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  • Robin Horsfall

Time to put 'all' of the past behind us.

Time to put ‘all’ of the past behind us.

More than one thousand years ago, the Anglo-Saxons lived under a system of law that was based on revenge. If someone injured a family member one could take revenge on anyone in the offender’s family. It was acceptable to take payment in kind – a life for a life.

King Alfred the Great introduced trial by jury and a compensation system to attempt to stop tribal and family feuds killing off all his proud young men. It worked and still forms the basis of trials today.

Alfred understood that a constant desire for revenge had a detrimental effect on society. Revenge systems did not create any form of resolution. Family feuds could extend through several generations; a modern example would be the historical feud between the Camerons and the Macdonalds and more importantly the sectarian divide between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland.

When a society is divided by historical hatred, the emotional outweighs the logical. Descartes said ‘There is no truth there is only belief’. Many years ago I protected Rafic Harriri who was about to become Prime Minister of Lebanon. Beirut was a war zone with a dozen different factions killing one another. When I asked him what they were fighting for he replied ‘Robin, they are fighting for their gods’.

The situation in Northern Ireland is the classic case of what Alfred tried so hard to eliminate. One injustice led to another and then another until the emotional weight of the injustice was so heavy that no individual or group (short of a king) could balance the scales.

The rhetoric that emanates from Ulster harks all the way back to the time of Oliver Cromwell and even further. As in all wars, atrocities are committed and mistakes were made but peace simply becomes the absence of violence not the ending of hostility. Wars are created by Governments and rulers – wars are not created by soldiers. Blame for wars and the errors of wars should ultimately lie with those that choose to go to war not those who were ordered to fight on behalf of their countrymen.

The first world-war ended with the treaty of Versailles a treaty that humiliated and bankrupted Germany this was an injustice that inevitably led the majority of a sophisticated, Catholic society to act intuitively and support Adolf Hitler. At the end of the subsequent second world-war, lessons were learned. The victors were magnanimous and invested billions in the reconstruction of Germany and Japan. In so doing, they persuaded the population of the defeated countries to forget the past and to look towards a better future.

Today in Northern Ireland, the old hatreds are inherent; there is no reparation or forgiveness only constant reminders of the past in symbols and marches that mark the continuing division. The leaders of the dominant parties gain their votes by appealing to old hatreds and animosities; it is sadly the only way to obtain power. Neither side has an Alfred who can persuade both sides to put away the injustices of the past and look to the future. Many hoped that the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ was a path to resolution but as soon as the deal was signed, both sides began to look for new ways to advance their agendas and gain dominance.

The Historical Enquires Team (H.E.T) is one example of a policy set up perhaps with the best of intentions that has led to new injustices. When the past is put aside for the furtherance of peace any legally sanctioned activity that returns to the past will inevitably resurrect the same old bigotry.

The HET has recently arrested former British Soldiers who were previously exonerated on new charges of murder and attempted murder. Regardless of the legality of these prosecutions, they can have no benefit to the cause of sustained peace in Ulster. The H.E.T investigation has created a growing resentment among the hundreds of thousands of former soldiers and airmen who served in Ulster. Many veterans now want to remind us of what they witnessed and tell us of those friends they lost in the fighting with new marches and demonstrations.

Veterans blame their former enemies and demand sanctions, some comments are filled with old hatreds that were put aside many years ago. The H.E.T has created a new series of injustices that can only lead to more hatred and ill feeling and the possibility of a return to the violence of the past.

It is time for the DUP and Sinn Fein to reflect and to improve the prospects of Northern Ireland; it is time to put all of the past aside the way the Germans and the Japanese did and build a better future.

Robin Horsfall

16 June 2017

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