Reconciliation?

By Seán Brennan

The ‘fallout’ from Michael D. Higgins’ refusal to attend a ‘reconciliation’ event, organised by ‘the four main churches’ in Armagh, in September 2021, appears to have created a ‘moment’ when it has become possible to openly critique the ‘peace process’ for the public good.

With Northern Ireland lauded internationally as an exemplar in peacebuilding few have ever taken the time to ask if the peace process actually worked. So, now might be the opportune moment to ask, or at least clarify, what is meant by ‘reconciliation’? And more importantly, why has this ‘reconciliation’ event in Armagh caused so much controversy, at state, institutional and street levels, calling the very foundation of ‘peacebuilding’ in Ireland into question? President Higgins has gained an international reputation for being a wise man. And he has been at the fore in promoting the idea of reconciliation between all parties to the conflict, so why refuse to attend this particular event?

Exploring this idea, this concept, this mentality, and what it really means, may then help widen wonder on what reconciliation is actually designed to do and why our lack of understanding, the vagueness that surrounds reconciliation, helps cause controversy, not just at the grassroots, but also for those in high office, in the very institutions of State itself.

According to the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB), based on the research of Ulster University’s Brandon Hamber and Grainne Kelly, reconciliation is understood as ‘the building of positive relations to acknowledge and deal with the past’.[i] On this metric, the European Union monitors and evaluates progress in its endeavours to support the people of Northern Ireland and the Border Regions in efforts to reconcile the past and build positive relations for a shared present: where peace and prosperity mobilises agency to deliver an improved quality of life more than structural violence and ethno-sectarian governance systems do.

Given the number of people who have engaged in SEUPB peacebuilding programmes, at least since 2007 when the definition was first institutionally employed, this idea of reconciliation will have an everyday familiarity to it. For others, it may seem a somewhat strange or secular enunciation of the concept. That’s because for many people in the West, reconciliation, if even considered, is generally viewed as a religious concept, a tool, designed for people to ‘forgive sin’ and move on to that greater goal of preparing to meet thy God, in the ‘afterlife.’

As the Jesuit, Michael Hurley, describes, from a religious perspective reconciliation is primarily a personal and ‘spiritual’ experience, which focuses ‘on people and on problems’ as well as on ‘forgiveness’, rather than on imposing a contested sense of justice, which can create ‘confrontation between the conflicting parties’ and innovate new cycles of violence.[ii] This religious definition aligns with  Hamber and Kelly’s objective to build personal positive relations that acknowledge and deal with the past. However, while the religious model still evokes a personal need for reconciliation and the secular definition suggests that people need to reconcile with each other, the obvious question follows: where is the state in these acts of reconciliation, the only actor with legal authority to wage war?

A core reason for this absence of state focused reconciliation lies in the Western dominance of the post-Cold War era. Liberal democracies promoting the marketization of post-conflict recovery consolidated this idea of reconciliation by employing theological tools to repair relations between people, places, and polities in the post-ceasefire liberal marketisation period. The Western need for a form of reconciliation between former enemies gained universal application through Liberal Peacebuilding programmes, delivered via the United Nations, to conflict zones not even Christian in ethos. However, as the Armagh ‘event’ demonstrates, applying a religious device in a juridico-political setting is problematic.

Therefore in the early two-thousands, peace theorists, such as John Paul Lederach, developed more secular, non-denominational definitions of reconciliation. In this, secularly global guise, the concept of reconciliation became more about ‘relationship-centric policies’, ‘accompaniment’, ‘humility’, ‘restoring the fabric of community’, and ‘a wandering in the desert’.[iii] Within this context, it is possible to see how Hamber and Kelly could conceive of a reconciliation definition that involved the building of positive relations to acknowledge and deal with the past in a way that allowed Western states to observe, quantify and evaluate former enemies building peace.

Acknowledging the challenges faced by those who had previously attempted to redefine the concept of reconciliation for global application, Lederach counselled, ‘conceptualized from within particular religious frameworks’, the vagueness of reconciliation raised questions on whether the concept could ever be ‘generalized into broader social and political processes.’[iv] This was an important point to consider as the concept of reconciliation, in its Liberal Peacebuilding guise, increasingly sought to name, shame, and criminalise the individual for their part in violence. Yet, while it might be possible to prosecute Soldier A, it becomes increasingly difficult to expose General A or State A to the same jurisdictional gaze.

