Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

Impact of Religious Sectarianism, Trauma of Conflict and using the Good Friday Agreement as a Template for International Relations Negotiations: Discussion

12:50 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I welcome our next guest, Reverend Dr. Gary Mason with whom we will discuss the impact of religious sectarianism, the trauma caused by conflict and how the Good Friday Agreement can be used as a template for negotiations in international relations. Reverend Mason is joined by Professor Peter McBride, CEO of the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health. We have met with Reverend Mason many times and are delighted that he could formally meet the committee today. Professor McBride is also welcome.

Before I invite Reverend Mason to make his presentation I advise him that he is protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at this meeting. However, if he is directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and continues to do so, he is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his remarks. He is directed that only comments and evidence connected with the subject matter of this meeting are to be given and he is asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, he should not criticise or make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas or a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I call on Reverend Mason to proceed with his opening statement.

Reverend Gary Mason:

I thank the Chairman for his words of welcome. I will set what I want to say today in the context of my life. For seven years I was based in Springfield Road Methodist church right on the interface at Workman Avenue, which, as many of us know will be open this Saturday to facilitate the Whiterock parade. In the 1990s I and a Catholic, a Dominican nun, Sr. Noreen Christian, spearheaded a cross-community project called ForthSpring. I remember walking through the interface one wet November night and a little Protestant girl saying to me "Hey Gary, I'm dating a wee boy from the other side" which simply meant that she was dating a Catholic. I guess this kid was 15 or 16 years of age and I remarked "Isn’t that great?" and walked the 50 steps to the ForthSpring centre and into my church and said to myself how normal yet how abnormal, that sectarianism has created a society where the most basic human emotion, falling in love, is actually wrong in some people's eyes. I am not asking people in this room to put up their hands but I am sure that all of us have been in love. Hopefully we all are in love to some degree or another. I want to show how vile and difficult it is to deal with that concept of sectarianism in which the basic human emotion of being in love is also categorised as being wrong.

A couple of weeks ago Francis Teeney used a fascinating phrase on the blog of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, the new centre that has just been set up at Queen's University. He said we have been pretty good at ending the war but we are not so good at building the peace. I want to tease that out in conversation with the committee today. I am a Methodist clergy person, and have been for 26 years, and reconciliation seems to me to be pretty difficult to achieve. A Dutch Reform professor commenting on South Africa said:

. . . reconciliation is no cheap matter. It does not come about by simply papering over deep-seated differences. Reconciliation presupposes confrontation. Without that we do not get reconciliation but merely a temporary glossing over of differences. The running sores of society cannot be healed with the use of sticking plaster. Reconciliation presupposes an operation, a cutting to the very bone without anaesthetic. The infection is not just on the surface. The abscess of hate and mistrust and fear, between black and white, nation and nation, rich and poor, has to be slashed open.
There is no question that the flags issue brought to the surface how deeply divided and sectarian a society Northern Ireland still is.

I remember a conversation with Liam Maskey who was honest enough to say to me, "Gary, the kids that are growing up in inner city Catholic areas - we are producing another generation of bigots." It is exactly the same on the Protestant side. Sectarianism is rampant in Northern Ireland. I will tease it out in a religious context and carry out a critique of the church. Billy Mitchell who, as many members know, was former OC of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Long Kesh died a few years ago. He was a tragic loss to loyalism. He used to use a quirky phrase in saying, "In the late 1960s, someone just did not fly over Northern Ireland spraying loony gas on us all and we all went mad." His point was that there was a context to it. Many commentators have many times painted the conflict as being purely nationalistic. I suggest there was a religious context to it also. There were religious overtones. I have often said the fertile soil of religious sectarianism in many respects provided the basis for the conflict.

On this wet Thursday, I will bore the committee with three church doctrines. I hope members will hear me out as I tease through them. I am sure every person who has grown up on this island has heard of the doctrine of the one true church. It holds that our church is the only true church and that if a person is outside it, his or her chances of salvation are much diminished at best. The doctrine that error has no right is perhaps less well known. It was developed by St. Augustine to justify the use of state coercion to suppress his heretical opponents. They were deemed to have no right to express or hold their views. Ever since, the doctrine has been put to similar use as the principle behind the use of coercion, particularly state coercion for religious purposes. The doctrine of providence simply means that God is at work in the world and beyond that the faithful Christian observer can discern His will and purpose by reading the signs of the times. Religious sectarianism lies in a combination of these three doctrines.

