Part of our future lies in the past


We agree on very little here in Northern Ireland, and the story of our past is told and viewed from an array of perspectives. Possibly the only thing that could be agreed upon is the fact that there was a violent period known as the Troubles from the late 60’s to the early 90’s. I stand to be corrected, but I think that is the one uncontrovertible statement that can stand unchallenged. As we emerge from those Troubles, and the shared past, we will need to find a common story and a place where it can be told, or different versions of that story can be told or housed. I recently visited the Maze Prison site on a tour, and found it to be a profound and disturbing trip, and one that left me shaken and contemplative. An Italian friend on the visit struggled to find a word to describe the Maze and the buildings we visited, but in the end he said ‘It is an Ugly place that has an ugly story’. It may be ugly but its ours. The site at the Maze has been the source of much controversy, and much of that has been understandable. In some societies like Rwanda, emerging from the past has been possible by repressing story telling and in other countries, History is not taught in schools for 10 years post conflict.

There is concern that there will be a dominant presence of Republicanism on the site, and that it will be turned into a Shrine to the hunger strikers. Thats quite an interesting point, and one that was forcibly demonstrated for me on my visit. The hospital block was particularly poignant, and the cells where the hunger strikers died are all pointed out. A group of teenagers were visiting and listening to the guide read out the names of which prisoner died in which cell. As he completed the list, there was a hush over the crowd, then broken by spontaneous applause from the visitors. Those men will never be anything but heroes to some people, no matter who revisits, reconstructs or revises the history. It will be a shrine despite what anyone can do to prevent that from happening.

I found it to be a haunting place, with the mark of decay and rot hanging oppresively in the air. Sounds are accentuated, like the bolts in the being slammed back. I mentioned to an ex-prisoner that I found the whole thing very daunting, and he told me to step into a cell to get a proper feel for the place. He then slammed the door shut, to the outrage of the guide who explained that the doors didn’t open. I thought it was a joke, but it wasnt. I pushed at the door to no avail, and then sat on the cot looking out through the narrow windows. Chilling. Eventually, with much pushing and pulling we got the door open, but it was a brief encounter with fear and isolation that will remain with me.

The tour includes a visit to a Watch Tower, the Loyalist wing and education annexe, the Administration block and a H-Block. As part of the plan, these buildings have been listed and will be retained to tell the story of the Maze in the future. But it has to be a complete story. I was involved once with a Prison Warden who had a nervous breakdown during the Dirty Protest, he couldn’t cope with what was happening. These too were men who were there to do a job and make a living. They are part of the story and need to be remembered and involved with their part in this piece of our history. As do the prisoners from Loyalist organisations who were there. Gusty Spence apparently used to ask the men on arrival why they ended up in the Kesh. Invariably the answers were ‘I got caught’ or ‘I blew up a building’. Spence made them think about the real reasons for being there, to look beyond the aspect of just being caught up in something. He made them find what it was that they believed in.

We will never share a commonality of belief, and that should not even be an aspiration. What we can do is have courage and respect and find it in ourselves collectively to allow space for each of us involved to find what it was they believed in and commemorate it with dignity and respect in a shared environment. Equality in the remembrance of the Loyalists, Republicans and Prison staff who all made sacrifices and suffered at this Ugly Place. By definition it cannot be easy, but it could represent a stage in an acceptance of a shared past and the beginnings of a shared future.

Few photos here.

  • Yer Woman

    Did you ever think of taking a day-trip to somewhere more, oohhhh I dunno, upbeat like Donegal or Portrush?

    Laganside and the Maze Prison? Next you’ll be suggesting a Slugger day out to Dungiven!

    Apologies for the inappropraite nature of my comment Miss Fitz – you do a sterling job on here in my opinion! 🙂

  • Miss Fitz

    Yer woman
    That was the best laugh I had in ages. Hadn’t decided on the next day out yet……… Maybe a jaunt around the Crumlin Road prison?

    But thanks for that…. perfect antidote!

  • Aislingeach

    One day, I will get to NI and that is a tour I’d like to take. Thanks, Miss Fitz

  • Betty Boo

    Miss Fitz,

    One line in your thread immediately remembered me of a poem. Written around 1894 by Stephen Cane and the book is called “Black Riders”

    In the desert
    I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
    Who, squattering upon the ground,
    Held his heart in his hands,
    And ate of it.
    I said, “Is it good, friend?”
    “It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
    “But I like it
    Because it is bitter,
    And because it is my heart.”

    Maybe if we would accept our own past as well as our history, victories and the moments of our greatest shame, then history wouldn’t repeat itself that often. A kind of No Black Hole Policy. Nothing disappears.

