This week a new book, Forgiving and Remembering in Northern Ireland, will be launched in Belfast. Inspired by the 2009 Consultative Group on the Past report, the publication features contributions from clerics, victims, counsellors and community workers who have personal experience of the Troubles.
EDITING and writing a book exploring the idea of mutual forgiveness between victims and perpetrators of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, could be seen by some as at best rather naïve and at worst, insulting.
However Portsmouth-based author, Graham Spencer, who has written extensively about the province, insists that the aim of his new book is primarily to encourage debate on the subject.
Says Graham: “The Consultative Group on the Past spoke about ‘mutual forgiveness’ and I was very interested in what ‘mutual’ could mean in a place where the communities have generally been in strong opposition with each other.
“I wanted to gather people from different backgrounds together to try and find out what this word mutual might mean and examine whether there is a debate worth having on forgiveness - one which doesn’t sink into the trivial thinking that ‘everything is going to be OK if everybody can forgive’.
“Not every victim wants to forgive, but they may have come to understand the perpetrator’s motives. And people who don’t want to forgive at all have their reasons and their reasons are equally important and need to be heard as well.
“I believe forgiveness is a subject on which a discussion could take place that doesn’t descend into: ‘if you forgive you are weak’ or are somehow giving concession to the person that carried out the crime.
“If you look at the facets of the book, there are essentially two areas and approaches: conditional and unconditional forgiveness.
“Conditional is where if the perpetrator shows repentance, there might be a possibility of forgiveness by the victim, but it’s justice based.
“Whereas for one of the book’s contributors, Children in Crossfire director, Richard Moore, who lost his eyesight to a rubber bullet at the age of 10, unconditional forgiveness is the only form that can empower the victim because if you want conditional forgiveness and the perpetrator won’t repent, where does that leave you?
“Both these approaches are needed and that’s why I think that the forgiveness debate so far has been rather short-sighted.”
The book, which will be launched on Thursday evening at the Bookshop at Queen’s University, also features contributions from Jo Berry, whose father Sir Anthony Berry, died in the 1984 Brighton bomb and Patrick Magee, the former IRA man convicted of planting the device.
Included as well are pieces by Father Aidan Troy, priest and mediator in the Holy Cross primary school dispute; David Steele, former leader of the Corrymeela Community; Methodist minister and board member of victims’ support group, WAVE, David Clements, whose policeman father was killed by the IRA in 1985 and clinical psychologist Michael C Paterson, plus notable clerics and academics and on-the-ground community workers and counsellors.
“I had worked with a lot of the contributors before on previous projects,” says Graham.
“Jo Berry’s relationship with Patrick Magee struck me as a very interesting examination of the way a victim and a perpetrator can in some cases reach a dialogue – not a sense of forgiveness, but dialogue.
“Jo talks about understanding rather than forgiveness and she maintains that she doesn’t forgive Patrick Magee and those involved and for her, there is too much pressure attached to the word.
“What the book brings across is that people who forgive may find it a constant struggle; or it may be a decision; a moment; maybe a gift; a rational decision; there are all these different attitudes.
“But more importantly for me, I hope that people who don’t want to forgive will be drawn to the book and I would be interested to know the reasons why people don’t want to forgive.
“It’s not a book that suggests, ‘let’s all forgive and get on’. It’s a book about forgiveness as a possibility – not an end product, but can it engage a debate between people who have been opposed to each other?
“Is there a possible space in which they can come together? I think the forgiving debate might possibly be that space.”
In Graham’s book, Jo Berry adds that she is uncomfortable with the word forgiveness, yet has struck up a friendship with Patrick Magee, who regrets his actions but doesn’t feel the need to repent for them because he feels he was justified at the time. Perhaps, it’s the example of these two people that is most realistic – you don’t have to forgive and you don’t have to repent to achieve a certain peace of mind and coming to terms with the past?
“There is something in that,” he agrees. “There is the possibility of living a life that is half decent without having to do those things, but I think for some people there could be some benefit in a discussion.”
Apart from Father Troy, who also seemed to veer towards the opinion that forgiveness is not necessarily a vital part of reconciliation, forgiveness seemed to be of ultimate importance to the clerics and academics in the book. Is it not something that is overrated in the reconciliation process?
“It could well be,” Graham answers.
“But when we talk about forgiveness being overrated, we have to be clear about what we mean by forgiveness and what the book has tried to address is that forgiveness could be a number of different things.
“It could be essentially not an end product, but the start of something that can to some extent free the victim from pain and in that sense it could be better for the person’s health.
“Religious convictions are still deeply seated in NI, particularly in rural areas.
“All I would hope is that the book raises questions rather than provides answers and starts to get people involved that have got something to say or want to contribute.
“If some of the perpetrators were to say, ‘Yes, I regret what I did’, it would bring all sorts of pressure down on them from others in their organisations who felt that in some way by saying that, they were discrediting the ‘cause’.
“They say they don’t regret it, they were in a conflict situation – ‘If it wasn’t for the conflict, I wouldn’t have done it’. But a lot of these people are now working towards reconciliation which shows that they do have regrets.”
Graham, 48, has been obsessed with Northern Ireland politics since 1994, when he wrote a PhD on the peace process and the media. He has since written books including The Media and Peace; Omagh: Voice of Loss, and The State of Loyalism in Northern Ireland. He is currently finishing a book about loyalist identity and then plans to write a similar book on republican identity.
“I’ve got no family connections at all with the province, but I’m totally obsessed and hope to remain so for the rest of my life,” he laughs. “I love the place and I love its people. I’m constantly visiting and I think it helps that I don’t live in Northern Ireland because I can get a slightly different window on it.
“I am very optimistic for the future of Northern Ireland. But the dissident activity is extremely concerning. When the intelligence services say that there is not a lot of support in republican areas for the dissidents, that’s only half the question, because the other half should be is there growing support in loyalist areas to deal with it or retaliate?
“When I compare Northern Ireland now, with how it was when I first came over in 1994, there is no comparison, but it only takes something really nasty to set everything back, which just goes to show how tentative and fragile the peace process is.”
Forgiving and Remembering in Northern Ireland: Approaches to Conflict Resolution, by Graham Spencer is published by Continuum, priced £16.99.