Transitional Justice and the hope it offers

Take yourself back into a time when nothing seemed to work out, everything ran into the ground and no matter what you tried it didn’t get any better. The world felt like it turned on the head of a pin, your world, and all you could do was travel around in an ever turning motion on one small space, going nowhere. That is precisely what can happen to a society coming out of conflict. When all is said and done, agreements signed and some old ghosts exorcised and laid to rest then there are always those shadows still lurking which have yet to be faced. They still lurk for very good reasons. 

Coming out of conflict people are sore, communities don’t trust each other, there is hurt with a depth to it that resounds with the memory of loved ones lost and lives changed, utterly changed, and not for the better. Loyalties to ones own cannot easily be set aside for trust of the enemy when every waking hour has been lived with an excessive alertness lest anyone be found in the wrong place at the wrong time among the wrong people. 

A society has to move slowly off the pinhead of repeated and repeating experience and step gingerly to a new place with only some securities in place. Courage is mustered but with a hand on the rail that connects back to what is familiar, to those who have been lost, to the memory of what it was like and even why it happened. Getting that far is a very good thing and leadership is required alongside the courage. 

Time of course moves on and things change. There are all sorts of things to talk about and decide – how governance will happen, what things can’t be ignored if the new is to get underway. New allegiances and relationships are formed and new hopes crafted but there are always those who are left behind and there are always those very difficult things that can be circumvented to keep the peace. But the time comes when circumvention is no longer an option. At least not if a more reconciled, hope-filled, life-giving society, community and set of relationships are to be made. Somewhere in the depth of the soul everyone knows that there are things coming which may be harder than anything that has yet been done and all we know is that it’s been hard enough already. We don’t want to lose what we’ve got. But we don’t want to go toward that feeling of something ominous and difficult. We don’t want to go back and it is hard to go on. A long time ago Aristotle wrote:


We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.


There is no doubt that down the generations substantially new ways of thinking have had to be found and have been found. Transitional Justice and the examination of it enable the emergence of substantially new ways of thinking and the model for approaching circumstances gives freedom for contextually based outcomes. As the time draws nearer for the hardest of questions and issues to be finally faced then those who still hurt from the past find it hardest of all. It doesn’t help that they are ignored, unaddressed or put down. They may hold society to ransom in one way or another and they may be an embarrassment to some but the truth is that to push them out of mind and sight, to try to contain them will not work. Societies have tried that before and dried the tinder for an explosion of hatred and venom that led to spiraling chaos and its results, shameful and destructive results at that. 

So when the Loyal Orders raise their voices in strident declarations of their rights, as some see it, it is important to listen for the other story, the story that is written just under the skin but not deep enough to be hidden. That story needs to be heard if those ominous issues are to be properly addressed. And when Loyalist communities start to complain that they have nothing and that no one cares that they are losing everything and being stripped bare they need to be listened to and addressed. Yes they need to be addressed with truth, but also with grace. Kind words go further than angry words and hold out much more hopeful possibilities. Anger expressed in words and unpicked is far better than anger facing the crush of being dismissed until it explodes in far more dangerous ways. It may not be possible to understand initially what is being said but watch the signs and know that there are things, serious matters, to be address with truth and courage and kindness and grace.

It is the same for the anti-peace process republicans and militarists, dissidents as some call them. They have a reason to be as they are and they need to be heard. Ironically the chances are that these groups need to be heard more among their so-called own kind than they do by their perceived enemies. And ironically the sharp end of their anger is played out not so much on their own kind as on their perceived enemy. The result is fear and the beginnings of a new chaos. 

I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone will come to see the world in the same way. That would be pure fantasy. But we all have responsibility for each other in a society and healthy society finds place for those who don’t want to or can’t fit and who feel somewhat out of view. A healthy society has the capacity to keep it’s hurting people and it’s broken people in view. A healthy society has also to find a way to face the anger that some have and to be truthful to that anger. We can’t ignore what we might think is a problem and just hope it will go away. But nor will the old mechanisms for resolution work. Especially not when what needs to be resolved in the short-term is not where the dispute is anyway. 

