john atkinson

Reconciliation and Forgiveness

As an ex-soldier who served in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles' my Facebook timeline is full of outrage from former colleagues at the actions of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The PSNI is going back through all cases of killings during the period, approaching soldiers seeking witnesses to events that occurred sometimes over 40 years ago. Soldiers naturally feel aggrieved at a perceived injustice. Many were just teenagers, put in an almost impossible situation. Centuries of tension and hatred between communities had boiled over into desperate violence and politicians needed a solution. The troops were sent in. It was a mess, scary, friends were killed. We believed we were doing the right thing, at the behest of our political masters.

 

In fairness and for balance, the PSNI are also investigating terrorist killings from both sides and there are more of these than those where the army was involved. Where balance feels missing is that some terrorists seem to have been given a free pardon. Others, including very prominent politicians, seem to be above investigation. People who were very active participants in the violence and killings do not seem to be being held to account in the way that ordinary soldiers are.

And here to my great sadness is the big missed opportunity. South Africa post apartheid offered a process of truth and reconciliation. Mandela and Tutu recognised that hurt and pain festers and festers for years if the truth cannot come out. It will not come out in Northern Ireland because whilst fear of prosecution and witch-hunts exist, everyone knows it is better to keep silent, keep your head down. So families and friends never know what happened, who was responsible, what truly went on, however much they suspect. Whatever the rumours. John Major and Tony Blair were not Nelson Mandela. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams were hardly Desmond Tutu.

So the pain and the hatred and the fear continues. Yet as humans we have an extraordinary capacity to forgive (which doesn't mean forget). If Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness can come to a constructive, even respectful, understanding then what right have I to hold a grudge?

Surely the right way forward in Northern Ireland is to move past police enquiries and public enquiries? Instead we need to create the space where the real truth can surface, where peoples' stories of hurt and anguish from all sides can be heard and acknowledged. Where we can see the players for what they were, and see what they are now? If we don't, the pain will live on, destructively gnawing at the soul until once more, it all boils over.