Consider the first doctrine of the one true church when combined with the doctrine that error has no right. The doctrine of the one true church is simply a truth claim and, like every such claim, carries the danger of arrogance and imposition. If one believes error has no right and that one's church is the one true church, it is one's duty to see that error is suppressed by every means necessary. I highlight this by reference to the life of a person. A senior loyalist paramilitary once said to me, "Gary, when you were taught [excuse my language] Catholics were shit in Sunday school, it was much easier to kill them." People argue that phrases like "one true church" and "error has no right" are irrelevant in our context. However, there was a toxic religious formation to our conflict. Combine the doctrine of the one true church with the idea of providence, which teaches that God is at work in the world. If one interprets providence in the light of the doctrine of the one true church, it is easily reduced to the concept that God is on our side. Phrases emerge such as "For God and Ulster" or "For God and Ireland" and easily eat their way into the whole concept of our conflict. This is illustrated on the world stage in the religious anti-semitism which Hitler converted into racial anti-semitism. That paved the way for the Holocaust, or Shoah.

The church has not put up its hands to the divisions it has caused within society. As a clergyperson, I am happy to say the church needs to do a lot more business on this. The working party on sectarianism which the Irish Council of Churches put together in the early 1990s teased out a great deal of this concept. A number of recently published books containing interviews with those within loyalism and republicanism have indicated that there was a religious concept to the conflict. I call it "toxic" or "bad" religion. We must be honest that in the 1950s this island had the most conservative brands of Catholicism and Protestantism in the western world and there is no question that they fed into the conflict.

Professor McBride will tease out the issue of trauma and discuss memory and the way forward in terms of dialogue on these matters.

12:55 pm

Professor Peter McBride:

It is a great pleasure to be here. I want to paint a picture for the committee. When people refer to trauma, most of us think of our own ideas of what it means. I will discuss some specifics. In Northern Ireland trauma is discussed a great deal. It is particularly related to the experiences people had around the Troubles. I want to broaden it out. Of the population of Northern Ireland, 66% have at least one experience of trauma. When people were asked, half of them identified an experience associated with the conflict. "Trauma" is a word that is bandied around and I want to challenge to an extent its medicalisation. If I were a medic, which I am not, I would provide the committee with a list of the diagnostic criteria people would need to meet to justifiably describe themselves as traumatised. I acknowledge the view, but it limits our understanding of the relationship between what Dr. Mason has just described and the situation we face in Northern Ireland, which involves a process and a society which are stuck. The experience of trauma is a material component of that stuckness. I intend to paint a picture for the committee of the different groupings of people we have and their interactions with each other.

The first group I refer to in relation to trauma is those persons who describe themselves as victims and survivors of the conflict. They are drawn from both sides of the community and all parts of these communities and identify their experiences of trauma with the Troubles. They are people who were combatants and involved in the conflict actively and who were hurt by it. They are people who saw themselves as the victims of these combatants, people in the security forces and on other sides. They identify themselves as victims and survivors. For them, trauma is a profound psychological experience in which their lives have been deeply disrupted. Apart from the experience of physical injury many of them have, there is also the psychological damage they have experienced, which they argue is disrupting their lives. This is a huge political issue in the North and one that political parties are bandying around. Phrases used include "legitimate victims", which is usually associated with the security forces and the Protestant side of the community. It is a highly contentious issue.

For many of the people concerned, the experience of trauma is perpetuated by the reinforcing of their identification as victims. Due to the politicisation of their experiences, the fact that they are victims is a material part of the importance of what they have to say. Therefore, there is a disincentive for many to move through their experience of trauma, to recover and get back into what might be termed "normal life". There is a sense in which there is an incentivisation. It is almost as if a career can be made out of being a victim or survivor of the conflict, given the importance and significance of that status in the dialogue which is ongoing in Northern Ireland. A new victim and survivor service has been set up, a significant component of which is psychological therapy. The service endeavours to provide support for people who have lived disrupted lives for 20 or 30 years as a consequence of the impact of the Troubles. It is shocking to me that many of the people concerned have not previously accessed services and support, which would have helped them. This says something about the nature of trauma.

There are people in Northern Ireland who only now, after 20 or 30 years, are starting to talk about their experiences. That applies to all sides. After 30 years, people are beginning to say that what happened to them had an impact. They have started to remember things, they are having bad dreams and their lives are disrupted. There is medical evidence to show this is quite normal. The problem is that the events they are describing are 30 years old and the rest of the population has, to a large extent, moved on. For these people, the sense they are stuck in a time warp is a very real experience.

This brings me onto the second group of people, those who were directly affected and who could legitimately described themselves as victims and survivors but who have never accessed services. They have never acknowledged it personally or sought help for their experience of trauma yet their lives are deeply disrupted by it. They never felt confident about being able to access services. I am the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health and we provide services in a secular environment to people with experience of mental illness. Last year, having been around for the 50 years, for the first time, we conducted research with existing service users. These people have been through the health system and psychiatry, have often been hospitalised and they have severe mental illness. We asked them whether any of them had experience of conflict and conflict-related trauma. Some 60% of them said they had but, of the 60%, not one has been asked that question when a mental health history was taken when they were being dealt with by psychiatrists through the health system. Dr. Gary Mason described the collusion of the churches in the conflict and there was also collusion by society in general to not acknowledge the psychological impact of what was going on at the time. From a psychological perspective, that is completely understandable because of the sense of threat around it.

