Self –Accusation and Self-Justification: a very short note

The Haass/O’Sullivan draft is nothing if not exhortatory.


The words of the desert monk John the Dwarf would have been a useful addition to the rhetorical invitations that draft makes to confront the past truthfully and honestly. According to John, the human condition is one in which:


We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.


As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, comments on this saying (2003:47-8), the statement that self-accusation is easy and self-justification is hard sounds obviously counter-intuitive. What does it mean? Williams suggests this interpretation:


Self-justification is the heavy burden, because there is no end to carrying it; there will always be some new situation where we need to establish our position, dig the trench for the alter-ego to defend.


If this is the case for the individual (and one doesn’t have to look too far in the recent history of Northern Ireland to find politicians digging trenches to defend new – and old – accusations about their past) it is equally true of groups and even of ideologies. And if those individuals, groups and ideologies have a significant role in determining what ‘confronting the past’ involves then the problem becomes self-evident. It is a problem which Arkiv has been highlighting in the posts on this site. It is why we have argued for a Historical Commission to take the issue of the ‘confronting the past’ out of politics.


But how can self-accusation be a light burden? Of course, for the desert fathers (as for Williams) the matter does not concern what should or should not be rendered unto Caesar. It concerns salvation and the grace of divine mercy. Surely this cannot be appropriate politically? Does it not sound a bit like a show trial? It is highly unlikely that the political groups in Northern Ireland will engage in self-accusation. For example, Judge Smithwick’s report on the murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan (3 December 2013) showed how reluctant the IRA is to help the process of truth recovery. From its own perspective, why should it when the past remains – as it is equally for others –the territory of self-justification?


That is further good reason for a historical approach to dealing with the past. The process of historical investigation is self-critical in terms of how it approaches facts, evidence and sources. Its attraction to the parties should be this: it allows them to lay down the burdens of self-justification because the historical approach is not concerned with accusation but with understanding through a process of critical engagement with sources. As we argued in our original submission to the Panel of Parties, this ‘does not mean making historians into truth attorneys preparing a case to condemn; rather – along the lines of the sort of legal ‘opinion’ given by Supreme Court judges in the USA – the purpose is to clarify the bigger picture’.



Rowan Williams Silence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert, Lion Books 2004