Jude Collins

Friday, 11 November 2011

The past - it's difficult, mainly because it's over

I've been asked to meet with some visitors to Belfast later this morning. They're here to gather material for a drama production relating to our ways of dealing with the past, so I'm trying to pull together my thoughts, such as they are,  on the subject.

The most important thing, I think, is to admit that the past is past. When we say we're 'dealing with' something, it suggests we're in a position to shape it, get it under control, mould it. The past is pretty resistant to that - it's happened, and, if as has been so often the case here, that past is full of suffering and loss, that suffering and loss have happened and no amount of manoeuvring is going to change that. At the same time, I remember being in the Guildhall Square in Derry when David Cameron was beamed live from the House of Commons with his famous apology for Bloody Sunday, and the crowd cheered and clapped. I suggested to someone with me that if I'd had a loved one shot dead by the state, an apology over thirty years later wouldn't begin to satisfy me, but he insisted it was very important for the victims.  It may well be. But it's certainly not justice.

There are two parties involved in our history of conflict - the combatants and the victims. Anything that can be done, however illogical, to help them cope with their pain must be applauded. One line on this is that if we had a South-African-style  truth and reconciliation commission, people could tell what they'd had done to them, combatants could tell what they did, and the truth would out. And that would be some comfort to victims.

I don't know, and not being a victim or directly related to a victim, I can't speak with authority. But my speculation is that, contrary to popular belief, talking about what's happened to you isn't always the best way of coping with it. I'm sure all of us can bring to mind moments of pain, self-inflicted or inflicted by others, that we carry with us. Would airing these help us 'come to terms' with the hurt? I'm not sure it would.

One of the characteristics of old soldiers is that they rarely seem keen on talking about what they did, what happened to them. I'm convinced a lot of the combatants in our conflict feel likewise. Certainly the British government doesn't seem to believe in telling people about its role in the conflict, otherwise the massive expense and time devoted to the Saville Inquiry would not have happened. And Cameron's government would have held a full inquiry into the Pat Finucane case, rather than dodge it again and again.

In past conflicts - when the US dropped atomic bombs on Japan, when Germany over-ran France, when the Russians lost millions of men in the Second World War,  when well over a million Vietnamese were killed in horrible ways by US troops - in all these cases, the only healer appears to have been time. Helped, I should add, by the refusal of those most wounded to allow hatred or thoughts of revenge to consume them.

Would a truth and reconciliation commission here help victims reach that desired state? Would all those who inflicted the suffering tell all that they'd done and ask forgiveness? I think the confident  answer to both questions is No.


  1. Good article Jude, just thinking, did you see your old collegue bredige Gadd's article in todays Irish News?

  2. Thanks, Anon 19:42. I'm afraid I've taken to depriving myself of the daily delight of poring over the VO...

  3. bleak but true.