This is another in our series on 'Dealing with the Past', written by guest contributors and designed to encourage constructive reflection - this article is written by Kenny Donaldson, Director of Services for SEFF (South East Fermanagh Foundation) and Spokesman for Innocent Victims United . He is also Honorary Secretary of Creggan Church of Ireland Parish (based outside Crossmaglen)
A fundamental problem is the use of language within our Society and how a word or phrase can have a multitude of meanings for different people.
‘The Past’ is shorthand language which Government, the Churches and others have used in relaying what occurred over the period commonly referred to as ‘The Troubles’ otherwise understood by vast swathes of the population as the ‘years of the terror campaign.’
But for victims and survivors of Terrorism, ‘The Past’ is very much ‘Their Present.’ Others may talk in the past tense but for victims and survivors the sense of loss, the pain, the sense of injustice is a daily fixture of their lives.
When the phrase; you need to move on is written or said - this is understood by victims and survivors of Terrorism as; you need to get over it, you need to forgive and forget. However the language; move forward is acceptable to victims and survivors because it is rooted in the principles of empowerment and survival and is about, an individual victim freeing themselves of the burden they have been forced to carry, it is about them saying; I will have some semblance of life for my own good and for the betterment of my surviving family - Terrorism and violence has dealt me an horrific blow but it will not break my soul.
To date we have had a one-sided sponsored re-write of ‘The Past.’ History is in danger of being turned on its’ head. Anyone living outside our land would be forgiven for believing that the IRA’s terror campaign was a legitimate response to evils being inflicted upon an individual section of the population.
The Truth is very different. The demands of the Civil Rights Campaign were fully met in 1972 and a roadmap was in place for a new Northern Ireland to develop however militant Republicanism had other ideas. That ideology was not concerned about equality but rather instigated a campaign whose endgame was the forced enactment of a United Ireland solution. This ideology bred a narrative that one neighbour using bombs and bullets against their fellow neighbour was a legitimate action in the furtherance of the overall political objective.
What then is required to ‘Deal with the Past?’
It is my belief that an accord/public acknowledgement must be agreed and communicated by the UK and R.O.I Governments and all terrorist organisations that; the use of terrorism and violence in the furtherance of or defence of a ‘political’ objective was never justified.
Were this to happen then we would have a foundation stone from which to build. Whilst organisations or individuals remain in denial of this fundamental point, there remains a serious threat of history repeating itself and of a further generation reverting to the sins perpetrated by their forebears.
It is essential that in building genuine Reconciliation (or as many would suggest, ‘Conciliation’ because it could be argued that our people have never genuinely been together and fully integrated) that individuals are prepared to submit to the 3 R’s - expressing Remorse for wrong words and deeds, showing genuine Repentance and then engaging in acts of Restitution. Were our Society at large prepared to follow this template then we would all have a very different future ahead of us.
The critical point to remember with Reconciliation is that for it to be a genuine process that there needs to be a faith conviction at the centre - humankind must reconcile with our Lord before we can ever truly reconcile with one another. The ‘Peace and Reconciliation industry’ that has developed in our land is a very poor imitation of the genuine article. And like so much else Republicans have diminished the process of ‘Reconciliation’ through their own narrow and isolationist agenda.
Those of us who live in and around this place have a vested interest in ensuring that the integrity of ‘The Past’ is preserved. We must resist pressure being exerted by ‘The Establishment’ to laud once terrorists who now assume the mantle of ‘Peacemakers.’ Rather we should reserve our humble praise and thanks for those who held the line against Terrorism and Anarchy; we must understand the heroes and martyrs of this Society to be those who rejected violence, those who refused to inflict harm upon their fellow neighbour.
All of us know within our inner being know what is right and what is wrong and if we have engaged in acts which diminished our neighbours in any way then through God’s Counsel we must make right past wrongs.
I view the actions of Republican or Loyalist terrorists or individual members of the security forces who broke the code and engaged in wanton acts of criminality in exactly the same light. None of that was legitimate and Justice, Truth and Accountability must prevail.
