Commemorative projections

Remembering, forgiving and forgetting: Managing the past in peace processes

October 23, 2014 | Nick Taylor

The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace will be in Belfast on Friday (24th October) to take part in a public debate in Northern Ireland about its legacy issues.  The event hosted by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University will examine one of the most important legacy issues – the balance between remembering the past, forgetting the past, and forgiving the past.


Legacy issues as a natural part of peace processes by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University
No matter how successful the introduction of new governance structures and the institutional reform of politics, societies emerging out of conflict are left with a series of legacy issues that are important to reconciliation and healing in society and, if not adequately addressed, will destabilise the political gains. Legacy issues concern specific policy questions like amnesty for former combatants and the range of victim and survivor policies, but also more broad matters like dealing with the past, and the meaning of values like truth, justice and forgiveness.
These legacy issues rarely surface in the immediate aftermath of a negotiated settlement for the euphoria and expectations at the ending of conflict sideline them. The paradox of legacy issues is that they emerge only sometime later, in the long and difficult process of learning to live together once the violence is largely over, when people’s expectations of change have been disappointed or re-evaluated in the light of experience, and the peace process seems to bounce along at the bottom. This is precisely when the peace process is at its lowest ebb, a point where post-conflict societies come to realise that learning to live together is not automatic and does not follow naturally once the violence has ended. Therefore, legacy issues seem to supporters of the peace process, only to make it worse, while to opponents of the peace settlement, legacy issues epitomise the fraudulence of the whole process.
At this point of lowest ebb, legacy issues come to assume almost as much importance in political debate as the original conflict itself, making discussion of the morality of the conflict a route into revisiting the terms of the settlement that ended it. Legacy issues can thus become politicised and function as the sole or main arbiter of the future, determining the confidence people have in the whole settlement and in the likelihood of people learning to live together. Therefore, the legacy issues of violence that were once parked while negotiators dealt with the more immediate task of ending the violence, come back to haunt the negotiation process and fuel opponents’ accusations of it being a ‘dirty peace’.
Managing the problems that legacy issues cause is therefore vital to stabilising the political reforms that introduced the new governance structures, as well as to progress in healing and reconciliation in society.  Legacy issues tend not, however, to receive the policy attention or public finance that the new governance structures get or, at least, do not do so until a crisis emerges within the peace process around one or more of these legacy issues; a crisis that unfortunately only seems to reinforce the centrality of legacy issues to future progress. It can be very difficult for people to keep a sense of perspective by focusing on how far society has come in its post-conflict phase, for legacy issues encourage them to continue to look backwards to the past.
There is no way of escaping these legacy issues, since they emerge inevitably in the course of a peace process at the point when memory of the violence recedes and debate about the morality of the conflict supersedes that about the conflict itself. If they cannot be avoided, what is important is that they are managed.
Remembering, forgiving and forgetting event
As part of the public debate in Northern Ireland about its legacy issues, the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University is holding a one-day public event on one of the most important legacy issues – the balance between remembering the past, forgetting the past, and forgiving the past. This is taking place on 24 October 2014. The event is free and open to the public.
The event is designed to coincide with important discussions between the political parties about how to deal with Northern Ireland’s past and the legacy of the conflict in the wake of the failure of the Haass-O’Sullivan initiative. The event is intended to open up a discussion in civil society on the same theme as a way of linking the confidential talks with debates in civil society.
Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, is launching the event at a pre-conference dinner on the evening of 23rd October, hosted by the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University. He has agreed because he recognises the importance of these issues to the development of Irish-British relations and their co-operation in the peace process. This part of the event is by private invitation only.
Three speakers have been selected to represent the broad themes of remembering, forgiving and forgetting, and while these three themes are integrally linked and need in practice to be balanced together, each speaker will focus primarily on one of the themes.  Corrymeela is involved in organising the event as a way of enshrining civil society involvement.
The three speakers are:
•     Colin Parry OBE, founder of the Foundation for Peace will address forgiveness within the overall balance between remembering, forgiving and forgetting;
•     Professor Thomas Brudholm, University of Copenhagen (see, who will address remembering within the overall balance between remembering, forgiving and forgetting;
•     Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, University of Free State (see, who will address forgetting within the overall balance between remembering, forgiving and forgetting.
These talks will be chaired by Bronagh Hinds, from Democratic Dialogue, a community development and peace group based in Belfast.
In addition to talks by the three main speakers, in the afternoon there will be a panel of civil society activists and practitioners with a background in these themes to reinforce our ambition to involve and engage civil society. This is being chaired by William Crawley, a broadcaster from the BBC. 
The panel consists of:
•     Jude Collins, journalist
•     Rev John Dunlop, former Moderator of Presbyterian Church in Ireland
•     Paul Gallagher, Victim and Survivor Group
•     Alistair Little, Beyond Walls Project
•     Dawn Purvis, Healing Through Remembering Project
•     Jennifer McNern, Victim and Survivor group
The event will close with some final reflections from Rev Lesley Carroll, a member of the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, and Susan McEwan, from Corrymeela.
The Institute considers this event to be part of a broad strategy in Northern Ireland that is needed to encourage debate in the civil sphere about the balance between remembering, forgetting and forgiving. This civil society debate is intended to tie up with back channel dialogue in which the political parties continue to discuss the Haass-O’Sullivan report and its implementation, giving the event very important and wide resonances. It fits the civic role the Institute has established but could have real and positive effects in helping Northern Ireland become reconciled to its past.