June 18, 2007

In memory of a wise Norwegian

Tributes have been paid to the many prominent people from outside Northern Ireland who helped to bring about the extraordinary chain of events which culminated in the unveiling of a power-sharing government involving those former most bitter of enemies, Sinn Fein and the DUP, on 8th May. Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, John Major and Albert Reynolds were among those thanked.

I would like to add one more name. Torkel Opsahl was a distinguished Norwegian human rights lawyer who came to Belfast in May 1992 to head an independent “citizens commission of inquiry” into ways forward for a then seemingly deadlocked Northern Ireland. For 13 months he tirelessly toured the province, reading written submissions from thousands of people and listening to oral presentations from over 200 of them in public hearings in half a dozen cities and towns The late Father Denis Faul said that appearing before his commission of eminent people from Ireland, Britain, Europe and the US made him feel like a citizen of classical Athens.

Torkel Opsahl was above all a great listener. He had been one of Amnesty International’s earliest observers at the Daniel and Sinyavsky trial in Moscow in 1965. He was a member of the European Commission of Human Rights for 14 years, and was the rapporteur overseeing the Irish Government’s case against Britain which found that internees in Northern Ireland in 1971 had been ill-treated. He was vice-chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee. He had been charged with missions for the UN and related international organisations in many of the world’s most troubled regions: Iran, Iraq, Israel and Korea. His ‘day job’ while he was toiling for a little peace and mutual understanding in Northern Ireland was chairing the UN Commission investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Opsahl’s deep empathy with ordinary people; his huge integrity; and above all his gentle, patient willingness to listen, to consider, to treat all ideas – and those putting them forward – as worthy of respect, touched everyone who had the privilege of working with him or appearing before him at hearings of the commission that was to bear his name.

He was a true internationalist, who brought to Northern Ireland the promise – based on his immense experience of conflicts in Eastern Europe and elsewhere – that it was possible to find honourable compromises in regions where people were fighting to the death over their clashing concepts of national self-determination. Conflict, he believed, was intrinsic to all social relationships: the real issue was not solving it, but learning how to handle it. He used to quote the eminent British political scientist Clare Palley’s words: “The only people entitled to talk about solutions are chemists.”

The report of the Opsahl Commission1, published in June 1993 (and which I had the honour of editing), was one of the real, if largely unacknowledged, building blocks of the then nascent Northern Irish peace process. Bernard Crick called it “the fullest and most judicious account of opinion in Northern Ireland ever made…The Commission argues, with rare, wise and humane realism, that to reach some resolutions of some of the problems – even temporary accommodations that can allow a peaceful way forward – and to pass on other problems to the future but in a calmer climate, is a good enough day’s work for our time.” Among other things, it introduced into public discourse the concept of ‘parity of esteem’ between the unionist and nationalist communities.

Three months after the Opsahl Commission had reported, its chairman, aged only 62, was struck dead by a heart attack at his desk in the UN. The Norwegian Chief Justice called him “a brilliant jurist who broke the bounds of traditional legal thinking” and “a man who could never spare himself when the world around him was so full of horrors.”

I wrote in a tribute that Torkel Opsahl was “a shining example of a man who lived out the exhortation of the prophet Micah to ‘do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’. When peace eventually comes to Northern Ireland, the contribution of this brilliant, gentle Norwegian lawyer will not be forgotten.”

Thank you, Torkel. At this best of times for Northern Ireland, a few of us still remember how you came and listened to us and helped us in the worst of times.

Andy Pollak


1 A Citizens Inquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland. Edited by A. Pollak. Dublin 1993

Back