Enough is enough; this Society needs to do better. As Ghandi once remarked: ‘The true measure of any Society can be found in how it treats its’ most vulnerable members.’ How would Ghandi view our Society today?
This is another in our series on 'Dealing with the Past', written by guest contributors and designed to encourage constructive reflection - this article is written by Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of Institute of Irish Studies (Queen's University Belfast) and Reader in Social Anthropology
We are in the midst of what has been coined the decade of commemoration. Starting with 1912 and the signing of the Covenant in Belfast, through strikes, onto the Rising and Battle of the Somme in 1916 and before we know it the War of Independence, the setting up of Northern Ireland and the Civil War. All, apparently, key moments in our history to be remembered through rituals, museum exhibitions and countless newspaper articles and TV programmes. Circling around all these events are the historians of early 20th century Ireland to tell us about the complexity of what happened. And we are told that we should remember and commemorate those that died ‘for us’. Indeed, their deeds are frequently described as ‘glorious’ and captured in statues and memorials, usually of men in uniform.
There is so much that makes me uncomfortable about this process it is difficult to know where to start. First, we must be clear, commemoration is not about memory it is about identity. It is about people expressing political identities in the present. The events that take place are not fundamentally about the past, the history is just the clothes we get dressed in to perform the politics of the present and our hopes for the future.
Second, the events chosen are very particularly designed to tell predominantly national stories. Key to our political world are, what Benedict Anderson called, ‘imagined communities’, large groups of people who are taught to feel bonded (and bounded) to the idea of a nation. Actually these groups are so politically diverse that you will struggle to find anything that can be said to consistently held in common except a particular view of the past. And this view of the past needs to be constructed and reconstructed. That is where commemoration comes in.
What is more powerful than standing in ‘communion’ with those (usually men) who, we are reassured, died for us? We are in spiritual union with their ghosts. Except of course we are not. Most of them had a very limited idea about what they were dying for and no idea about the world 100 years later. We will rarely, for example, be asked to remember the many millions that died in the horrible industrial work places of the nineteenth century because it offers an inconvenient narrative for our respective countries. Much better, apparently, for our countries to commemorate those that died ‘for us’, against ‘them’, than those that died for the production of massive capitalist profit.
Third, we are assured that it is important to know our history because that tells us who we are. Except is does not. It tells us a particular story that ignores all of the understandings of identity provided by sociologists, social psychologists, political scientists that view the identity production as a fundamentally contemporary social act. What we remember, and how we remember it (and indeed what we forget), are the result of contemporary political social relationships. Those that worry about young people not knowing ‘their history’ (why do they need to own it?) are really worried that those young people won’t embrace the group identity. That is why the curriculums at our schools treat the teaching of history as so important, and also exclude most of the social and political sciences.
Fourth, is the idea that we need to remember the past so not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Noble, for sure, except that this is exposed as a lie by so many of the conflicts in our modern world. It is precisely the invocation of the past that calls men to arms in the present. It is the victims, those that sacrifice or died ‘for us’, that are invoked to reassure and justify the violent actions of the present. David Reiff in his powerful polemic Against Remembrance reminds us that ‘over again, we have been confronted by the reality that nothing is more socially uncontrollable and, hence, more dangerously politically than a people who believe themselves victims’ (p.102).
And so commemoration is not an education in history. It is the production of a particular historical narrative appropriated by political forces to underpin particular social arrangements through an invocation of past sacrifice. The professional historians might join the commemorative party to offer complex ‘myth busting’ education but they are really the Time Lords of rituals designed to bring the past into the political present. Being educated about the past is one thing, commemorating it is a totally different practice altogether.
There is more to come. Be warned, as we reach the end of the decade of centenaries the 50th anniversaries of Civil Rights marches and the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland will be upon us. This area is so sensitive that it is still barely taught in schools. However, the rituals and memorials that already litter the north are about to be added to. But to what end?