  • “we will need to find a common story and a place where it can be told”

    Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, an Israeli kid, directed The Inner Tour, a documentary about a group of Palestinians from Jenin taking a bus tour, just like all the Yank tourists, through Israel just before the start of the Second Intifada.

    His comments on the DVD (made after the start of the Second Intifada) were identical to your phrase above. As a sabra Alexandrowicz had his story, the Palestinians had theirs and he came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t be able to live together until they had a common story.

    Political arguments about Northern Ireland using Palestine are a logicians nightmare for argument by analogy is fatuous. (It sells a lot of bandwith on Slugger, though.)

    Our reactions to the events, however, are very closely similar.

  • willowfield

    I dread to know the answer, but tell me anyway: who runs the tour?

  • Miss Fitz

    Willowfield

    As far as I know, the tours are organised by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. If you are referring to the comment I deleted, I dont know what that was about, and I didnt like it, so it went. I’ve googled it and see that OFMDFM are known for the tours. Hope this helps.

    http://www.jcu.edu/belfastinstitute/field_experiences.htm

  • none of your business

    “I was involved once with a Prison Warden who had a nervous breakdown during the Dirty Protest, he couldn’t cope with what was happening. These too were men who were there to do a job and make a living.”

    Two points…

    First…making a living as a justification for working within such a system, treating POWs as they were treated is a very weak argument…I could draw numerous obvious analogies but won’t….

    Second…No wonder he had a breakdown…

    Comparisons between those that died on hunger strike and those that oppressed them smacks of an “all must have prizes”…value neutral approach to the history and morality of the place, the time and the actors, that just doesn’t cut it….

    There were good guys and bad guys…some occupied a higher moral plane than others…….ask around the world who was who and you’ll get a fairly consistent answer

  • DK

    None of your business

    “ask around the world”

    why? The people with the greatest understanding of what went on in NI are the people living there.

    “POW’s” – your view

    “bunch of hate filled, low intellect, violent criminals who devoted their lives to destroying others so that they could feed their own ego’s and self image, as some sort of revolutionaries working for the betterment of mankind, ie bull****” – my view

    people who run around blowing up furniture stores, incinerating people in restaurants, breaking into homes to murder, etc etc, do not fall into my understanding of “Good Guys”

    You obviously exist in a different moral plane.

  • Michael Robinson

    Miss Fitz – putting aside logistics and practicality issues, how do you think a 42k stadium would work on the site – inappropriate and the prison buildings should be left in isolation? Or the two very different kinds of facilities could coexist?

  • GPJ

    DK
    “people who run around blowing up furniture stores, incinerating people in restaurants, breaking into homes to murder”

    Can be also applied to loyal men some of whom were paid by the state to police, who took part in pogroms against the nationalist population from the 1880’s-1990’s.

    Revolutionary republican violence was a reaction not the cause of conflict in the six counties

  • DK

    GPJ

    “loyal men some of whom were paid by the state to police, who took part in pogroms against the nationalist population from the 1880’s-1990’s”

    they also do not fall into my understanding of “Good Guys” which appears to be consistent with your view.

    I’m not sure where you stand on the other guys. You know, the violent revolutionary republican ones who saw fit to destroy and murder, supposedly so that we can all have wonderful lives in some new utopia. As I said before, bull****!

  • mnob

    GPJ – so you want *your* version of history to be exclusively presented. Black and white – right and wrong – where ‘your’ guys were right and everyone else was wrong.

    I hope that someday you are able to reflect on your views and come to a more mature understanding of what motivates and drives people.

    I think you’ve kind of proved Miss Fitz point.

    The singular failing of unionism is that we have been unable to see (and therefore articulate) our argument in a simple and easy to digest way. (Themuns invaded and wont leave and now they are opressing us) However – being able to understand the complexities of any situation is not necessarily a failing.

  • Alan

    I’d like to see a non-unionist and non-nationalist interpretation of events as well.

    Sometimes it seems like we have two languages on the signpost to the future. Both mutually incomprehensible, but neither of them the language that I speak.

    What we say to the future is crucial, The recent report on Intergenerational transmission and identity makes worrying reading ( see http://www.ucd.ie/euiteniba/pdf/ITENIBA_FINAL_REPORT.pdf ).

    “Those most careful about their
    national discourse, or most likely to insist that nationality is not important, are not the
    young but those brought up during the violence in the North. The young are not less
    national or less oppositional than their elders.”

    The Generation of the troubles have an onerous responsibility to revisit the places where the dead are buried and bring our children with us so that they can see the horrors that were carried out. To sit complacently in the swamp of our own self-congratulatory myths serves only to bring violence closer.

