Forgive and Remember.
‘Without forgiveness there is no future’. Desmond Tutu.
Forgiveness is a staple of the Christian faith from the first mention in Genesis right through to 1st John. There is no mention of forgiveness in Revelation (maybe its too late by then?) I didn’t become a ‘Born again’ during my time in prison but I did get to read the Bible a lot. (Especially in the punishment cells) I did attend church before going to prison and I still attend on the odd occasion. I have also been to chapel on numerous occasions to attend funerals, christenings and weddings. I also got to read the Roman Catholic version of the Christian Bible. Since then I have also read the Koran completely and spent a lot of time on Judaism, the Talmud and Torah.
The Lords Prayer I was taught at Sunday School (and home) includes the phrase and ‘forgive those who trespass against us’. I read in Matthew Ch.6, verse 12 in the King James version that ‘. .forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ Allowing for this article that debts and trespasses are anything that is hurtful to us, then the argument is, we should at some point, forgive others.
So where is forgiveness today in Northern Ireland, that Christian country with its high rate of church and chapel attendance? The reaction to Larkins proposal concerning drawing a line and then the death of one of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, prompts important and significant questions for this country and its future. Was there a populist grass roots reaction to these events or one from vested interests, magnified by the local media? And now the DUP talk of a limited immunity?
Can we do a South Africa and draw a line and move forward together? First, a confession. No, I didn’t have forgiveness, love and understanding when I was young and feeling afraid and angry. I had no forgiveness while the bombs went off daily in the middle of my city. I didn’t forgive those that took away the lives of people I knew that fuelled my hatred. Enough hatred to join up and seek out revenge. I have had friends and colleagues killed by republicans, loyalists and security forces. Sadly I have also had friends who ended their lives at their own hands. So can I forgive now after serving out my life sentence? And do I seek the forgiveness of my victims?
But first, a quick look at what has gone before. In 1916 in this country and during a great war there was enough pain, poverty and hurt for everyone. One section of the country said, ‘we had enough of britishness’ and they gained a nation. The Irish Nation. They used violence along the way. A chunk of the island wanted to stay British. They used violence also. So after the brits pulled out of Dublin harbour what happened? Enquiries and tribunals set up to catch people 30 years on? Recrimination and allegations? Not really because greater circumstances overrode those considerations. Very quickly Irish Republicans had their more immediate worries- a civil war. When the dust settled on that conflict, which was as ugly as anything preceding it, was there a truth commission? Were the victims voices listened to? Was there a Historical Team set up to look at past deeds? None, that I can read about. During the Second World War there was IRA activity and in 1942 young Mc Williams was hung in Belfast for killing a policeman. Often forgot about for Unionists is that the other 5 charged men were quietly released through time. No enquires or tribunals after the war.
During the ‘50s, the IRA started a Border campaign. After it petered out, what happened? A truth commission? No. Actually that hard line Unionist monolith decided to let IRA life sentence prisoners, who had killed policemen, out of jail early. Not an amnesty you understand but let out anyway.
Was there forgiveness? Or understanding? Or a pragmatic approach? But what of further afield? There were no mass hangings after World War 1. But Germany was made to pay heavily and set up one of the necessary conditions for the Second World War. After World War 2 and with the obscenity of Nazism and the holocaust ,there was an appetite for justice and revenge and hence Nuremberg. But both Japan and Germany have been forgiven, in a way, and life has moved on. But it is harder for an individual who has lost a dear one. So what about Algeria with the French trying to fight the OAS? (There is an informative book, ‘Wolves in the City’ by Paul Henissart, about that conflict. ) After the French left, was there a Truth Commission, an HET type body? No. What of Bosnia and Rwanda? Literally millions of victims and what is happening there? The various conflicts in Central America. What happened after the end of the communist terrorist campaign in Malaysia in the 1950s? Truth recovery processes are not inevitable. Indeed it seems a modern phenomenon.
Forgiveness is not a thing to be taken for granted. True forgiveness is an amazing thing and through the Troubles I have seen giants walking among us. I will take two just as examples. I listened to Mr Mc Goldrick after his son had been shot dead in 1996 for no better reason than he was a Catholic. I was humbled and amazed by his talk at a time of the greatest hardship and heartache in a parent’s life. I am a father. How would I feel in that man’s shoes? Similarly in 1987 I listened to Mr Wilson who lost his daughter in the Enniskillen bombing. Such strength and understanding. Was this the Christianity as outlined in our Bible? I respect the wishes of the victims who do not wish to go to that place. To forgive publicly. But I do distinguish between those who cannot forgive and those who will not forgive. The worst of the latter, being opportunistic politicians, who use anybody and any issue, to further their own beliefs and goals.
And what of me? Because I killed, am I allowed to have victim’s feelings when my friends are killed? I have met, on the street, one of the men, a Provo, who killed my friend and shot another two people I knew. We knew each other and what we had done. I had harmed members of his small community This was not an old mates reunion. But neither was it hostile. We spoke like civil people. I plan no harm to him or anyone else for that matter. I understand why he done what he done.
The policeman who executed my friend on a Belfast street is 30 years older. Possibly I have met him somewhere through my life. Neither of us may know about the other ones background. But what was done 30 years ago is done. No one can undo it. It took me time to learn how to forgive but first I needed to understand. I already knew how to hate. And I have seen where hate leads. And yes, to answer my own question, I would like the forgiveness of all my victims. And that includes my family.
I am never going back to where I once was. I work and hope for a better and peaceful society. I have no magic formula for sorting out the victim situation. But I will do my best, and have done, to try and ensure there are fewer victims in the present and the future. We all need to become giants if we can emulate South Africa. Otherwise we are staying where we are. Is that good enough? The quote I started with is worrying. If we can’t forgive, what future lies ahead of our children and grandchildren? Will there be a never ending cycle? Or can we be the generation that finally starts the process of living together with our differences?