So, in its current Liberal Peacebuilding guise, reconciliation appears to be something aimed at the weak and non-elite but not the state. In fairness, this was also the case prior to the Liberal Peacebuilding experiment.

Nevertheless, with a growing global state-building mentality, this Western Liberal, state-centric search for a legal, institutionally operative definition of reconciliation has led to the emergence of new peace technologies. Most notable is the move towards a more legally systematic process of reconciliation through the concept of Transitional Justice.

Professor of Law, Colleen Murphy, defines the concept of Transitional Justice, as ‘formal attempts’ by ‘postrepressive or postconflict societies to address past wrongdoings’.[v] Using formalised and bespoke legal systems reconciliation then arises from an inclusive relationship-centric approach to restoring the fabric of a torn society, and removing the violence and social injustice from the state. In an increasingly secularised international ‘rule of law’ setting these processes of transitional justice attempt to put into praxis the ‘constitutive speech action’ of reconciliation. That is, the delivery of secular reconciliation systems to build trust and relations, and to legally resolve the restitution of justice for victims of violence and war.[vi] For reconciliation to achieve this objective of constitutive speech action it also needed to move beyond the limited confines of the courtroom towards more ‘non-judicial instruments such as apologies, healing circles, or forms of collective remembrance and commemoration’. This approach could help in democratising the process of reconciliation, widening participation so that the victim can experience and recover from an act of reconciliation.[vii]

Yet, as Colleen Murphy argues this transitional approach to reconciliation must aim beyond the ‘repairing or rebuilding’ of relationships and establish a ‘political community’ to recognise the ‘fragility of political relationships’ in transition. For if new governance systems are to emerge and deliver the constitutive speech action of reconciliation to the satisfaction of all, then collective political responsibility is essential to help make the transition from Direct Violence and Structural Violence to a Positive peace.[viii] Murphy’s argument is that as the State acknowledges and deals with its past, it needs to set in motion systematic reforms to establish a transparent constitutive speech action process of delivering reconciliation in ways that addresses all aspects of past wrongs, and resolve intergenerational human rights abuses inflicted by the State.

Discussing this state-centric view of reconciliation in a more theoretical context, Andrew Schaan shows how, in its present form, the concept now plays an ‘inherently conservative’ role ‘in the service of the unity of the state’. To realise this unity, Schaan suggests, the state’s needs usurp the individual’s or collective’s within the process of reconciliation.[ix] Given this ideological conservatism, Eric Doxtader discusses how many people are increasingly ‘wary’ of reconciliation’, primarily because the ‘terminological question’ it poses, what is meant by reconciliation, ‘has significant stakes’ for individuals and warring parties and states attempting to redefine their legitimacy and sovereignty.[x] For Doxtader these stakes push the concept of reconciliation beyond universal acceptance for a number of reasons:

‘[t]he concept of reconciliation stands accused of being: too vague to form a coherent political project; illiberal because it looks forward to an ideal of community that is not compatible with the pluralism of modern societies; question-begging since it aims to restore a prior state of harmony that never actually existed; assimilative in that it represents the political claims of the ruled only in terms commensurate with the interests of the rulers; quietist insofar as it demands resignation to the injustices of the past and forgoing resentment of their continuing legacy; and exculpatory in that it provides an opportunity to redeem the good conscience of the nation primarily through symbolic gestures’.[xi]

These insights, on the challenges of staging a reconciliation event between former enemies, then tend to reaffirm the historical view that reconciliation has always been a contested rhetorical question. And, as the concept of reconciliation is increasingly drawn into the geopolitical realm, this view is now becoming progressively ideological and political.[xii]

Within such contested spaces, public wariness, arising from the vagueness of the current concept of reconciliation and its increasingly ideological and political role, can be observed.

To look at the fallout from the Armagh event, opinion polls in  the Republic show an overwhelming 80% support for the President not to engage in a reconciliation event. Given Higgins’ previous support for events that help heal divisions this might appear strange. However, seen from a Liberal reconciliation perspective, the Armagh event appears ‘question-begging’ and claims to be restoring a prior state of harmony that did not exist in the first place. Not surprisingly, many are suspicious that this event was simply an opportunity for church leaders to redeem their institutional leadership roles, tarnished by issues beyond the ‘Troubles’,  such as their failure to deliver reconciliation for past abuses relating to the Mother and Baby schemes or Magdalene Laundries.

