I read with great interest Michael Sean Winters' account of the establishment of the Belfast Project, an oral history of the 30-year bitter war between Loyalists and Republicans. I worked as an observer in Northern Ireland from 2000 to 2009 during the July marching season, when violence still erupts.
Catholic families living near the flashpoints hosted us. We would have stayed with Protestants, too, but they quite frankly told us they could not guarantee our safety. Still, we met with community representatives on every level when we weren't standing on a street corner in our blue jackets counting water cannons, incidents of bottle-throwing, and times when marching bands played incendiary tunes in front of churches during Mass.
Year after year, the depth of bitterness that rose up in the midst of ordinary conversation stunned me. I never got used to seeing flashes of pain over deaths that happened 30 years ago but remain unaddressed by police, the courts and government. People need to tell their stories, and to that point, the oral histories contribute to peacemaking. But when people are invited to tell their perspectives on killing with the promise of secrecy, I'm not so sure the telling holds healing. Now the promise is broken, but access to the interviews is selective, still cloaked in secrecy.
My awe grows at what Nelson Mandela accomplished in South Africa. There, too, the police and courts were complicit in some crimes, and I'm sure many people still carry bitter pain. But the nation as a whole has made a decision to move on.
Ireland made that decision, too, with the ratification of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, though it is telling that the two sides call it by different names. But moving on has been tough, in great part because government agencies remain part of the problem.
We can learn a lot about peacekeeping by studying Northern Ireland, but one lesson strikes me here: Wounds fester in secrecy while the light of day heals.