Thursday, March 14, 2002

‘Do you know why Bideford is not talking to Barnstaple?’ No,’ I admitted. His answer, ‘They didn’t send enough ships to the Armada!’

The following essay has been published in Peace Review, A Journal of Social Justice (14:3, Fall 2002) by Carfax, a Division of Taylor and Francis Ltd

Last year I moved to North Devon in England after 22 years in the United States. I told a local farmer I was writing about the need for forgiveness and repentance in world affairs and that the painful legacies of history could be healed. Referring to our two nearest coastal towns, he suddenly asked me, ‘Do you know why Bideford is not talking to Barnstaple?’ No,’ I admitted. His answer, ‘They didn’t send enough ships to the Armada!’

This may be a humorous image - I have noticed local rivalry but not hostility or a lack of communication - but the British Isles have other painful historic memories like the Massacre of Glencoe or the Battle of the Boyne. Their very mention can even today evoke strong emotions in some people. Every country has its equivalent. The Muslim world’s response to President Bush’s unfortunate use of the word ‘crusade’ underlines how long these memories persist, or are kept alive, particularly in the hearts of the descendants of peoples who have suffered. The roots of the latest Hindu-Muslim atrocities in India go back to events a thousand years ago. The current debate in the United States about reparations for slavery is a live example of earlier centuries intruding today.

Among other things, modern conflict resolution must help individuals and nations break free of their past. It is a vital step on the road to forgiveness, and is most effective when initiated by those whose people perpetrated wrongs rather than when demanded by those who see themselves as victims.

Prince Charles, in a speech largely unreported in England, spoke in February 2002 in Ireland at the opening of new facilities at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation. His speech was described by The Irish Times as ‘a peace bombshell’. The paper on its front page had a headline ‘Prince’s unexpected remarks likely to boost reconciliation’. The Prince said that he was deeply aware of the long history of suffering which Ireland had endured. The underlying meaning of peace was not just the absence of conflict: ‘It is equally a climate in which understanding of others goes beyond caricature and where frozen images of hatred and negativity yield to a new vision of shared values and goodness.’ He said that without glossing over the pain and suffering of the past, we could integrate our history and memory in order to reap the subtle harvest of possibility. ‘So let us then endeavor to become subjects of our history and not its prisoners,’ he said.

This was not an apology but a tacit acknowledgment of earlier wrongs. The paper’s foreign affairs correspondent wrote, While not bearing on any immediate political problems, the prince’s comments were seen in Dublin as likely to improve relations, in the wider sense, between the two communities in the North. His speech was seen as the most significant of its kind since Mr. Blair expressed apologetic sentiments in June 1997, over the Great Famine.

An American who has done as much as anyone to foster this idea of acknowledgment as a diplomatic tool is Joseph Montville. He directs the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. A former State Department officer, Montville maintains that traditional concepts of peacemaking and diplomacy rarely take into account the psychological influence on individuals, groups and nations of traumatic or violent attack and grievous loss. ‘Many of our less successful peace agreements,’ he maintains, ‘are so because there has been no underlying process of healing relationships. To me this is a new technology for the twenty-first century.’

For years, Montville has been trying to help his former colleagues see what role unofficial diplomacy might have in such situations. In 1980 in an article in Foreign Policy, Montville described such unofficial initiatives as Track Two diplomacy, in contrast with the more formal official methods of Track One diplomacy.

Montville focuses particularly on the question of ethnic and sectarian conflict, which is special because it usually involves people who have endured aggression and loss simply because they are part of an identifiable group, not because of anything they have done. They may have had a sense of fairness until they suffered aggression and loss, but they distrust the perpetrators of their loss or their descendants in any negotiation or interaction and may feel vulnerable to new attack. That fear is sustained by their aggressors or their descendants having never acknowledged that the original act or acts of aggression were unjust, says Montville, and have not expressed remorse for their acts.

In this context, Montville argues that what is needed is an ‘acknowledgment - contrition - forgiveness transaction.’ He says the interactive part of the healing begins when the aggressors or their successors acknowledge the tragedy and injustice of recent or historic losses. This tells the victim group that the aggressors or their successors recognize that the aggression was unjust and the victim’s group’s losses were terrible and unjustifiable violations of their basic human rights - even if the aggressors do not explicitly use such words. ‘When the acknowledgment is sincere, complete and detailed, the victim group can begin to believe that it is possible to trust the good faith of the aggressors in current negotiations and future relationships.’