This is another in our series on 'Dealing with the Past', written by guest contributors and designed to encourage constructive reflection - this article is written by Andy Pollak (formerly Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and Irish Times journalist)
I should start by saying that I am not a typical Northern Irish Protestant. I was born a Presbyterian in County Antrim, grew up largely in England and have lived in Dublin – happy to be an Irish citizen – for much of the past 30 years. I am a member of the Dublin Unitarian Church, and therefore on the most liberal, deist wing of Protestantism (to the extent that many Trinitarian Protestants do not even recognise us as Christians!). I still have a lot to do with Northern Ireland. I worked as a journalist in Belfast for many years in the 1970s and 1980s and for 14 years, up to 2013, ran the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh, which researches and develops practical cooperation between the North and the Republic.
I cannot speak for those who have lost loved ones or suffered personal pain during the Northern Ireland 'Troubles'. They have a huge burden to carry and huge trauma to overcome that I can barely imagine. When I hear of the reign of murder and terror many Protestants along the border endured at the hands of the IRA and INLA for nearly 30 years, I feel humbled and shaken in my safe liberalism. Anything I write here is meant in no way to discount their anguish.
However I believe that we in Northern Ireland have to change our mindsets so that we think more generously about the past and more imaginatively about the future. I listened to an inspirational address by President Michael D. Higgins at a Glencree Reconciliation Centre event last weekend (27 June), in which he said that Irish people, north and south, have to be brave enough to imagine a future that is “released from the burdens of distorted past memories, and seemingly insurmountable present difficulties”, so that the energy is found for constructing “an empowering ethics of memory.”
The core of that “empowering ethics” is forgiveness. He said that while terrible acts cannot, for the most moral of reasons, be forgotten, we need to prevent the tragic memory of those acts from “colonising the future.” I believe the danger of the terrible acts of 30 years of conflict in the North (on all sides) being allowed to colonise our future, thus preventing us coming together to build a more harmonious society, remains a very real one 17 years on from the end of major violence. It would not be the first time that the North, mired in past hurts and grievances, has failed to move on to tackle the more pressing and contemporary problems facing the rest of the world.
President Higgins said this empowering ethic must involve a “softening of hearts” so that we learn to recognise that our fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities can only be assuaged by actions of mutual forgiveness and generosity. This is the kind of action of huge (and for many people often impossible) generosity that Michael Longley described in his famous poem, Ceasefire:
I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.
Hannah Arendt, who wrote so powerfully about the terror regimes of Nazism and Stalinism, concluded: “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.”
“While to ignore the past would be a betrayal of those who lost their lives and of those whose lives have been blighted by the loss or serious injury of their loved ones, we must also ensure our remembered past is not allowed to overshadow and define the issues of moral significance in either the present or in the future to which we aspire,” said President Higgins.
The Sinn Fein chairman, Declan Kearney, has recently called for a public “common acknowledgement from all sides of the pain caused by and to each other.” He said this could “powerfully contribute to forgiveness and healing. Doing so would require grace and generosity from all sides.” We need to take such calls seriously, whatever their provenance.
Dealing with the legacy of our past in Ireland is an enormously complex task, but it is one that has the potential to transform (in the most positive sense) the relationships between and across the peoples of these islands, and how we relate to our often shared and overlapping histories. Generous gestures of mutal respect and acknowledgement of common suffering and injustice by leaders as different as Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, David Cameron, Ian Paisley, Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny and Martin McGuinness have shown us the way forward. We are in a good place in Ireland in 2015, a place that people in Bosnia, Ukraine and Syria would praise God or Allah to be in. It is a place where mutual forgiveness and understanding can begin to make a difference to the future of the island that we share and love.
At a banquet in Windsor Castle last year during his state visit to Britain, President Higgins said:
“We owe a duty to all those who lost their lives, the duty to build together in peace; it is the only restitution, the only enduring justice we can offer them.” A new society in Northern Ireland built on social justice and personal forgiveness to those who have cruelly harmed us – that is the extremely difficult combination we must aspire to.