A car bomb that partially exploded in Belfast last week may not have hurt anyone, but it still was a reminder that the tensions of the past never quite go away. Eighteen years ago, Bill Clinton made a triumphant peace-making visit to war-torn Northern Ireland. Warmly received by Protestant and Catholic crowds alike, Clinton was a tour de force of reconciliation. Most movingly, he spoke before a huge, inclusive gathering in Belfast — and offered America’s experience of recovery from the horrible divisions of the Civil War as an image of hope.
“I grew up in the American South,” Clinton said. “My forebears were soldiers in the Confederate Army . . . They lived the experience so many of you have lived.” And then Clinton recalled the first post-Civil War Arkansas governor, who had fought for the Union. “We have all done wrong,” Clinton said, quoting a speech that earlier governor gave to his constituents, who had been split between the two sides. “No one can say his heart is altogether clean, his hands altogether pure. Thus, as we wish to be forgiven, let us forgive those who have sinned against us and ours.” Then Clinton drew the lesson: “That was the beginning of American reconciliation, and it must be the beginning of Northern Ireland’s reconciliation.”
The crowd cheered. The event helped turn the corner toward the peace that was achieved with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
But forgiveness and reconciliation are not so simple. Ireland’s shooting war between Loyalists and Republicans ended with the agreement, but a culture war continues in the North and flares up every year in the marching season. Calendar riots have returned to Belfast, with furious conflicts over flags and parades, prompting the establishment of a new cross-party commission. Last week it received an inflammatory recommendation from the attorney general in Northern Ireland, John Larkin, proposing to halt “prosecutions, inquests, and other inquiries” into violent deaths prior to the 1998 peace agreement. It’s not an “amnesty,” Larkin insisted, but a practical response to the difficulty of investigations going back decades, the high costs of the legal process, and the paucity of convictions.
His proposal went too far. The relatives of victims killed in paramilitary bombings protested furiously. So did those who died at the hands of “security forces,” including victims of the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre. British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected Larkin’s idea, insisting in Parliament that the principle of law itself was at stake in the ongoing criminal proceedings. Amnesty International, too, objected that any such suspension of prosecution would violate the human rights of victims. Even as Republican-Unionist power sharing continues in Northern Ireland’s government, the grievances of unforgiving people remain.
Yet Larkin has raised a vital question: At what point is it no longer reasonable to let past grievances guide our actions?
If Ireland’s peace seems more ragged than it did back then, so does the American model of reconciliation that Bill Clinton put forth. The fantasy that divisions spawned by the US Civil War were long ago healed — forgiveness? — has been brutally exploded by the 21st century emergence of the red-state-blue-state divide, across which the national government itself is in danger of being broken. Other rifts keep showing themselves: Slaves were freed by the Civil War, but Jim Crow was born, and racism refused to die. The US prison system — “the new Jim Crow” in law professor Michelle Alexander’s phrase — continues a national subjugation of blacks. The regional divide, though, threatens across race and class. Confederates received an amnesty, but the South rose again in bitterness.
Last week, a column in The New York Times by Timothy Egan was entitled “The South’s New Lost Cause,” a sad analysis of the way most Southern states today reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansions — “dooming themselves further.” Dixie does this “out of spite,” simply because the offer comes from Obama. The old Confederacy’s wound has become self-mutilation.
If the example of American reconciliation that Clinton offered to beleaguered Ireland 18 years ago was naive, his evident good will nevertheless helped to end the most brutal stage of the Irish conflict. The killing stopped. For that Clinton is properly honored in the Irish memory. But the US example is a warning, for memory poisoned by resentment brings doom. Victims must be heard, and culprits called to account. Yet if the past is to be prologue — not a prison — the way forward still requires some timely pairing of both forgetting and forgiving.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.