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DG #51 preview: The Good Friday Agreement, 25 years on

Members of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign march with banners depicting the victims of the shootings, on 15th June 2010. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The 51st issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by Harriet Salem about peace, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland a quarter century after the Good Friday Agreement. Matthew Lee spoke to Harriet about her fascinating and moving long-read…

Matthew Lee: Your article focuses on survivors of Troubles-era violence. Why did you choose to wrote about this topic?
Harriet Salem: There is a tendency to think that the conflict in Northern Ireland was resolved by the Good Friday Agreement. It did mark an end to the terrible violence for the most part, but peace was achieved at a price. The Agreement has been described as a masterclass in ‘constructive ambiguity’. It didn’t include any specific provisions to tackle the thorny issue of truth-telling or provide reconciliation mechanisms. As a result, many of the thousands of victims of Troubles-era violence and their relatives have been left in limbo. Recent tensions over Brexit have highlighted how some political issues remain unresolved. But I wanted to dig behind the statements of politicians and speak to people in Northern Ireland about why these divides are still so strong a quarter-century after peace had been reached and what truth and justice mean to those affected by the violence.

ML: At the start of the piece you focus on Columba McVeigh, who disappeared after the IRA accused him of being an informant. Why did you choose his case rather than any other incident in the Troubles?
HS: The search for Columba’s remains by his family, I think, is a very clear example of how, decades later, many people in Northern Ireland are still searching for answers about what happened during the Troubles. In this case, they are still physically searching for his body at Bragan Bog. I interviewed several survivors of Troubles-era violence and their relatives for this piece. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to include all these accounts in the story. However, they all informed my thinking while I was writing. A common theme for most of the survivors I spoke to was that they are still searching for truth and/or justice. Columba’s family’s search is a very powerful representation of this and, indeed, the (intergenerational) trauma that is a consequence of the many unaddressed and unanswered questions about what happened during the Troubles.

ML: Did researching and writing this feature leave you feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the next 25 years in Northern Ireland?
HS: I’m on the fence about this one. Clearly, Northern Ireland has come a long way since the Troubles. It’s a beautiful place to visit and the people are incredibly warm and hospitable. That said, the peace walls [dividing neighbourhoods in Belfast], which are unlikely to come down anytime soon, and continued paramilitary activity show that tensions are still very much there and only just below the surface. Will there be a backslide? As Professor Liam Kennedy, an academic and expert on the Troubles, who is quoted in the piece, said to me: “I can’t say it’s not possible. All the ingredients are still there – and if it does the consequences, as we’ve seen [during the Troubles] are so serious.”

ML: Why are truth-seeking mechanisms in Northern Ireland controversial?
HS: Truth and reconciliation initiatives can help reduce tensions and help people move forward at the end of a conflict. But a big problem is that there is often, paradoxically, a tension between truth-telling and justice in post-conflict situations. Often, one must be sacrificed to achieve the other. As a result, it can be very hard to find a way that feels fair to everyone – this is evident in the debates and controversy that surround the Legacy Bill. In Northern Ireland time is running out to find this balance. Twenty-five years have passed since the Good Friday Agreement and many of the people involved in these crimes are now old or dead. Memories are fading. The window of opportunity to establish a record of what happened is closing.

Anyone with information on any of the four outstanding Disappeared cases can contact the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains anonymously. Anyone affected by the issues discussed in this piece can contact the Wave Trauma Centre for support. 

You can read the full feature by Harriet Salem in issue 51 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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