Women: Dealing with the Past
A Shared Learning Workshop
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
12 November 2013
Well over 100 women participated in a workshop event on the topic of dealing with the past. Organised by the Women’s Resource & Development Agency (WRDA), there were summaries of previous workshops as well as keynote speeches from Reverend Dr Lesley Carroll (Fortwilliam & Macrory Presbyterian Church) and Dr Nora Murad (Dalia Association, Palestine).
Dr Margaret Ward (Director, WRDA) welcomed all and spoke of developments in the area of women and peacebuilding. For example, she described the new resolution at the United Nations, UN 2122, as presenting a roadmap for a systemic approach for women’s participation in all aspects of conflict prevention and resolution.
In the same spirit, Dr Ward said, “Women’s voices must be heard and involved in dealing with the past.”
The main themes of the Group’s work were: truth, justice and reconciliation.
Its guiding principles were:
- Dealing with the past is a process not an event
- Sensitivity towards victims and survivors is essential
- Recommendations should be human rights compliant
- Consensual agreement is the ideal
Furthermore, Rev. Carroll suggested that a fifth principle should have been included (it was implicit in the Group’s work, but not explicit as a principle): that what can be done should be done. She argued that from subsequently hearing from victims and survivors that so long as nothing is done about the past, then it will re-emerge onto the streets in the form of flags, parades and protests.
From the judicial process — inquests and inquiries — the Group concluded that there is a tendency to re-fight the conflict in Northern Ireland through the courts, with little perspective for the future.
The Group’s main proposal was to create a Legacy Commission, to combine processes of reconciliation, justice and information recover, with the objective of promoting peace and stability. As part of a Legacy Commission, a Reconciliation Forum would be established, and it would liaise closely with the Commission for Victims and Survivors, to address society issues. In the Group’s vision, the Legacy Commission would complete its work in five years, with the Reconciliation Forum then taking the lead forward.
Rev. Carroll listed some groups that were underrepresentated in the Group’s consultative process:
- A societal narrative of the past
- Some victims and survivors
- Business community
- Education sectors (integrated sector had participated)
- Health sectors
- The injured
Most people in Northern Ireland are familiar with the final report of the Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past, only for its controversial recommendation for an “acknowledgement payment” of £12,000 for everyone who was affected by the past (regardless of circumstance).
As Rev. Carroll explained, the day that this report was launched was the same day their office was closed for good: “We had no way of formally responding over time to the questions that people were asking. We had no way of raising the debate in an informed way … That meant that it was easy to shelve the report, and with the report the willingness to address the outstanding matters of the past were shelved to.”
Yet many questions remain:
- Where does the endless pursuit of justice take us?
- What does truth mean, and how does it interplay with revenge, relief and moving on?
- How do we allow victims to heal, provide what they need, and not heap all ills onto them?
- How can we begin to address issues connected to sectarianism — interfaces, housing, education, normal politics — and build a more reconciled future?
- How do we remember well and allow each other to remember well?
Rev. Carroll finished her presentation where she began, by reiterating the Group’s ambition: “The past should be dealt with in a manner which enables society to become more defined by its desire for true and lasting reconciliation, rather than by divisions and mistrust, seeking to promote a shared and reconciled future for all.”
The other keynote speaker, Nora Murad, quickly disabused those who argue that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is post-conflict in any way. As in Northern Ireland, there are competing narratives of who started the conflict — whether Palestinians ran away voluntarily in 1948 or were expelled and are now refugees.
“The winning narrative of the past earns the victor legitimacy in their claims in the present,” Dr Murad said.
Insightfully, she distinguished between those discussing this debate on the past (the Palestinian diaspora who interface with Jewish and Christian Zionists at global universities and through the media), and those living in Palestine itself (where there are few opportunities for such interfaces for constructive exchanges).
Dr Murad proceeded with a list of grievances perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, settlers and the wider government. This relegated dialogue with Israelis as meaningless, quoting a Palestinian woman, “I would love to dialogue with you [Israelis], but it’s hard to talk when you’re standing on my neck.”
Further arguing that “talk”, “dialogue” and “peacebuilding” are now all debased words in Palestine, Dr Murad argued the case that while there is a time “when we must talk”, there is also “a time in the struggle when we must refuse to talk”.
She also described the EU’s Partnership for Peace as a form of prostitution, whereby an Israeli partner will undertake the requisite preparatory work and seek a Palestinian partner to just sign the agreement and provide a corporate logo. “If that isn’t prostitution in the name of peace, I don’t know what is,” Dr Murad said.
On the theme of women and peacemaking, she said that Palestinian women aren’t seeking equality with men per se (quoting a Palestinian friend, “Why would I want equal rights with my husband who has no right?”). Instead, she said that they are seeking liberation in the national movement for self-determination.
Dr Murad described her work at the Dalia Association, which provides small, unrestricted grants and support to groups of women, “to discover their own priorities and remember their own capacities”.
She concluded by declaring that Palestinians are not doing a lot of dealing with the past: “The present keeps us quite busy.” For her, the past cannot be addressed until there is a just peace.
Dr Murad remained skeptical about those working for peace. But she invited all to work with her as “justice builders”.
The tables of participants then discussed the points raised, which was summarised by Avila Kilmurray (Community Foundation Northern Ireland).
Going forward, Ms Kilmurray explained that there will be a few more workshops such as today’s, which will all be compiled to create a toolkit for the statutory sector. A major conference is planned for March 2014, which will include policy makers and international speakers, with a theme of how women are actually interpreting and implementing UN Resolution 1325.