Derry Essay 3: Sharing our Past, Sharing our Future

A couple of years ago at an event to promote the Walled City cultural tourism attractions at Stormont, Martin McGuinness talked about ‘Derry’ and ‘Londonderry’. With those two words he gave explicit recognition to the multiple narratives that are required to tell Northern Ireland’s story.

The story that Derry/Londonderry wishes to tell entwines Colmcille, Plantation, 1689, and Free Derry with a cultural story that brings us into the present day.  What was impressive about that event was how this rich and difficult past was being promoted through a unanimous voice: Apprentice Boys standing shoulder to shoulder with ‘Battle of the Bogside’ veterans.

A few years ago my own organisation, The Heritage Lottery Fund, funded a project to look at the names of people commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial, the very centrepiece of the Walled City itself.  The project researched the names of those who were commemorated, having lost their lives in the First World War.

The results showed that 52% were Protestant and 48% Catholic.  For the first time in generations many within the nationalist community were introduced to the idea that this iconic symbol, so long seen as belonging to the Unionist community, was a part of their story as well.  Family members long forgotten could now be remembered with pride.

Another encouraging sign came for me when Arlene Foster a HLF project, The Whitehouse, a project with strong Williamite connections, described the Williamite wars as part of a broader European story; a story which saw Catholic Europe and the pope celebrating the defeat of King James.  This is another great example of the traditional sectarian narrative being overturned in favour of a more objective reading of history.

Part of the problem with dealing with the past is not what we remember but what we forget.  Identities and false histories are often carved from partisan interpretations of what has happened.  Unhelpful facts are deliberately forgotten and useful exaggerations are grafted on.  Historical identities cannot therefore be relied upon and can be often seen as the sum of some very unreliable parts, leaving us with the disastrous consequences of prejudicial thinking.

So are we starting to see a slow thaw around the edges of our competing narratives allowing for other ideas and views to be absorbed?  And just how open are our minds to a re-evaluation of our own understanding of the past?

But how can we search for a shared history when our experiences hardly add up to a shared past.  What is called for is a more honest reading of the past, one that does not attempt to sanitise, reshape or rewrite while attempting to fulfil an equality agenda that is hard on social engineering and soft on historical facts.

Perhaps what we are starting to see in a more careful use of words, and a broad historical perspective from our politicians, is recognition that with the many different perspectives of the past that there is, in a democratic society no single narrative that can ever outweigh or be allowed to obscure all others.

It was to explore such ideas that The Heritage Lottery Fund ran a conference on the topic of heritage and identity.  Some of the ideas which where explored were profoundly interesting and challenged rigid interpretations of historical fact.

William Crawley, the conference chair, summed the day up when he commented that ‘our cultural and political traditions sometimes approach the past with such divergent concepts, codes and creeds that the truth itself is lost in translation’… and he called for the development of ‘a common historical grammar’.

Perhaps that is the experiment we are seeing in Derry/ Londonderry today?  I certainly hope so.  While there are still many social problems that need to be solved in that wonderful city there does seem to be a genuine commitment to forging a future which is shared by all of the City’s citizens.

Paul is the Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Northern Ireland. Prior to HLF he worked at the National Trust where he had spent time as both Area Manager and Acting Regional Director.
Following a degree in Ancient History and Political Science at Queen’s University of Belfast, and a years post-graduate study at Trinity College, Dublin, he worked at a number of top London Advertising Agencies. He has been involved in a variety of heritage, tourism and conservation projects, and has written, lectured and broadcasted on heritage matters. He is also a member of the BBC’s Audience Council for Northern Ireland and former President of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society.