That a formal apology and request for forgiveness does not immediately produce an explicit grant of forgiveness does not mean that the act has not had an effect. ‘The challenge of peace,’ he says, ‘may take time for testing before it begins to feel safe emotionally. Nevertheless, if a dialogue process can produce a sincere acknowledgment--contrition--forgiveness transaction, then a healing process in the political and human relationship of two peoples will have been launched and will be reflected in concrete, practical ways.’ Perhaps the most satisfying national example of this approach is the way the US Government in 1990 gave a wholehearted apology and paid compensation to the Japanese-Americans who were wrongfully interned during World War 11.

A more honest appraisal of the past is showing up in conflict situations all over the world, sometimes serendipitously, sometimes as groups from one country share with those from another what they are learning. For instance, a three-way axis of healing is developing between Richmond, Virginia in the United States, Liverpool in England and Benin in West Africa. This once historic triangle of slavery is now even furthering a Reconciliation Triangle Project, whose bold aim is to heal the legacy of slavery in Africa, the Americas and Europe.

In December 1999, a Reconciliation Conference was held in Benin, whose President apologised for that country’s role in selling millions of Africans to white slave traders. That same month the Liverpool City Council as a last act before the advent of the new millennium, adopted a unanimous resolution expressing regret for the City’s role in the slave trade, on which it grew rich and resolved to embark on a process of reconciliation with those bearing the legacy of the slave trade, internationally and within Liverpool.

The Richmond leg of this project rests with a coalition known as Hope in the Cities. Montville is one of its advisors. In 1993 a coalition of Richmond citizens held a conference billed as an ‘honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility’. As a centrepiece to the conference Hope in the Cities staged a walk through Richmond’s racial history, marking sites of significance that had long been ignored or denied. In the nearly ten years since the conference the Hope in the Cities model has become increasingly held up as an example. The Richmond walk has become an integral part of a new way of telling the city’s history, drawing parties of school children, university students, church congregations and even family reunions, becoming a source of inspiration to outside visitors. Leaders from Benin and Liverpool have shared that experience. Hundreds of copies of a video of the walk through its history are in circulation. The coalition’s advice on interracial dialogue has been sought by the White House and the Richmond model of ‘honest conversation’ is being adopted in other cities.

In Oregon, for instance, a Day of Acknowledgment was held in 1999 at the State Capitol in Salem to mark the 150th anniversary of legislation excluding blacks from the state. More than 800 people from all areas in the State assembled to acknowledge past ills, honor those who had worked to change them, and to commit themselves to work more effectively to answer racial division at all levels. Resolutions to this effect were approved by the Senate, the House and the Governor. One African-American, who came with a busload from his community, said that there was a spirit of hopefulness as they went to Salem, as if their experiences of the past were going to be vindicated and ‘somebody’s finally telling our story.’ Oregon Uniting, the coalition that brought about the Day of Acknowledgment, has now trained hundreds of people, from high school students to legislators, by means of facilitated ‘honest conversations’ on race issues. The material prepared for the Day of Acknowledgment, including the speeches given by leaders of all the ethnic communities, is now available to the public through the Oregon Historical Society as well as for school curricula.

An initiative in Britain reaches even further back in history. In January 2001, with the nation about to observe for the first time a Holocaust Memorial Day, the city of Leicester decided unanimously it was an appropriate time to condemn the anti-Semitism of its founding charter. To the leader of the Council, Councillor Ross Wilmott, himself of Jewish heritage, it was extremely personal. The fact that he received hate mail because of this action confirmed his view that it had been the right thing to do. In that context it should be noted that in March 2002 Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, warned that Jews in Britain were suffering from levels of anti-Semitism not seen since the Holocaust.

Another British town which is turning a more recent painful history into a positive resource is Warrington. In 1993, a bomb set by the Provisional IRA in Warrington killed two small boys and wounded 56 other people. The town responded with initiatives for reconciliation, including exchanges and festivals, peace walks and the building of a center for peace named after the two children who died. Indeed, the former Archbishop of Dublin, Donald Caird, says that Warrington has become a byword for gracious response in the face of evil. Last December, the former IRA boss Martin McGuinness, now Northern Ireland Education Minister, met the parents of the murdered boys. He had been invited to Warrington by The Bridge, a local organization set up to forge links with the people of Ireland. Wendy Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim was killed, said, ‘At first I felt like I was betraying Tim by talking to a member of the group that killed him. But meeting Mr. McGuinness and speaking to him has helped me realise that we must put things behind us and carry on working for peace and reconciliation.’ McGuinness said he was conscious of the hurt inflicted, and told the parents that the killing of the children was wrong and should not have happened. ‘I am indeed sorry that an Irish Republican was responsible,’ he says. ‘But we now have a need to face the wrongs of the past.’

