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Padraig O'Malley

Back to the past in Northern Ireland

By Padraig O'Malley
March 15, 2009
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MOST POLITICIANS in Northern Ireland have said that the Irish Republican Army dissident groups that claimed responsibility for last week's shooting deaths of two British soldiers and one police officer pose no threat to the peace process.

One only has to look, they say, at the condemnations of the killings from the leaders of both communities. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, once dissident republicans themselves, have been unequivocal in their repudiations of the killings, albeit neither has used the word "murder." Pundits say that the splinter groups Real IRA and Continuity IRA have no base in the republican community: things have moved on and the past is over with.

Of course, the past is never over with. For some, the grievances of death and injury, as well as the perception that they were sold out by their political leaders, linger in both the Republican and Loyalist communities, neither of which has seen any great change in living conditions despite 10 years of peace.

The disfigurement of their respective psyches that 40 years of violence wrought has not been addressed. That all should forgive is much promulgated, but far less practiced. The continued nurturing of being at the short end of the "new" Northern Ireland is - as in all difficult transitions from endemic conflict to violence-free accommodation - an embedded behavioral response to change.

A violence-free peace is not a real peace; living apart, as the two communities increasingly do in Northern Ireland, is not living together; stability is not community; the murmurs of discontent at the fringes should not be dismissed as the usual grumbling of the few, because in deeply divided societies, which Northern Ireland continues to be, one small domino falling the wrong way can send much bigger dominos tumbling in its wake.

Despite the fact that we now know a lot more about the internal workings of divided societies than we did 20 years ago, we still do not sufficiently know how the hatred, division, marginalization, and the ingrained myths of harms inflicted that are passed from one generation to the next accumulate - and dissipate.

But we do know that when the agglomeration of fears and anxiety and the absence of hope reach a certain mass, it implodes into violence, thus alleviating collective tensions and making the conflict of the past the safest place for the psyche to drain itself of the poisonous obsessions with what the "other" has seemingly gained at your expense.

Recovery only works if the patient follows meticulously designed programs of reconciliation, where estranged communities work assiduously across boundaries to heal the damage of the past. The pain of grievance and loss is given room to howl its monstrous visions of vengeance - not in the presence of prelates but in the presence of the "other" - the "other" who harbors similar nightmares of vengeful retribution for wrongs imagined and real.

The Eames/Bradley report on how to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, which was published in January, recommended that a commission on the legacy of the past should be established and sit for five years. Perhaps it will achieve something. But Northern Ireland cannot wait that long. The question now is whether it has in place the instruments to keep its recovery on track. Will everyone drink from the same cup of healing rather than from his own cup? Will First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness lock arms in solidarity when they attend funerals of victims of new terror rather than marching side by side? Will they issue joint statements repudiating all murder in the name of political aspirations, reassuring their respective communities that they stand together in unity as joint leaders of Northern Ireland rather than issuing separate statements as leaders of their political factions?

A moment of truth on this St. Patrick's Day that greenery and toasts to the ole' sod may smooth over, but one that behooves all in Northern Ireland to remember that the past is likely to repeat itself in some form, unless they learn to see no "other," where the "other" once was.

Padraig O'Malley is professor of peace and reconciliation at Umass-Boston and author of the forthcoming book "The Greater Middle East, Different Starting Points, Different Histories."

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