The missing piece — Glencree symposium prompts reflection on addressing legacy
by Hollie ENNIS
1 July 2022
The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation hosted a symposium over 27 and 28 June in the Titanic Centre Belfast, which brought a variety of speakers and individuals together to discuss “the missing piece in peace”. The event was run as part of Glencree’s Legacy of Violence through Facilitated Dialogue programme, which is supported and funded by the EU Peace IV Programme managed by the Special EU Programmes Body .
Glencree is an independent organisation located in the Wicklow mountains and was established in 1974 as a response to the Troubles occurring in Northern Ireland. The centre is the only of its kind located in the Republic of Ireland and has played an important role in the Irish peace process. However, the centre has expanded its work beyond the Irish context, working for peace and reconciliation in other contexts including Moldova, Haiti, and Sri Lanka. Glencree states its mission is to “prevent and transform violent conflict by engaging people in dialogue, trust- and relationship-building”.
The symposium opened with a welcome address from Naoimh McNamee, the chief executive officer of Glencree. McNamee outlined that the key theme of the conference is the most prominent issue faced within a post-conflict society — legacy. She expressed how this event will serve as an “open and honest discussion dealing with the past”.
Keynote address: Julian Smith MP
Via video link, the keynote address was given by former Northern Ireland Secretary of State (2019–2020) Julian Smith MP; Belfast based journalist and author Brian Rowan mediated the discussion. During his time in office, Smith passed legislation which saw same-sex marriage legalised in Northern Ireland, brining it in line with the rest of the UK. He also oversaw the implementation of the New Decade New Approach agreement working alongside the Irish Taniste Simon Covney.
“The way in which the bill will shut down civil cases and inquests is a source of much anger and worry… I am deeply uncomfortable about voting for a bill that will formalise immunity for those who have committed murder and other crimes, but I do acknowledge that none of the range of policy options for the Government is straightforward.”
When asked by Rowan as to whether he had voted for the bill, Smith stated that he in fact had abstained from voting during both readings as he is opposed to the bill in its current form. He expressed wishes to see the bill improved and expressed regret that victims and survivors had been left out of the bill and its processes. He stated a commitment to put pressure on the government to create change and improvement to the bill.
Smith was subsequently asked how to mitigate the effects of the bill on victims. He responded by advising those present to “push and encourage the government at this relatively late stage to rebuild trust… encourage the government to listen to experiences.”
The voices of victims and survivors: Legacy of Violence programme
The second talk of the event centred on the raising of the voices of victims and survivors on the issue of legacy. The discussion was chaired by Roisin McGlone, director of the Addressing the Legacy of Violence through Facilitated Dialogue programme. McGlone opened the address stating the importance of “listening to those who had been hurt the most and those who have given the most for peace.” Participating within the discussion was Briege Voyle from the Ballymurphy Massacre Families and Aileen Quinton representing the South East Fermanagh Foundation.
Quinton first shared her story. Her mother, Alberta, was killed in the 1987 Enniskillen Rememberance day IRA bomb or “the poppy day bomb”. Quinton spoke critically of the current proposals for the legacy and reconciliation bill, stating, “The Tory Government will cement the stones down so they cannot be overturned,” and she called on amendments to be made to the bill “based on the principles of justice”. Quinton expressed her concerns over those responsible escaping justice.
Voyle then shared that her mother, Joan Connolly, was one of those murdered by the British Army in the August 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre. She also expressed her frustration and anger at the current legacy legislation proposals, stating how she felt this was an attempt by the British Government to “save their own backs” and to “draw a line under the past”. She explained the seven-year inquest process that the Ballymurphy families have been through, which resulted not in justice but the clearing of the names of their loved ones, with innocence finally attributed to those killed. She expressed how this proved the importance of inquest processes.
What really happened to the Consultative Group on the Past?