We live in a society where there is a formal mechanism, through victims and survivors services, for those willing to acknowledge the impact of the conflict but there is a group of people who have been directly affected by the conflict, and who have direct exposure to conflict-related trauma, but have never sought psychological help for that. Often, they have acted out their experience through other kinds of illness such as depression and accessing other mental health services but not acknowledging the root of their experience as a traumatic event.

I classify myself within the third group of people I want to talk about, namely, the rest of society. All of our society has been disrupted by trauma. I never experienced personal trauma and never had a member of my family murdered or killed and never lost anybody or witnessed a killing or a bomb but my sense of my own self is that my life has been disrupted. At university, I used to tell people about when I was growing up, when my father worked in Belfast and I lived in Downpatrick. I used to watch the news and then stand at the window watching for my father to come home. I remember feeling anxious because I had seen something happen in Belfast on the news and I worried about him being hurt. My argument is that it is not normal for a child to experience that so therefore I, like many other people, had a sense of general disruption. The point I want to make is that if it is true, it goes partly towards explaining what people think is really weird looking in on Belfast or Northern Ireland. I refer to the flag dispute. Most right-minded people looking in on the situation ask why it is so important and why people feel these things so deeply. It is my contention that the reason there is such a reaction to these triggers is the sense of disruption caused to the society over the past 40 years. Viewing matters through the lens of seeing people's experience of trauma and understanding how it affects people, some of this starts to make sense. Some of the symptoms of trauma in a medical sense start to make sense, if the committee members will forgive me for pushing the analogy.

One of the key components of trauma is re-experiencing something. When someone has been through a car accident and is traumatised, the person will be sitting chatting to someone and will get a flashback and will remember the vivid detail of the car coming towards them. We live in a society that re-experiences trauma. We do it through our rituals and the social mechanisms we have to remember. To some extent, those mechanisms also re-traumatise when they bring things back. Every time a bomb is mentioned in the news in Northern Ireland, a picture of La Mon comes up. I know some of the people injured in it and, for them, it re-traumatises them. Remembrance, in the broadest sense, is very important in terms of the things we remember from our history. We must remember that part of it is restimulating trauma and bringing it back into consciousness.

The link to what Dr. Mason was saying is transgenerational trauma. There are children who grew up in Northern Ireland who never had any direct experience of living in a society that was at conflict. They know nothing of what it was like in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. However, through the storytelling of fathers and mothers and the history of their family, they have been imbued with the trauma of what their family experienced in terms of persecution and injustice. While young people do not have a direct experience of trauma, their lives are disrupted because the trauma of their parents and their families is communicated to them. When the flag dispute comes up, they are primed and ready to act on it. The emotional energy is there, the hurt is there and the sense of personal hurt and victimisation is already present, transmitted through their families and able to be acted out when the opportunity arises. There are many links with deprivation and the economic situation. As those things start to kick in, people revert to a more primitive, atavistic way of living and that experience of hurt, victimisation and pain is more easily activated.

When we start talking about the future and reconciliation, one of the phrases that occurs frequently is "dealing with the past". I struggle to know what that means. The implication is that we do something and it goes away. What we have is people living with a deep sense of hurt and a huge sense of victimhood. This will not go away with simple action but needs to be processed. We live in a society that needs to be brought through a process. While the Good Friday Agreement brought in the appropriate institutions and gave us anything we could wish for from an institutional point of view, what will bring us forward from where we are sitting at the moment is not institutional but relational. It is about starting to deal with painful truths that are emotional, that concern how we see ourselves and know ourselves, and to do with what we have done to one another. Finding a way to begin to process that and talk about and deal with it is what dealing with the past is about. That is by far the hardest thing to do. It cannot be written down or legislated for but it involves courageous leadership, political leadership and, if I can pick up on the point made by Dr. Mason, it involves the churches acknowledging their role in this and saying sorry for it. It involves people saying that they have done wrong here or hurt people and that they are sorry and that we need a new future. That is very difficult.

1:05 pm

Dr. Gary Mason:

I would like to make this more conversational when I deal with the next point on the slide. Delving into what Professor McBride was saying, memory and how we tell stories is crucial when we deal with the past. I have often illustrated this going back to the late 1980s. I will take the committee members to the Balkans and paint a little story.

