Covering Up the Stench of Death

How to deal with the past in this wee province of ours is a persistent problem. This week has seen two further illustrations of why it is important to do this in a systematic, cost-effective and yet healing fashion. The launch of the Rosemary Nelson enquiry, which, with its 170+ "witnesses" threatens to be yet another mini-"Bloody Sunday" inquisition, giving lawyers a license to print money, and telling no-one anything that they hadn't already expected. Meanwhile the son of Constable John Larmour, who was shot dead in Belfast in October 1988, has suggested in the wake of a report by Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson, that a Special Branch informer was involved in the murder of his father, and that information to that end was not disclosed to the investgating officers.
The quest for the truth by the families of these, and countless other victims of the troubles is entirely understandable. But whether that truth will be reconciling or divisive is very dubious, and will, in part, be dependent on the process of truth recovery. Certainly if it is conducted in a confrontational, judicial context it is unlikely to bring healing. even if it brings a sense of closure for individual families (and to tell you the truth I hate that term... you can never fully close the book on such loss... the best you can do is learn to live with it), but it is unlikely to bring healing to wider society. Indeed, since some sectors of society have resolutely avoided the implications of the conflict, the truth of what happened here, particularly as regards what the security forces felt that they had to do, will come as a profound and unsettling shock.
To bring in issues of cost-effectiveness as I did earlier may seem callous and utilitarian, but it is a fact of life, and the more expensive a process is will not necessarily be a mark of its effectiveness. If a process or a therapy is truly going to help individuals victims or society as a whole I don't care what its financial cost is... but we cannot pour resources into processes of truth recovery, healing and reconciliation without analysing whether they are actually doing what they set out to do. Contrary to the impression that might be given by the name of the organisation Healing Through Remembering, not all remembering is necessarily healing.
In our recent consultation concerning the Theology and Practice of Reconciliation, Duncan Morrow, the Chief Executive of the Community Relations Council here in Northern Ireland referred to a recent piece of research that suggested that of all the various therapies and interventions used with victims of the troubles here, the one which got the highest marks for effectiveness was aromatherapy. I've tried to track down the research myself, but to no avail. I don't however doubt Duncan's claims, nor am I surprised. However, I'm not quite ready to sign up to some of the bonkers New Age spirituality that usually attends claims like this about so-called alternative therapies.
There are 2 more simple, straightforward, reasons that aromatherapy probably works. First, to get biological, the olfactory (smell) centre of the brain is the the sensate area most closely associated with memory... indeed evolutionary biologists suggest that the frontal lobes developed from the roof of the olfactory centres as a means of remembering scents that would be associated with danger. On a personal level, I need only smell damp clothes being ironed and I am transported in my minds-eye back 30 years to Saturday afternoons when my Mum did her ironing at one end of the lounge while I watched rugby on the TV at the other end. Therefore there is the very real possibility that aromatherapy is triggering something in the memory centres of the brain.
The other possibility is that nice smells simply help people relax. Full stop. And the sad thing is that victims aren't given much opportunity to properly relax.
But, however it works I would just be glad if it did... Because for all too long victims in this society have either been ignored, or wheeled out to make some political point. As a society we have to help the victims (and I use that term in the widest possible connotation) come to terms with what has happened... if that means aromatherapy on the National Health, so be it... if it is about them being able to tell their story in a formal setting, then we need to provide a cost-effective, yet healing vehicle for that to happen... Even if some of the truth uncovered creates a temporary stink.
What we cannot do however, is continue to cover up what happened... or pretend that it never happened. As a society we are living through a wake. The body of the past has not been properly and respectfully buried. It is slowly decaying in our midst. And no matter how many bunches of lilies (orange or white) that we place around the room, no matter what we spray into the air, no matter how much we drink (be it tea or something stronger), we cannot cover the smell of disease, death and decay for ever.


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