In a discussion between Brain Rowan and Denis Bradley, this talk focused again on the issue of legacy, reconciliation, and the Consultative Group on the Past. Bradley, a former priest, founder of the Bogside Community Association and former vice chair of Northern Ireland Policing Board, was appointed to co-chair the Consultative Group on the Past alongside Robin Eames. In 2009 they produced the Report on the Consultative Group on the Past.
When asked by Rowan of his opinion on the Legacy and Reconciliation bill, Bradley commented that he was “disturbed by the thought of having to remember the past and the thought of having to read new legislation”. He further commented, “Society in the aftermath cannot always give to victims what they need and desire.” He was critical of the concept of “leaving no stone unturned”, claiming that governments are incapable of such and as a result such a phrase should “never have come out of a politicians mouth”.
Rowan asked Bradley, “Is reconciliation possible or is the process simply chasing an impossible dream?” Bradley praised the concept of reconciliation but stated that it is not easily achievable. He states that you need to believe that you can continue forward and change the past but not the facts of the past; change is understanding complexity.
Bradley concluded his remarks by emphasising that truth lies around themes. He claimed that you cannot get the same results out of individual cases as you could on a thematic basis, and a thematic approach is lacking in current proposals.
In conversation with Colin Davidson: Painting the past in the present
An exclusive film of an interview of Colin Davidson with Brain Rowan was shown. Davidson is a Belfast based award winning contemporary artist, with a focus on grand scale portraits. His notable portraits include HRH Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Liam Neeson, Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton, and Michael D. Higgins.
Discussion centred on Davidson’s Silent Testimony exhibition. The exhibition reveals stories of 18 people who are connected by their individual experiences of loss through the Troubles. Davidson explained that his aim of the project was to convert raw, universal human loss. He further commented that for such individuals the painting captures their past but also their present, as “their past is their today”.
Commenting on the Legacy and Reconciliation bill, he was highly critical and spoke of the “complete disdain and inhumane approach to dealing with people who need our compassion the most”. He further drove this point by referring to the bill and its process as “bringing victims back to the scene and giving them a kick in the teeth”.
Minding our heads: Our vision for this generation
Professor Siobhan O’Neill from the University of Ulster and Dr Cathy Bollaert discussed trauma, mental health, and the vision for the future.
O’Neill, whose research focuses on trauma and suicidal behaviour in Northern Ireland, opened the discussion by explaining the concept of trauma and how a traumatic experiences “rewires” an individual through physiological and biological changes. She honed in on the concept of trans-generational trauma, explaining how such a concept can be used to explain why trauma and mental health issues cut across generations here in Northern Ireland. She concluded with a call for greater services, action, and less stigma on trauma based mental health issues.
Bollaert, whose research focused on transitional justice and peacebuilding, added to the discussion by drawing upon her experience of growing up in Aparthied South Africa, reflecting on the benefits of truth and reconciliation commissions and how this aided her understanding of her positionality within society as a beneficiary of the system. Throughout her contribution to the discussion, Bollaert stressed the importance of the concept of “the common good”, which she defined as one “to be built around human dignity, consideration of the most vulnerable, and for human rights.” She concluded that in order to provide a future for the next generation there is a need to return to such a vision.
The second day of the symposium was introduced by a welcome address from the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Christina Black.
Can policing step forward with a foot in the past?
Policing was the opening topic of the day, with a discussion with Una Jennings (former Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer and current assistant chief constable of Cheshire Police) and Roger McCallum (former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer and PSNI superintendent). Jennings explained that she wouldn’t have joined the RUC, but she was spurred to join the PSNI to become part of the change that was occurring at the time. Jennings was amongst the first group of new recruits to join the newly formed PSNI back in 2001. McCallum described his thoughts and feelings as a former RUC officer and how initially policing the peace as an PSNI officer felt more difficult as the “abnormal had become the new normal”.
Jennings spoke of leadership as the missing piece in current times, referring to both political and police leadership. She stated that this lack of leadership has led to a lack of space for conversation, resulting in the ongoing issues we face in politics and society now.
