The crisis at Stormont in the last few days has brought that old question back to the forefront of Northern Ireland’s future; how do we deal with the past? I have to say that there does seem to have been something askew and it would seem to me that the Unionists had the right to ask some questions. An enquiry is probably the right thing and the best thing to deal with the wrong that Unionism feels. I think the threat to resign was not a mature response and the First Minister’s response to the Prime Minister’s response when he said, “Why would I resign when I got what I wanted,” only highlighted the childishness. However, in an atmosphere where Unionism feels that they are losing ground to Republicans and there is no equality in how the past is being dealt with, it was an unhelpful situation.
That is not what this surmise is about though. How we deal with the past is vital to how we move forward. It is a thorny issue. It is emotional. Many have experienced deep pain at the loss of loved ones and in many cases the horrific violence with which they were lost. Whatever way we deal with the past we must always be a society that prioritises the pastoral care of those who lost loved ones and also for the thousands of “injured” who continue to live with the physical consequences of the Troubles. We also need to care whatever “side” the victim was from.
For all post conflict societies finding a way to deal with the victims and perpetrators of the past is key. I am no expert on peace agreements but I can imagine the compromise needed in such negotiations will have to include painful compromise on both sides. The prisoners being set free here in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement was a difficult image to come to terms with on our television screens. In the homes of their victims it was even harder to come to terms with. Yet, it was a necessary cost of a better future. Our current political crisis has been about letters being sent to killers on the run, who were never been brought to justice. Again wounds have been reopened and pain made more acute. Dealing with the past which was a crucial part of the recent Haass talks is again the conundrum we need to find a solution too.
I am surmising what the Church might have to contribute to all of this? We have theological words that I believe might be helpful. Forgiveness is a crucial one. Indeed the idea of grace that forgives unconditionally is the foundation that Christianity is built upon. Let me give you our theological deal. God made the world and humans were the pinnacle. Given freedom, an inheritance and vocation, human beings betrayed God, reached for independence and caused a deep enmity between themselves and God. God who was the victim of the crime seeks out the criminals and acts in time and space history to reconcile himself to humanity through his innocent son’s violent death. The peace that God brokered, the Good Friday Agreement if you like, did not begin with the criminal doing his time or even by the criminal repenting of his crime. The Gospel starts with the victim bringing the reconciliation after which transformation is a consequence not a condition of the salvation.
Now, I know that those outside of the Church do not need to pay any attention to such a model. Yet, even those who attend Church every Sunday seem to skilfully ignore it with theological gymnastics. My friend Gladys Ganiel, lecturer at Irish School Of Ecumenics, is someone whose research I value and use endlessly. Recently she interviewed clergy about reconciliation.
“Among clergy in Northern Ireland, 85% thought it was very important to preach and teach on reconciliation between individuals and God, and 68% thought it was very important to preach and teach on reconciliation between individuals. But only 46% thought it was very important to preach and teach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.”
When it came to the laity only 36% thought it was important to teach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
I find it hard to believe that God didn’t mean his model of reconciliation to apply across the board. As a follower of Jesus I cannot receive God’s grace, forgiveness and reconciliation and then not apply it to others. Indeed the Lord’s Prayer, again so central to Church liturgy, has us saying, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God’s reconciliation is very clearly connected to our reconciliation with others.
Peace in a post conflict society is difficult. It is painful. It is hard work. The Christian Gospel of how God made peace in a post conflict world was difficult, painful and hard work. I submit God and his way of dealing with the past as a contribution to Northern Ireland’s future. I think it is worth us all having a surmise.