Dealing with the Shadows of the Past

On the eve of his historic state visit to Britain, President Michael D Higgins spoke of the problems involved in asking victims and injured to move forward. ‘Affecting a kind of amnesia’, he stated, ‘is of no value to you, you are better to honestly deal with the facts that are standing behind you as shadows’. He went on to note that ‘…you have to address the past. You can’t allow yourself to be crippled by the past, you have to be able to approach the past in a way that doesn’t cripple you in the present or damage you in the future’ (Irish Times, 8 April 2014).


It may be worth taking Mr Higgins’ approach seriously and looking at what doesn’t work.


In his recent book on the attempts to come to terms with the past in Serbia, Eric Gordy refers to the idea of the German sociologist Max Weber that ‘bureaucracies once founded tend to take on a life and logic of their own’ (2013, p. 59). The sentiment is, arguably, reflective of the main lessons of the book in which Gordy maps the ‘genuine achievements’ of transitional justice in the region together with its demonstrable inability to really tackle received wisdoms about the past and the resilience of sectarian and segregated ideologies in the present.


Transitional justice takes its raison d’être from the Nuremburg trials after the Second World War and is seen to encompass a range of judicial mechanisms such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and quasi-judicial institutions based on storytelling and emphasising restorative justice such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The focus has been on instances of regime change rather than post-conflict scenarios, Gordy points out. However, even with that proviso, the narrative is patchy: the example of the Tokyo tribunal is largely forgotten while ‘The long and exhaustive process of confrontation of the Nazi past in Germany is better traced as beginning from the activation of domestic judicial institutions in the 1960s than to a military tribunal founded by occupying powers in the 1940s’ (p.169). (See also John Dower’s 2012 collection in which he argues that ‘So substantial … [were the] omissions that it does not seem too harsh to speak of criminal neglect, or even collusion, on the part of the prosecution itself’ (p.124).)


For Gordy, the institution of a trial process at the ICTY and, specifically, the prosecution of Milošević – despite his evading justice through his suicide – worked to ‘set a precedent for the reach of legal responsibility’ (p.60). Yet, as he points out, despite – or perhaps because of – pressure from the international community and influential organisations such as the United States Institute for Peace, the impact at an everyday level is negligible: ‘Memories of the past remain disputed, and transitional justice initiatives have not bridged those cognitive divisions. In this regard it could be said that legal “truth” has not contributed to social “reconciliation”’ (p.68).


As the institutional roll-out of transitional justice mechanisms gathered pace in the first decade of the 21st century, Gordy argues, so also did stories about the conflict(s) of the 1990s become more and more entrenched. The problem, as he sees it, lies in the sectional focus of transitional justice initiatives in Serbia, or, more precisely, the confinement of activity to targeted groups. The paradoxical effect of institution-building has become then a filling-out of a legal space with little or no impact on the political or social realms. Gordy explains the limitations of the law as follows: ‘While it is not wholly implausible that a legal cause could lead to a social or cultural effect, a deeper understanding of the environment is required’ (p. xiv).


For Gordy the implication is clear: it is in the cultural processes of understanding that the past becomes salient and divisive.


Arkiv have made similar arguments in previous posts and have suggested that a process of historical clarification could help to move the past out of being a debilitating and primary focus of contemporary Northern Irish politics. This would, of course, not work to end arguments about the past but might, we would argue, work to drain them of some of their symbolic and emotive importance.


The proposals of Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan, we have also suggested are, arguably, sui generis; the range of institutions for ‘contending with the past’ contained in those proposals are vast and perhaps largely utopian. As an alternative, Arkiv has suggested that some kind of historical clarification commission would be cheaper, quicker, and more transparent.


The point was made by Healing Through Remembering (2006) a number of years ago and it is worth quoting the organisation’s discussion of a historical clarification option in full:


This option would probably generate less political opposition, be less expensive, and could be the start of a broader public debate on what happened. It would produce a report, and could make recommendations. However, this type of Commission would have no evidentiary powers, no power to compel witnesses, grant amnesty, or prosecute, so it would not enable individuals to discover what happened in particular incidents, nor would it be able to name names or push for prosecution. Also, it would be unlikely to meet the needs of victims, and would risk seeming distant and scholarly, both of which would limit public ownership of its results (p.xi).


As Arkiv has suggested, one way to avoid a Weberian multiplication of institution-building while simultaneously detaching ‘The Past’ from its centrality in contemporary politics may be found in the middle ground between doing nothing and doing too much. We agree with Healing Through Remembering that such an option may not solve all the ills of society or meet all the demands of competing voices. However, it may provide the basis for the beginning of a ‘public debate about what happened’ in Northern Ireland.


Gordy’s book serves as a reminder of what happens when institutions become detached from everyday political reality. Arkiv has pointed out that one way of reinvesting the debate over the past in Northern Ireland with a degree of applicability; for, as Healing Through Remembering has pointed out In contexts where it is deemed impossible or inappropriate to establish a modern-day truth commission with associated strong legal and investigative powers, it may still be possible to achieve some shared understanding of the past through an agreed and independent historical commission without such powers’ (p.32). This more minimalist version of dealing with the past may, we would suggest, go some way to bringing light to the shadows of the past.



John Dower, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World (The New Press, 2012).

Eric Gordy, Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post Milošević Serbia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Healing Through Remembering, Making Peace with the Past: Options for Truth Recovery Regarding the Conflict in and About Northern Ireland (Healing Through Remembering, 2006).