Northern Ireland

Dr James Waller: British government's proposed Troubles amnesty is spectacularly misguided

James Waller is author of A Troubled Sleep: Risk and Resilience in Contemporary Northern Ireland
James Waller is author of A Troubled Sleep: Risk and Resilience in Contemporary Northern Ireland

TO remember is not to forget. And, in Northern Ireland, as I found during my time in 2017 as an honorary visiting research professor at the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast, you remember very well.

In fact, things are never forgotten because they are always being remembered – in landscapes and soundscapes, murals and memorials, commemorations and parades, songs and poetry, neighborhoods and rituals, food and humor, sport and folklore, and in the everyday rhythm of life.

Unfortunately, in many of those acts of remembering, the past becomes a thief of the present and the future.

As a friend told me on a late-night bus ride from Derry to Belfast, in Northern Ireland you remember “at” someone.

“Remember” is a transitive verb, an action with a direct object. When “remember” is wielded, it is done so to wound and, perhaps, even to maim.

“Remember” is a loaded word, politicized and weaponized and territorialized and militarized for glorification of “us” and vilification of “them”.

In societies recovering from violent conflict, as I have seen in my comparative fieldwork around the world, the legacy of memory is a palpable part of the lived experience.

Rather than the weight of too much history, these societies often suffer from the weight of too much memory.

Such tyranny of memory nurtures persistent beliefs of victimization and injustice that leave a society hostage to the deep divisions of its past and present. People are trapped in memory and memory is trapped in them.

This crushing weight of having too much memory, however, should not be taken as an argument for forgetting or for collective amnesia. In fact, a society recovering from violent conflict leaves itself at even greater risk by having too little memory.

Forgetting is not an acceptable, or even possible, response to a history of conflict. Forced amnesia, however secure it appears on the surface, leaves a deep societal instability. The push and pull of memory remain potent, even when spoken of only in whispers.

This is why the British government’s proposed Troubles amnesty is so spectacularly misguided.

To draw a line under the past or attempt to “disremember”, like Spain’s unspoken pacto del olvido (pact of forgetting) regarding the repressive legacy of Francoism, opens space for a rewriting of the past that leaves all parties in the conflict vying to portray themselves as freedom fighters and heroes rather than dealing with the consequences of acts that would leave them better depicted as terrorists and villains.

More tragically, the assault of organizing forgetting, as reflected in the amnesty proposal, revictimizes and retraumatizes the victims and survivors of conflict.

Impunity smiles on the perpetrators while it swindles their victims. Wounds left untended, and unacknowledged, make it even more difficult to ease the tensions of a deeply divided society.

As I describe in my recent book, A Troubled Sleep: Risk and Resilience in Contemporary Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2021), we know there is a middle road between memory as debilitatingly divisive or paralyzingly avoided.

Memory can be used constructively, rather than destructively, to forge a path toward a more stable and democratic future. Social solidarities can be extended rather than bounded; they can be reconfigured in ways to reduce, rather than exacerbate, the historical tensions behind them.

Memory can promote a sense of community and social cohesion. A healthy memory environment allows for a right to truth in order to understand history, a space for contestation of differing interpretations of memory, the recognition of memory as both a public and private phenomenon, and an acknowledgment that memory is intrinsic to the formation of community and identity.

To be sure, dealing with the past means hard work and painful vulnerability, at the individual and collective and institutional levels.

As individuals, the work of memory is actively questioning ourselves as human beings, not just passively reflecting on an entangled past. As collectives, memory can aid in the building of resilience, the hard-won path to a better form.

As institutions, memory can help us adapt, debate, innovate, and try new approaches as we reconstruct a society torn apart by conflict.

Northern Ireland’s violent past and contested present do not have to be visited on the children’s future; their tomorrows do not have to be echoes of our yesterdays.

Every country has the capacity for possibility, every story the room for a better ending. For Northern Ireland to find its way to that better ending will require a deep and renewed commitment to public acknowledgment and legal accountability for those, on all sides, who perpetrated conflict-related atrocities.

:: James Waller is the Cohen Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, New Hampshire and the author of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford University Press) and the recently released A Troubled Sleep: Risk and Resilience in Contemporary Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press).