Is time running out?

One of the wonderful aspects of my job is the opportunity to meet some amazing people. Time after time, I get to spend time in the company of people who are doing, writing or thinking extraordinary things and half the time don’t recognise it. These encounters not only energise me, but sustain my hope that the world can be transformed and that the universe’s moral arc does indeed bend towards justice.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of spending time with a fantastic couple about to depart Europe to work in south Asia. That they are prepared to give up a comfortable lifestyle in the West to assist development in the Global South is impressive enough, but it was the nature of our conversations over three days that left me reeling and excited.

We spent a good deal of time talking about reconciliation, what it meant and how it worked. We even spent some time at Coventry Cathedral, drinking in the wonderful architecture of Basil Spence and breathtaking windows of John Piper. The question I was left with was whether reconciliation had a best-before date.

What do I mean? Since the 1990s, the world has become used to, and even complacent about, peace processes and systems of transitional justice. Apart from the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the post-apartheid South Africa, there have been dozens of agreements and process in virtually every continent. We have come to expect that a framework for reconciliation, truth-telling, transitional justice, ritualised remembrance, symbolic gestures, will kick in almost before the ink is dry on the peace agreements or the guns fall silent. In places like South Africa or Rwanda, this has been the case and yielded some positive results. But my question is what happens when it is not possible to agree a framework for years or even decades? In the former Yugoslvia, where peace was imposed rather than negotiated, or Spain, where the death of a dictator was dealt with through official amnesia, do we believe that griefs and grievances simply dissipate with time? The eruptions of violence at the end of the Cold War surely reveal the opposite, where battles and humiliations from long ago are far from long-forgotten.

So I ask: is there a window of opportunity for reconciliation and how long does it last? In other words, is time running out? In the most recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, those born after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement were voting for the first time. We know that memory is a collective endeavour and children today will have inherited past grievances at their grandparents’ knee. So how does Northern Ireland and all those who were/are part of the story of the Troubles, move from peace to reconciliation? When will it be too late to begin or has that time already passed?