Malachi O’Doherty is magnificently right. The best result for the Maze project would have been/ still should be to provide an unsparing and comprehensive account of the Troubles, murders, conspiracies and weasel politics, including the narratives without which it is a meaningless recitation of horror. Conflict resolution could come in the last gallery just before the shop. What a powerful statement it would be coming from the post-Agreement generation of parties and what avenues it would open for collective cognitive therapy. It could do the reputation and even the morale of the local parties a power of good. Not to mention outside opinion whose confidence may have been rocked by developments this year. There would be no better signal that the parties are serious about beginning – I repeat beginning – to deal seriously with the past. What are they waiting for?
But of course, the chances of an early rethink on the project are about zero at this moment, though one can foresee moves from Haas and the two governments over the coming months to stiffen faltering nerves. The parties have done so little to disentangled themselves from what I see we’re calling the “two narratives.” Northern Ireland being an such an introverted place, many of its people do not realise – and do not care – how rooted in ground frozen in the second and third decades of the last century are these narratives and even more to the point, how isolated they are from their metropolitan mainstream traditions to which they profess allegiance.
Some commentators make much of how the republican narrative echoes uncomfortably and unacknowledged in the Irish national story. But the more salient point is that, fairly or otherwise, the Irish establishment has rejected the modern IRA for the pantheon. However strong the parallels, Bobby Sands will not take his place alongside Terence McSwiney in the official commemorations in 2016. Sinn Fein are not now likely win entry into the inner sanctum of the national tradition but will remain characteristically localised in the North unless they break through in the south. And even then..
Across the water, politicians and others struggling with a new concept of Britishness would run several miles before they embraced ulster unionism in spite of the efforts of intellectuals such as Arthur Aughey and Henry Patterson to explain ulster unionism and reintegrate it into the British story. While imperial echoes and the Glorious Revolution have their place in BBC4 history documentaries, they register only faintly in a Britain which is embarrassed – perhaps too embarrassed – with much of its past.
None of this is for a moment to deny the influence of history today even in forgetful old Great Britain. We can see the Island Story powerfully reflected in today’s confused europhobia and in Scotland’s revisitation of 1707. But global social trends and aspirations spurred by technology are greater influences than they have ever been. While pride of place and loyalty to community generously expressed are powerful assets, a globalising world offers even our politicians unique opportunities around which to coalesce, to develop a deeper sense of common purpose and calm the angry legacy of the past.
None of that should prevent anyone from being moved by the execution wall in Kilmainham gaol or the Ulster Division Memorial Tower. Presented with integrity, there is no good reason why the Maze should not join them one day as a place of reflection of terrible times past.
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