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    ”Possibly the only thing that could be agreed upon is the fact that there was a violent period known as the Troubles from the late 60’s to the early 90’s. I stand to be corrected, but I think that is the one uncontrovertible statement that can stand unchallenged.”

    I dunno Miss Fitz — a lot of people seem to dislike the term ‘the troubles’ and opt instead for ‘the armed struggle’, ‘the bad old days’, the ‘terrorist onslaught’ or even in one only slightly exaggerated comment I heard recently ‘the civil war.’
    Likewise, we can’t even agree on the name of this place. I was surprised to see the ‘Auto Trader’ magazine announcing on their front cover that ‘no-one sells more cars in the six counties.’ Nothing like nailing your editorial colours to the mast.

    Perhaps we can all agree that we don’t want spy cameras in our wheelie bins. Doubt it though.

  • GPJ

    “Revolutionary republican violence was a reaction not the cause of conflict in the six counties.”

    Understanding the cause of conflict, through the use of historical analysis is the basis for the above comment.

    “I hope that someday you are able to reflect on your views and come to a more mature understanding of what motivates and drives people.”

    Since its inception, individuals have joined republican organisations, with the aim of undermining the government of the six counties.
    What more do you need to know or understand about their motivations, mnob?

  • Miss Fitz

    Thanks for all the very thoughtful comments, it’s reassuring to see some civilised debate and the generation of thoughtful ideas. Smiling Jim and Betty, I enjoyed your perspectives and inputs, its useful to frame a context for ourselves.

    Michael Robinson: Actually, politics aside, I think it would be a marvellous venue for a stadium. It would put me in mind of the Stadium in New Jersey, I think Giant stadium its called. Its got massive space for parking, acres of ground for a variety of training and playing pitches, and while you’re at it whack in a swimming pool. I think the site has fabulous potential and it would be a shame to see it squandered.

    Gerry lvs Castro: I gave that statement a lot of thought, and you’re right, I nearly said we could not agree on one single thing, so perhaps we cant. Armed struggle does not work from a Unionist perspective, Civil War is technically not correct, bad old days may not work for republicans. Padraig O’Malley called it the ‘Uncivil War’ which is near the mark. I have never heard anyone actually NOT call it the Troubles, so I went with that.

    To the DKs, NOYBs and GPJs of the thread: You personify all that is worst in our society. We need to let go of some of that and allow space for all people to appreciate their perspective on the past. Mnob picked up on that, and I left the comments there to illustrate the point.

  • Miss Fitz

    Alan
    I was very interested that you brought up intergenerational trauma. Yael Danieli wrote a book on it as well, and it makes sobering reading. The trauma is not stopped at the first generation, and one of the major transferrances can be guilt associated with acts of the previous generation.

    Do you get USIP bulletins every week? They are very useful on conflict transformation updates as well. If you want the Danieli reference, let me know, I have written a wee piece on it.

  • mckeown

    Once again loved it Miss. Fitz, I do agree with the earlier point of how bout trying a happier day out, head to Bangor have some ice cream ya know a nice day out maybe! But I suppose drama must be much more enjoyable for photo-journalists like yourself! (private joke everyone)
    But back to the blog, I loved every minute of it, I would like to see it for myself to be honest think I might enjoy that more than the lagan view trip. I agree with everything you said, obviously everyone wont agree on the versions of events but at least we can have a place to accept and learn about those versions. As they say “one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter.” But in the end we need to move on, remember those who went, and respect those were with.
    p.s would have loved to have seen photos of you locked in a prison cell in the maze, for historical purposes only of course.

  • Miss Fitz

    Ermm

    McKeown

    Before the sharks eat my little minnow, can I suggest that you dont read all my posts and comment on them en-masse on just one. The art of succesful blogging is to respond to each post singularly.

    I dont know what they teach ’em at Queens these days.

    Lagan trip is indeed great, and as I spent the day in Ballyclare, I dont know how anyone can complain about Belfast……

    And to the thread we are on? Thanks for your comments, and I could post one of me in a prison cell in exchange for one of you with a certain frog?

  • GPJ

    Miss Fitz

    How do you allow debate on a shared past, if political perspectives are not aired and analyised?
    Or are we to have selected sanitised versions of history which ignore the core events and their consequences

    “You personify all that is worst in our society”

    By having a political opinion? When you were in Long Kesh did you feel the same way about those who were interned there?

  • Miss Fitz

    GPJ
    You raise an interesting point. In Long Kesh, I had 2 responses.

    When I came to Bobby Sands cell, I knelt and said a prayer. That was my personal reaction.

