The past will cripple us until we start taking collective responsibility for it

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More than two decades since the start of the ‘peace process’ we seem no nearer to consensus on the legacy of the past.

The Fresh Start agreement actually rowed back from last December’s deal, concluding; “While progress has been made on most aspects of the legacy of the past, we have been unable to agree a way forward on some of the key issues.

“A large measure of agreement has been found on the detail of many of the issues addressed by the Stormont House Agreement. Some of these remain a work in progress.”

Hmm. That’s certainly a very benign interpretation of the words ‘progress’ and ‘agreement’. We don’t agree on the definition of victim. We don’t agree on the causes of the conflict.

We don’t agree on how we move from the past to the present and from the present to the future. Just a few weeks ago Martin McGuinness – a key figure when it comes to dealing with the past – said; “I was proud to be a member of the IRA. I am still, forty years on, proud that I was a member of the IRA. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and sit here and say something different. I don’t apologise to anybody for having done that. I think it was the right thing to do.”

In one respect McGuinness reflects what I’ve heard from former members of loyalist paramilitary groups; for most of them say they are ‘proud’ of their past and feel no need to make an apology for anything they did.

Paramilitaries from both sides believe they did the right thing and still cling to that position no matter how hard you try and push them on it. And therein lies the real difficulty when it comes to dealing with the past here: for when you believe that there is no need to apologise for your past actions then it becomes almost impossible to look someone in the eye and mention the subject of forgiveness.

Forgiveness matters. It matters particularly to those who believe themselves to have been victims: those who bear the physical and psychological injuries and disabilities of an attack; those who have lost someone very close to them; those who have been at the scene of a bomb or of a murder bid; those who have a daily memory and reminder of the huge personal toll that the Troubles took upon their lives and circumstances.

It doesn’t matter what side of the fence they came from, or whether their background was civilian, security or paramilitary. They don’t need a definition of victim. They don’t need a debate about what constitutes a victim. They believe themselves to be victims and nothing is going to alter that belief.

Forgiveness is also the bedrock of moving on – individually and collectively. That is also difficult against a background in which political parties and those who regard themselves as victims still don’t agree on whether all victims should be defined and treated as equal. Yet if we don’t or can’t move on, we will always be stuck in the past rather than steering towards something new and different.

We aren’t anywhere close to what could be described as a post-conflict society.

The us-and-them dimension remains, embedded at the very heart of government. It remains because nothing has actually been settled. We remain divided. So, is forgiveness possible when division remains, particularly when the division remains because nothing has been settled? Being in government with each other is not, in itself, enough.

We have to be in government for a commonly agreed purpose rather than just being there because we think there is nowhere else to go. We don’t agree on the name of the country we’re supposed to be governing. We don’t agree on the constitutional future. We don’t agree on the nature and purpose of the various agreements we have signed off down the years.

I was based at the Assembly for most of the period between 1998 and 2009 and I still pop up on a weekly basis. What struck me from the earliest days – and I wrote about it on a number of occasions – was what I described as the ‘residual hatred’ between the unionist and nationalist parties. It was a hatred that stopped them making progress. Oh yes, they managed to keep going in one form or another, but that was necessity rather than genuine choice. For all of their claims to the contrary, they still hate each other: yet, as the Godfather’s Michael Corleone said, “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

Here’s where we stand. If your perceived enemy is in government then you haven’t beaten him. But if you are in government with him then he hasn’t beaten you, either. We are stuck with each other. That applies to all of us: victims (however they are defined), those of us who lived through it all but don’t view ourselves as victims, governments, paramilitaries and political parties. In other words, we make it work together or we let it collapse together – and take the consequences.

Ultimately it means addressing and resolving those issues that we keep postponing or avoiding altogether. The past is crippling us and will continue to cripple us until we find a way of taking collective responsibility and collective accountability. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: “The shared future ideal has not been tried and found wanting.

“It has been found difficult; and left untried.”