Ireland, the Commonwealth and history

In an Irish Times article headlined , Historical amnesia is not a sign of maturity John Waters argues strongly against the idea of the Republic joining the Commonwealth, a fairly easy Aunt Sally, you would have thought. (Waters can be forgiven for failing to keep up with the forms of Commonwealth terminology; the term “British” has been dropped now for at least a quarter of a century). But irrelevance is not as you might expect the preferred reason for spurning the notion. Rather, Waters cites as the main reason that the Commonwealth

remains also the embodiment of what our forefathers spilled an ocean of their blood trying to escape.

Weren’t “oceans of blood “ spilled in say India and Kenya who joined and largely define the modern very shadowy Commonwealth? And if blood is the arbiter, what about blood shed in a common cause by Australians, Canadians, Indians, Africans – and of course as we now commemorate, the Irish? If the others joined there must be more to it than “oceans of blood.”
Waters focuses on the Great Famine as one reason why the Republic could never rejoin (Dev scholars might insist on “ re-associate with ” the Commonwealth):

Twice this year, I have been involved in television programmes about the Great Famine, which have touched on the nature of Ireland’s historical relationship with Britain in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago. While the Provos were murdering people, we had to pretend that we were over it, that most of it never happened, or that, anyway, it was all a long time ago. Now, the political context for denial has been removed, we can state the facts baldly. We do not wish to do anything with these facts, but simply to record them again, after generations of shamed silence, so we know who we are.”

“Facts?” No one can possibly deny the figures , the horror or hold back entirely from blaming governments; that’s one of their functions. But context, wider blame, solutions?

In his collection of essays The Irish Story ( pub: 2001) Roy Foster tilts an Irish official memory of the past, “theme park history, ” a tourism commodity he clearly believes is unhealthy and a bit ridiculous. It’s important to stress that he does not mock honest passion and indeed anticipates his critics, who might have him claim that the Irish in the 1840s suffered from mass anorexia nervosa. He writes against official versions of commodified history like what he calls “Faminism.”

Traditionally, the Famine was seen at worse a deliberate policy of English genocide, at best wilful neglect by the British government – an interpretation boosted in the 1960s by that a great work of popular history by Cecil Woodham-Smith. Subsequent academic research tried to concentrate on the contemporary account of similar disasters and the current beliefs about government intervention, and to understand how such a horror could have happened rahtern than simply apportioning blame ( eg my comment the power of the rising class of Catholic landlords, anxious for clearances). But the effect of the commemoration year (or years) was to highlight the issues of guilt and pain, driven by the idea that some sort of empathy could be achieved, and a therapeutic catharsis brought about.

However Foster would I think agree with Walter’s contention that “For centuries we have been prevented from looking squarely at our history, first by the process of colonisation and more recently by the shame arising from the desecration of Irish nationhood by the Provisional IRA. The resolution of the Northern conflict has unexpectedly enabled us not only to engage at an emotional level with our history, but also to stop lying about it.”

.In the chapter “Theme Parks and Histories” Foster invokes (ps 34-36) the mainstream of Irish historical studies when he says that since 1994 “the Northern nightmare has receded .. we are no longer looking over the brink.. This relaxation has perhaps made people less conscious of the dangers of historical interpretation self-congratulations, tub-thumping, or professional victimhood ?

Foster is arguing for the complexities of history and against “imagining the past” in the light of a preferred version of what happened in support of national myths. This very nuanced position is firmly established by now, even as arguments over revisionism and re-revisionism continue. Foster remains open to distortion but he and many others have given up worrying about that. They too are liberated by the recession of the Troubles. Foster concludes the essay with a bit of mischief:

“ ..the next commemoration might take the form of raising a monument to Amnesia, and forgetting where we put it? Not entirely: as an historian I have to be rather shocked by the idea. But as an Irishman I am rather attracted by it.

I’ve no doubt that Water’s attitude would be endorsed by straw polls of the impassioned. But underneath the clamour I’m hopeful that what Patricia Craig calls “latitudinarianism ” is quietly coming through. Not that I’d worry too much about Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth. Such as it is, it will probably survive. Its most recent recruit was Mozambique sponsored for membership by Nelson Mandela and it had never been part of the British Empire.

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