We will assume these three are a family of Serbs. Professor McBride and I will be the Croats for the day and the committee members will be the Muslims. It is the late 1980s and we are going into their homes at 9 p.m. The kids have been playing together on the street during the day. I often give this lecture in the States entitled When the Curtains are Closed. Let us listen to the stories in the Serb house. The kids are playing and Mum and Dad are chatting:

Those Croats, catholics, allied themselves with the Nazis during the Second World War and how dare they say they are the one true church. Us Serbs are the one true church. We're orthodox and they are not. As for those Muslims, look at what they did to us under the Ottoman Empire.
We go into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Croat:
Those Serbs, we are the one true church. Everyone knows the Catholic Church is the one true church. We can trace it back to Peter. We're the one true church. As for the Muslims, look at what they did to us under the Ottoman Empire.
In the home of the Muslims, they say, "Those cursed Christians with their crusades butchered us as they swept across western Europe, eastern Europe and into the Holy Land". The kids hear the stories and the stories are told and the memory and pain are perpetuated. This underlines what Professor McBride said about the trigger of the flag protest.

I have a friend who made a choice that I did not make as a young person growing up in the trauma of the 1970s. He served 18 years as a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. He said to me recently, "Every night I go to sleep with the faces of the dead on my ceiling." I condemn violence and what he did was categorically wrong but every night he goes to sleep with the faces of the dead on his ceiling. Statistically, one in five ex-prisoners is drinking himself to death. Professor McBride and I were chittering in the car on the way to the meeting and we said PEACE II probably came too early. I was in west Belfast at the time meeting Tom Hartley, Jim Gibney and many others to facilitate dialogue groups. That is why PEACE IV is crucial. We need a rerun of what the Dutch reform professor said, namely, "Reconciliation presupposes confrontation."

I have often said to the church that reconciliation is not going to some ecumenical service in Dublin or Belfast. Reconciliation means hard, meaningful dialogue where republicans and loyalists can sit in a room together and ask themselves hard questions. It has been more difficult for me to do that in the past two years. I have taken former republicans and loyalists away on overnight trips to ask those hard questions but some of the stuff I have had to deal with in east Belfast over the past few years has been more difficult, even though I have been doing this, taking people away, for 26 years. There is more fragmentation between loyalists and republicans today than when I took senior republicans and loyalists just three years ago. Professor McBride and I have been having these conversations. The committee and other bodies in Northern Ireland need to be a spearhead to facilitate constructive dialogue that will take us somewhere. This does not need to be done piecemeal.

1:15 pm

Professor Peter McBride:

The context of our conversation in the car on the way here is important. There is an assumption that we have done a great deal of work and many conversations have been had. The phrase "heavy lifting" is used frequently. There is no doubt a great deal of work is being done but for many people, it is 25 or 30 years after the event that they are able to begin to connect emotionally with what happened. One of the challenges we face is we need to go back and have some of the conversations again and hear them differently. We think we know what the other side thinks. There are many assumptions about understanding the position of loyalists, republicans and various different factions whereas there is not an awful lot of listening going on at the minute and what is being said now is different. The emotional content in a strange way is more raw and, therefore, there is a need for a different kind of conversation and dialogue and if the focus is on reconciliation - and it has to be - then the content of that is an emotional engagement rather than simply intellectual fighting.

With regard to what Dr. Mason described in terms of PEACE II and PEACE IV, there is something to being able to say that with all the work that has been done, we need to revisit some of it, have some of those conversations again and see if we hear something different.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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I thank both witnesses for their presentations. The issues they raise are difficult and they involve significant effort and dialogue to confront the reasons there was so many difficulties in the past. Religious orders and groupings have never taken responsibility for their influence on certain people during conflict. Bono was interviewed on television by Gay Byrne earlier this week and he spoke about the fragmentation of a church. I do not agree with much of what he says but I assume he was referring to the use by various religious orders of a mechanism or control over their flocks to advance their own agendas.

As part of a reconciliation process, one has to deal with the past. If one does not deal with the past, one will not arrive at the intellectual or emotional need. In dealing with reconciliation, one must start at the beginning - the reasons one was in conflict, the motivating factors behind conflict in general, one's influence in getting people to be part of the conflict and so forth. I watch Al Jazeera and other television networks every night. There is religious connotations to most conflicts throughout the world, including in Syria and the Balkans. People kill themselves because of religion, God, Allah and so on. If one looks deep enough, the religious grouping to which people belong in conflicts becomes the excuse but behind that are inequality, poverty, a state's treatment of its peoples, denial of identity and so on. All these aspects must be dealt with.

With regard to the reasons for the Six Counties conflict, we are 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and we are in a much better place. A great deal of hard work has gone into it. I disagree with Dr. Mason in so far as I think there is a relationship between combatants on both sides, particularly in formerly republican and loyalist communities. There is a relationship, understanding and dialogue. That dialogue has kept a lid on everything but it has not addressed why just under the surface there is the ability to push us back to where we were. That is what we have to address.

I refer again to effects of trauma and conflict.

