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Chris McCorkindale: The Kirk's Folly (or Why We Should Say Thanks But No Thanks to the Offer of Reconciliation)


The Church of Scotland has this week extended an invitation to the leaders of the independence referendum debate to attend a service at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, three days after the vote takes place. This service will look backwards into the future: focusing on ‘reconciliation’ and ‘healing [the] divisions’ caused by the campaign, in order to liberate the protagonists from their prior, seemingly entrenched, positions so that they might work together to construct or to renew Scotland’s constitutional settlement (be that within or out-with the United Kingdom). Explaining the rationale behind the invitation, and expressing a hope that similar services can be held across the country, the incoming Moderator of the General Assembly, Rev. John Chalmers, said this:

‘The danger is if we don't keep the level of this debate down to a respectful place, where we listen to one another, where we don't try to score points by name-calling, where the language doesn't get too emotive and sticks to substance, then the business of healing will be a lot harder afterwards.

All of the politicians need to remember that if we keep the debate respectful at this time, there's much more chance that we will find it possible to work together afterwards, to build whatever the voters give us.’ 

A concern with reconciliation and healing following the referendum result is one that has crept up from time to time on the twitter and blogospheres. However, to my knowledge at least, the Kirk’s offer marks the first occasion that an institutional space has been offered wherein such a process might seriously be discussed and take shape. Furthermore, and this is the point that I wish to contest here, this language of division and the need for reconciliation is beginning to seep into the mainstream referendum narrative. Yes Scotland have already indicated that they will be ‘pleased to accept’ the Kirk’s invitation. Echoing this, Better Together have said that ‘Churches and faith groups … will be vital in bringing the country together again no matter the outcome of the vote.’ In a speech given in Edinburgh this week to mark the 20th anniversary of John Smith’s death, Douglas Alexander MP explained why, in his view, such a process – however constituted (for Alexander, a national convention is one such possibility) - would be necessary. “The result of the referendum,” he said, “will…leave Scotland divided, with a significant minority of the population feeling disappointed with deeply personal feelings and hopes about themselves and their nation being dashed by the result.” The challenge, he continued, is therefore “to ensure that Scotland – whatever the result – comes together and does not divide more deeply in the aftermath of this historic choice.” Yet, to my mind (and here I must stress that I seek neither to doubt the good intentions of the Church of Scotland, nor to underestimate the importance of respectful debate) the very use of this language – division; healing; reconciliation – is counter-productive and, in a sense, (unintentionally) disrespectful to political processes elsewhere, where reconciliation means much more than achieving respect for reasonable disagreement. Allow me to explain.

The miracle of political reconciliation

Two pieces of reading have reminded me recently that a remarkable, perhaps even defining, characteristic of this independence campaign has been its sheer civility. The first was an article by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, reflecting on the detention of the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, in connection with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville. The McConville case, Freedland said, poses the tension between justice and peace in particularly stark terms:

‘Elemental justice suggests there has to be a reckoning for that crime, even if that reckoning goes all the way to the top. But peace makes different demands. As Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary, put it to me, "Adams and [Martin McGuinness] have been indispensable in moving Northern Ireland from the evil and horror of the past to the relative tranquillity and stability of today." To pursue Adams now for whatever role he played in that past horror is to jeopardise the current tranquillity.’

The second was an extraordinary passage from Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s fascinating memoir of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, A Human Being Died that Night. There, she tells of an encounter that she witnessed between the imprisoned Eugene de Kock and the widows of two black policemen killed by a bomb which de Kock had rigged to their car. After attending a session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at which de Kock was interviewed, the former police colonel asked to speak privately to the widows, and in so doing offered to them an apology for his murderous acts. As Madikizela relates it, what came next demonstrates the power of forgiveness as both a personal and a political faculty:


‘Both women felt that de Kock had communicated to them something he felt deeply and had acknowledged their pain. [Mrs. Pearl Faku, one of the widows, said]: “I couldn’t control my tears. I could hear him but I was overwhelmed by emotion, and I was just nodding as a way of saying yes, I forgive you. I hope that when he sees our tears he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well…I would like to hold him by the hand and show him there is a future, and that he can still change”’ (Gobodo-Madikazela 2003, 15).

