Why Northern Ireland Needs to Keep Talking about its Past

Should Northern Ireland keep talking about its past?

In his post today about last week’s conference at the Ulster Musuem, Culture after Conflict, Fitzjameshorse writes somewhat triumphantly:

We already know from a previous post that the Churches aren’t overly concerned about playing a part in Conflict Resolution. Neither are Historians who value the historical record above its re-writing for the perceived benefit to Society. And the Arts people feel the same way.

It is as if Fitzjameshorse thinks that if all of those people don’t care about dealing with the past and making specific efforts to promote better relations (reconciliation, if you will), why should anyone else, either?

What I most take issue with is Fitzjameshorse’s characterisation of historians as those ‘who value the historical record above its re-writing for the perceived benefit to Society.’

This seems to make a series of massive, and I believe false, assumptions: That there is one, true ‘historical record’ that exists, that we can determine the cold, hard facts and ‘truth’ of every matter, and that historians can be trusted to be ‘objective’ about the truth.

I would also take issue with Fitzjameshorse’s assertion that ‘the Arts people feel the same way.’

I was at the Culture After Conflict conference, and the overriding message I got was that the ‘arts people’ did not think that their work couldn’t or shouldn’t contribute to remembrance or reconciliation. What the professional artists, in particular, seemed to object to was the idea that the arts could be used in a mechanistic way to promote reconciliation.

I think what the professional artists were saying was that as soon as, for instance, an author sets out to write a novel to promote reconciliation, it gets in the way of his or her ability to produce a good novel. The novel – or play, or painting, or whatever it is – first just has to be good in and of itself.

Further, artists may have more long-term constructive impacts on society by producing disturbing or upsetting work that challenges people to think in new ways. So at the conference, Philip Orr lamented how Protestants/unionists/loyalists had not produced a body of self-critical work about the period around the home rule crisis and partition, the implication being that if they had, this would have contributed to constructive debate within Protestantism/unionism/loyalism.

On Wednesday this week, my place of employment, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (the Irish School of Ecumenics) hosted a seminar with Michelle Moloney, a doctoral candidate at the University of Ulster, on ‘Activating the Archive: The Role of Oral History Community Archives in Post Conflict Society.’

Moloney’s work is both theoretical and practical, including research on two community oral history archives in Belfast: Duchas in West Belfast and the East Belfast Oral History Archive. The East Belfast Oral History Archive was launched this week by First Minister Peter Robinson, and its establishment has been part of a collaborative initiative with Duchas through the ‘Bridging Oral History Project.’

Moloney noted that professional historians have not usually been concerned with community oral history archives, in part because the voices within them disrupt the modern historian’s quest to construct a grand, overarching narrative about the past. Of course, post-modernists have interrogated historians’ ability to construct grand narratives, and few historians today are as bold in their claims to objectivity as in previous generations.

But in housing the troubling and inconvenient voices, community oral history archives make no claim that they are establishing a definitive ‘historical record.’ Rather, they are repositories of people’s memories and stories, providing perspective on, as Moloney said, how the past is interpreted by people in the present.

Understanding the past, and coming to terms with it in the present, is therefore all about understanding the different perspectives, complexities, nuances and arguments of the historical actors who carried them out. Just like the so-called ‘ordinary folks’ whose memories are captured in community oral history archives, historians are also interpreting the past in the present.

Some people in Northern Ireland, myself included, are arguing that we should make a deliberate effort to come to terms with the past – to have a wide-ranging public discussion about how we remember the past – in part because we realise that people are going to remember it anyway. And if they remember it separately, in closed communities, it only perpetuates the same destructive patterns and stereotypes that have characterised this part of the island for centuries. So for example, I think we should seriously consider some of the options presented in the Eames-Bradley report, such as a reconciliation forum.

The idea that everyone in Northern Ireland can turn off their memories of Troubles, like a water tap, is as mythical as the idea that historians can construct a definitive ‘historical record.’ Initiatives like the Bridging Oral History Project are excellent in providing a space for those memories, but their reach is limited.

During the panel discussion hosted by Gerry Anderson at the conclusion of the Culture After Conflict conference, novelist Glenn Patterson said that a problem that he had with some of the art produced after the Troubles was that it presented people in Northern Ireland as passive – as if the Troubles had been done to them. Others had expressed this same idea from the stage throughout the day.

Patterson said that during the Troubles, people all over Northern Ireland woke up every day and took decisions, both big and small, that kept the Troubles going. He worried that people in Northern Ireland are therefore perpetuating another myth: that a ‘few bad men’ were responsible for the Troubles.