In the short-term we face a parade on September 29th with the potential to have civil unrest around it. In the longer-term we face the challenge of how to live with each other even after all these years. We face the challenge of how to let each other off hooks, how to do things that will help the other side to trust us and step out on new roads of relationship. We face the challenge of building and not tearing down, of offering hope to young people who as things stand right now don’t even have the hope of a job, at least not many of them. We face the challenge of working out what mutual respect actually means and looks like in society. We face the challenge of what to do about the truths yet to be revealed and we kid ourselves that a good dose of some truths will put things back the way they should be with the good people looking after the governance and the bad people either shamed or in jail. It simply won’t work. In the longer-term there is much to be faced.

Jesus said some pithy things. And here’s one of them:


No one pours new wine into old wineskins. The new wine would swell and burst the old skins.Then the wine would be lost, and the skins would be ruined. New wine must be put only into new wineskins. Luke 5 vv37-38


If we continue to drink the old wine all we will want is old wine. If we get new wine we have to be careful where to put it because it bursts the old skins. Both new wine and new skins are needed. Now in my mind that’s what transitional justice offers. New skins for the new wine of a society transitioning out of conflict having fermented the new wine of agreements and actions to get things moving in the right direction and even well down the road. Transitional Justice steps in to help provide new skins, the new skin of ideas which stretch and pull at the old ideas until a vision appears of not giving up cherished ideals but of using those ideals in new ways to reach a place which is better than we are now and allows new things to come to pass, the old wine to run away and the new wine to be poured. With its five pillars as focus points, transitional justice, now well tested, tried, examined and explored in societies across the world, allows people to stretch themselves to new thinking out of the deep desire for a new place in which to live, a place that is both free and freeing itself from the burdens, corruptions, despairs, dehumanising experiences and behaviours of the past.

The new wine needs new wine-skins and there is still much to be done. The process is complex but it needs to be inclusive. So I was pleased to be at Crumlin Road Gaol on Friday 21st September for the launch of the report Transitional Justice: Grassroots Engagement. The report follows a process of engagement in North Belfast between people from the Mount Vernon, New Lodge and Tigers Bay communities. It is the first of its kind with academics sitting in the community alongside activists and people who experienced the worst of times to begin to consider what can be done to get from the place we have reached to a far better place. 

The conversations were difficult at times and at other times they didn’t happen at all. But the process went on and insights were discovered. If you want to know more you can get information from Bridge of Hope on Duncairn Gardens. The launch itself was a wonder that should be experienced by many more people. Gathered at the gaol were people who knew its landings and corridors well, people who’d never been there before, young people who’d never been in the same room as some of the politicians who were there, loyalists, republicans, unionists, nationalists, women, men, Catholics, Protestants – I could go on. All were there probably with different hopes but still looking to see if transitional justice and the pillars it provides can shore up a newly structured way into a future which is more reconciled and more life-giving than the past.

In the Transitional Conclusions of her report Eilish Rooney, Senior lecturer at the University of Ulster and author of the final report, writes about the transitional justice framework for the work done at grassroots level and she makes some important observations about how the process is intended to empower rather than entrap:


There is nothing fixed about the framework. It provides a pragmatic way for community activists to map some landmarks of the local experience of transitional justice, to assess what is working, what is not and to name the outstanding issues that have been ‘kicked into the long grass’. It enabled critical conversations.


Sitting in Crumlin Road Gaol and knowing the wider context of North Belfast with its current sitting on a precipice and knowing the sense of foreboding that many have, I have no doubt that many more critical conversations need to happen and I believe we should not delay.






