A lesson from other countries. The past can be a dangerous and unpredictable place

Northern Ireland is not the only place grappling with the problem of the disappeared, one of the starkest proxy issues for the whole horror of the Troubles. About 30,000 people were “disappeared” in Argentina during the junta years of the 1970s and 80s and 130,137 victims of Franco went missing during the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. In these countries too, these are not dead historical facts; they still have potency today. In several countries, the past is being relived. It would be useful to examine the different reasons why, before we embark on any grand inquiry of our own. Much investigation has gone into the process of inquiry, not enough into why we might do it. The results in other countries are not always encouraging. In Argentina the mothers of the desaparecidos played an important part in the downfall of the regime.
Spain was different; there was a conscious culture of forgetting which produced the evolution to democracy. Disinterring the bones of Lorca, surely a fitting subject for one of his own plays, is awakening fears of reviving old hatreds and even of destabilising the country, almost 70 years after his murder. In Argentina the quest for justice goes on. In Spain, where the dead on both sides ran into millions a 1977 amnesty is now the target for those who seek justice. Socialist Prime Minister Zapatero’s proposal for a Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory has aroused fierce controversy, either for being too feeble, or for existing at all.

In Germany,more than 60 years on revived memories before the wartime generation finally dies out will not shake the Federal Republic, so completely was the war tradition burned out of them in the cataclysm of revenge and rape in 1944-45, as told in English by Anthony Beevor and now in a German movie. Incredibly thousands of women now grandmothers kept silent about what had befallen them. If Germans need an explanation and many do, they need only to turn to the detailed accounts in Soviet and other archives of the incredible level of brutality carried out by the ordinary German soldier not just the SS in the invasion of the Soviet Union. And yet today, it’s fair to say the deep scars have healed in that relationship, after almost thirty million dead.

Austria is a different case again. Was she a victim of Nazism or a co-conspirator? They like to have it both ways. It is in this quiet pastoral country that echoes of the Nazi past have been loudest, as we saw last week at the funeral of that disturbing character Jorg Haider. For too many Austrians (not all and not the State) remembering is about excusing the past.

So Remembering is an unpredictable exercise. .It can revive the dark passions of the past as much as exorcise them. Justice I suggest is unattainable. I end as I began. What is all for?. Is the Northern Ireland community able to give itself a sensible and agreed answer?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London