This ‘bad men’ view of the Troubles just might be furthered through programmes like that aired by BBC television this week on the Shankill Butchers, hosted by Stephen Nolan. Yes, the Shankill Butchers perpetrated very bad acts, I am not disputing that.

But is this how Northern Ireland wants to remember its past, through piecemeal and sometimes sensationalist programmes, and the drip-drip of media stories about fresh revelations about past atrocities? Or can we have a more complex discussion about the Troubles and its causes, and how in choosing to remember together, we just might build a better future?

  • Turgon

    Gladys,
    I have a great deal of time for you personally but I think this piece is extremely poorly thought out and seems to be a reaction (in a degree of anger) to FJH’s critique of the “reconciliation industry” of which I submit you are or want to be a part.

    Let us deal with a few points of illogicality in your analysis:

    The “bad man” issue is overwhelmingly important. Very, very bad men (and a few women) did bad things. However, for most of us remembering our role in the Troubles is remembering precisely nothing. I am sorry to play the woman but you were not here, you do not know. I personally suffered almost nothing from the Troubles. My wife a border Prod personally suffered nothing; granted several close family friends and one relative were murdered, but she would in no way self describe as a victim.

    The victim I know best had her fiancee murdered: however, she does not wish to take part in a remembering session, least of all if it results in various murderers self justifying their actions. Now if it resulted in someone in court she might well be intereste:; somehow, however, the peace processers never seem to be talking about that.

    Now to a few other bits of nonsense from yourself:
    You state: “few historians today are as bold in their claims to objectivity as in previous generations”

    I agree entirely. There is a complete logical disconnect between that and suggesting that we can agree to come together and discuss reconcillation and how we remember the past. Most of us have no desire whatsoever to hear how the murderers remember the past and how traumatised they are by “having to” kill people.

    Eames Bradley tried to claim we all had responsibility for the past and the evils of it. I, FJH and most people here say a resounding “Never” to that despite me and FJH (just as examples) being from very different political positions.

    Eames Bradley was an ill thought out , illogical and indeed iniquitous piece of nonsense which essentially consisted of saying we were all guilty but the terrorists having accepted a tiny bit of guilt were by so doing more righteous than the rest of us. Eames Bradley and co since they had embraced their own self appointed guilt were of course even more self righteous.

    [Wandering off the ball there Turgon – Mods]

    Alternatively continue being a good academic, a good runner and a good writer: you are good at all those; on this one you are way off.

  • Turgon

    I do not know why my last comment was censured but if I was unfair to Gladys I am sorry. I will try again. I merely point out that Gladys cannot be personally responsible for anything which happened during the Troubles; even if she wanted to be. Hence, her comments below have a fundamental flaw:

    “Some people in Northern Ireland, myself included, are arguing that we should make a deliberate effort to come to terms with the past – to have a wide-ranging public discussion about how we remember the past – in part because we realise that people are going to remember it anyway.”

    Gladys fails to acknowledge fully the complete non involvement in the past – in the sense of any form of responsibility for the evils of the past- that the overwhelming majority of us have.

    I submit that fundamental to her non understanding of this is that, having not been here during the Troubles, she fails to appreciate the non involvement of most people. That is a valid criticism and not “woman playing” but merely an observation of an indisputable fact. As such the “we” she utilises in remembering the past is inaccurate: it would be better to be a “you” if indeed Gladys feels that “we” as the people of Northern Ireland need to be involved in collective remembering.

    Gladys can certainly be an ouside observer and offer suggestions for remembering as can all sorts of people; they are welcome to do so. However, if the people of Northern Ireland overwhelmingly reject her (and the rest of the peace process industry’s) suggested remembering strategies then maybe we should be allowed to conduct the remembering or non remembering of the past as we choose.

  • Why Northern Ireland Needs to Keep Talking about its Past” ….. is because they have nothing imaginative and viable and new which all can support and build upon for the future.

    There is an intellectual property and party political bankruptcy in the province and amongst its population. In a word which all will easily and readily understand, are they all a bit thick/soft.

    And did you hear Nolan, this morning, trying not to lose the rag asking politicians to share their personal view on subjects. Jeez, ’twas pathetic just listening to them squirming about, avoiding answering the questions, and just obviously planning to get another four years doing nothing but talking about doing something and all at the taxpayers expense.

