In his work on the Psalms Walter Brueggemann writes of three kinds of Psalm: Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Psalm 22 is one of those expressing disorientation:
I have no more strength
than a few drops of water.
All my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like melted wax.
My strength has dried up
like a broken clay pot,
and my tongue sticks
to the roof of my mouth.
You, God, have left me
to die in the dirt. Psalm 22 vv14-15
I imagine that this is how many feel with the ongoing news about the arrangements regarding ‘on the runs.’ The sad fact is that there has been a long history to this beginning maybe as early as 1995 and continuing onwards at least from 2000 when news reports appeared. Somehow the public debate missed it. The 2005 Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill brought the debate to light and perhaps the rejection of the Bill put it from our minds. No one asked what would happen with the OTRs when the Bill was rejected. No one followed up on the news reports. No one picked up on the paragraphs in the report of the Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past. There are many questions, human questions, leadership questions, legal questions and many more.
This doesn’t feel clean. Truth be told there have been a lot of things both coming up to and after the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that haven’t felt clean but for many of us the price for peace was worth paying. At this juncture, though, things feel less clean than they did before because we wonder what else was going on. Peter Hain has spoken about the deals that were done with the DUP which others didn’t like. He mentioned the appointment of a victims representative. I want to know – were there more and what were they? How many side deals were done, with whom were they done and why were they done?
There are victims and survivors who are reeling from the news and well they might be. Over the last months politicians, and others too, have spoken of their centrality in dealing with the past. They have been invited, time and again, to bring forward what they want to see done and they have risen to the challenge. No one thought to outline the limits to what is possible whether it be in regard to truth or justice. No one thought to say to them that they were listening as best they could but before even they started into responding there were restrictions because of what has already transpired in dealing with the past. No wonder they are reeling. No wonder they are angry and hurt, many of them immobilised by what has happened. As a society we at least owe them an expression of deep remorse for our sins of omission for we omitted to tell them that deals had already been done without their knowledge.
I wonder to myself what the politicians were doing. In particular I wonder what the Unionist politicians were doing. Many across middle Unionism believe that it is time to stop delving into the past. Given the OTR arrangements and the Weston Park discussions would it not have been wise to bag this and to ask for more? To ask for the lifting of the weight of potential prosecutions from police and soldiers too? To ask that Inquiries be restricted and that an equitable release from the past be given across the board? It would have been short of what many want but it might at least have been more fair and we might not be where we are today.
I wonder to myself what the OTRs are feeling and what their families are feeling. The act of mercy they received must feel in danger and families who were separated from their loved ones are probably in crisis too, reliving the agonies of the years apart. I know some of the OTRs. I have heard one speak out against dissident activity, calling for a stable peace. I have watched another work tirelessly for peace. That is something.
I wonder what of truth now. Where will it come from and where does it sit? Are there limits to truth that we need to speak of in the legal sense and are there limits we need to speak of in the human sense? I have wondered this a lot over the last few weeks since an event I attended when I heard a former IRA volunteer speak of his recognition of the loss of human life in a bombing in which he was involved. But he was clear that he believed in what he did while at the same time recognising the loss. If that is the truth we are going to get and all the truth we are going to get, do we really want it?
I wonder to myself about justice. These letters the OTRs received didn’t give them immunity but told them they were not being pursued due to lack of evidence. What chance is there of new evidence across the many open cases that remain? And if that is seriously limited then how do we say that, how do we tell it to those who are holding out for justice?
I wonder to myself about the heated debates regarding limited immunity. I wonder if there is a real recognition of the existing immunity arrangements that are already in place. I wonder if we realise that we have already accepted limited immunity.
I wonder if it is possible to sit down and honestly scope out the landscape of what has been done about the past, dirty and all as it might be, so that we can clean up our act for going forward. I don’t believe it is possible to clean up a dirty war with moral purity. But I do believe that we should aim to raise the bar with every action so that we reach a more healthy and honest and upright society in which relationships can be real and trusting. We won’t do that without recognising what we have allowed to pass in the process of making peace, things we wouldn’t normally allow to pass.
I can understand how this got missed. I have found myself in difficult times turning my head and saying – do what you have to do, just do it quickly. Perhaps that’s something of what happened. If it is then we need to say it because there are lives that are like broken clay pots. There is a stink to what has happened. It’s time for us to face our disgust at what’s been done, and perhaps disgust at ourselves too for being complicit. Lives can’t be rebuilt without it.
There is cross that moves around the local churches in my area. It is called the Cavehill Cross. It is made from the broken wood left after the bombing of the Cavehill shops on Bloody Friday, 21st June 1972. Twenty six bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes killing 11 people and injuring 130. At the Cavehill shops 14-year-old Stephen Parker was killed. His father, a local minister, wanted the cross made and moved around the churches to remember Stephen and to remember what we have done to each other. The cross represents the pain of so many from across the community, ordinary people, some with good intent and some intent on taking the lives of others. Their families are left bearing the cost of the troubles. Violence corrupts and drives us to dehumanise each other so that we are all brutalised. Violence takes on its own life and takes us over to the degree that we lose touch with the real humanity by which we live well together, in respect and with tolerance and hope. Violence has far reaching impacts and we should object to it:
I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. Mahatma Gandhi
There are those who are suffering more than most tonight. They know that the evil violence does is permanent. They are suffering with the memory of a blast, a shot, an injury, a loss. We cannot make it right for them. We cannot give them back lost loved ones, lost limbs or lost hopes and dreams. We cannot even give them all that they are asking for. But we can do better. Making sure we attend to the way in which we do business so that we make relationships across the community to ensure that what happened in the past will never happen again is a starting point. We should address all our energy to that.
If only it were different. But it isn’t. In the brokenness of many lives this time is savage and disordered. In every disorientation there is the opportunity for reorientation, painful and difficult as that may be. At the very least this should be a time to look together for that reorientation of principle and substance that make the difference and cleans up the stink, raising the bar once and for all.
Do you want to live
and enjoy a long life?
Then don’t say cruel things
and don’t tell lies.
Do good instead of evil
and try to live at peace. Psalm 34 vv12-14