Northern Ireland, UK

Over the course of ten days I studied abroad with a group of fellow Ohio University students exploring human rights, law, and justice in post-conflict Northern Ireland. This course provided an anthropological approach to political transition, dealing with the past, contested memories, and the legacy of human rights abuses. The program emphasized the practical challenges of seeking justice and establishing lasting peace in post-conflict society.


You can create more with a pencil than you’ll ever do with a gun... We can put that gun away, and we can lift that pencil; you can create more with a pencil than you can with a gun. Taking that pencil in your hand is power. To create. To change.
— Adrian Callan

Reflection Review by: Brianna Griesinger

What are the challenges of truth recovery in post-conflict society? How does the state try to deal with the past? How do community groups try to deal with the past? What is the role of victims’ advocacy groups? How do they mobilize and present claims for justice? This paper will specifically focus on the Ardoyne Commemoration Project, a group of community members who joined together to collect the testimony of over 300 people about the deaths of 99 community members in their small working class town of about 11,000 people. Truth recovery posed numerous challenges from formalities, and psychological trauma to mere logistics. While the state has been caught up in politics and busy pushing ‘the Troubles’ to the past, community groups and victims’ advocacy centers have been fighting for legal, social, and psychological recovery of their region. Mobilizations for justice are ongoing and take a variety of forms including small town projects such as the ACP.

The purpose of this paper is truth recovery and memory projects in Northern Ireland. This paper specifically narrows in on the Ardoyne Commemoration Project, breaking down the project into it’s purposes, successes and failures, as well as a more general overview of the forms through with truth recovery can act. This paper will analyze this specific memory project in regards to who decides what project is best suited for the given communities. Who decides how the project is presented publically. How much about the truth recovery process is about moving forward, are the families of the victims really benefitting? Is there a way to look at how there are effects socially or from a mental health perspective on the victims or their families, is there a way to measure the projects’ benefits? Is there a place for community feedback? Who counts as a victim? This paper should serve as a response to these questions as they play out in relation to the Ardoyne Commemoration Project, as an assessment of memorials, and documentation as they relate to truth recovery and memory projects. These community members banded together with the shared belief that storytelling is a powerful tool. Storytelling is a testament to the lives lost, as well as the joint effort of both sides of the community in their united interests and determinations to overcome their violent past. This project calls upon the power of memory to give apology and healing to each individual affected as well as contribute to a global conversation of truth recovery, specifically here in post conflict societies.

The British arrived to Ireland about 400 years ago. After Spain had found their way to the north, really by accident, religious tensions began resulting in British Royalty fearing the Catholic take over, and the implementation of colonialism as the British attempted to take Ireland as a protestant holding ground. For geographical reasons, the British feared they would lose access to the Atlantic waterway if Spain and Ireland aligned. The British decided to begin replacing their military troops with settlers to establish the colony. Timber from the oak forests and the high profitability from the low wage working natives lured British and Scottish to aid in the colonization. The lumbar turned into the widespread of ship building, however a future of discrimination and hate filled the region as the native Irish felt oppressed, and stratification took over the island of Ireland.

The CAIN website covers the Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland, acting as a conflict archive of the ‘Troubles,’ a historical database. CAIN works out of Ulster University, and the website itself offers a variety of resources to learn more about the history of the region. The various pages include, a background, database, key events, key issues, conflict studies, and a general page on Northern Ireland Society, among others. The key events page lists periods of events in chronological order and provides a few small images from the event, either from the event itself or the time period or representations of the events through public commemoration, such as the mural of Bobby Sands on the page about the Hunger Strikes from 1981. The web site is also host the the outline and introduction to the Ardoyne Commemoration Project’s book Ardoyne: The Untold Truth, as well as testimonies from its contributors. The link to Northern Ireland Society includes not just information from the ‘Troubles’ but also links to information on Education, Employment, Geography and Environment, and so much more general information about the region in the present day.

