Writing in Postmedia papers, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley points out how different approaches to the peace process have forged distinct results in two areas of the world emerging from troubled histories.

Crowley argues that the approach to healing in South Africa, which recently marked 20 years since the end of whites oppressing the majority black population under apartheid, has created free elections and an atmosphere of relative goodwill. That's in large parts because of truth and reconciliation, a process that has allowed wrong-doers to either admit their guilt in a court-like setting or remain silent and open to arrest and prosecution.

Northern Ireland, on the other hand, continues to turn over unwelcome elements of its past. The country's divisions fractured again in the past few weeks, when former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was arrested in connection with the murder of a mother of 10 children more than 40 years ago.

"Achieving stable long-term peace and the conditions for future justice through telling the truth about the past and accepting responsibility for wrong-doing was Nelson Mandela's inspired solution for South Africa", writes Crowley. "Without something like it, peace in Northern Ireland and places like it will always hang in the balance."

The column appeared in the Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, the Ottawa Citizen, the Regina Leader-Post and the Montreal Gazette.

Brian Lee Crowley, May 9, 2015

Peace is a universal aspiration. Everyone wants to live secure in their person and property and to see their children grow up safe. No one wants to see people in faraway lands butchering each other over issues we find it hard to grasp or sympathize with.

On the other hand it is all too easy to forget that genuine peace is not the simple absence of armed conflict. Instead it is the outcome of justice and truth. Peace without justice is mere submission and can only be created and maintained by superior force. Peace purchased at the cost of truth often results in the storing up of grievances that later fuel a new cycle of violence.

Two recent news stories underlined this. South Africa recently marked the 20 years since the end of apartheid with free elections in an atmosphere of relative goodwill between the majority black population and their former white oppressors. In Northern Ireland, the peace process has been seriously damaged by the potential prosecution of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams over the 1972 IRA murder of a mother of 10 children, wrongly accused of being a police collaborator. Everyone in Northern Ireland is holding their breath to see what happens next.

The strength and stability of peace in South Africa and its deep fragility in Northern Ireland are each the result of the way peace was achieved. In South Africa the pursuit of justice and truth paved the way for peace. In Northern Ireland, justice and truth were sacrificed to achieve peace and that peace hangs in the balance.

Led by the incredible generosity of spirit of Nelson Mandela, South Africa decided that some way needed to be found to lance the boil of hatred and animosity to which decades of violent minority rule had given rise. Atrocities had been committed on both sides and a way had to be found to recognize the dark deeds that had been done and to honour the losses and sacrifices suffered by many. Otherwise it was all too possible that the new country would descend into a hell of tit-for-tat revenge-taking.

The result was the Peace and Reconciliation process. Wrong-doers under the old dispensation were given a choice. They could come forward voluntarily, admit their guilt in a formal court-like setting, and describe what they had done. Or they could remain silent and become vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.

The outcome was a healing process that many of us watched in wonder from afar as former sworn enemies owned up to their guilt and sought forgiveness and reconciliation. That forgiveness was forthcoming and not just in some formal institutional sense. Through the process of truth-telling, families of victims finally saw their suffering recognised and honoured. The process was a miraculous healing balm.

The process followed in Northern Ireland could not have been more different, as Gerry Adams' arrest and subsequent release attest.

The IRA's hard men, allegedly at the behest of Adams, then an IRA commander, kidnapped widow Jean McConville in front of her children. Her body was later discovered. One of her sons, 11 at the time, was also kidnapped a few weeks later and tortured until he promised that he would not reveal the identities of his mother's murderers. On the BBC last week he said he not only remembers who they were, but often sees them in the street. To this day he fears to identify them because of the potential repercussions for his family. Thousands live a similar unresolved hell.

Outrages were committed on all sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland, but Adams' arrest underlines that unlike South Africa, there is no blanket policy of non-prosecution for such past offences, nor is there a recognised and accepted forum for the truth to be revealed and wrongdoing expiated. Adams may have been released, but it is not clear that he will not be prosecuted, and if he is, Sinn Fein's participation in the Northern Ireland peace agreement may come to an end. The same would be true if Loyalist thugs were brought to book.

As writer Clive Crook argues, "Justice demands that those crimes be prosecuted wherever possible, but peace requires the opposite."

Tearing the veil of obfuscation from the truth of the past may be the only way to reconcile the two. Truth-telling is not the full prosecution of crimes that justice normally requires, but then full justice may result in the perpetuation of bloody conflict that is justice's opposite.

Achieving stable long-term peace and the conditions for future justice through telling the truth about the past and accepting responsibility for wrong-doing was Nelson Mandela's inspired solution for South Africa. Without something like it, peace in Northern Ireland and places like it will always hang in the balance.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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