Competing Truths in Northern Ireland

Kyle Delbyck, SIT Study Abroad

Ireland: Peace & Conflict Studies


Northern Ireland is currently grappling with a surplus of different truths about the conflict. Competing versions of history are prevalent in all sectors of society. This disparity in viewpoints is evidenced by the fact that one of the landmark incidents of the conflict, Bloody Sunday, is still intensely disputed. In the Protestant community, some claim that there was IRA provocation, while others think the tragedy was a big mistake, with British soldiers simply scared and trigger-happy. Catholics, on the other hand, tend to believe the event to have been a deliberate and unwarranted massacre. Such discordant truths surfaced again and again throughout my time in Northern Ireland. There was wide disagreement over who “started” the Troubles, with both sides pointing the finger at the other. Likewise, there was also much dissension over the British government's role, with Republicans depicting the conflict as an anti colonial struggle, and Loyalists speaking of it as more of a domestic war. In a similar vein, Orange Order members I conversed with portrayed their organization as inherently tolerant and accepting, while Catholics generally perceive the group to be sectarian and hateful. I consequently continually returned to the question of whether there was enough space in the country to contain all of these competing truths. Will the peace process be able to succeed if different communities persisted in retaining different truths? Do these truths have to be reconciled in order for Northern Ireland to return to a “normal” society? Is it essential for peace that people at least understand, if not agree with, the truths of others?

These questions remained firmly entrenched in my mind during the initial three week visit and continued to trouble me once I returned to the Republic. It seemed that while many individuals possessed a sophisticated grasp of their own truths, they quite simply did not understand the full scope and complexity of other communities' truths. Why did other people believe what they did? What was the context or environment within which such beliefs originated? Additionally, while the different truths I encountered may have appeared to be in violent opposition to each other, there were often surprising commonalities beneath the surface disagreements. Both sides, for example, acknowledge the importance of economic oppression in the conflict, and both sides are critical of state actions. However, without any genuine engagement, most of these commonalities and shared experiences remain invisible. A gaping chasm in understanding is consequently prevalent in all sectors of society, causing much bitterness and even more division.

I have therefore come to the conclusion that, in order for Northern Ireland to achieve a sustainable peace, all communities must have the opportunity to both voice their truths and hear an in-depth account of the other side's perspectives. In many cases, it is not the fact of disagreement that is the problem, but the lack of any significant inter-communal dialogue. What mechanism would best facilitate this dialogue? During my time in Northern Ireland, I noticed that the subject of a truth commission was an issue frequently raised. I subsequently decided to use the question of the viability and potential of a commission as a vehicle to further examine people's perceptions of the truth. Are people open to the complexity of truth? Is the truth justice? Do certain truths need to be discarded? Is the truth more divisive than helpful? Should a single definitive version of the truth be instituted? Can truths be reconciled? Will people ever be able to recognize the validity of truths different from their own? These questions are integral to Northern Ireland's future and intricately relate to the success of the peace process. The Good Friday agreement and the resulting power-sharing government has thus far failed to provide the country with any mechanism to deal with such issues. Therefore, any truth commission that seeks to explore these difficult questions will be a worthwhile enterprise.