In each of these examples we see the (fragile) power of political reconciliation play out, albeit in different ways. Both are characterised by unforgivable acts: political assassination. In the former, forgiveness is neither sought by its perpetrators nor yielded by its (surviving) victims, yet justice for this – and other - individual (and heinous) crimes is nevertheless surrendered at the altar of a greater interest: a shared, and peaceful, political future for Northern Ireland. As Christine Bell has said, Northern Ireland’s “is now an established peace process where the rubicon has been crossed, involving political sacrifice on all sides”: that sacrifice, paradoxically, both the foundation stone and the fault line which lies beneath. In the latter, of course, forgiveness is indeed both sought and granted – the miracle of reconciliation, the promise of a new beginning, nowhere more clear than in that final, emotive line. Political reconciliation, that is to say, is most potent where it reveals to all sides – regardless of the differences which once divided them; in the face of unforgivable acts and a cycle of recrimination – an opportunity (perhaps the only opportunity) to break with the horrors of an unforgivable past for the sake of a better future.       

The reasonableness of political disagreement

Scotland’s constitutional future is dependent upon no such miracle. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, they say, and so it proves here – at least if we take seriously the adage that past behaviour is the best possible predictor of future behaviour. Whether the question has been one of further devolution or of independence outright, it has been co-operation and co-ordination between the Scottish and United Kingdom parliaments and governments – often in the face of reasonable (if not always respectful) disagreement between the parties – that has won the day. So, when the third Scottish Parliament took the unprecedented step of granting only qualified consent to the Scotland Bill in 2011, inviting the United Kingdom Parliament to consider amendments to the bill as suggested to it by Holyrood’s Scotland Bill Committee, the response at Westminster was not – as the then Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore MP, at first suggested that it might have been - to legislate regardless; rather, it was carefully to reflect upon and amend the bill, returning with proposals for further and deeper devolution that both parliaments could and did agree to (if not necessarily agree with). Similarly, when the Scottish National Party won a historic single-party majority in the general election to the fourth Scottish Parliament, and claimed with it an unequivocal political mandate to put the question of Scotland’s independence to a referendum, difficult prior questions about the legal mandate to do so (which I do not intend to rehearse here, but see, for example, the contrasting views of Anderson et al. and Tomkins) did not – as has been the case elsewhere, notably in Catalonia – derail the process, nor lead us to the brink of conflict. Rather, those questions were resolved quickly and amicably between the respective governments (to the surprise even of civil servants on both sides of the table). Despite the obvious scope for (and existence of) disagreement between the parties as to the question(s) to be asked, the electorate to answer it, and the body tasked to oversee the process, the referendum in which we are now engaged exists as it does – above all else, peacefully – precisely because, as the late John Griffith might have said, the continuance and resolution of disagreement is the sine qua non of our political culture and the raison d’etre of our political institutions (Griffith 1979, 20), in Edinburgh and in London. Far from dividing us, disagreement about the controversial issues of the day is what binds us: it is the very condition of our political community.   


Reconciliation has, at least since the 1990s, entered our political as well as our personal and our religious discourse, but it has done so in response to anti-political contexts, such as those which existed in Northern Ireland and in South Africa, where difference created an ‘other’ whose disagreements could not be tolerated, with ruinous and tragic consequences. Our differences, passionately held, more or less respectfully expressed, nevertheless breed no such transgression, no unforgivable act, from which the process and its protagonists must be liberated before we can look forward. Families and friends, couples and colleagues might be ‘at odds’, but to borrow once more from Griffith, ‘this is not surprising as this issue would not be controversial if there was agreement’ (Griffith 1979, 12). To talk of reconciliation in this context, it seems to me, is both to dilute the sense of sacrifice demanded in those settings where reconciliation must balance peace and justice, and to downplay the defining characteristic of our own constitutional journey (wherever it might lead): its civility. If Scotland’s constitutional future, regardless of the result, must begin with a religious service (though about this, we might reasonably disagree!) let it be a celebration of that.    

Chris McCorkindale is a Lecturer in Law at Strathclyde University.

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