After a set of sessions with external speakers addressing restorative justice and education it was over to Denis Bradley. He got a warm welcome, attentive listening, and no oohing and aahing or heckling. Compared to the riotous behaviour of those attending the Consultative Group on the Past’s report launch back in January, it was like Bradley had turned up at a Sunday School picnic. Though in a sense he was on home ground, with an audience who appreciated the greyness that divides victims and perpetrators, and an audience that has felt largely ignored by the larger unionist parties.
It’s been a while since anyone on the Eames/Bradley commission has made public comment. Bradley indicated that he’d been taking it easy in recent months, so his twenty minute speech was a good opportunity to catch up with how he viewed the political situation and reactions to the report.
Regular AiB readers may well ask, is all this PUP stuff relevant?
Like all posts, it’s what catches my eye at the time, what intrigues me and what might benefit from being recorded and discussed - online or offline. East Belfast is a complex community, but not unlike many others across Northern Ireland. It has issues particular to its area, including social depreciation, dodgy sewers, areas segregated by peace walls, majorities that are anything but cohesive alongside minorities, as well as new developments, new people and new investment.
The kind of issues that Bradley picks up in his prepared speech are those that will affect political negotiations over the timing of the devolution policing and justice (and the sweeteners that may accompany that process) as well as the stability of the DUP/Sinn Fein-controlled Executive. While many of us may shy away from being (party) politically involved, political machinations affect us all.
Beginning with his analysis of pipe smoking at formative encounters of listening and telling throughout the Troubles and the peace process, Bradley recollected that he’d been smoking “in 1994 on the first night the Brits sat with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly.
Bradley was surprised at just how loath unionism was to acknowledge that there was wrongdoing on both sides.
“I knew, before I went into this project, that middle unionism, political unionism, had a reluctance, and an unwillingness, to admit that there was wrongdoing on both sides, but I was shocked at how deep and entrenched that reluctance was.”
“Mainstream unionism deludes itself by proposing that there were rotten apples in the barrel and that the loyalist paramilitary groups were as reprehensible and guilty as were the IRA, but they vehemently and doggedly refuse to accept that they had any responsibility for the conflict. In their own assessment of themselves they were innocent and they were free of any wrongdoing.”
“When people are innocently deluded I have some sympathy and understanding of that. But when people sit before you and give a formal input that proposes that unionism was innocent and devoid of blame and then has a cup of coffee with you tells you the exact opposite, that unionism was to blame for some of the conflict; that is hard to swallow.”
“The word ‘truth’ itself becomes divisive within our context. To some within the unionist family, it is a Trojan horse to trap them and expose their sins. To republicans it is the beacon that shines light into the darkest areas of our conflict and also lights up the path into the future.”
Commenting on Sinn Fein’s very recent formal response to the Consultative Group’s report, Bradley commented:
“The big divide was on the legacy commission which we have proposed. Sinn Fein said they would no co-operate with because it would not be independent and would not be international. Sinn Fein proposes a truth commission set up under the auspices of the United Nations …
But the truth is that a truth commission is not going to get very much buy-in. It is rejected as an idea by the greater number of combatants and participants not because they are afraid of the truth, and not because they are unwilling to step up to the mark, but because Truth Commissions throughout the world have a chequered history. They are no longer considered the most appropriate way to deal with the past.”
“If Sinn Fein continues to set their face so dogmatically against a legacy commission which can deliver a fair amount of truth and a fair analysis of the causes of conflict, they are in danger of depriving a lot of victims of what they need and what they deserve.”
Turning his attention to the Christian churches, Bradley (himself a former priest) explains:
“The report says that the Christian churches have a particular responsibility to take the lead in addressing this issue [of sectarianism]. Bad theology has done enormous damage throughout the ages, and not just in this island. But the theological divisions are not going to be addressed in the near future. In fact, universally, ecumenism has gone backward rather than forwards. But that does not mean that nothing can be done. Public acts of atonement by the churches would do some good and if they were localised in areas such as Coleraine and elsewhere then some of the more crude weapons would be removed from those who want to continue blaming and hating each other or indeed of thinking their religion is better than the other man’s.”
With the devolution of justice and policing “creating waves which have the potential to sweep away the institutions”, Bradley notes:
“I don‘t know what is going on in the present negotiations and I do not know what they contain - hopefully we’ll know by next week - but if I were a victim or a survivor who desired justice or desired truth or I was someone who needed ongoing medical or therapeutic support well into the future, I would be wondering if I was being considered in these negotiations.”
Slugger has already picked up on Bradley’s prediction of a future Conservative government’s policy around the Consultative Group’s report. Indeed, at the recent East Belfast Speaks Out event, Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland Laurence Robertson said it would be Tory policy to draw a line under the past, with no new enquiries.
“If what I am hearing is correct then the Conservatives will bin the report on the past. In its place they will suggest a memorial hospital or something of that ilk, and a moving on, leaving the past behind. It won't be as crude as that but it will amount to leaving the past to be dealt with by the passage of time and the death of those who feel most affected by the troubles.
And this we should admit will not be an unpopular suggestion. Many, maybe the majority in our society, are tired of this issue and wish it would go away. They are tired and weary of the continuing disputed and wish they would stop. … When future generations ask ‘why?’ they will, if reasons are not considered and recorded, make up their own minds about what happened on age old beliefs of the communities they come from.”
Other unionist parties might have massive reservations about inviting Denis Bradley to speak: the PUP looked like they'd be carrying on the discussion with him at lunch. Every now and again, politics looks like it's growing up!