    What a shower of parasites. And that is a clean play at the ball, Slugger, for there were no men there, playing it.

  • I did not really want to post anything on this thread. But I think there are some issues that need to be addressed. First of all Gladys Ganiel detects a note of triumphalism in my conclusion.
    She is of course putting that interpretation on it based on my previous posts on Conflict Resolution. But she is of course right. The original draft which I submitted was much mote triumphalist and I will happily direct anyone to an unedited version (Slugger permitting).
    But have I a right to be triumphalist? Would I have broken 15 months of not being a Slugger threadstarter if I had found the Arts Community craving for involvement in Conflict Resolution.
    No of course not.
    But in my original submission (Friday night last week I believe) I first checked that Gladys Ganiel had no post in the offing. This is her field.
    If I readily concede that I would not have been so anxious to contribute if the Conference did not reach the same judgements that I have done long ago….would Gladys Ganiel have posted sooner if the conclusions had been along the lines favoured by her. Gladys Ganiel was happy enough to let the Conference go unreported until just three hours after my post.

    “What I most take issue with is Fitzjameshorse’s characterisation of historians as those ‘who value the historical record above its re-writing for the perceived benefit to Society.’
    Let me seek to reassure Gladys Ganiel by quoting the rest of the paragraph.

    “We already know from a previous post that the Churches aren’t overly concerned about playing a part in Conflict Resolution. Neither are Historians who value the historical record above its re-writing for the perceived benefit to Society. And the Arts people feel the same way”.

    Spot the difference? Clearly I am not saying that Historians as a group value the historical record. What I AM saying is that those who dont value the historical record are happy enough to write History to order.
    Some Churchmen also.
    Some artists & writers.
    We have a situtaion north and south of the border where History was used for mythmaking for the common good of “Ulster” or “Ireland”. There are historians who will happily do so.in many cases genuinely……to create new myths.

    “Some people in Northern Ireland, myself included, are arguing that we should make a deliberate effort to come to terms with the past”
    Thats self-evidently the case.
    And also the case that many..like me…..want no part of it.
    Btw….I read about the East Belfast project earlier this week and support it.
    Memory is alas……piecemeal. And yes that IS how most of us want to remember it. There can be no complete narrative. Nor can there ever be a definitive version.
    As Gladys Ganiel points out (and actually theres a deeper philosophical point that can be debated for years) there is more than one “Truth”.
    Lets say this is true……but let us say there can only be one form of honest approach to perhaps more than one Truth. The concocted History (or Art) for “the common good” is a dishonest approach.
    The over-reliance on the input of some..for example ex-prisoners does Conflict Resolution no favours. It is beyond parody when some ex-prisoners make racist comments and are then given a trip to Auschwitz to learn the lesson of Racism…..and they cheerfully head of to strip clubs.

    There is an elephant in the room. Gladys Ganiel is American. There I said it….out loud. Thats of course no better or worse than being Irish or British or European. It cant be denied that
    “the impulse for Art to be part of Reconciliation is coming from outsiders”
    Or History.

  • By the way that last quote was Tim Loane last week.

  • fordprefect

    Fitz,
    Are you by any chance related to Mark Durkan? Because you go on and on and on and on!

  • Im in my Grandpa Simpson years.

  • anne warren

    Taking several points in the OP and comments in no particular order but leaving aside the artists for the moment.

    The population in NI is approximately 1.5 million. Hundreds on both sides set off bombs, shot, murdered and intimidated others, were interned and/or sentenced to jail.
    Given these numbers and more who were never caught, were activists really a group apart from the rest of society.? Victims were neighbours, friends, people you had been to school with, met socially, met occasionally in the course of your work or daily activities and so on. Someone in every family, in every street, working with other people, with a group of friends or involved in some social or recreational activity, had to personally know, or know of, a person who was actively involved in the various forms of violence.
    Apart from this, consider the number of totally innocent people, who just tried to get on with their daily lives, who took defensive precautions inside and outside their own homes, suffered from horrible nightmares, lived in fear of the next shooting/bombing, were prescribed tranquillizers, drank excessively etc.
    So I find it hard to believe that most people in NI were unaffected by the Troubles. Turgon and his wife may be happy exceptions.

    Turgon wrote:“we all had responsibility for the past and the evils of it. I, FJH and most people here say a resounding “Never” to that”
    I think everyone in NI in those years was affected by an appalling trauma and everyone was a victim, some more obviously so than others. And if everyone was a victim was everyone responsible? Could each and everyone of us have done something differently? Stood up and said “No we don’t want this?”
    All of which obviously leads to a hall of mirrors, lost opportunities, distorted points of view ranging from victimization through self justification to denial and so on.