South Africa, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has led the way in seeking the truth of recent history. Nelson Mandela’s generous approach to his former captors has shown that forgiveness is more than just a personal or religious matter but can affect the life of a nation. One little noted contribution to the healing process in South Africa has been the apology to then President Mandela by Wilhelm Verwoerd, whose grandfather H.F.Verwoerd is regarded as the architect of Apartheid. In a letter to Mandela, Wilhelm Verwoerd, who was a researcher with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said that he could not ask forgiveness for his grandfather but ‘what I can do is to assure you that my wife and I want to spend our lives trying to convert words of apology into deeds. To make South Africa a country of shared humane freedoms, in place of Verwoerdian ‘separate freedoms’ (for some).’ Meeting the younger Verwoerd, Mandela’s first words were, ‘How is your grandmother? When you see her again, if she won’t mind, would you please convey my best wishes to her. Don’t worry about the past. Let us work together for a better future. As a Verwoerd you have a great advantage, when you speak, the people will listen.’ The Verwoerds now live in Dublin, for Wilhelm’s wife, Melanie, became first an African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament and is now Ambassador to Ireland, a Verwoerd representing the new South Africa.

In Australia in 1997, a national inquiry exposed the tragic results of the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families in order to assimilate them into white society. When the Federal Government refused to apologize, a grassroots movement started, which revealed the desire of ordinary Australians to make amends. Thousands of events took place on National Sorry Day in 1998. Nearly a million people signed Sorry books, blank books in which anyone could write a message to the Aboriginal people. In Adelaide a monument to the ‘stolen generation,’ as they are called, was unveiled. In the Anglican Cathedral in Perth, church leaders read out apologies from their churches. The stolen generation responded by launching a Journey of Healing, which has enlisted hundreds of thousands of Australians of all races in initiatives to overcome the harm done. The following year a quarter of a million people walked across Sydney Harbor Bridge - the largest march in Australian history - in support of reconciliation, and later that year Aboriginal culture was a proud part of the Olympic Games ceremonies.

A recent dramatic example of facing the past is the public apology in Lebanon by a leader of the Christian militia for what he did in the name of Christianity during the country’s civil war. The medium used for this apology was the newspapers. Charles Sennott of the Boston Globe said that Assaad Chaftari ‘stunned Lebanon with a statement extraordinary in its simplicity and honesty.’ Chaftari says, ‘Asking for forgiveness is difficult and forgiving seems impossible but is essential for the reconstruction of a country.’ He is now working together for reconciliation with a leader of a Muslim militia, Muiheddine Shihab, who has likewise apologized for atrocities he had committed.

Through the example of my mother I first learned the importance of honestly facing the past. My family lived for hundreds of years in Ireland. But in 1922 at the time of Irish independence my grandfather, Ivan Tilly, was told to leave the country by the end of the week or be shot. A family home was burned to the ground. We were Protestant, and landowners, and had been in the Royal Irish Constabulary (the police) for several generations. It wasn’t until many years later that my mother faced how deeply she felt about being forced out of Ireland. In 1947as a family we attended a conference at the center for reconciliation at Caux, Switzerland. One day Eleanor Butler, an Irish Catholic Senator and member of the Council of Europe, spoke. Everything in my mother rebelled against her. Who is this woman talking about unity in Europe when she chucked me out of my country. But in the spirit of that place - where you take time in quiet to face up to where you and your people need to be different - she felt she should apologize to Senator Butler for the indifference we had shown to Catholics over many years. Not only did my mother apologize, she and Senator Butler became friends, working together, becoming part of that great army of women who have kept the peace hopes alive.

Even though they have both since died, they would rejoice at the progress that has been made - progress far more tangible than one would always realize from watching the evening news. But they would be sad at the setbacks. They would agree with Senator Mitchell that the great challenge before Northern Ireland along with the decommissioning of weapons is the decommissioning of mindsets. Further acknowledgment by us in Britain for the centuries of Irish suffering at our hands will help that process forward. Such acknowledgments may also help in other parts of the world, whether in the Middle East, India or Afghanistan.