  1. Truth-seeking and fact-finding. This area responds strongly to the call of victims for truth which is a notion much less forensic than our first reaction may imply. Hence the addition of ‘fact-finding’. Facts can be established even when some truths are not spoken. Nor is truth-seeking and fact-finding for one side only but a process for all parties to a conflict. If each is to achieve from the other things that will increase trust and maybe one day lead to mercy and grace then each must be ready to meet the other with a willingness to speak as well as to listen.
  2. Trials. In some transitioning societies where there have been unspeakable acts of terror unleashed by powerful people trials are inevitable. In other contexts there is less clarity and in our context there is a mixture of feeling abroad. The prospect of inquiries and the lack of truth they produce and the lack of justice they seem to deliver is hard for many to swallow and made worse so by the cost. Cost, of course, comes in forms other than money. The financial drain of inquiries is considerable but so too is the cost to people who sit and wait for truth that never comes and those who sit and wait for discovery that could end their lives as they know it. So the legal obligations placed on a state to provide truth, inquiries and investigations is a heavy burden but transitional justice discussions open up angles of thought that can help each party to a conflict to get something while being prepared to accept that not everything is possible.In the end, though, more may be possible by a re-imagined route than by the straight line route of trials.
  3. Reparations. There are several important functions that reparations perform and reparations cannot be divorced from a re-imagined process of discovering and offering truths and facts. Reparations acknowledge harm done, they acknowledge the exceptional needs that some people are left with. 
  4. Institutional reform. In a context where there has been conflict institutions are as much part of the flawed fabric as individuals and reform is required to establish new ground on which to build.
  5. Memorialization and collective memory. But the past cannot be forgotten. For some it will always be raw and real, tangible each day as life itself. It is good to remember. It is good to remember not so that society lives in the past but so that it comes to a new place with the past and to a new mind on the future.


There is a large language associated with transitional justice conversation including amnesty, apology, acknowledgement, compensation, education. In the context of Northern Ireland the conversation will inevitably include sectarianism.


Nervous about amnesty?

I get very nervous when I hear talk about amnesty. It isn’t that I am against the debate or even the very idea but rather that I am concerned we are talking about what is legally impossible. It is true that there is also feeling in some sectors of our community that such a discussion should not be on the table at all. The unionist leaning towards seeking justice works against any notion of amnesty. But it may also be the case that the law will not allow it. So before we get too far into this there are people we need to hear from. We need to hear from those who hold fast to the right to an inquiry. We need to hear from the politicians. We need to hear from the Attorney General and the legal community in general and we need to hear from Europe. We need to hear if amnesty is possible, on what terms and what it would take from across a society as well as from European law, via Westminster most likely, to really get amnesty onto the table. During the work of the Consultative Group on the Past we did not spend too much time on the notion of amnesty it is true. Early in the process there was a leak that we were talking about amnesty. It was not the case but the reaction gave us a steer as to what society would tolerate. Amnesty would not have been tolerated at that time. We did spend some considerable on the notion of immunity and the report focusses on the creation of a space into which people could come to speak their truth and for that time and place there was immunity from the law. It would not, though, we came to understand, be easy to achieve. Our understanding was that derogation from European Law would have to be sought and indeed fought for. That, we believed, was the best we could do and the best that was achievable. However, we also believed that with the utter will of a society from top to bottom and including every side then perhaps a way could be found to make amnesty possible. My suspicion is that there are prices to be paid for that and paths to be walked that there is no indication our political leadership from any party is ready to walk. So, if there is anyone out there from the legal community who can shed some light then now is the time before we all get too carried away with something that may not be possible. And if there are possibilities in this then we need to know all that it would take to achieve it – all! Clearly there is a need for people to get things off their chests and clearly there is a need for some people to dig out the truth, or a truth at any rate. What safeguards can be put in place to allow that to happen and what influences can be brought to bear to bring everyone into the process? We need to structure the discussion and pull it together with a focus on actually dealing with things. I’m not sure we are there yet but in my view if we don’t get there soon then there is every danger of things getting worse and not better. There are good news stories to be celebrated but there is a little part of me that wonders if those good news stories are not now playing the role of lifting our eyes for just a moment from what needs to be done for the health of society and for the health and well-being of future generations. And there is a little bit of me that wonders too if things aren’t being changed behind my back leaving me standing in scenery that I don’t recognise but with feelings and memories that I am only too familiar with and which will assert themselves for my security. I worry more that I am not the only one with such concerns. For a secure and more reconciled future we all need to be involved in the work of remodelling the landscape in which we live rather than living in an uncertain world in which the scenery changes almost imperceptibly until we hardly recognise it but the landscape of sectarianism, divided memory, hurt and grief remain the same.