Irish Examiner view: Truth commission - Time alone will not settle Ireland's bitter past

Irish Examiner view: Truth commission - Time alone will not settle Ireland's bitter past
Workers clean graffiti from a statue of Belgium's King Leopold II in Brussels that was targeted by protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration recently.  Picture: AP Photo/Francisco Seco

The Democratic Republic of the Congo will, on Tuesday, mark the 60th anniversary of its independence from Belgium. 

Those celebrations will be muted, the country can hardly afford a jamboree even if the DCR is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources. 

Its citizens are impoverished and have the world’s lowest, or nearly the lowest, nominal GDP per capita. The huge country is also one of the most corrupt. 

The predations of King Leopold II of the Belgians — at least a million dead — may be consigned to history but today’s DCR citizens live grim, unenviable lives. Leopold’s successor King Philippe has been asked to apologise for Belgium’s barbarisms but he remains unmoved. 

Others, especially the 10,000 who marched in Brussels on Sunday, are not so reticent. Statues of Leopold have been defaced. 

Like so many of his peers, Leopold is now regarded as a tyrannical, immoral imperialist. 

Calls for a South African style truth and reconciliation commission in Belgium have intensified.

A swathe of today’s America would scoff at the suggestion that America needs such a commission. This, in turn, exacerbates the situation while the Black Lives Matter protests risk becoming the very thing they oppose — violent tinderboxes that will inflame tensions. 

This will not change minds but harden hearts. Sadly, the circle will remain unbroken.

No modern country has had a greater need for a truth and reconciliation commission than Germany and no country has benefited so much from one. 

Germany invented Vergangenheitsbewältigung to confront Nazism’s evils. This remaking began half a century ago, after two decades of post-WWII silence. 

This helped turn a horrific legacy into something positive and today, Germany is one of the strongest democracies in the world, an achievement built, in part at least, by facing the monsters that consumed an older German society.

Two events this week suggest that we need a 32-county truth and reconciliation commission. This is not a novel suggestion but that, more than two decades after the Belfast Agreement, that the Dáil heard there remains “a real and persistent threat from republican paramilitary groups” underlines that need. 

So too, albeit on an different scale, does Monday’s unofficial campaign to rename Belfast streets. Signs honouring dead republicans were erected. 

The name of Queen’s University was “changed” to Mairéad Farrell University, a former student and one of three IRA members shot dead by British soldiers in Gibraltar in 1988. 

It is ironic, and sad, that in the city that gives its name to the greatest victory for talking over shooting in contemporary Ireland should be the setting for this new version of what has gone before.

The unknown consequences of Brexit, especially a hard Brexit, give urgency to this suggestion even if it might be traumatic. After all, if Germany can look itself in the eye why can’t we? 

The benefits could be enormous as a commission seems an obvious extension of the Belfast Agreement and it would be foolish to imagine that the passage of time, and the natural deaths of so many involved, alone can settle these toxic, contested issues. 

That old, goading question seems relevant: If not now when?

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