Recently, the Northern Ireland “Consultative Group on the Past” issued its long awaited report on how Northern Ireland can come to terms with the legacy of its decades-old conflict.
The report was based on hundreds of interviews and consultations with people throughout Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain, and the recommendations will be reviewed and hotly debated in the weeks and months ahead.
First, by not recommending a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the tradition of South Africa and Chile, the report recognized that the dynamics of a deeply divided society do not easily lend themselves to such a process. In the cases of South Africa, Chile, and Argentina, where the state was the main perpetrator of violence against its citizens, bringing former officials to justice and establishing “the truth” about the abuses of the former regime was essential and appropriate. In each of these countries, the newly elected democratic government that succeeded the prior abusive regime recognized that its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens depended on bringing to light the past abuses and holding former officials accountable for their crimes.
In the case of a deeply divided society such as Northern Ireland, where there were multiple sources of violence and generations of conflict and mistrust, it is important to recognize, as the Consultative Group did, that there is no one truth to be unearthed and brought to light; in fact, in deeply divided societies, there are many truths that have to be both understood and acknowledged by all sides in any serious attempt to deal with the legacy of the past.
As the Consultative Group wrote, “divided communities carry different experiences and understandings of the past in their minds, and indeed, it is this that divides them.” This insight about deeply divided societies rings true for other conflicts where ethnic, religious and cultural divisions exist, and where trying to establish a “single truth” about the past fails to recognize the reality that there are multiple truths.
Second, the Consultative Group makes the point that “the fruitful beginning of sustainable reconciliation and a truly shared future center upon a genuine and general acknowledgment of the moral dignity of our common humanity.”
The use of the word dignity by the group represents an opportunity to explore the essential role that dignity can play in rebuilding relationships and bridging the divide within Northern Ireland. Human beings are hardwired to protect themselves from threats, both physical and psychological. Among the greatest psychological threats we experience are threats to our dignity and self-worth, which can be felt as deeply as a gunshot wound. Without recognizing this dynamic of human behavior, and becoming aware of how our words and actions can belittle and humiliate others, we will continue to violate each other’s dignity and fail to engage with one another in a way that builds sustainable and healthy relationships.
As the people of Northern Ireland build their future together, there is an opportunity for each person to acknowledge that every interaction presents a choice: Will I honor or violate this person’s dignity? Learning how to extend dignity to one another becomes the responsibility of every citizen.
Even though the desire for dignity is hardwired within us, knowing how to treat others in a way that honors their dignity is not.
The Consultative Group could take the issue of dignity to the next step by developing programs that teach people how to extend it to one another and establish the important role that dignity can play in healing wounded societies. If this were to happen, the future of Northern Ireland could be firmly established on solid psychological ground where everyone felt respected and included and where all relationships, as well as every human being, mattered.
Timothy Phillips is Co-Founder of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition, which has organized 18 programs in Northern Ireland for political and community leaders. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, and author of the forthcoming book, A Matter of Dignity: Twenty Ways to Restore Harmony in a Troubled World.
More on the conflict in Northern Ireland:
Fear returns to Northern Ireland
Splitting the differences