Leabharlann na Meán


“Remembering, Forgiving and Forgetting” The Launch of International Meeting of the Institute of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice

Queen’s University, Belfast, 23rd October 2014

President/Vice Chancellor Johnston, Professor Brewer

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen     

Thank you for the very warm welcome which you have extended to me and my wife Sabina.

Táim fíorshásta go bhfuair mé cuireadh le labhairt libh ar ócáid seolta an imeachta an-tábhachtach seo atá á reáchtáil ag Ollscoil na Banríona, Béal Feirste – imeacht idirnáisiúnta atá á eagrú faoin téama ‘Cuimhneamh, Maitheamh agus Dearmad’.

[I am very happy to have been invited to speak at the launch of this very important event being organised by Queen’s University Belfast – An International event being held under the theme of ‘Remembering, Forgiving and Forgetting’. ]

The event has attracted speakers who are not only distinguished in their field, but who have a record of contribution to the practical tasks of engaging with those who have been involved in conflict situations, be it as perpetrators or victims, or both.

As the political leaders of this island are currently meeting to discuss, among other things, how to create a new framework for how we deal with the past, it is entirely fitting that representatives of civil society, including tomorrow's distinguished keynote speakers, who will have such a practical contribution to make, have also gathered to consider these questions.

When I began a first consideration of these concepts, I had been reading some relatively recent works on Hannah Arendt, for whom a consideration of forgiveness, for example, was central to the evolution of her work.  I had been reading Marie Luise Knott’s Unlearning with Hannah Arendt  and Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s Why Arendt Matters.  I was also, of course, aware of the centrality of these concepts to the circumstances of our time, and I had available to me the very valuable book entitled Memory. Narratives and Forgiveness, edited by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Chris Van der Merwe. 

From that reading, to my title of  ‘Remembering, Forgiving and Forgetting’ I would like to add a fourth concept, ‘Imagining’ – for it is in imagining a future released from the burdens of distorted past memories, and seemingly insurmountable present difficulties, that the energy is found for constructing what might be an ethics of memory.  While a terrible and heinous act cannot, for the most moral of reasons, be dissolved or forgotten, it is only through an act of imagination and creativity that we can prevent that tragic memory from colonising the future. Thus, of course, making important the specification of the future that is not merely utopian, but a future that is inviting in its capacity for achievement.

Tonight, in considering the question of Remembering, Forgiving and Forgetting, we must remind ourselves that individual memories survive and take shape through a relationship with others; evolving over time and open to re-interpretation and reconsideration as we strive to transact a relationship that will release us from the weight of past wrongs and allow a moving forward, however tentatively, to new beginnings.

It was W.B. Yeats who said that too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.  Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock  makes the point more poignantly:

“Take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh”  

Softening hearts requires not just life-enhancing instincts, but also opportunities, that allow us to yield to each other in mutual respect – to recognise that our fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities can only be assuaged by actions of mutual generosity;  the kind of existential generosity that Michael Longley described in those lines of his famous poem ‘Ceasefire’:

“I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son”

All societies emerging out of conflict wrestle with the legacy of the past and how to address it.  They must consider, not only what is consciously recalled by an individual act of memory, but what is unconsciously transmitted, often through uncritically accepted versions of the past and for which the status of culture is often claimed.  What to remember, and how to remember it, carries the inescapable implication of ethics.  It is important that any approach to dealing with the past recognises the complex relationship that exists between memory, ethics and forgiveness. 

While dealing with the legacy of the past is an enormously complex task, it is also a task that has the potential to transfigure (in the most positive sense) the relationships between and across the peoples of these islands, and how we relate to our sometimes shared and sometimes overlapping histories.

Some people argue that the burden of the past is too heavy, too painful, and that we are not capable of providing adequate answers to the multitude of questions still pre-occupying, and indeed still afflicting, those directly affected by violence of the Troubles.

