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Last Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006, 11:43 GMT
The Go-Between
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Tutu waits in the wings
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who oversaw the post-apartheid reconciliation in his native South Africa, has now brought victims and killers from Northern Ireland's Troubles face to face. He talked about the experience to the BBC News website.

Even though we might think we're hardened to reality television, real-life, raw emotion is still quietly shocking, catching you unawares.

In Facing the Truth, where soldiers and paramilitaries face the families of victims, there are plenty of these moments, with voices catching and tears falling. It sounds like the crying you hear at funerals, not on television shows.

Hosting these encounters is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the victims and perpetrators of violence sought to understand one another.

After recording these televised encounters, he described the "extraordinary moments" where people faced up to the violent events that changed their lives.


"It was unbelievable, you were humbled that people were willing to do this," says Archbishop Tutu, describing these emotionally gruelling meetings as both "exhausting and exhilarating".

Michael Stone
Michael Stone faced the family of a man he had killed

"You feel so good about being human when you see how people can be so generous and magnanimous. There is much to be won from making yourself a little vulnerable."

In South Africa, these confrontations were part of the process of building a post-apartheid society, as a way out of a cycle of recriminations about the past.

And he says that the process will help individuals in Northern Ireland who have been living for decades with unresolved emotions.

"The wound that was festering has to be opened up - it might be painful, but it is better to lance the boil, and cleanse it, and pour the balm - the chances of healing are then much better than saying let bygones be bygones."

Unable to sleep

And he says that the sense of release from the past is as great for the perpetrator as the victim.

"They will say, I wish we had done this earlier. Many of them find it is difficult to sleep. We found in South Africa that people who had not made a clean breast of their past could not live with themselves, could not live with their memories.

Desmond Tutu
Perpetrators don't have horns, don't have tails, they are as ordinary looking as you and I
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

"With the victims, holding on to your resentment means you are locked into your victimhood - and you allow the perpetrator to have a hold over your life. When you forgive, you let go, it sets you free, and it will probably set free the perpetrator."

But Archbishop Tutu does not see this as offering any easy answers for Northern Ireland's divisions - and these encounters are as unresolved as the political conflict.

"I've never been an optimist. I've always been a man of hope - I am a prisoner of hope. Hope and optimism are totally different creatures, hope holds on even when things are seemingly doomed and dark."

'Freddy Krueger'

And these programmes reveal plenty of the dark side. Such as the family of Dermot Hackett sitting crying, waiting for the appearance of former Loyalist gunman, Michael Stone - convicted for Mr Hackett's murder.

Tutu and De Klerk
Tutu shakes hands with South Africa's last apartheid president, FW De Klerk

It's uncomfortably gripping television to watch these people facing each other, tensely polite - with Sylvia Hackett looking for answers for how and why and with what information her husband was killed 19 years ago.

Michael Stone talks about the process of dehumanising victims, his own separation from his grandchildren and the recognition that the man he killed never got a chance to meet his grandchildren.

Notorious for killing three people at a funeral in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery, Mr Stone, dressed in a long black coat, seems surprised that people treat him as if he were "Freddy Krueger".

Asking for forgiveness

Archbishop Tutu admits to a wariness that he might have been asked "who the heck appointed you to pontificate and presume?". But he coaxes out the conversations - and in the case of the encounter between a former British soldier and the sister of the man he killed, it goes much further.

Mural, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland needs to "lance the boil" of the past, says Tutu

Clifford Burrage, now a bespectacled middle-aged man, was visibly troubled by the events from 1971, when as a young soldier in Belfast, he'd shot and killed Michael McLarnon.

Michael's sister, Mary McLarnon, was also still caught up in that moment, explaining to Mr Burrage what it had meant to her family and how it had affected the rest of their lives.

Whatever ghosts were haunting both of them were laid bare here - and Archbishop Tutu says there was a need for a "ritual" of forgiveness.

But even though Mr Burrage was asking directly for forgiveness, Ms McLarnon didn't feel able to oblige.

Forgiveness, and the search for some personal reconciliation with past deeds, is at the heart of the programmes. And Archbishop Tutu says his experiences in South Africa have made him believe that there is no such thing as an "evil" person.


"That's the basis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - that it is possible for the perpetrator of even the most gruesome atrocity to become a better person. Each one of us has the capacity for great good, we each of us have the capacity to become a saint.

reconciliation day
Day of Reconciliation: South African children celebrate a new public holiday

"I would never say this is an 'evil person', but this is a person who committed evil deeds.

"When we're appalled by some gruesome atrocity, I would not say that those who did this are monsters. I've said, say the deed is monstrous. Describe it in the most sharp terms, but never give up on the essential humanity on the perpetrator.

"You've got to say, there but for the grace of God go I. None of us can say that had I been exposed to the same circumstances and conditions that I wouldn't have turned out the same way.

"Perpetrators don't have horns, don't have tails, they are as ordinary looking as you and I. The people who supported Hitler were not demons, they were often very respectable people."

Day of Reconciliation

But he remains equivocal about the prospect of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission being applied in other conflict zones.

In South Africa, the process has been institutionalised - a former Boer public holiday is now the Day of Reconciliation. And its venting of resentment and remorse was seen as part of a final settlement.

