This interviAlan-pictures-Dec-2007_0170-e1421180678434ew was conducted by Sarah Kerman, a freshman undergraduate student working at DHRC@FHI.   Alan McBride is Centre Co-ordinator at the WAVE Trauma Centre in Belfast, (a cross community victims/survivors organization). He also sits on the Board of Healing Through Remembering and is chair of the HTR initiative on developing a Living Memorial Museum to the ‘Troubles’.

Click here for more information about McBride’s talk, “Northern Ireland: An Uneasy Peace”.


Do you think Northern Ireland is a model for other countries dealing with past conflict?

I think there are lessons to be learned and so yes the Northern Irish process is worth looking at. That said, the important thing is to make sure that whatever is put in place with regards to peace building fits in with the local situation. It’s also important to have all the key players in the conflict at the negotiating table. In Northern Ireland there were numerous attempts to build a peace process before the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was agreed in 1998, but they all failed in my opinion because some of the chief protagonists were excluded, (namely paramilitary organisations and their political representatives in both Loyalist and Republican communities).

There is an old saying that ‘you don’t make peace with your friends’, and I think that is very true but having enemies, particularly those that were engaged in acts of terrorism, around the table can leave the process open for criticism. The Northern Irish process was heavily criticised at the time of the GFA, particularly within the hard line Unionist community, through Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), although interestingly they later came on board when further talks were held at Leeds Castle and St Andrews, and are now the main party in government, working alongside Sinn Fein (political representatives of the IRA).

The symbolism of age old enemies working together is a good one and as a result the Northern Irish peace process has been highlighted around the world as a good model. Frequently delegations from other countries that have experienced conflict visit Northern Ireland to learn lessons. However, in my opinion, once you get passed the fact that these former enemies are now running the country, and drill down into what has actually been delivered, the track record of success has not been great.

This is especially the case when dealing with legacy issues, such as ‘parading’, the ‘flying of flags’ and ‘dealing with the past’. Perhaps it is too early to pass judgement on the Northern Irish peace process and no doubt history will consider the years since the creation of the GFA as a transitional phase, but the focus must always be on the kind of society that we are transitioning to. In my opinion we are some distance away from that which was envisaged in 1998.


What’s your advice to young people interested in working on human rights or dealing with the past?

Remember that essentially you are working with human beings. In my experience there can often be a disconnect between what is agreed in human rights law and how it relates to people on the ground, particularly the most marginalised. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that for ‘human rights to have meaning they must have meaning in small places like churches, factories and schoolyards and that if they don’t have meaning there they don’t have meaning anywhere’. I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment and yet the more time I spend in the human rights world I have come to see the statement as part rhetoric.

Human rights are abused daily in working class communities right across Northern Ireland, mostly by paramilitary organisations that have not gone away. The majority of referrals into the WAVE Trauma Centre these days involve intimidation cases, families intimidated out of their area by one faction or another. Just this past week, a boy in Belfast was shot four times in the leg by paramilitaries that burst into his bedroom and shot him in front of his mother and other siblings. If this happened in a middle class part of the city, the fall out would have been immense, but in this case relatively mute. I know this is essentially a policing matter, but the fact that these sorts of attacks are still occurring in our society would lead me to believe that the peace dividend and improvements in basic human rights are not equally felt across the country.

So if you are considering a career in human rights, spend time in communities, get a sense of the challenges that are faced by hard pressed families. Find away to get passed the gate keepers and don’t be afraid to take on the bullies, regardless of whether it be the paramilitary or the cold face of the establishment.


What is Ecumenics and how does your background in it inform your work as an advocate for Human Rights?

 First up I think it would be misleading to say that I had a background in Ecumenics. I did an Mphil at the Irish School of Ecumenics which is affiliated to Trinity College Dublin, but I would not consider myself to be a practising ecumenist. Ecumenism is essentially a movement within the Christian church for Christian unity, one faith, one Lord, one baptism. Christian faith is important in my life, and certainly I would not be opposed to Christian unity. That said, I am concerned about Christian fundamentalism and would suggest that fundamentalism of any ilk can be potentially dangerous as we have seen with the kind of genocidal acts carried out by religious fanatics of all faiths, both currently and in the past.

Christian faith informs my commitment to human rights, indeed it could be argued that one of the earliest charter of rights was the ten commandments. Also, I have been influenced by the words of Jesus Christ when he repeated the 2nd commandment in response to a question from a religious scholar ‘love your neighbour as your self’. He was also asked, ‘but who is my neighbour?’ and he went on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan’, the neighbour in that story being a sworn enemy of the man who was beaten up, yet he was the one that offered help.

When I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I remember my lecturer saying that he believed there were only two values that should be universally applied, 1. ‘ I am of worth’, and 2. ‘others are of worth also’ . This thinking can be seen in the 2nd commandment and also in article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they are endowed with conscience and reason, and should act towards each other in a spirit of brotherhood’. Think of how vastly different the world would be if that human right was lived out – that’s what motivates to be an advocate for human rights.


What have been some of the lessons you’ve learned about transitional justice sitting on the board of Healing through Remembering and working with Troubles victims?  What is the significance of this work to the field of human rights?

 I suppose the first lesson I ever learned was that it was better to talk to people around a table, than to stand outside the room and hurl insults. When my wife was murdered by the IRA in 1993 for a couple of years I campaigned against paramilitaries, especially the IRA and Sinn Fein. My anger was directed against senior Republicans, including Gerry Adams, who were in the public eye. Gerry Adams had also been a pallbearer at the funeral of the dead IRA man who blew himself up when he murdered my wife. I don’t regret doing that then, it was simply my way of coping with something that was extremely traumatic .