The introduction to the book Ardoyne: The Untold Truth quotes “To give testimony is to bear witness; it is to tell the unofficial story, to construct a history of people, of individual lives, a history not of those in power, but by those confronted by power, and becoming empowered” (Perks and Thomson, 1998). This quote alone give preface to the perspective with which the community members approached this project, not as a formal history, but rather as a personal, and therefore significant recant of their own perspective on the very public events. The book was not written to be a perfect political or historical representation but rather as a community healing effort, in attempt to better understand their tragic losses. These stories are intimate, not formal, or legal, or general as the government or the media may prefer it, these are the stories of people, and this project hopes to call to that sense of personhood within each one of us. “It puts a human face on statistics, contextualizes the deaths in terms of historical events and gives social recognition to the victims of the conflict” (ACP, 2002). The book was written over the course of more than four years, local volunteers completing over 300 interviews, with each contributor gaining complete editorial authority over their own story.

In the case of the ACP, it was a group of community members who acted on a ‘victims’ agenda’ in 1998 who first developed the idea of a unifying project. The group recognized collectively that the media had gotten it wrong all of those years and that the misinterpretations and misrepresentations of their loved ones were an aspect to their loses that they found most frustrating. A book seemed like a logical solution, a place to write out their own perspectives of the stories, not as told by a second hand person, but by the witnesses and loved ones themselves. Part of the process required discussions on how public the testimonies would be made, and each participant had to agree to the publishing of their words prior to the interviews themselves. They community knew that their stories had to reach out beyond Ardoyne, and that they had a place in truth recovery on a global scale. This process was first and foremost about revealing the truth, as well as the healing experience of storytelling. As a side effect, this process of truth recovery became about moving forward for future generations of the region, as well as of other post-conflict regions of the world. Various participants had engaged in studies showing that suppressing the past, especially when it included violence, often did not allow for a violent-free future. There were extensive efforts made to ensure that the families involved were comfortable with the publications, as show through the redistribution of the testimonies. Interviewees were given full authorities to make edits to their testimonies as they saw fit, though edits were only allowed to your own words. If in the end they were alright publishing the work, they signed off on it and the board later collected the edits. This was viewed as imperative as “it underpinned the key principles of the project” (Lundy, McGovern, 2006). Disputes and differences did arise through this review process, but allowed for discussions that lead to resolutions. “Clearly this was a highly delicate and sensitive process and one that could only occur because o the rootedness of the project” (Lundy, McGovern, 2006). This project became about trust building, through its non-traditional approach of personal memory story telling, stories that were commonly suppressed or not often mentioned in everyday society.

The article “The Ethics of Silence” explores the ethical relevance of the ACP as a case study. This article discusses the purpose and motivation for research being to benefit someone because of it, rejecting the idea that research can be objective, unbiased, or neutral. “Action research is a coherent attempt to retrieve and legitimate popular knowledge;” (Lundy, McGovern, 2006). The researchers in this situation would be engaged politically along with the subjects of the research. Studies like this need to be open to dialogue just as the ACP accommodated. The ACP gave local ownership to the project and compilation of research as well as the grounds to conduct the research, with a focusing attempt on conducting the research in an ‘egalitarian manner.’ One of the main aims of the research was to not cause harm to any of the participants, even be that through memory recall. “Dialogue, critical reflection, and an openness to criticism from others are central to the democratization process and the breaking down of power relationships and decision-making control” (Lundy, McGovern, 2006). This article concludes on the idea that action research is a new model of research which can lead to initiatives for development in a society, “what guided the project initially was a fairly rudimentary understanding of action research principles gained through involvement in community development work or studying as political prisoners” (Lundy, McGovern, 2006).

A time for reflection finally came to the community after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the changing political climate. The city of Ardoyne used this book as a cathartic experience for personal healing, as well as recognizing the deceased in a formal and permanent matter. These stories are commemorated by relatives, neighbors, and friends of the deceased; one of the points brought out in the intro was the difficulty of accumulating these records as so many family members knew so little about their loved one’s death. These deaths were often brushed over and through the years between the years of 1969 and 1998 while ‘the Troubles’ gripped Ardoyne one tragedy and death was often soon followed by another. This normalization to death and murder are combated in the pages of this book, giving each individual their moment of recognition. The process of storytelling alone called for the revival of traumatic memories and difficult emotions; however, many community members viewed the process as an opportunity to ‘write back’ to all articles that had published false or misleading information, a way to stand up for the truth. This is a book by the community and for the community, a healing and a learning experience; a stance against “state sanctioned forgetting.”

