful to support Northern Ireland society in building a shared future.

Five working principles emerged from the consultation:

  1. dealing with the past is a process and not an event
  2. sensitivity towards victims and survivors is essential
  3. recommendations should be human rights compliant
  4. relationships matter and are the foundation for reconciliation
  5. consensual agreement is the ideal

The resulting document, the Eames–Bradley Report, was published in January 2009. The recommendations were divided into various sub-topics. The topic, “The legacy of the past and reconciliation”, had within its recommendations the establishment of an independent Legacy Commission, combining processes of reconciliation, justice and information recovery. Also, the proposed creation of a Reconciliation Forum would be a way to liaise with the Legacy Commission and the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland (CVSNI).

Other issues such as “victims and survivors”, “processes of justice and information recovery”, and “remembering” were discussed by the Consultative Group. Some recommendations were challenging for the general public. A particularly controversial recommendation was the proposal of a one-off ex-gratia recognition payment of £12,000 for the nearest relative of someone who died as a result of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, from January 1966.

Gendered principles for dealing with legacy of the past 

The “gendered principles for dealing with the legacy of the past” were launched in September 2015 by the Legacy Gender Integration group, a group consisting of women from non-governmental organisations and academics from universities across Britain and Ireland. The group proposed 10 principles to address the gendered impact of conflict:

  1. Gender integration: fully integrate gender into processes of dealing with past 
  2. Process-oriented: understand gender and dealing with past as process and not an event 
  3. Empowerment, participation, ownership, and control: prioritise victim ownership and control of process
  4. Inclusivity: be inclusive and accommodate complexity 
  5. Addressing structural obstacles: recognise and redress structural obstacles to inclusion 
  6. Holistic approach: respond to whole victim and survivor 
  7. Giving voice and being heard: honour individual stories 
  8. Macro analysis: be attentive to bigger picture 
  9. Equality and diversity: value gender expertise and lived experiences 
  10. Local and global learning: craft bottom-up responses that draw on international good practice. 

Such principles were crafted due to gaps and shortcomings of gender within previous agreements. The group argued that applying a gendered lens allows for recognition of the whole story of harm, places greater light on individual experiences, and as a result aids the process of reconciliation within society.

Addressing the Legacy of Violence through Facilitated Dialogue Project (2018)

Ran by the Glencree Centre for Conflict and Reconciliation and funded through the EU Peace IV programme, the Addressing the Legacy of Violence through Facilitated Dialogue project aimed to create meaningful, purposeful, and sustained contact between victims/survivors’ groups and representatives of groups and individuals with differing interpretations of what happened in Northern Ireland’s past. Activities included: 

  1. residential dialogue workshops with victim / survivor groups and representatives of groups and individuals with differing interpretations of what happened in Northern Ireland’s past.
  2. women-led residential workshops — including representatives from Ballymurphy families Springfield Community House and representatives from the Shankill community — which explored gendered aspects of violence and the challenges of engaging across communal divides.
  3. a series of webinars in collaboration with Irish Centre for Human Rights at National University of Ireland Galway and Ulster University, entitled “Addressing the Legacy of Inter-Communal Violence through Facilitated Dialogue”, with contributions from academics and practitioners in the field of peace studies and conflict resolution.

Through the project and the subsequent interaction with victims and survivors groups, those at Glencree noted several key findings, which can be used as a framework to avoid future conflict. Such findings include: 

  1. the importance of information and dialogue in strengthening the capacity of people affected by conflict to engage in addressing violence
  2. the end of violent conflict provides an opportunity to embed changes in society such as strengthening gender justice.
  3. the pursuit of justice in conflict transformation does not automatically lead to democratisation or indeed closure.

Projects for reconciliation 

Reconciliation projects take place across Northern Ireland and are run and funded from both the top down and grass roots level. 

The European Union Programme for Peace  

The European Union Programme for Peace provides a success story for sustained investment and support from the top down level for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border region since 1995. The most recent programme, Peace IV ran from 2014 to 2021. Funding for the programme is split between the EU regional development fund (85%), the Irish government, and the Northern Ireland Executive.

