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?

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com