Everybody who lived on the island of Ireland during that period has been traumatised by what happened. I am a former prisoner of war, POW, of that conflict. My children have been affected by it even though they live nearly 400 miles away from it. Everybody has been affected by it and the issue is how we deal with that as we move forward. I recall Jackie McDonald describing himself to the committee as a former POW. That was his status and he made a very valid argument in making that point. I am a former POW and that is part of what I was and am. For many of us who were part of this, conflict became an avenue created by the circumstances and conditions that prevailed at the time. The denial of what the witness spoke about, that dialogue and the intellectual and emotional arguments, albeit in a political context, contributed to prolonging the hurt and the pain.

However, we are in a better place, although we have a long way to go. I fully concur that it will take a lot longer. I think we have not even touched the surface. Until such time as there is integration from an educational point of view, one's religion or lack of religion is a personal thing and not an excuse to be part of a flock and there is an economy that serves all of our people we will always have, under the surface, a dormant sense that will create that division and hurt as we move forward. I have not put a question, I just put forward an observation from my point of view. I believe we have an opportunity and our generation must take it. When our generation leaves this world we must leave it as a better place. We will do that by dealing with many of the matters the witness mentioned, the institutional aspect, the emotional trauma, the inequalities and the economics that are not serving people but only certain individuals within society. Unless we deal with all of that, there will always be the underlying current that will contribute to division into the future.

1:25 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Reverend Dr. Mason and Professor McBride and thank them for their stimulating presentations. They contained much food for thought regarding the particular challenges for society. Professor McBride's concluding comments refer to the transgenerational trauma. All of what both witnesses said is a cause for concern. Issues must be addressed in a very meaningful way. Time is not on our side to deal with those issues, and we do not wish to go backwards in any respect. As Deputy Ferris said, there has been huge progress and we are in a much better place than we were prior to 1994 or 1998.

With regard to transgenerational trauma, surely as a society and within the public system in particular there must be a targeting of resources and support for that generation. I presume that many of the people who are vulnerable are in the more disadvantaged areas, as Deputy Ferris said, and come from the less advantaged estates and homes. Professor McBride said there is less listening taking place now. Who is listening less? Is it the public service or the people who are supposed to be delivering services or is it all of us as a society? When the committee visited east Belfast it met a number of different groups but it struck me that nobody raised with myself and my colleagues the area of education and the need for extra investment in education, from preschool through to tertiary education, for those people who would have seen nothing but disadvantage, lack of job opportunities and lack of educational attainment. If we do not target children from preschool onwards, we have no chance of making a better society for the next generation. I realise that will not ease the pain for current adults, but for a family where there is progress for the next generation in regard to educational attainment, which should give the person the skills to get meaningful employment, it is particularly important.

It struck me that day that nobody from the very good community groups and the people we met raised the lack of targeted investment in education. In the RAPID, revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, programme in the South there was a whole-of-government approach, whereby the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the local authorities, education and health were involved. In some areas where there was good leadership of that programme it was very effective in targeting estates and communities where there had been a legacy of under-investment and, unfortunately, under-achievement by children in education and so forth. We know that a one-cap-fits-all approach does not always work. I gathered from Professor McBride's comments that he thinks there must be a specific approach to dealing with these issues. Communities, individuals, churches, political parties and voluntary organisations can be doing very meaningful work within their communities, but perhaps an overarching approach and framework is required. It will not be easy to put together the architecture for that approach, but if we do not try to do it we will not achieve it.

I compliment the witnesses on their contributions and on the work they both do in their respective roles working in difficult areas.

Ms Michelle Gildernew:

I welcome the witnesses. We have visited Reverend Dr. Mason in the Skainos Centre previously. This is the first time Professor McBride has appeared before this committee and he is very welcome. His contribution to the discussion today has been very helpful. Like Deputy Smith, the reference to transgenerational trauma struck a chord with me. As I listened to the witnesses speak I was reminded of a couple of issues we have been dealing with over the last number of years. They are not necessarily related directly to the conflict but they are part of the package of problems we face.

One of them was the debate in the Assembly a couple of years ago about early intervention and the argument about when early intervention starts. One of the MLAs made the point that early intervention must happen as soon as the child goes to school, but I made that point that if one leaves it until a child is five years old, one will have missed his or her formative years and a huge opportunity to make a positive difference in the child's life. If one waits until the child is five years old, it is too late. One will never fix some of the problems or build a resilience for that child for further down the line, be it social, economic or whatever. There was a lack of genuine understanding within the chamber about how that early intervention makes a difference to a child's life and helps to put the right building blocks in place for them to cope later in life.

Another issue that has arisen in this committee is the bill of rights. Again, there is a lack of understanding of the concept. Nobody should be afraid of rights or of equality. There is resistance to the bill of rights. We heard about the bill of rights from the trade unions and from others in the North who appeared before this committee months ago, but 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement we are still in a position where a bill of rights is considered a bad thing in certain circles. If people do not accept that we all have rights and entitlements and we should all accept and enjoy equality, that transgenerational trauma will be perpetuated into the future. My question to Reverend Dr. Mason is how do we persuade people that nobody should be afraid of rights and that we should start building a society that can cope - I am deliberately not using the word "normal" - and build acceptance and understanding of each other?