But in Northern Ireland - as the programmes show - there is no such agreement and there are so many disputed versions of the truth that reconciliation remains distant.

Nonetheless, Archbishop Tutu is cheered by his experience of the programmes - and glad that they avoided sensationalism.

"Some people had feared that the BBC was making 'reality television' - but it didn't turn out that way at all. There may in fact be something to be said for having such a ritual."

In the face of such suffering, Archbishop Tutu says he hopes that the series will prompt people, on both sides of the divide, to ask "why were we so stupid for so long?"

Facing the Truth, a three-part series, will be broadcast on BBC Two, starting Saturday, 4 March, 1950GMT.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I am one of those victims, having lost my father to a bombing in 1974. He was one of six who died that awful day. But the truth is, dad was dead but mum was living and dead inside. We lost her too that day. Our family took on invisible hits from the tragedy, which, are still here today. We were a young family, lost in a sea of grief, disbelief and tragady. We had to go on, there was no one to help, counsel, treat, direct, it was a bleak time. The worst thing was that to this day we have no news of the incident scene, or if dad was alive when the emergency services arrived or not. That remains a haunting memory for me. I trust there are better post-traumatic counsel services available today. Nothing can make the memory of that horror go away, time eases pain, and we move on with new lives, and families of our own, but sadly, as the Archbishop said, the wound has never been opened, it has to be made raw again to become better.
Monica Griffin, Ocala, Florida, USA

Wonderful to hear such a poignant story and well done to Archbishop Tutu for stepping in where few people could or would. He is so right in emphasizing the humanity of all, even those who commit the most outrageous acts. The dehumanisation of an "enemy" only leads to an escalation in violence and revenge, as we have seen far too much of in this part of the world. Each life is precious and each individual has the potential for good or bad.
Chris, Nazareth, Israel

A thought-provoking article. I look forward to seeing the programmes and hope that families who have been affected by the atrocities will find some solace from the content. It's not easy to forgive but it's better to have tried to at least that way there's no 'What if?'.
John, Chipstead

A total waste of licence payers fees. If we can't get political parties to sit down together and basically agree on the colour of grass and a common way forward then programs like this should wait. A poor decision by the BBC to screen this when politicians are in talks, only stirs up (quite rightly) deep seated emotions and hatred
Stewart, Belfast

I remember when we went through this in South Africa in the 90s. At the time people thought like Stewart, Belfast: a waste of time and money. I saw an apartheid special forces man beg forgiveness from a farm labourer who he'd tortured. To see roles reversed like this and such high emotion inspired a lot of people to recognise what happened and move on. Stewart, it seems to me that violence and politics have both been tested in Northern Ireland. Neither worked. Are you so arrogant that you brush off another approach?
Andrew Lees, UK/South Africa

Surely the sole purpose of these encounters is the personal confrontation of the individuals involved with one another. Making it into a TV programme just looks like exploitation to me.
Brian Hughes, Telford

Archbishop Tutu is a refreshing mediator in the stale, stagnant Northern Ireland situation. His love for life and for humanity are an inspiration to all who hear him. I am not a religious man but I do believe that human nature is not all bad and that this was a brave way to tackle head-on some of the problems which are holding back the normalisation of Northern Ireland. Well done!
Anthony, Belfast

I'm still wondering how I would react to Desmond Tutu's initiative if I were one of the victims, though I suspect it would be very hard to simply "forgive." But looking at it all from a distance, it is difficult to see what other alternative there might be. People like Desmond Tutu are therefore extraordinarily brave to even think of inviting the victims to "forgive."
UE, UK/Nigeria

These reconciliations are a wonderful step forward. However, the process is highly emotive and actually very private, and for that reasonI feel that they should not be televised. They will be all the more powerful for the parties involved in keeping them private. Televising subjects of such deep importance and vulnerability feels voyerist and undignified.
Belinda Usmar, Hampshire

It's good that this is televised. It gives an opportunity for those that are victims and perpetrators of other crimes a chance to see that there is a better way to bring justice (or more exactly "restorative justice") to each side.
John Airey, Peterborough

It is never easy to forgive when you are deeply convinced you were a victim of an injustice. But being able to face the perpetrator and hear him speak out and accept responsibility for his unjust action against you before other people, may help free you from the inner struggle about whether to forgive or not. It certainly helps give you back a good measure of inner peace and innocence you may not have had before, as it may help you think less about revenge, even when it may not make you forget about the injustice that was done to you.
Anthony Musonda, Zambian in Germany

This should have been done privately, not in front of TV cameras, where I am sure there has been some editing. Why does the Archbishop feel that now is the time, and that he is the one to do it?
Alison Crozier, Sherborne, fomerly Larne

I find it hard to argue against anything Archbishop Tutu says. If there is indeed no such thing as an "evil person" then healing can only be through reconcilliation. If we don't believe that then we forever condemn those people we call evil, and who knows?, they may condemn us.
Adrian Tupper, Edinburgh

This confrontation between killer and victim's loved ones provides the strongest line of argument against capital punishment. Only through this confrontation and reconciliation can the relatives eventually pick up all the pieces of their ruined lives. But how can we help those relatives be brave enough?
Martin Yuille, Cambridge

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