Are we ready for sharing the past?

Culture Minister Nelson McCausland’s speech “Commemorations and a Shared Future“to the Institute for British-Irish Studies in UCD last week was a thoughtful and sincere attempt to find Shared Future themes in the rash of centenaries from the Ulster Covenant of 1912 to the foundation of the Free State and the Northern Ireland in 1921. But straight away Nelson epitomised the problem as much as  the solution. He was all too eager to insert unionist correctives into the nationalist narrative he still believes prevails – which I suppose it does at street level. Is that quite the right role for  a minister representing the cross community government?  ASs a unionist, he is wary of the continuing pull of 1916.

However I must also sound a warning note as regards the legacy of 1916.  There is the real danger of a veneration that could encourage and assist those dissident republicans in Northern Ireland who want to indoctrinate another generation of young men to pursue the nihilistic path of violence.

Rather than back away, wouldn’t it be better to face up frankly to the romantic appeal of 1916 that stretches well beyond republicans of any stripe and go on to debate equally frankly the limitations of the physical force tradition – introduced in that era by the signatories to the Ulster Covenant in their own blood, so much admired by Patrick Pearse?

Top down history doesn’t really work. For interested readers who are a bit vague about the actual history , I recommend Richard English’s “Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland” which discusses nationalism from today’s perspectives and has an excellent  bibliography.

See how even a generally favourable review can cause controversy between the reviewer and the reviewed. 

Yes, it might even be valuable to draw together the threads of the different experience of events and experiences from 1912 to 1921 in a spirit of open appraisal. While there is no “right” version of history, the exercise would challenge the foundation myths of the political parties. Would they and the grass roots be up for it? And how many would be prepared to listen rather than talk? Sharing  the past could be even more difficult than sharing the future.

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