What happened specifically in Ardoyne, Over the course of 29 years, recognized as ‘the Troubles’ 99 people lost their lives in Ardoyne alone. This statistic ranks “one of the highest death rates of any area in the North” (Lundy, McGovern, 2004). The community was faced, in 1998, with questions of defining impunity, victimhood, and collusion. This project is the maintenance of history, keeping these stories in permanence, unable to be misrepresented by other parties in the future.

Some of the main challenges of truth recovery in a post-conflict society are the willingness or even the ability of the locals to band together. The most stagnant issue in truth recovery are combating arguments, stories that contradict one another, and in doing so remove the cathartic healing experience and replace it with an ongoing battle of one sides truth against another’s, one is right and one is wrong. This obstacle can displace the neutral attempt of truth recovery. The state in the case of Northern Ireland is often eager to draw a line in the sand and leave the past in the past. The state has led officially formal inquiries into specific past instances such as The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, The Widgery Report, or the Pat Finucane Review. The state handled the HET courts and the policing accountability. They often are ready to move on and in their eyes finally be done addressing the issues of the past. However, for many republican and nationalist communities, these issues are as present as ever.

The article, You Understand Again: Truth Telling, touches on the topic of how truth telling can help a community achieve justice. The first section of the article looks at oral history and truth telling as a strategy against victimization. “This also raises important issues for local truth-telling and focuses on attention on the divisive legacies of conflict within as well as between particular communities” (Lundy, McGovern, 2004). The article points out various other post-conflict regions and how in their transitions have also utilized different truth telling mechanisms. This article uses the Ardoyne Commemoration Project as an example of an oral history approach to truth telling. By focusing on victim participation this article argues that oral history recordings “play a key role” in the post conflict transition; “Taken together, a culture of denial and omission concerning past events may be contributing to the continuation of conflict into the present, even if it is now largely unarmed” (Lundy, McGovern, 2004). The article continues on to discuss some of the issues that come along with truth telling process, and how it doesn’t work the same way necessarily for everyone. There will always be ethical issues in a post conflict region and with those comes methodological issues for the research. “Community participation was a defining feature of the project, guiding and shaping its development. A key goal was to generate a sense of control over the work amongst those taking part” (Lundy, McGovern, 2004).

Various community groups exist in Northern Ireland in attempts to deal with the past. The staff at the Pat Finucane Center manages a variety of efforts dedicated to restorative justice. The Center also runs programs such as the Recovery of Living Memory Archive, which provides support and advocacy to those affected in “the Troubles” or their “In Their Footsteps” campaign which aims to address the magnitude and avoid public amnesia of the scale of the tragedy in the region. Depending on the community and the atrocity that occurred there each group copes with their regional legacy in a different manner. Whether their focus is youth development, psychological services, artistic expression, legal action, or storytelling, each community has likely seen one form or another of attempts at restorative justice.

The Omagh Support and Self Help Group led by Michael Gallagher and his daughter Cat, focuses on getting people back into the community. The group focuses on the bombing of 1998 by the PIRA which resulted in 33 dead. The group focuses on social support, counseling services, therapy, artistic activities, aid with HET reports, an archive center, and even adjusting victims and family members back into the work environment.  This organization reaches out to the needs of the victims’ families specifically through fun, positive social engagements while the group does take trips to see musicals and other fun activities hey do a variety of healing and mental health practices as well. These strategies for healing are a mobilization of claims for justice. “These are peoples lives still and they could still live many happy years ahead if they so chose, but they had to choose” (Gallagher, 03/04/16).