The churches have not put their hands up, said they did X, Y and Z and are sorry. We have to accept that people have rights and entitlements.

My question to Professor McBride is how we build that resilience within the next generation so that whatever stories are encompassed in a child's understanding he or she is able to look, as Deputy Ferris said, at the wider picture, the reasons for the conflicts, why people did what they did while others chose another path and how he or she contextualises that as part of his or her history as well as building his or her future.

1:35 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I will add to that and perhaps put the cat among the pigeons. We understand everyone is trying to deal with victimisation, trauma and psychological effects. What happened in Bosnia was outlined. How is it moving on? While not undermining the scars on the island of Ireland, the scars in Bosnia were much deeper. Did we sometimes have an acceptable level of violence which became normalised in society despite the major issues which resulted? Former combatants were imprisoned and many people's lives were deeply affected. There were sectarian murders. How did countries deal with the psychological turmoil of the First and the Second World Wars? For example, were people in Germany able to move on or are there still fissures?

Professor Peter McBride:

There are modern examples of countries which are struggling with this issue, not least our own. This has by no means been resolved in Bosnia and places like that There is still disruption in post-apartheid South Africa. There was a honeymoon period but there are still fundamental problems.

The Second World War is interesting. It is linked to Ms Gildernew's question. At the end of the Second World War there was a winner and a fairly generally accepted shared narrative of what had happened. There was universal condemnation following the exposure of what had happened in the concentration camps. With a few exceptions around revisionist historians which are very minor, everybody agreed that was a terrible thing and that Nazism was wrong. With that shared narrative, people very quickly identified what was right and what was wrong.

There was a sense of due process and justice seen in the Nuremberg trials and that was worked out in a very public way. Germany went through a period of contrition which was reflected in art, literature and poetry and which acknowledged the horrors of what had happened in the Second World War. There was a reaction by the German people to acknowledge that it was wrong and they were a peaceful people. There is evidence of that through art and literature.

I do not think there is a shared narrative in our conflict. One side of the community will articulate its history and story in one way but another part will tell a completely different story. They will not recognise each other's validity. To put it bluntly, for the loyalist and Protestant community the Good Friday Agreement was the end of something. The attitude was, "Thank goodness we have sorted that out, the union is secure and we can breathe a sigh of relief." For the Nationalist and republican community it was the beginning of something and the next phase of a process.

The fundamental narrative difference is important when we come to talk about transgenerational trauma. I had an uncle and grandfather who were killed in the First and Second World Wars. That is talked about in a very matter of fact way in our family. It is not a case of what the damn Germans did to us. The issue is not about storytelling, rather it is about the passion the stories have and the ongoing sense of victimisation.

The impact of trauma is not intellectual. It is not that the stories being retold are the problem; it is the emotional content behind that and the sense of hurt. There is a sense in both communities that they are not understood and one story is not validated by the other side. There is a feeling one side does not accept the fact that the other was abused, alienated, not allowed to take jobs and suffered profound injustice which does not just go back 30 years but 200 or 500 years. There is also a feeling on the other side that one part of the community does not accept that there is a rule of law and it has a particular identity. There are narratives, but there is also sentiment and passion underneath them.

On the question of how we target groups in society, we need to target children and young people and be able to build resilience. Ms Gildernew is absolutely right. I would argue that the process starts pre-birth in terms of preparing parents for parenthood. If we do not deal with this huge social issue, namely, the narratives and sense of injustice which still exists within people's perceptions of themselves, no matter how we change the support that is given the sense of hurt and violence which has been done to people will come through in parenting. We cannot avoid it, it is unconscious.

The sense of being victimised or having a story in which the pain of trauma is still alive in the family cannot be hidden. Children will pick up on it very quickly. This is a complex issue. There is something to be said for getting people to begin to talk in a different way and understand that when we talk about the role of memory in society it is not simply about a different way of telling stories. It is about understanding that the sentiment, passion and emotional experience behind that is where the power lies.

The emotional experience of victimhood, persecution and pain are transmitted. The stories are simply the vehicles for that and have no impact if there is no passion behind them. Every now and again in my family we talk about the relatives who died and it is no big deal. Yet, in many families the stories of family martyrs and the things which were done are alive and it is as if things happened yesterday.

That experience of the present is an absolute consequence of trauma. There is a sense that things do not become a memory but remain alive. That is one of the core attributes of a traumatic experience and that is with what we are struggling.

Dr. Gary Mason:

I will dip in and out of the comments. Older clergy would often say to me that the churches were full in the 1950s and 1960s as if that was something to be proud of. I often tell them their gift to my generation was a sectarian war. I want to ask them what they were doing in the 1950s and 1960s, as people allegedly of faith, to address sectarianism. There was no prophetic stance by the Catholic or Protestant churches to address sectarianism.