Yet, however great that task may seem, it is now widely accepted that embracing any accommodating but unsustainable amnesia is not only counter-productive but, perhaps in its consequences for victims and their relatives, may even constitute an amoral position.  There is, of course, not only this challenge of rejecting a conscious amnesia as a strategy, but the more subtle danger of an unconscious amnesia, a turning of the eyes of history away from what is disconcerting.

The late Paul Ricoeur suggested, in one of his later writings, that forgetting the past is itself a harmful and damaging act.  As he put it – “to be forgotten is to die twice”. 

The desire to remember however, goes beyond a need for catharsis and a duty to ‘not forget’ in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.  While to ignore the past would be a betrayal of those who lost their lives and of those whose lives have been blighted by the loss or serious injury of their loved ones, we must also ensure our remembered past is not allowed to overshadow and define either the present or the future to which we aspire. 

In undertaking the complex process of an ethical remembering, there are many questions that might be asked.  How do we reconcile the differential nature of how we recall and what is being recalled?  How do we distinguish between shared memory and common memory and set about unravelling the truth that might lie between?  How are we to properly consider the context of the times in which the recalled event took place?  And how can we remember in a way that has the potential to release us from past wrongs if such remembering is determined by present circumstance and ideology that carries crystallised versions of hurts, recriminations and revenge? 

Artists may be better at answering these questions and at reflecting on the contradictions involved, but it is on the shoulders of courageous women and men in the area of the public world and politics that the burden of immediacy falls.  How we remember, how we may come to forgive and forget, and what is open to reconsideration, cannot be perceived as abstract questions to be subordinated to the needs of day-to-day politics.  Rather, these are questions which must lie at the heart of any aspiration for a peaceful, fair and truly reconciled discourse across this island.

This requires generous effort, and reaching an accommodation with conflicting versions of the past is but a stage in the journey to the destination of forgiveness; a destination which, in so many areas of conflict, the participants may not reach.  Yet, as Hannah Arendt has written “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history” and it is only through such an ethical remembering that we can avoid revisiting the blinding categories of censure or denunciation or indeed revenge and bitterness.

We have, in recent years, seen some very important moments that were characterised by a common generosity and respect in their approach to dealing with the past.  I think, in particular of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visiting the Garden of Remembrance, during her historic State Visit in 2011.  

There was so much significance in the decision of First Minister Robinson to attend the final of the McKenna Cup in Armagh in 2012, and participate a year later in Co-operation Ireland’s dinner to celebrate the role of the GAA in peace-building.

The late Dr. Paisley taking part in the official opening of the Battle of the Boyne heritage site at the Oldbridge Estate; and the many other generous acts have ensured that the transactions of remembrance and forgiveness have not remained on the pages of agreements and peace treaties but were brought right into the heart of our shared present.

Such actions prove that history, remembering and commemoration need not be reductive and selective but, on the contrary, can be, in their design and delivery, emancipatory and inclusive.  These moments of mutual acknowledgement assist in the journey to forgiveness and reconciliation that is aimed at a peaceful present and a future of endless life-affirming opportunities. They indicate that, rather than being a force that divides communities and States, the past - when inclusively and generously commemorated - can inspire acts of grace that contribute to healing in the present.

They are moments which powerfully deny authority to the distortions of the past, the authority to dictate the present; releasing us from a history viewed through the prism of a single or exclusive narrative;  moments which remind us that while we have a duty to those gone before us to remember and recall, no person or nation must be forever defined and judged by any single version of the actions of their antecedents; that it is only by a constant will to release each other from the consequences of recalled past deeds that we can move forward and achieve new beginnings, beyond the collision of competing certainties while some very significant gestures can be, and have been made by those in leadership roles; it is in communities and popular consciousness that the most significant and enduring change must take place.

Those acts and gestures of grace and generosity, to which I have referred were, of course, not in themselves just defining moments of transformation but they constituted a public demonstration of the freedom that has been achieved to create new beginnings.  This freedom as the culmination of a long process of searching, interrogating and critical reassessment of how a shared space in history will be remembered; a freedom won through a dialogue of forgiveness and a relinquishing of pain, hurt and divisive bitterness. 

