Reconciliation and the destruction of the past in divided societies

Ongoing controversies in two of the quintessential cases of divided societies - Northern Ireland and the Former Yugoslavia - are best understood by examining the political dynamics created through procedures of remembrance, and those of reconciliation.

Cillian McGrattan
20 June 2012

The idea that divided or post-conflict societies can achieve stability through reconciliation represents something of a paradigm shift in peace-building theory and practice. Arguably, thanks to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ideas that the past should be represented as something remote (as in post-war, post-Nuremburg Germany) or unarticulated (as in the Spanish pacto de olvido) no longer hold traction within national or supra-national discourses. Instead, new identities and new societal relations are envisioned through restorative or reconciliatory practices: truth-seeking, storytelling, acknowledgement, and pardon are ideas that underpin these practices and are seen as prerequisites for societies hoping to move beyond violent pasts.

Yet, despite these laudable intentions, reconciliation itself remains not only a contested term but a term that introduces competition into political discourse: regardless of the immediate ‘how’ question, its usage raises fundamental questions about who is to reconcile with whom, what and where. The UN epitomises these uncertainties: for example, each year dedicating two days for Remembrance and Reconciliation, while at the same time prioritising the reintegration of perpetrators of human rights abuses within the societies they afflicted. While the UN at least recognises the pragmatics involved in keeping the two practices separate, Amnesty’s conflation of the two speaks to a deep-rooted ethical vacancy. The political effect, however, is to introduce an imperative into the lives of victims of violence: reconciliation is a good thing and you must move beyond the past. The result has been to harness victims’ experiences and the very idea of reconciliation to generalised, globalised trends representative of the postmodern/late capitalist mode, eloquently rendered by Eric Hobsbawm in his Age of Extremes:

The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century. Many young men and women … grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in (p.3).

It is this movement that most accurately explains on-going controversies in two of the quintessential cases of divided societies, Northern Ireland and the Former Yugoslavia. While the post-conflict political culture in each region has continued to reside in a kind of Faulknerian twilight – where the past is never really past – the residual force of history has acutely made itself felt in recent weeks.

In a widely reported incident, for example, the new right wing Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic, tapped into these debates by asserting that ‘[t]here was no genocide in Srebenica, grave war crimes were committed by some Serbs who should be found, prosecuted and punished. It is very difficult to indict someone and prove before a court that an event qualifies as genocide’. Flying in the face of the rulings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Nikolic’s statement was provocative, and, given his own history as a deputy prime minister under Milosevic in the late 1990s, most likely it was deliberately so. And while his position is, arguably, reflective of a general tendency to ‘debase’ the term genocide, it is also reflective of what could be called a narrative of post-war weariness within Serbia: that is, a reluctance to continue to atone for the Bosnia war and a resistance to the commemorative impulse that surrounds the twentieth anniversary of that conflict. This is evidenced, for example, in Nikolic’s further complaint: ‘[d]on’t always ask the Serbian president if he is going to [the annual commemoration in] Srebrenica. My predecessor was there and paid tribute. Why should every president do the same?’

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the appointment of a former IRA volunteer – and reportedly, at one time the most wanted terror suspect in Britain – to the new advisory body, the Victims’ Forum, triggered outrage, particularly within the Unionist community. Indeed, one commentator suggested that Eibhlin Glenholmes’s appointment indicated that the new body ‘is actually built upon a fundamentally offensive moral equivocation: namely, that republican and loyalist terrorists (who will be represented) can be viewed in precisely the same way as those they targeted’. The appointment had followed widespread scepticism over a scheme to ‘regenerate’ the ‘footprint’ left by the removal of a British army barracks in north Belfast by building a new social housing estate on the site. The moderate nationalist grouping, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), objected that the original plans had been appropriated by the two main ethno-nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to ensure that the houses allocated would reflect and maintain the current ethno-religious status quo in the area. The SDLP complained that that allocation would be detrimental to the Catholic/Nationalist population of the city where greater social housing need existed. The party claimed that a deal had been done between Sinn Féin and the DUP in which the latter gained guarantees that houses would go to Protestants/Unionists (whose population has been declining in the area) in return for the former Maze gaol being turned into a ‘Conflict Transformation Centre’ – an initiative that the DUP had long-resisted due to the belief that it would become a shrine for paramilitary prisoners. 

Of course, these examples are unsurprising: a defining feature of ethno-nationalism is an emphasis on collective memories, shared grievances, and communal claims-making. Yet, they are also indicative of a failure of reconciliation: both cases exemplify the continued salience of exclusivist narratives in post-conflict situations. Yet, underpinning these ‘memory wars’ is a process in which the past is being hollowed out from within. In other words, through the exposition of particularistic histories, overarching historical narratives are being deferred. This occurs not only through ‘storytelling’ initiatives in which procedural equivalence (telling and listening to perpetrators’ and victims’ stories by each other) slides quickly into moral equivalence (in which everyone has the right to be heard). Both give way almost to societal and linguistic meaninglessness: for if everyone is a victim, including former terrorists, then no one is. Almost – because at the very bottom of this ethical morass is a political dynamic in which the loudest voices drown out the softer ones and those who were rendered silent or marginal during and because of the violence are again re-victimised in the peace.

The real destruction of the past therefore lies not in a re-writing, but rather in a re-positioning of historical facts. Ideas about reconciliation flow into and from this process as the past becomes less about actual injustices and hurts and more about the ability of political and social elites to project their current goals into forms of collective memory.

While there are no easy answers to this political dynamic, any response must surely be to resist its essentially de-politicising trajectory and, instead, to re-inscribe popular understandings of history with the voices and experiences of those who suffered from political violence and historic injustice. Writing these experiences and voices out of the historical narrative serves only to reward those who perpetrated violence and leads only to a recycling of division. Reconciliation must begin with the fact of marginalization and the fact of victimhood. And it is only by recognising these facts in alternative historical narratives that new loyalties might be formed and societies divided by their contentious pasts may be able to move to democracies consolidated on justice and accountability, ethics and stability.

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