    On the other hand, when I was in the admin block, I felt deeply for the men who made hard decisions as laid down for them by the government of the day.

    Where do you go from there?

    You lay aside your personal prejudice and you must see things clearly and from new angles. We must never see one side only. We need to emerge with new neutral glasses, and accept all actions as part of a whole.

    We, us, them

    A new picture has to emerge. A picture built of opposing parts of a jigsaw..

    It aint easy, but its called the future

  • Curious

    My tuppence worth… Flatten it and bury it under something, preferably something all the community can use in peace and harmony. A stadium is the best idea I’ve heard. Let the skateboarders loose in its car-parks between games. What went on at the Maze was hardly ‘the holocaust’ or ‘Alcatraz’ and so hasn’t got the potential of either, as a tourist attraction (God forbid..)or museum. All sides have their own romanticised view but in reality it was just where some of the bit players in a petty turf war were incarcerated. Let’s just forget it and focus on moving forward.

  • GPJ

    Miss Fitz

    Isn’t the future about dispelling myths and addressing past mistakes and decisions so that they cannot be repeated.

    What strikes me as wrong with the conflict resolution agenda at the moment, is that it does not address the past from the perspective of those who were willing to sacrifice their lives in places like Long Kesh in order to stimulate change.

    I do not think that you can decommission political aspirations by sanitising or ignoring the cause and consequences of what happened in the past.

  • DK

    Miss Fitz

    “You personify all that is worst in our society.”

    A rash judgement, based on my response to nob’s elevation of the morality of those incarcerated for causing harm to others, over their victims.

    I tend to agree with GPJ that you shouldn’t try to sanitise past events. The difficulty is trying to square that circle with the impossible task of having a common view of what happened and why.

    The best we can hope for is to create a future which recognises that there is no common truth and therefore we cannot let the past dictate the future.

    As someone from a Protestant/Unionist background, I have no fundamental problem with a United Ireland. That is, I am open to dropping the Unionist label. It is really not that big a deal.

    What I am not prepared to do is to join in such a project based on the lie, (my perception), that the violence visited on the communities from republicans, loyalists or governments, in any way helped to deliver a better society.

    It was wrong. Those who took part were wrong.

    The reason that it needs to be recognised as wrong is to prevent others repeating the wrongs for whatever their particular grievance may be.

    Don’t airbrush that out or we will build a future based on sand.

    Obviously some people will still hold onto their perception of the wonderful contribution that the IRA, UDA or others have made to society. That will remain the case.

    However, the instituations of any future administration can have no truck with such views.

  • mckeown

    miss fitz
    suprisingly enough blogging is not taught as a specialist subject in Queens, as a recent graduate I thought you would have known that.

  • Miss Fitz

    DK
    Thank you for your comments. I think that I was at pains to point out that we wont have a common story, it just wouldnt be possible. As wee McKeown points out, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and that will remain the case.

    What I have been trying to explore and stimulate is the idea of a shared space for separate stories. Somewhere that ideas, stories, artefacts can be held, where a common civic space is created for private commemoration in a shared space.

    No-one party or individual has a right to ALL of the story, and no group should claim dominance or ownership of a physical space.

    I have great sympathy for your view that you can only see the acts of republicans as wrong and immoral. On the other hand, while not agreeing or acquiescing, there is the perspective that people in the republican community felt that they were fighting a larger battle.

    I have come a long way in my own journey on understanding more about one side and perhaps a little less about the other.

    GJP, there is history and there is myth. No matter what you do, myth will remain with the people. What we can do constructively is try to allow points of views from both sides to balance the myths.

    No one is gonna wave a magic wand and make it all better, but we may be able to share space and peace in a better society.

    I take back my remarks on you both personifying the worst aspects in society. I do that because you both made reasoned, reasonable and logical arguments when challenged, and I really respect that.

  • willowfield

    On the other hand, while not agreeing or acquiescing, there is the perspective that people in the republican community felt that they were fighting a larger battle.

    I’m afraid the fact that “republicans” perceive that they were “fighting a larger battle” doesn’t offer any kind of justification for their killing campaign. Many evil movements throughout history have perceived that they were fighting larger battles: they weren’t justified in doing so, however.

    GJP, there is history and there is myth. No matter what you do, myth will remain with the people. What we can do constructively is try to allow points of views from both sides to balance the myths.

    What we should be doing is busting the myths. Tolerating a sectarian society with its own opposing and destructive myths is not good.

  • This was a great post…I hope one day all the bull**** of the past can be fertilizer for the future of Ireland. Empathy for one another goes a long way.

  • na

    This story (the locked in a cell bit) was in a Sunday tabloid yesterday.