    Memories and historians.
    Every history student knows that all historians see facts through the prism of their own mind-set which can range from reactionary through conservative to Marxist and beyond. So any attempt to achieve a balanced point of view must lead to extensive reading of all viewpoints and will inevitably be coloured by the student’s own background and leanings.
    All history books should come with a warning!
    “Do not uncritically believe all that is written here!”

    Personal memories are inevitably selective, myth-making and myth-creating.
    Gladys wrote “ And if people remember it separately, in closed communities, it only perpetuates the same destructive patterns and stereotypes that have characterised this part of the island for centuries”.
    I can’t disagree with this statement

    Finally, Amanfrommars wrote:
    “Why Northern Ireland Needs to Keep Talking about its Past” ….. is because they have nothing imaginative and viable and new which all can support and build upon for the future“

    I hope he is not correct but I fear he may be!

  • earther

    Being an outsider (more so than Gladys Ganiel), I usually refrain from commenting on Slugger.

    But the historical record is dear to my heart. Yes, there is “one true” historical record. Post-modernists are welcome to take on “grand narratives”. Generalities and judgements are subjective. But on any number of details, the historical record supports factual accounts over myths.
    It is the only recourse we have to prevent politicians and their servants from burying the truth. It’s a weak recourse in these cynical times but the alternative is to vie for the loudest microphones in the hope of drowning out other people’s self-serving myths with our own.
    While it is sometimes wise to diplomatically refrain from bringing up the facts in the interest of peace, promoting convienent falsehoods is something else. I do not believe it serves peace in the long run. Not in Ireland. Not anywhere.

    “Americans” benefit from institutions more committed to freedom of speech than most and may not understand how valuable the historical record is.
    I hear that the law and the courts in the UK serve the truth better than on the Continent (is that the case?) but there are a number of countries where bringing up historical facts can get you in court. The historical record is not a get-out-of-court-free card but it is the only defense of those who tell the truth.
    For instance an organization dedicated to the memory of the victims of Nazi executions was brought to court last year in France because they dared to speak about of one of the powerful “few bad men” who supported the Nazis and their crimes against humanity.
    The “bad men” haven’t gone away. I reckon future generations will not be served by a politically convenient version of history which exculpates those among the “few bad men” and their followers who remain in powerful positions. Letting “bad men” get away with their political crimes may be necessary (that is not for me to say) but, as long as you remain free to do so, I encourage you to keep reminding the younger generations of the politically inconvenient parts of the historical record. If that offends servile historians, so much the better.

    Far from me to suggest one shouldn’t talk about the past but you can only “remember together” once a genuine peace has taken hold. Don’t put the cart before the horse. All over the world people keep remembering separately much older events than the Troubles.
    You can only choose who you want to remember with. I imagine some of the “bad men” expect you to remember with them.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    What an excellent couple of posts from FJH and Gladys.

    Anne Warren and Man from Mars also hit a bullseye when they note that there is little political vision, so there is a reflex to turn to the past. Thats probably an international phenomenon too when you think about it. Think of everything from the heritage industry to the power of holocaust memory. We have no grand plans for the future so we turn to the past to ‘fix’ it or take values from it.

    If dealing with the past in NI is about reaching a shared therapeutic zone of comfort its a waste of time. But I suspect few think of it that way. The borders of our political world are built around communal identity, history/mythology of rights asserted and wrongs resisted, and a strong sense of locality and territoriality. Those borders are difficult to pass through, and often grind against one another. If dealing with the past means we get to peer into the unfamiliar, and objectionable, and maybe look a bit critically at our own world then thats a positive. Are we all victims, are we all guilty? ‘Course not. But I’ve seen and heard a wide variety of people say and do things, from QUBSU Canteen to leafy suburbs, via schools, pubs, workplaces and streets that does not quite fit with Turgon’s binary world of ‘murderous scum’ and law abiding decent sort.

    Are we awash with political entrepreneurs and featherbedding peaceniks, sure. And we also have politically partisan types who provide some insight, and members of the peace ‘industry’ who are anything but carpet bagging poltroons. Yup, academics/historians should be part of this. But don’t venerate them as impartial scientists either. Can be creatures of partisanship and fashion too.

    If dealing with the past is about self chastisement or holding hands count me out. If its about honest and open engagement, I’m in.