As the ‘fallout’ from this Armagh Reconciliation continues, the window to publicly critique the ‘peace process,’ opens ever so slightly.

Given the current geopolitical climate, and as political power increasingly moves Eastwards, Western notions of reconciliation are tempered by the Realpolitik of International Relations and it is somewhat challenging to believe state-centric approaches to reconciliation will ever produce the constitutive speech action, the forgiveness, that the public needs.

As this vague, incoherent, ideologically driven event in Armagh demonstrates, the road to reconciliation is paved with good intentions, yet potholed by legal frameworks and States unable to acknowledge and deal with their past.

For such reasons, whether wittingly or unwittingly, the President of Ireland may have ultimately saved Britain from a greater international incident. Imagine, had critics won their argument and President Higgins had attended: would they then promote the same model of reconciliation in other parishes: in Jerusalem, Johannesburg, Nicosia, Islamabad, New Delhi or Hong Kong; and would they expect heads of state in these territories to provide a similar or different response from the President of Ireland?

Models of peacebuilding and reconciliation in Northern Ireland have often been lauded as international examples of ‘best practice’ that should be implemented in other conflict zones. Such models, promoted by politicians, peacebuilding professionals and academics, have generated much discourse on theory and praxis. However, it must be remembered, not all ‘best practice’ models are, or should be, transferable.

When framed on a wider analytical apparatus, the local model quickly became exposed as a politically incoherent conservative project more designed to protect the British state than promote reconciliation between people, places and polities attempting to recover from violent conflict.

If writing about the ‘Troubles’ is to be a positive exercise, then it is critical that we scrutinise and critique the peace process’s practices and allow for types of genuine reconciliation to emerge. We also need to acknowledge types of genuine reconciliation that do not emerge, so that we can learn from them. And we need to use these learning outcomes to help build relations between people so that genuine forms of reconciliation, of forgiving, can eventually emerge beyond the ideological requirements of the state. In this guise, people may then deliver a popular and legitimate reconciliation process.

If we are not careful the ongoing failure to deliver reconciliation will inevitably result in the continuation of general public suspicion of states and their institutions and possibly create more confrontation and new cycles of violence.

Therefore, as this moment to critique the ‘peace process’ arises, it is important to reflect on this concept, this mentality, of reconciliation and wonder some more on how we can create events where all feel welcome to make amends for our past acts and where victims might forgive.

(Image: The Irish Labour Party Flickr Account)

Seán Brennan Ph.D. is an independent researcher. His work focuses on the challenges of reintegrating ex-combatants into a post-ceasefire space and developing biopolitical approaches to peacebuilding so those most in need experience the benefits of a positive peace. His latest publications include ‘Biopolitical Peacebuilding’, Peacebuilding (2021) and From warrior regimes to illicit sovereigns: Ulster loyalist paramilitaries and the security implications for Brexit’, Small Wars and Insurgencies Journal (2021).


[i] Brandon Hamber and Grainne Kelly, ‘Beyond Coexistence: Towards a working definition of reconciliation’, in Reconciliation(s), Transitional Justice in Postconflict Societies. Edited by Joanna R. Quinn. Oxford: McGill-Queen’s University Press,  2009. P. 288.

[ii] Michael Hurley, SJ. ed. Reconciliation in Religion and Society. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1994. P.4.

[iii] John Paul Lederach, ‘Five Qualities of Practice in Support of Reconciliation’, in Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation. Edited byRaymond G Helmick and Rodney L. Petersen. Radnor: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002. P.194.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Colleen Murphy, The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  2017. P.1.

[vi] Birgit Schwelling, Reconciliation, Civil Society, and the Politics of Memory: Transnational Initiatives in the 20th and 21st Century. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2012. P.7.

[vii] Ibid. 8.

[viii] Colleen Murphy, A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. P. 21.

[ix] Andrew Schaap, “Reconciliation as Ideology and Politics,” Constellations15, no. 2 (2008): P. 249.

[x] Eric Doxtader, ‘Reconciliation—a rhetorical concept/ion’, Quarterly Journal of Speech 89, no. 4 (2003): P. 269.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

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