In regards to the Legacy and Reconciliation bill, McCallum noted that opposition to it has united all parties here and that it is important to remember that “no size fits all in amnesty”. Jennings expressed her opposition to the bill in its current form and the haste in which it is moving through parliament.
The conversation concluded with Jennings emphasising the importance of dialogue and good community policing. McCallum concluded by remarking how it appears there is a disconnect between policing at a community level and at a political level.
Theatre as a catalyst for difficult dialogue
In March, as part of the Addressing the Legacy of Violence through Facilitated Dialogue project, Glencree in partnership with Kabosh Theatre Company showcased the play, “Those You Pass on the Street” in Dublin Castle. A film was shown detailing the event in order to convey the role that theatre can play as a catalyst for difficult dialogue.
”Those You Pass on the Street” is a play of simple premise and “based on a grain of truth”, explained Paula McFetridge, the creative director of Kabosh Theatre. That truth being that an RUC widow walks into a Sinn Fein office to seek help in dealing with anti-social behaviour. The play deals with loss, death, and the difficulty of moving forward. McFetridge emphasised the power of theatre in addressing difficult dialogue, “All questions can be asked through theatre when it is produced in a careful, crafted, considered way that is cognizant of the need not to re-traumatise.”
On a similar note, Barbara Walshe, chair of the board at Glencree, commented how the play served as a “hybrid model where a number of actors are putting words in what we want to say, so it makes it easier for us to react to them and enables interaction between people.” Likewise,
Briege Voyle remarked, “If you see it in action it sticks with you… it sticks there and gets the message out there.”
Have we come too late to the past?
In an open discussion chaired by Brain Rowan, the room discussed remembering the past. He opened the discussion stressing the importance of ensuring that victims and survivors feel heard and acknowledged, so we can “get to a better place”. Noimh McNamee built upon this point, stating that such an approach displays the importance of the work that is undertaken at Glencree in providing a safe space for difficult conversations and dialogue.
Throughout the discussion individuals in the room shared their lived experiences of the Troubles period, providing a sobering and important reminder to all present of the importance of remembering and not forgetting the past. It also served to strengthen the main themes of the discussion — acknowledgment of victim experiences and the necessity of sharing dialogue.
What’s happening? Current British proposals and what they mean for our peace process
Concluding the symposium, the discussion centred on the British Government’s current Legacy and Reconciliation bill and the implications for the peace process. It appeared fitting that this was the final discussion session as this topic had woven itself into almost every discussion across the two days.
Dr Anna Bryson (professor of law and Fellow of the George J. Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast) and Julian O’Neill (home affairs correspondent for the BBC) participated in the discussion.
Both Byrson and O’Neill critically evaluated the proposed legislation and expressed opposition and concern as it continues to pass through parliament. Byrson described the legislation as “a step backwards in the aspects of truth and accountability” and branded the bill as “unfixable”, therefore casting doubt on the impact of proposed amendments. She placed further criticism on the reference to “reconciliation” within the bill, stating that it is there in writing but it is actually “about precisely the opposite”.
O’Neill drew attention to the lack of consent that has been expressed across the political divide here in Northern Ireland for the bill, referring to it as “a house which no one is willing to buy”. He further commented that the memorialisation being proposed within the bill should have been addressed long ago.
It is clear that there is a missing piece within our peace — tackling the issues surrounding legacy. Of course, a two-day symposium has not resolved the issue, but it has served as a vessel to highlight the main issue surrounding legacy — the importance of dialogue, in particular the need to listen to and advocate for victims and survivors. It is their trauma and experiences that we attempt to address, so therefore it should be their voices at the centre of the discussion. How can we address the past and move forward when we fail to listen and learn from those who were impacted the most? This takeaway appears to be of greater importance than ever when looking at contemporary events and particularly the legacy and reconciliation bill. The British Government could adopt the lesson learnt from this symposium and listen to the voices of victims and survivors when legislating on legacy.