I have said before and I am quite happy to say publicly that what Unionism did post-partition was fundamentally wrong. It was a justice issue. As a person of faith I believe in equal rights, justice and the bill of rights, as Ms Gildernew said. The problem is how both communities of faith - what I call toxic faith - have interpreted scripture in a sectarian rather than an inclusive way. That is something with which the churches still have not gotten to grips.

Sometimes we see peace processes as economically driven. There is a perception that if a wee lad living on the Shankill Road or the Falls Road gets a job everything will be okay.

I am an economic animal, as are Professor McBride and Ms Gildernew. We all have an economic component, but I also have a psychological and a pastoral component. The failure to recognise that dimension has been the massive weakness of the peace process. There is no sense, for example, in me giving an ex-member of the UVF living on the Newtownards Road a job and saying everything will be okay. The reality is that many people in that situation, in their relationship with their partner or wife and their children, have learned to deal with difference through verbal or physical violence. As Professor McBride observed, there are some who have never been taught another narrative, whereby one deals with difference through conversation, dialogue and debate. For many, there is an unreconstructed narrative in their psychology which has not been addressed and has not changed. One sees this in the way things spill out after parades. I attended a stag night some weeks ago and my wife decided to do something on the same night on the Newtownards Road. When I heard that a parade was taking place there, I telephoned to advise her to stay where she was until I could collect her. At 10 p.m. people were urinating, vomiting and fighting in the street. The language used on such occasions is appalling, yet children are there observing all of it. Much of that behaviour is coming from the post-Troubles generation. The reality is that Northern Ireland is, at times, an aggressive society in which we deal with difference through physical or verbal abuse.

We can see parallels in other post-conflict situations throughout the world. South Africa, for instance, is a mess. I have spoken about this with Peter Storey who was one of the two key church figures, together with Desmond Tutu, during the conflict in that country. We have all heard about the heavy alcohol abuse, rapes and violence in the townships. Reference has been made to the prophetic observation that although we have been good at ending at the war, we are not good at building the peace. Many of these post-conflict situations are exactly the same. The Balkans area, just like Northern Ireland, is still a deeply divided society. In South Africa black people generally have not seen a sufficient peace dividend. Apartheid may have ended, but, economically, the country is still pretty much a wasteland for many.

Committees such as this have a key role in ensuring we are not storing up problems for future generations in Northern Ireland. Even I was stunned by the reaction to the flag issue and I have been doing this stuff for 25 years. It was a very difficult week, as several people in this room, including the Acting Chairman, know. I negotiated with the UVF for a solid week. It took 50 hours to bring the valid aspects of these protests to an end and get people over the line. Many of those involved are of the generation to which Professor McBride referred. As I said, we must consider the pastoral and psychological aspects. A book I often recommend to couples before they have children is called The Power of a Parent's Words. Everybody in this room will know what I am saying. A colleague told me recently that a young man he was counselling still remembered his father's words to him as a child that he was "pathetic, pathetic, pathetic". This successful businessman aged 38 years, with a 7 series BMW and a life that seems to be going superbly still hears his father telling him he is "pathetic, pathetic, pathetic". How we tell our stories and what we say to the other side is a crucial aspect of reconciliation efforts.

What then is the way forward? What I propose is that we bring together a number of senior republicans and loyalists, with people like Professor McBride and several key church people, for discussions on how we might get to grips with these problems. Mr. Martin McGuinness recently threw out a challenge for that type of engagement. There were no loyalists at the Sinn Féin conference and I ended up speaking on their behalf in some respects, in so far as I gave my reading of the temperature within that community. There must be dialogue, of that there is no question. There is a chasm between loyalism and republicanism at this time. I am not disputing Deputy Martin Ferris's observation that there are sometimes good relationships on the ground, but the bottom line is that the two communities are further apart now than they were two or three years ago. We must address that issue.

1:45 pm

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the delegates for their presentations. I do not like to make a complex situation even more complex, but there are two additional factors that should be taken into account. Dr. Mason has mentioned that the war is over, but we are making a poor job of winning the peace. Is it not more the case that the politicians and former combatants have won institutional power? Is there a sense in which people, instead of addressing the real hurt that is felt, are dancing around it because they are concerned that to do otherwise might damage the institutions of peace, which include not just Stormont but also the institutions that flow from it? In other words, is there a sense that containment of anger is better than dealing with it because we do not know which way it will go if it is opened up?

Second, there has been a great deal of work done within the political system and at the military level, but the real problems are closer to the ground. Certain people got to sit around tables and have discussions and had, therefore, at least some control over their own future. On the other hand, the people who were learning from them and were inspired by them had no such input. The key question then is about the type of people and organisations that should be assuming leadership of the process. In other words, is it good enough to fall back on political leaders and former military leaders or should we be looking to other types of people to lead change?

