Does Northern Ireland need a Truth and Reconciliation commission?
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The Independent Culture
The phone rang in the office of Professor Charles Villa-Vicencio, head of research at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The man at the other end of the line was an officer in military intelligence who had been particularly hostile when interviewed by the commission some weeks before. The man was suave, sophisticated and utterly ruthless. "I'd like to meet," he said.

The security officer arrived at their rendezvous, a coffee-shop in Pretoria, the picture of Afrikaner superiority - tall, athletic, well educated, urbane and confident. A lawyer by training, he was a man who had never pulled a trigger himself. But he had planned, directed and executed operations of unspeakable terror against black activists.

"I want to tell you a story," the man began. It was not what the Commissioner was expecting.

A few days earlier - just after news of the apartheid regime's secret death squads had become public knowledge - the man's 23-year-old daughter had approached him and said: "Poppy, sit down, I want to talk to you. All my life you have taken me to church, sent me to Sunday school and raised me to be honest. And all my life I was told never to ask where you had been when you were not at home. And now I want you to tell me the truth. I want to know what you have been doing for the past 20 years."

The Truth Commissioner looked at the murderer.

"I did not know what to say to her," the man blurted out. "I could not start even to think how to tell her - or even where it had all begun." He began to cry, as bewildered passers-by looked on.

"It was," he eventually said, "the truth moment of my existence."

It was then that Charles Villa-Vicencio realised that perhaps change in South Africa really was possible.

This month he and his colleagues are due to hand their final report to President Nelson Mandela. It will not be the first such document. Truth commissions have operated, with varying degrees of success, in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and various other places where the end of a conflict has created a clash between the requirements of justice and those of building a united future for a strife-torn nation.

So is it time now for a truth commission in Northern Ireland? To discuss the idea, two of South Africa's commissioners were brought together last month at a meeting at Oxford University organised by the Catholic Institute for International Relations and the Uppsala Peace Institute. Also there was the head of the Guatemalan truth commission - whose chairman, Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, was brutally murdered in May, two days after its report was published. Other participants included those involved with the opening of East Germany's secret police files and a group of politicians, activists and thinkers from Ireland itself. The principle behind a truth commission is that it gives victims of the conflict, in the words of Dumisa Ntsebeza, head of the Investigative Unit for the South African TRC, "an opportunity to salvage what is left of their human dignity".

It does so by creating a public forum in which facts can be established about how their relatives were killed or tortured. Many have discovered the whereabouts of the bodies. And it enables them to tell their stories without jeopardising a delicate political settlement, because the system also offers amnesty to those who fully confess to crimes which they can show were politically motivated. The assumption is that the entire exercise will promote national unity and reconciliation.

It is easier said than done, as the example of Guatemala shows. Two years ago the government there signed a peace agreement with guerrilla leaders after 36 years of bloody conflict. A truth commission was agreed upon, but its mandate is weak. Moreover, the influence of the military is still strong in Guatemala and the culture of fear and silence and military impunity remains deep-rooted. To break it, the Catholic Church's human rights office sent out 800 trained volunteers to collect testimonies for what it called its Recovering Historical Memory project. In some parishes, hundreds of widows lined up to testify on the first day. For the first time they felt safe in talking about what had happened to "the disappeared". In other places army officers arrived and insisted on speaking on the people's behalf.

"Oh no, nothing like that happened here," one army officer said. There was silence in the room and then an old woman at the back, without lifting her gaze from the ground, said very quietly: "If nothing happened here, why is my husband dead? And where are my sons?" Over the past two years the church commission has documented the deaths of 55,000 people, 80 per cent of whom were killed by the army and 9 per cent by the guerrillas.

There has been nothing in Northern Ireland on this scale. Nor is the residual imbalance of power there anything like as loaded. But there are some interesting pointers. "In Guatemala remembering has been an empowering process," the commission's director, Edgar Gutierrez, told the Oxford meeting. Forced silence was creating psychological problems, alcoholism, domestic violence and vigilante killings. "The problem was that informers and collaborators continue to live side by side without speaking to each other. There was no mechanism to reintegrate them." Arriving at a common history has been the first step when dealing with community events where the facts have been reconstructed using contrasting points of view.

But it can create problems, too, as Ulrike Poppe revealed. She was one of the thousands of citizens who, after the fall of Communism in East Germany, asked to see the file the Stasi had kept on her. Sitting in a grey office and reading a typewritten account on grey paper she discovered that one of her circle - a man of charm and a poet of sensitivity - had been an informer who had for years collaborated in the systematic destruction of his friends. Ulrike sought him out to confront him. Bizarrely he continued to deny it, but became a recluse and developed a terminal illness.

