Reconciliation – what is it and how does it happen?

Sometimes when we talk about reconciliation we mean a particular time or moment when something changes and with it a relationship changes too. That relationship can be at its beginning or it can be one put back together after a fracture, a fracture that can be deep and hard to heal. Sometimes when we speak about reconciliation we are talking more about what will need to be done to achieve it than we are about reconciliation itself So we may resist the steps that need to be taken, in our view, to be reconciled and in so doing we resist reconciliation itself in any shape or form. For example it is the case that some from within the broad unionist family do not wish to change their view of why they were involved in the security services and while they are prepared to admit that there are a few bad apples everywhere and that things may have gone wrong they are not prepared to admit anything more or to be open in any way to the possibility of more going on within the British establishment in terms of collusion etc. If pushed they may concede that there could have been things going on but only, they would qualify it, because there was no alternative. It would be their view that the State would have acted with as much integrity as  was possible in the circumstances. Being already unwilling to get into discussion about such matters it is sometimes the case that those who hold this view will not get involved in any process of reconciliation as they understand this to be the intended goal of ‘the other’s sides’ process of reconciliation.

So the question arises about what reconciliation is and how it happens. Is it a goal or a process and if it is a goal can that goal be forced or decided upon before a process begins? When a society begins the move from a divided past to a future in which old enemies lay down their weapons and begin to tolerate one another, co-operate with one another and one day value one another, then reconciliation has become a reality. It is not, though, complete. A society knows it is making progress when it is more defined by how it is reconciling than by its divided past. Whether or not society has reached that point in Northern Ireland is open for debate but clearly there remain matters from the past that still have to be dealt with even though it may be said that some aspects of reconciliation have been achieved, for example in sharing government no matter how far short of the ideal that may fall. So reconciliation is both a goal and a process and in the process of being reconciled there will be goals along the way. It is important that the reached goals are marked and not forgotten but it is also important that the process retains momentum until such times as society is defined more by how it is reconciling than by its divided past. Reconciliation has, therefore, to be committed to both as a goal and as a process, or perhaps more pertinently as a way of life. Without reconciliation the pull of the past is strong enough to overwhelm. This has to be resisted and the reconciliation process resourced so that a better future is not only imagined but also achieved.

The processes of reconciliation are many and various and all are needed at all levels of society if an ultimate reconciliation is to be achieved and the process to remain energized. The processes can be as local as local neighbourhoods working together on some common issues such as community safety or what to do about drugs in the locality or even on issues such as local areas for children to play together. When people decide it is possible to work together locally in ways that they wouldn’t have in the past then reconciliation processes are under way. In interface localities the working together faces the challenges of reaching out across old divides and transforming the space that was once a place for violent encounter to become spaces of creative engagement and growing interest in and understanding of each other. Considerable work goes on in this way and often the stories are not told or not heard. In rural communities new ways of meeting where there is real engagement one with another in ways that wouldn’t have happened in the past are also possible but in some cases that means stepping outside of self-sufficient rural communities to cross over into other self-sufficient rural communities. Then there are more political processes that are needed if reconciliation to occur at a more middle level. That will involve public story-telling, art work that takes up the issues in plays or music or photographic exhibitions or the like. Some of the institutions of society will be involved in this middle level peace-building and reconciliation work – schools meeting with other schools, churches stepping out beyond their own walls etc. Then finally there are government led processes which in the context of Northern Ireland have been about the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement the St Andrew’s Agreement etc. At all levels of society there are processes of reconciliation under way.

At this point in our history, knowing that reconciliation is a process and that it has goals and understanding that reconciliation needs to be embedded as a way of life we face the question about what needs to be done to take the processes on to the next stage There are some issues that remain unresolved and as trade-off politics continues I would suspect that soon we will run out of things to trade in. The big issues will finally have to be faced and there will have to be decisions made about information sharing, about what to do in order to get more information to victims and their families. Something will have to be done about the justice that is never going to be achieved in the usual way but there may yet be justice for families and loved ones as they have their questions answered. Something still needs to be done about the stories that haven’t been told, about the hurts that haven’t been healed and about those who believe the peace has no dividend for them. Something still needs to be done about sectarianism lest it comes back to haunt, or worse comes back strong and violent. Something still needs to be done about the sectarianism we tolerate so that services are dispersed and improperly resourced – education provision, health provision, local community cohesion and development – all of these are still addressed in a sectarianised way which divides resources and results in failing to achieve all that could have been achieved. Something still needs to be done about the re-integration of prisoners and about how prison officers and ex-UDR personnel feel about how things have played out for them. Something still needs to be done about the way in which people can openly demean each other or put each other down. I hesitate to propose any form of commission but something needs to be pulled together so that the past doesn’t hover with ghostly presence over everything that is done so that decisions are always made in the shadow of that ghostly past. New processes are still needed if the goal of a better place, a place which is more defined by how it is building better relationships and a society in which people can flourish is to be achieved. Reconciliation happens when there are good processes in place at every level of society and sometimes reconciliation processes have to be formed out of leaps of faith that the brace take because they believe that they have come along way but also that things can so still be so much better.

Reconciliation doesn’t happen quickly and it doesn’t always happen easily and it certainly isn’t a linear process with only one goal in view. In all of it it is important to note that Lederach argues, and he has been involved in more peace-building and reconciliation processes than more, that resolving or finding a way out of the conflict can take as long as the conflict itself.


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