We all need to forgive - but never forget
Perhaps one should not be surprised that the handshake with the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, dominated media coverage of the historic visit this week by Prince Charles to Ireland. It was, of course, a significant event in strengthening Anglo- Irish relations and the peace process; following on from the State visit to the UK and the Queen's visit. Such events are hugely important in rebuilding British- Irish relations, given the legacy of our troubled past. But the exaggerated media focus on Sinn Féin at each fragile turn can be overplayed.
More than anything, this visit was an act of personal reconciliation and healing from a family bereavement by Prince Charles. Thirty-six years ago, in 1979, his beloved grand uncle Lord Mountbatten was brutally murdered with two other family members and a local boy, Paul Maxwell, by an authorised IRA bomb. The Mountbatten boat was blown to smithereens on a sunny summer day in Mullaghmore Bay on a family fishing trip. It shocked the world.
On the same day, 18 British soldiers were murdered in Northern Ireland by the IRA. It was one of the worst days in the Troubles. Everyone in Ireland and beyond remembers the Mullaghmore atrocity. given the heinous nature of republicans killing an innocent family enjoying a holiday in Ireland.
The Prince returning after all these years gave us an opportunity to demonstrate not only that he was welcome as a member of the Royal family; it allowed us, as Irish people, to indicate how horrified we were then and now at what happened; a chance to share the grief and anguish of which he spoke. We all remember where we were on that sparkling, sunny day on hearing of the bomb and of who the casualties were.
We didn't get a chance to distance ourselves from republican violence and the justifications of Mr Adams that Mountbatten and his family were legitimate targets in a war. This week, there was genuine warmth for the Prince and his wife by local people in Galway and Sligo. His remarks were humble and heartfelt. It was a masterpiece of reconciliation. His anguish had enabled him to empathise with other victims of violence who had lost loved ones as he had.
It set me thinking of how inadequate the Good Friday Agreement was in bringing solace to victims of Northern Ireland's violence. Much of the Agreement dealt with institutional and constitutional reform and measures to end the conflict.
Huge efforts and compromises went towards a political settlement: the release of prisoners, the decommissioning of weapons and demilitarisation by the British armed forces in Northern Ireland. A whole new platform of equality and anti-discrimination legislation was put in place; a new police force and justice system; an Assembly and a power-sharing Executive.
Although the Agreement was mandated in referenda north and south, it was to take almost 10 years before decommissioning of weapons and the stable establishment of the power-sharing Executive and other key components, such as the transfer of powers of justice were achieved. As the Prince quoted from Yeats, "Peace comes dropping slow". And that was just the politics of the peace.
For victims of the conflict, however, it has been even slower. One cannot legislate or negotiate for forgiveness. People come to acceptance at different stages of recovery. Some cannot find it in themselves to forgive the appalling deeds they endured or witnessed, sundering their lives and violently depriving them of loved ones.
Prince Charles has finally come to that place of forgiveness in respect of those who murdered his family members. This did not come easy. One thinks of Gordon Wilson and others like him who had that capacity so quickly to transcend the physical pain of grief for the greater good. For others however, peace without justice is not enough.
More than 3,500 people died violently in the Troubles; in almost 3,300 cases no one was prosecuted. This constitutes a profound injustice to victims. Reaching agreement on how to deal with and investigate these killings and what to do about other people affected by the Troubles has so far proved impossible. The victims of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings are still awaiting investigation and answers. As we were reminded this week, their anguish is still fresh, notwithstanding the passage of time.
How to respond to the unmet needs of victims of Northern Ireland's conflict is the unfinished business of the peace process. How best to approach this was studied with serious application by US Envoy Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O' Sullivan. Their proposals were rejected by the parties even though some of the ideas relating to reconciliation and victims were inspirational.
The final Haass Report had a variety of ideas for contending with the past and victims' needs. For example, it called for a comprehensive 'Mental Trauma Service' for victims and survivors. So as to keep an avenue of justice open, it proposed the establishment of a Historical Investigation Unit (HIU) with full PSNI investigative powers to take over cases being pursued by the Historical Enquiries Team and the Historical Unit of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland. The HIU could refer cases to the Prosecution Service.
Another proposal was for an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval to enable survivors and victims to seek and privately receive information about conflict related events. Haass did not propose an amnesty for those who came forward with information about the conflict. But it does suggest limited immunity or inadmissibility of evidence given in subsequent court cases. Prosecutions could still take place using evidence otherwise achieved by the authorities.
The Commission could use information it recovered, plus public records, to assess the presence of certain patterns or themes involving governments and paramilitary organisations in conflict-related cases.
Importantly, Haass called for public acknowledgments of those involved in the conflict to express remorse and take responsibility. It pledged to facilitate the collection of individual narratives of victims and establish an archive.
It seems a shame that because of a standoff on flags and parades, and protracted rows over budgetary matters, these important proposals about the "past" are gathering dust. This week has shown how generosity of spirit as demonstrated by Prince Charles can be so powerful in fostering reconciliation.
Forgiving, but not forgetting, is where we all need to be.