There were thousands of such stories. One of the most poignant was that of a church activist who found that her husband had begun informing on her the day they met, and had continued to do so through 10 years of marriage and the birth of two children.

But these are stories of ruptures in individual relationships. There was nothing tribal, religious or ethnic about it. There were no still- identifiable opposing factions, as there are in Ireland, which is perhaps why East Germany's attenuated equivalent of a truth commission - despite sitting for six years, with 68 separate public hearings and 29 more in camera, plus 300 reports produced - never really attracted much attention among either the general public or the media.

More complex situations create more ambiguous reactions. A minority of bereaved families in South Africa feel bitter that the killers have been granted amnesty by the TRC. Others feel ambivalent: pleased that the commission has finally uncovered what happened to their relatives, yet resentful that justice has not been done. But many others have been liberated by the process, Dumisa Ntsebeza says. He quotes the remarks of Mrs Horhle Mohapi, whose husband, a friend of Steve Biko's, was found hanged in a cell in 1977 with a so-called suicide note. After obtaining no satisfaction from an inquest, she sued the state in the High Court. She lost. She went to the appeal court and lost again. But after her appearance at the TRC, she felt vindicated. "For the first time in almost 20 years, I feel relieved," she said. "In all those years of dealing with officialdom, I was always made to feel that I was the bad guy. But today I have been treated with dignity. Here people appreciated that I have been in pain. They listened to me."

But do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? "It's a risk to return people's past to them," says Edgar Gutierrez. In Argentina, where many of "the disappeared" were pregnant women, it has been established that they gave birth in captivity. Their babies were taken from them and the bereft mothers were killed. The babies were sold, or given to childless wives of the military. Some of the mothers of the "disappeared" have resorted to genetic testing to establish the identity of their grandchildren. Some of the grandchildren, now in their teens, reject what they see as mad old women coming to disrupt their lives, but others have now left their adopted homes and returned to their blood relatives.

Timing is a key question. The psychological process of grief moves from trauma, through numbness, to anger and then desolation. Where a truth commission process fits in with that dynamic, it will seem apt. But the needs are not fixed. The experience elsewhere is that some of those traumatised relatives who five years ago said, "All I want is for us to live in peace", later came to demand trials and compensation.

When is a community ready for the truth - and whose truth? Each side offers different views of who were the victims and who had been the perpetrators of violence.

In Northern Ireland, everyone claims that they are fighting for justice, peace and democracy. In a situation where history is a narrative with an army, the way to break the cycle of violence is to establish a cut- off point which requires no transfer of power, no victory, no magnanimity, no statement, and no history to be endorsed or renounced.

The fact is, said one of the meeting's most distinguished Irish participants, who asked not to be named, that the Good Friday agreement is "a delicately balanced compromise which can be destroyed by truth". Sinn Fein brings the IRA on board by insisting that this is the first step to unity. The Unionists agree to it by believing that it is not. They cannot both be right, but the agreement has afforded the opportunity to end the violence and build a political edifice that will make it far more difficult for that violence to resume. "The fact is that honesty and straight-talking must be avoided at all costs. Now is not the time for truth."

There are some who argue that it never will be. At noon on 29 October, the South African commission is due to hand over its final report - five volumes, 3,000 pages. Those named inside as the guilty men have begun a legal process to prevent publication, on the grounds that it violates their legal rights. "There may easily be no report to be handed to the President," said Dumisa Ntsebeza. "Our findings are going to be challenged every inch of the way." If they succeed, he predicts, ominously, "a terrible bloodletting lies ahead".

But one thing is clear. The exercises in realpolitik that in the end dominate post-conflict situations inevitably seem to give priority to the perpetrators of violence. In part, this is because, in a situation such as that of Northern Ireland, prisoners are those combatants who are in daily contact with the state. "They are the symbolic representatives of their community," said one of the Irish participants.

More than that, the post-conflict process must allow the perpetrators of violence to be brought into the democratic framework. "In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a compromise with which no one is happy, but the only alternative was war."

If Northern Ireland is not yet ready for the entire truth, it is perhaps time it began the process of holding contradictory truths and histories in tandem. Until now, the issue of victims has been raised only to attack the other side. The Government has gone some way to rectifying this by appointing a Minister for Victims and setting aside a pounds 5m fund, even if it was as a quid pro quo to make the release of prisoners more politically acceptable.

But, if answering the needs of individual victims is a start, the experiences of other nations suggests that is not enough. A public recognition of their private grief is needed. A truth commission may not be an appropriate answer. But some institution to collect, catalogue and commemorate the experiences of the bereaved and injured would seem to be an important part of building peace and giving a voice to the hurt of the voiceless.