Warrian Speaks on the Challenge of Forgiveness in Northern Ireland

From left are Vice President of Mission and Catholic Identity Michael W. Higgins, Peter Warrian and Irish Studies Program Director Jerry Reid.

News Story: February 25, 2015

Achieving a lasting and comfortable peace between peoples with differing faiths and abating the fallout from decades of violence are the key challenges in Northern Ireland according to Peter Warrian. This was the focus of his recent talk at Sacred Heart University’s Schine Auditorium.

Warrian is an economist and senior research fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, as well as a co-founder, with his wife, Margaret, of The Lupina Foundation. His talk was sponsored by SHU’s Office of Mission and Catholic Identity and the Center for Irish Cultural Studies. Warrian was introduced by Michael W. Higgins, vice president of SHU’s Office of Mission and Catholic Identity, and a long-time friend of the visiting professor.

Warrian’s presentation was titled “The Challenge of Forgiveness in Northern Ireland: A Philanthropist’s View” and centered around the work of and insights gained from his Foundation’s ongoing role in that region in the wake of the Omagh Bombing on August 15, 1998. This was a bloody and provocative car bombing in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, that was carried out by an Irish Republican Army splinter group, killing 29 people and injuring about 220 others. This was the highest death toll from a single incident during “The Troubles” (Na Triobloidi, in Irish), the ethno-nationalist conflict in that region that began in the late 1960s and is recognized as having ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998. The bombing, however, was in protest to the treaty, and victims included teenagers, children, a woman pregnant with twins and tourists.

Warrian recognized an opportunity to help the community there recover and partnered with the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma & Transformation. Together, for the past 15 years, the groups have been addressing the economic and health impact of The Troubles as well as a rising trend of transgenerational trauma: children ages eight to 12, who never experienced the violence, are displaying anti-social behavior as if they had.

That’s not the only downside. According to a health economics study conducted by the University of Ulster, annual health care costs related to trauma associated with The Troubles exceed the total annual investment in the Northern Ireland economy.

The Troubles certainly unleashed a lot of violence – often described as terrible and intimate. Over three decades, 3,700 people were killed; another 2,000 people disappeared; 50,000 were injured; and 30,000 people have claimed post-traumatic stress disorder.  
“Many involved in carrying out acts of violence as members of paramilitary groups did so in pursuit of particular goals or visions, or because they felt the need to protect their community from attacks and threats by others,” Warrian explained. “Individual police officers and soldiers may also have thought they were undertaking a duty and service to protect the community.”

As such, he said, few involved see the need to apologize for their actions or seek forgiveness. He suggests that there need to be shifts in ideology and a revision of group or community needs and priorities. There must also be reductions in fear and an increase in trust. Those involved need to replace old unhelpful memories and narratives with more accurate and helpful understandings of “the other” and more constructive thoughts upon which progress can be made.