A new study soon to be published by academics from Edge Hill and the University of Ulster shows that a majority of people in Northern Ireland would give a cautious welcome to a mechanism for dealing with the legacy of the recent conflict, but are more divided on what form that process should take.
The study has been undertaken by Edge Hill?s Dr Mark McGovern and Dr Patricia Lundy from the University of Ulster and is based on a survey that sampled the views of 1,800 people representative of all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
The study was funded by the Community Relations Council of Northern Ireland and investigates whether Northern Ireland would benefit from a Truth Commission or similar mechanism.
Truth Commissions have become a key means of helping societies emerging from conflict come to terms with a history of mass human rights violations, or a violent and divided past. In the last 30 years there have been around 40 such commissions set up around in countries throughout the world, in places as diverse as South Africa, Peru and East Timor.
Truth Commissions have a range of aims and can be very different in terms of their powers and remit, but the central concern is to help a society come to terms with the past and avoid division and human rights violations in the future.
Dr Mark McGovern, Reader in Sociology said,
“Truth commissions are widely recognised as a means to promote reconciliation and redress past wrongs. In other parts of the world they are seen as an integral part of peace negotiations but up till now that has not been the case in Northern Ireland.”
“Our survey found that a majority (52%) of all respondents felt that a truth commission is important for the future, with only 28% declaring that they believed it would be unimportant. This may be a significant and, for many, an unexpected finding as there is often a perception that there is no appetite for such a process in Northern Ireland and that the Unionist community in particular is totally opposed to it.”
Dr McGovern stressed that there were some differences in community attitudes and other aspects of the findings have to be taken into account.
“These figures need to be treated with a great deal of caution. There were clear differences in community opinion, with Nationalists more likely than Unionists to support the idea of a Truth Commission.
“Similarly, other possible avenues for dealing with the past, including memorial centres and future criminal investigations and prosecutions, received more support, particularly amongst Unionists. In fact, an even greater majority than those who supported a Truth Commission felt there were better ways to deal with the past. There was also an overwhelming majority of people who believed that you would probably not get the truth from a Truth Commission.”
The findings also showed that few people were aware of what Truth Commissions had done in other parts of the world, and this may have contributed to their responses.
“What we might be seeing is that people in Northern Ireland in general do support the idea that some sort of process to deal with the past needs to be created, are positive about the value of trying to get to the truth, but are far less certain about what that process should look like.”