Many victims’ and community advocacy groups act to restore justice, and promote peace and healing for both past and future generations. In a meeting with Gerry McConville of the Falls Community Council, on February 28th, 2016, McConville explained that inquests on a formal scale were impossible in many cases from Northern Ireland because no formal party could make a decision on the terms of reference, no matter how controversial the killing or assault. McConville called to “storytelling as a tool for conflict resolution.”  Storytelling however leaves a gap in explaining “the differences in what the two sides see in a story.” McConville adds that storytelling is meant to allow the audience to “feel the experience of people with competing views” One project that the Falls Community Council is looking to put into action is a “virtual Black Taxi Tour” titled “On This Day” which would be an online database filled with chronicles from the press which depict many of the life changing historical events of Northern Ireland’s period of “the Troubles.” This project in the same was as the ACP would mobilize and present claims for justice, by not ignoring the past but facing it head on through a public commemoration record such as this.

The original purposes of the ACP were to face head on the common Protestant agenda that drawing a line in the sand and moving forward is the only feasible solution. Instead the community recognized that forgetting the past wouldn’t bring peace. The purpose of the project is to learn and know, to publicly clear a name, but in this case not to prosecute their assailants. The ACP was a ‘victims’ agenda’ a venue “to explore ways in which the community could commemorate their own victims of the conflict; in their own way” (ACP 2002). All views and opinions were included from the community at large, as the purpose of this project was not to reinforce conflict or raise tensions to the past human rights violations discussed and explored in these stories. This book’s purpose was to act as a platform for healing through storytelling. This was a unifying community effort meant to bring the people of Ardoyne into a period of piece not as disjointed communities but as one, brought together through the process of of design, research, editing, and production of this book.

The ACP however still faced challenges however on some level. One of the most definitive mishaps of the project was the underestimation of time and effort required to complete the book, of which the Project says was “naively misjudged.” Both giving and receiving interviews proved to be an arduous task which took a toll on the individuals involved, which lasted over the course of years to finish. In an attempt to respect the grief of everyone, the ACP had to overcome the obstacle of deciding who was a victim. The group settle on “all those victims who, at some point in their lives, had been Ardoyne residents…” (ACP, 2002). Breaking the chain of maintaining a ‘hierarchy of victims’ was not as straightforward as it may seem especially considering the past political context of the community.

The resulting success of the ACP were numerous, from personal healing all the way to restorative justice and truth recovery framework for the future. The ACP faced many challenges upon its establishment coming from a complex political dynamic after the Good Friday Agreement.  “The ‘hierarchy of victims’ and the distinction made increasingly by anti-agreement unionists and other between ‘innocent’ and ‘non-innocent’ victims angered many in the Ardoyne community” (ACP 2002).  The project does address hierarchies of victimhood as members of the community felt that unionists had become “the supposed ‘legitimate’ voice for victims.” Families began to feel that they fell to bottom of the hierarchy or even that their lost loved ones may not even be counted as victims in the conflict at all. This project became an example for small community action in place of formal legal action. The project provides the people an opportunity to mourn again, while also teaching more and more people about the long lasting effects that state sanctioned and para-militaristic violence can have on a community. United community effort was “a defining feature of the project” an aspect that clearly led to the success of the project.

The Ardoyne Commemoration Project exemplifies the challenges, and highlights the successes of truth recovery in post-conflict society. The ACP is a conclusive example of how the state of Northern Ireland has approached dealing with the past, ignoring completely formal hearings for gravely affected communities such as Ardoyne. Community groups such as the Falls Community Council, Omagh, and the Pat Finucane Center provide legal, psychological, and social support to affected families. Advocacy groups such as these strive to reintegrate peace into their communities. Ardoyne’s mobilization through Ardoyne: The Untold Truth represents a present claim for justice, by the people for the people. Truth recovery posed numerous challenges from formalities, and psychological trauma to mere logistics, however paid off in this highly successful exploration of storytelling. As a way to summarize of the work that was done in Ardoyne, a political ex prisoner, Adrian Callan, from the Bogside in Derry perhaps phrased the mission of the project best, “We can put that gun away, and we can lift that pencil; you can create more with a pencil than you can with a gun” (03/03/16).