Objectives stated the programme “ will make real and lasting change in terms of shared education initiatives, support for marginalised children and young people, the provision of new shared spaces and services, and projects that will build positive relations with people from different communities and backgrounds.” 

The project has seen £47.6 m worth of funding for 8 shared spaces projects with successful projects including: 

  1. the Black Mountain Shared Space, which provides indoor leisure and outdoor recreation facilities
  2. the Waterside Shared Village project, creating a multifaceted shared space facility in Derry/Londonderry
  3. the Monaghan Peace Campus, a new shared community space in Monaghan town; and
  4. the Riverine Community Park in Donegal, which creates new cross-border community park space and infrastructure to bring communities together

The Holywell Trust 

located in Derry/Londonderry provides an example of a grassroots, community run and led organisation, which has worked since 1989 to promote peace and reconciliation. One of the most successful projects associated with the trust is The Junction, a centre which provides space for community relations. Reconciliation projects run within The Junction include the Ethical and Shared Remembering project and the Towards Healing and Understanding project. 

Challenges to reconciliation

Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol

While progress has been made through various programmes to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland, a number of challenges has also emerged. Firstly, and perhaps most notably was the UKs exit from the European Union in 2020, following the 2016 Brexit referendum. In Northern Ireland, the majority voted to remain within the EU (55.8%).The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland proved to be a key sticking point in negotiations with concern that a hard border, like during the times of the Troubles, would be implemented. If so, this could have resulted in the cessation of free movement of people and goods between the north and south of the island. However, this was avoided through the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The protocol prevents a hard land border by including Northern Ireland within the EU customs union and allowing free movement of EU goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It creates a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea. The protocol has proven to be a key concern for Unionists, with the DUP refusing to participate in the power-sharing executive following the 2022 elections, until the matter is resolved to its satisfaction. It argues that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s equal place within the UK. Protests held over the protocol by sections of the Unionist/Loyalist communities in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Ballymena, and Carrickfergus in April 2021 saw the worst street violence in a decade. 

From a Nationalist/Republican perspective, the protocol served as the solution to the key issue of the implementation of a hard border. Brexit was overwhelmingly opposed within the Nationalist/ Republican communities and has led to calls for an Irish unity referendum. 

Such opposing views surrounding Brexit and the protocol display a clear challenge to reconciliation moving forward. 

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill 

Nevin Aiken, writing on the issue of Transitional justice and post-conflict reconciliation in Northern Ireland, suggests that transitional justice interventions may be a necessity for the advancement of reconciliation in post-conflict societies. He contends that transitional justice processes promote a more inclusive and multifaceted view of contentious past events, which in turn can help to reduce biased and competing narratives, therefore promoting reconciliation within society. 

Legacy issues surrounding Troubles-related crimes have always been a source of contention in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill proposed by the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, in May 2022 provides the latest challenge to transitional justice and  reconciliation. The sections of the bill that have generated the most controversy include the establishment of the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery which will review deaths and other harmful conduct, grant immunity from prosecution in exchange for information and truth telling.  Another contentious proposal of the bill is the ending of criminal investigations, prosecutions, inquests, and inquiries (except from specific circumstances).

Both groups representing victims and survivors as well as all of the main political parties in Northern Ireland have expressed opposition to the proposed bill. A team of academics from the School of Law at Queen’s University — the Model Bill Team — has also criticised the bill, stating it to be “unworkable, in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and binding international law, and that it will not deliver for victims and survivors.”

But while “the war of narratives has replaced the war of weapons”, as the 2014 Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report puts it, there is peace without reconciliation. This was further echoed in their most recent report in 2018, which described how a “sense and reality of stasis exists” with political processes paused, civil society frustrated, and the past still left unaddressed. Such diagnosis still appears relevant in 2022, with power sharing yet to resume following the recent elections and issues of legacy still lingering. 

The contest of narratives and failure to address legacy issues could be seen as a struggle to tear apart a tapestry of complex weaving. Perhaps if there was an appreciation that there will be no reconciliation until everyone accepts the cloth at hand (versus one we idealise it to be), then more constructive work could be more readily realised.

Research by Emilie GRAZIANI and Hollie ENNIS

Last updated: 21 June 2022 

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