Elizabeth Young-Bruehl in her consideration of Hannah Arendt’s work, and the evolution of her thinking on forgiveness, refers to how Arendt wrestled with the problems of the relationship between the forgiver and the forgiven.  The claiming of the status of the forgiver had problems.  Again, agency, and the issue as to whether forgiveness had to be sought had to be considered.  Then too there was the issue of self-forgiveness. 

Young-Bruehl traces how Arendt moved from a position of assuming that only Jesus could forgive to understanding forgiveness as being located as a transaction within the political world.  According to Arendt, Jesus taught that forgiveness must be practiced among people before they could be forgiven by God.  Arendt’s later, more evolved position, is probably what is of most relevance to our circumstances today.  Paul Ricoeur continued Arendt’s consideration of these issues. 

Marie Luise Knott puts it very well:

“Ricoeur sees it as the historian’s task to salvage possibilities for action that have been forgotten and to liberate the unkept promises of the past from the ruins of history”.[1]

Unlearning the comfort, and solace too, of versions of our life and past is a necessary, preliminary, an ongoing task indeed.  However difficult it may be for us, we have to realise that unlearning is a crucial preparation for the journey of reconciliation.  Marie Luise Knott tells us that:

“In the difficult work of unlearning, Arendt drove out her own ‘opinions’ on the concept of forgiveness as in many previous cases she ‘forgot’ the unexamined prejudices that keep us from thinking.”

There is a headline in this for all of us.

In April this year I had my own experience of how engaging with the past can redefine the present, when I was privileged to become the first Irish Head of State to pay a State Visit to the United Kingdom.  During that visit I had the opportunity to reflect on elements of our shared pasts that may have been somewhat neglected.  I use the plural because these are, of course, differences in our pasts whose integrity has to be recognised and respected.

Laying a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, commemorating the Irish contribution to British democracy at the Houses of Parliament, and acknowledging the enormous contribution that Irish men and women have made to life in Britain over many decades, allowed me to recall and respect the myriad ties that connect Britain and Ireland.

While some very significant gestures can be made by those who are in roles of leadership, it is in communities and in popular consciousness that the most significant and enduring change must take place.

Happily, the qualities of closeness and warmth have been the hallmark of relationships between these islands in recent years. We owe this transformation not least to the hard work and courage of those who, across generations and borders, dedicated themselves to peace in Northern Ireland. Their unflinching determination reversed what too many had thought irreversible.  At a community and political level, respectful and courageous acts of shared remembering, and of the acknowledgement of the iconic moments in the stories of the other tradition, have also played an important part in our journey towards healing, reconciliation and a future released from vengeful reaction. 

At the State Banquet at Windsor Castle last April, an event that brought together leaders from all four corners of these islands, I said that:

“We owe a duty to all those who lost their lives, the duty to build together in peace; it is the only restitution, the only enduring justice we can offer them.”

Má tá síocháin bhuan agus chóir le bunú, ní mór dúinn dul i ngleic leis an stair. Ní bheadh sé eiticiúil ná infheidhme neamhaird a dhéanamh de ná an díth cuimhne a ligean orainn; ní dhéanfadh sin ach an mhímhuinín agus an naimhdeas a chothú amach anseo.

[An enduring and just peace requires us to engage with the past. To ignore it or to pretend amnesia would neither be ethical or workable; it would merely sow the seeds of future distrust and enmity. ]

Engaging with the past is not easy. It involves a complex negotiation of the manifold stories, memories, hurts, legacies and emotions of all those affected by the Troubles.  Finding a fair and comprehensive way of dealing with the past, one that will win the confidence of all, will be a huge challenge - but a challenge that cannot be shirked.  In facing up to that challenge, let us at least ensure that our approach is characterised by a will to remember ethically, to view forgiveness as a true release from the past, and to move forward to a new chapter unburdened by any bitter memory of that past, free to make of our imagining, an emancipatory, inclusive achievement in conditions of an enduring peace.

Thank you for your attention.

[1] Knott M.L. 2011   Unlearning with Hannah Arendt  Other Press