Liz O'Donnell: A reconciliation commission in North would leave many facing harsh truths
Inevitably the passing of Nelson Mandela evoked a wave of accolades for a truly unique statesman. There has been an avalanche of media archive footage covering his long and eventful life. Much of it was repetitive, capturing the iconic highlights: his part in the struggle against apartheid, his release from prison and historic election as president of the new republic. The indelible image of Madiba in the green Springbok jersey as South Africa won the Rugby World Cup was just one example of his genius for reconciliation and national unity as father of the new nation.
But of all the hours of television I watched, one segment stood out. I was gripped by actual live footage of the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a court-like body which sat from 1995 to 2002 as part of the transition to democracy. Its mandate was to bear witness to, record and in some cases to grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations.
In the foreword to the report, Tutu appealed for tolerance and reconciliation: "Having looked the beast of the past in the eye, having asked and received forgiveness and having made amends, let us shut the door on the past, not in order to forget it but in order not to allow it to imprison us.
"Let us move into the glorious future of a kind of new society where people count not because of biological irrelevancies or other extraneous attributes, but because they are persons of infinite worth created in the image of God."
The full TRC report -- which is available online -- makes compelling reading. It covers the historical and political context of the conflict, going back to before the original colonial conquests of 1659, the Boer War 1899 to 1902 and outlines how parliament transformed the pre-1948 legislation into a "systemic pattern of legalised racial discrimination and constructed an armed internal security apparatus with the legal power to crush opposition".
The report concludes: "To many, notably the leadership of the government and security forces in the 1980s, the conclusion that the state sanctioned murder may and possibly will be an unpalatable assertion, but for the commission it is a 'truth to which it has been drawn by the evidence'."
The TRC had three distinct committees: HRV (human rights violations) committee, Amnesty Committee and Reparations and Rehabilitations Committee. It had 18 members, nine men and eight women, and 300 staff. Some 21,000 victims testified over its seven year extended term.
It dealt with the relationship between truth and reconciliation and opposing versions of the truth. Echoes here of the self-serving perceptions of the truth held by Sinn Fein when dealing with IRA crimes.
The commission wrestled with the difficulty of amnesty without some form of restitution or reparation for the victim -- a point made by opponents of John Larkin's recent proposal for a "stay" on Troubles- related prosecutions in the North. The final report recommended financial and community reparation to victims.
The commission dealt at length with the important distinctions between "just cause and just means" -- a theme which could do with some exploration on these islands.
"A venerable tradition holds that those who use force to overthrow or even to oppose an unjust system occupy the moral high ground over those who use force to sustain the same system . . . This does not mean that those who hold the moral high ground have carte blanche to the methods they use," the report states.
The commission did not get a clear run and at times appeared "under siege". There were many legal challenges, some of which were successful and required changes to procedures. Since amnesty was an option for those who truthfully confessed their crimes to victims, the stakes were high.
Not all requests for amnesty were granted; the majority were refused. No one was exempt from prosecution, not even ANC members or policemen. Incredibly, there was systemic destruction of official records by the National Intelligence Agency right up to 1996. The televised proceedings were heart-breaking in their exposure and confrontation of human depravity, trauma and grief. But as an exercise in cathartic release and closure it was successful.
Some argue for such a truth commission to deal with the legacy of our conflict. But, unlike in South Africa, there is no agreed narrative of the causes of the conflict in Northern Ireland; whereas there is global consensus that apartheid was a crime against humanity and the ANC and PNC were legitimate liberation armies.
There is no consensus on the "legitimacy of the armed struggle" on these islands. But the TRC experience in South Africa illustrates that human forgiveness and reconciliation cannot happen without all actors facing the truth.