This time two years ago I was sitting in Barcelona learning about Truth Commissions – unfortunate terminology that outlaws some helpful thinking here in Northern Ireland. We too readily associate Truth Commissions with amnesty and drawing a line under the past.
For me, the Barcelona week was challenging in the breadth of the concepts addressed, the processes examined, the legal outlines provided and the management manuals we were furnished with. But most important of all were the people I met. We gathered from all over the world – human rights activists, humanitarian workers, legal experts, people who had stood shoulder to shoulder with victims and survivors and perpetrators and governments and armies in different situations. People of compassion and hope, some of them in Barcelona, remain an inspiration to me today. It is always real people with real life experience that make a conversation real.
Reflecting on that training course my mind turns to these shores, to the Stormont House Agreement and political negotiations, to the threat of poverty and division and discontent. I call to mind victims and survivors, their waiting and their hope. I call to mind the former combatants with their heads in their hands. I call to mind the children and young people who are still at war even though they never lived through what I called ‘The Troubles.’ I call to mind the trans-generational trauma and the persistent sectarianism and the loss of interest in politics. I call to mind the fear that haunts and the disinterest that is not alert enough to notice when we are slipping away from the promise of a better and more shared future. I remember the days when I grew up – dip your lights….stop at the checkpoint….don’t go up there there’s a bomb scare….be careful who you speak to…don’t kick the rubbish on the street, it might be a ‘device’….wave at the nice soldiers….don’t tell who you are….
I am glad I now live in a different world.
But this one thought persists – it’s the people who made the difference to the conversation.
Political ambitions, electoral mandates, borders, legal responsibilities, effective processes, even truth and justice themselves sit somewhere in behind the people whom they are meant to serve. Real people, with real lives, real hopes and real brokenness are what makes the difference to the conversation.
It’s the people who make the difference, especially the broken by whose care a society’s moral vision is, in my view, measured. In the mammoth task of todays political and social difficulties there is one vocation and it is to make efforts as yet unimagined, but possible when real people are kept in the conversation to make the difference.