Dr. Gary Mason:

There must be a collaborative effort. As I said, if we could get some key republicans and loyalists into a room with representatives of key NGOs and politicians who are willing to take risks - not those who are prepared only to play a safe game - there is a possibility to make progress. I would be interested in having a conversation on the way forward in that regard, as I am sure would Professor McBride. There is no avoiding the difficult conversations, in which politicians have a role. It is sometimes observed that reconciliation presupposes confrontation, which is another way of saying one must ask the hard questions. It is the same in any relationship. If a couple go for counselling without ever mentioning that one of them is abusing alcohol, they will not get anywhere.

Professor Peter McBride:

I agree that the real question in all of this is how the difficult stuff is handled. There is a case to be made that one of the outcomes of the peace process was the end of the careers of both John Hume and David Trimble. One analysis has it that these individuals pushed their own constituencies too far, which resulted in the end of the Official Unionist Party and the SDLP. An important point to make is that the skills and attributes which assist in bringing an end to war are not necessarily the skills and attributes which help to create peace. We are talking about different things. There is something to be said for creating a safe and secure environment which might encourage people who will not be seen publicly to be doing something to take some risks below the radar. There is conflict and it has been institutionalised.

Finding a mechanism to get out of that conflict and manage it in a way that is not violent or destructive and does not involve the degeneration of society again is the real challenge. We live in a very tense and anxiety-ridden society. Therefore, we need to create somewhere safe where people can begin to get beyond the political rhetoric into some of the conflict behind it but in a way that is facilitative and constructive. That is a huge challenge.

1:55 pm

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Everything we are has been learned. When one is brought up in an environment, a geographical area that is divided along sectarian lines, the way to deal with this is to deal with sectarianism. Sectarianism has been supported by the churches and used historically as a position of supremacy in that way and economically. Therefore, one must deal with it, but how is that to be done? One deals with it through integration, including in education. One cannot change people who have lived through the past 60, 70 or 80 years and have an entrenched position. One must look beyond this if one is talking about creating emotional reconciliation. That will only start with early intervention, at a very young age. That is how one deals with sectarianism.

I disagree with Dr. Mason. Perhaps things have slipped back in certain parts of Belfast, but, overall, the situation has not been too bad. Last year the committee was on the Newtownards Road and met Jimmy Birch, Denis Cunningham, John Bunting and Jackie McDonald inside UDA headquarters. That was a huge step. Four years ago one would probably have ended up on the bonfire if one had picked the wrong night to go there and vice versa, but that visit demonstrates how far we have come. There is an onus and a responsibility on both the churches and political representatives to go along the road towards early intervention to deal with the root cause of the problem in the North - sectarianism.

Dr. Gary Mason:

I know the committee left my building to go to meet them there. On the ground it is sometimes easier for loyalists to meet people in Dublin than it is to meet them across the interface. In the past two years, particularly in parts of Belfast, there has been increasing isolation among some of the groupings. There is still work to be done, but that does not minimise the achievements. However, we need to map a way forward. The flags protest demonstrated this for all of us. It was a shock and said to all of us that we should pause and take a breath and ask where we should go from here.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Dr. Mason suggested the committee should facilitate this.

Dr. Gary Mason:

We should do it overnight. I would be keen to talk with the Acting Chairman and others about that suggestion over lunch.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the joint committee, I thank Reverend Mason and Professor McBride for their most informative and open engagement with the committee. We wish them well in their work. I also thank committee members for their engagement.

We have been to the Skainos centre on the Newtownards Road on numerous occasions. I concur with Deputy Martin Ferris that when we saw former combatants from both sides hugging one another there, this showed how far we had come. The role of education is vital in addressing sectarianism. Cross-Border and cross-community integrated schooling and early intervention have been mentioned. Dr. Mason's commitment to the idea of getting together senior loyalist, republican and clerical leaders and leading NGOs and politicians for an overnight debate and dialogue is important. As a group of politicians from all parties committed to the Good Friday Agreement, we would like to work with him to secure that agenda and move things forward.

This meeting has been very positive. I come from a background in the west of Ireland, not far from the Border, where this issue was sometimes seen as not being our problem. However, psychologically, it was our problem and it is clear that across the island of Ireland everybody has suffered psychologically during the years. I again thank our guests for what has been an excellent discussion. I look forward to working with them and the members of the committee.

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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What are we going to do about the proposal to create a safe place where A, B, C and D can get together?

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I will talk to the Chairman and we will work with all members to try to advance the proposal. There has been significant dialogue in the past year or two and I thank everyone for his or her work.

The joint committee went into private session at 2.20 p.m and adjourned at 2.30 p.m. until 12 noon on Thursday, 11 July 2013.