Whilst it did serve a purpose for me personally, it had limited impact with regards to making a difference in society. I discovered through HTR that it was better to be involved in the conversation, even though it was hard at the start. HTR brought together a number of individuals, some of whom were victims of the ‘Troubles’ and others who were ‘ex prisoners’, both Loyalist and Republican. I recall my first meeting, being in the same room as someone from the IRA and being really afraid and a little suspicious – ‘why are they there?’. Overtime we learned to work together for a common cause, to come up with a process of dealing with the past’. The conversations were tough, but through them there was a shared understanding, essentially of the pain that was inflicted on individuals and families but also of the grievances that gave rise to conflict in the first place. This never justified the violence in my view but it helped to reinforce the notion of what was needed to bring the conflict to an end and deal with the legacy that it has left.

Another lesson would have been the need to take time in order to bring others with you. There will always be those in society that have been so damaged by events that they are beyond reach, but for others by reaching out and including them in the debate, perhaps acknowledging that hurt was caused and helping them to see the hurts of others, you can bring them on a journey, where the healing of society becomes paramount and where their own personal quest for justice and revenge becomes a secondary concern.

In a sense that is what happens in processes of ‘Transitional Justice’. Let us not fool ourselves, what academics refer to as ‘Transitional Justice’, is secondary justice in real terms. It is not justice in the way that most people understand justice, but to pursue primary justice would most definitely mean no end to the conflict. So there has to be a trade off, prisoners released from jail, lesser sentences for those yet to be caught, etc and the trade off should be a better, more equal, more just society. Indeed, the GFA said as much, ‘a true and lasting memorial to those that suffered in the ‘Troubles’ will be a peaceful and just society’.

Taking time to bring others along was the HTR way, in the first place amongst the Board, then throughout the membership of the organisation, and then in communities through various projects and initiatives. Many times things happened externally which had the potential to derail the work of HTR, another shooting, a political fallout, a government initiative to address the past, but the organisation steadfastly but quietly in the background continued to work away. There is no other organisation or government consultation that has done so much work, or made a greater contribution to the debate on the past than HTR.


What was it like to meet with Gerry Adams face to face?  What impact did this experience have on you?

 I think for me it happened at the right time in my own particular journey, but it was difficult for others, especially some members of Sharon’s family. The meeting happened on the back of a television programme about Gerry Adams that I was asked to participate in. I thought about this and decided it was time he and I had a chat, but I wanted this to be a private conversation away from the cameras and the media.

The producers of the show were not that happy as they wanted this first meeting to be televised. Their interest was in making a good TV programme but my interest was in meeting the man that I had campaigned against for some years, and hopefully to make my peace with him.

The meeting lasted for about 2 hours and was quite friendly. When Gerry Adams came into the room the first thing he did was to apologise for the bomb, he acknowledged that it was wrong, and I think that set the tone for the meeting. Many years earlier I had received a letter from Gerry Adams in response to one that I sent him – in that letter he acknowledged my pain but then went on say that there was no working harder for peace than Sinn Fein, this was despite the fact that the IRA were still committing murders, so the acknowledgement was quite hollow to me. This meeting was different.

It will be no surprise to hear that there were many things about the conflict on which we disagreed. He thought it was unpreventable, although he did admit that it went on much longer than it should have. As a pacifist I have always been opposed to violence (except for in very particular circumstances), so I could never accept that the ‘Troubles’ were inevitable.

We both agreed that it had left a terrible legacy that had to be addressed if we were ever to see the kind of shared society envisaged in the GFA.

With regard to impact on me – I don’t regret meeting him even though I was criticised on social media and within some aspects of the victims sector. I could take that criticism, but ir was much harder to deal with the hurt that was felt by my own family, in particular Sharon’s Mum, whom I love like my own mother.

The story of the meeting was leaked to the media and my mother in law heard it on the radio.   The programme that was being made wasn’t to air until later in the year so I thought I would have time to tell her of the meeting, but when it broke on the news my mother in law was in bits. I remember calling up to see her and she accused me of betraying her daughter’s memory – my daughter also found it hard. That meeting with my mother in law was probably the most difficult experience I had had to endure since the bomb. Our relationship is good again but it did take some time to work itself out.

There is often a cost to peace building that most people never get to hear about, I don’t regret the meeting with Adams, although I will always regret that the meeting caused hurt to those I love. But I couldn’t advocate sitting down with those with whom you were opposed and not, myself lead by example.  


Can you discuss your current work with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission?  What human rights issues are within your current focus?

 Working with the Commission has been a real learning curve. I have struggled a bit as I don’t come to the Commission with a background in human rights law, and most of our documents are comments on the law and relevant human rights standards and how they apply to Northern Ireland.

That said, I have always said that the Commission need to make human rights accessible to the people, particularly the most marginalised, and that means rethinking how we engage with communities and how we write documents.

Currently the work plan of the Commission has three pillars;

Pillar One: Human Rights and Good Governance.

Human rights need to be embedded at the heart of the executive and legislature, reflected in our basic legal framework and honoured in the operation of all offices of State. The challenges in these regards include the complexity of our constitutional system, the nature of our devolved jurisdiction and the relative newness of many of the governance structures.

Pillar Two: Human Rights and the Conflict.

The legacy of conflict runs deep in Northern Ireland. There remain serious gaps in accountability, justice and inter-community reconciliation. Division and sectarianism result in violence and other forms of hate crime. Lives continue to be blighted and lost.

Pillar three: Protecting Human Rights in a Time of Austerity.

Economic recession and austerity measures have led to unemployment and budget cuts that impact deeply on the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living. While those who are already at a disadvantage suffer the most, it has to be recognised that recession impacts for the human rights of all the people of Northern Ireland.