Coming to a shared understanding of the past in the present is going to be painful, iterative and difficult

How many other things might be tolerated in peace and left to conscience, had we but charity, and were it not the chief stronghold of our hypocrisy to be ever judging one another! I fear yet this iron yoke of outward conformity hath left a slavish print upon our necks.

John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

One of the interesting projects which I think is trying to creatively probe the peace process (or Peace Process™ as it’s occasionally referenced in this parish) is the Compromise beyond Conflict project at Queens. Today they have an interesting take from North Down DUP MLA Peter Weir, who recalls

I was a child of the Troubles, born in 1968, and therefore, although I didn’t fully realise it at the time, the Troubles had a direct impact on me throughout my childhood. When what is generally regarded as the start of the Troubles occurred when my family was in holiday in the Irish Republic and we had to hasten home.

It would be more than 20 years before I was across the border again. Ironically, for those who used violence in their aim of achieving a United Ireland, the practical outworking for many unionist families was to reinforce partition in a much more concrete manner than happened at any stage since 1921.

In the comments Gerry Leddy an NI21 supporter, puts his finger on the flawed attempts of the top table at OFMdFM to negotiate some form of ‘agreement on the past…

Napoleon Bonaparte, said that History is a set of lies agreed upon. Napoleon would never have been able to comprehend the Information Technology (IT) age. We don’t need to read history books any more, we can watch it and read about it, from multiple viewpoints, thanks to Youtube and Google.

He finishes with a polemical flourish and a reference to Groundhog Day [that’d be right – Ed]. But his multiple viewpoints is a critical insight. We don’t elect governments or administrations in order to tell us what we should think about the past, we’re asking them (and paying them) to do some stuff.

In the context of this multiplicity of view, the public tends to draw narrative from what politics does rather from a politician’s capacity to catechise their beliefs.

My old mucker Trevor Ringland wrote for the Telegraph’s blog, has again called for a move away from simple mutually exclusive politics that continue polarise Northern Irish society long after the worse of the communal violence has ceased:

…when it comes to looking at identity and to our future, it’s time that we bought into inclusive concepts of identity for the people of Northern Ireland. Whether it be inclusive Irish or inclusive British, Northern Irishness or even the European identity.

The political extremes like to use exclusive concepts of identity to maintain divisions and drive us apart, largely for their own narrow agendas. The reality is more complicated and interesting.   We should be happy to celebrate this diversity and complexity.

But accepting such complexity can also burn in unexpected ways.  Sunder Katwala writing an early Comment is Free on the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising:

Who unleashed the gun into 20th century Irish politics? In fact, it was the transition to British democracy – or rather the Tory attempt to prevent this. For amidst the near constitutional collapse that challenges most of the orthodoxies about British political history, the Parliament Act of 1911 meant that home rule would pass.

Defeated three times in the polls and stripped of their hereditary right to veto the elected house, the Tories went quite mad. “There are things stronger than Parliamentary majorities,” thundered Bonar Law, as the leader of His Majesty’s opposition declared his party’s divine right to control the ultimate destiny of a great empire, and inciting Ulster’s loyalists to take up arms against an act carrying the royal seal.

Many people know that the Great War split the Liberals. Few now recall how it saved the Tories from treason and self-destruction. Still Parnell’s successor Redmond urges the Irish to the trenches, to earn Ireland’s freedom. But after Easter 1916 they were swept away by a Sinn Fein landslide.

The constitutional path to home rule might well have proved simply a less bloody means of divorce, rather than some looser federation of the Isles. Ireland and India would have become nations without General Maxwell overseeing summary executions in Dublin castle, or General Dyer firing on crowds in Amritsar. Still, those were moments when the rubicon was crossed. They determined how independence came about.[emphasis added]

Histories are complex, but they can be freeing. And hammering out new narratives in a whole new post conflict state is not an easy option. It is by far the harder job to do, and in the context of Northern Ireland it is process that has barely begun to be taken seriously.

As this report notes “official doctrines can too easily pose as genuine histories”. Something we talked around in this DigitalLunch on History, storytelling and/or Propaganda?

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  • David Crookes

    Not according to completely uncheckable testimony which I have heard, Reader. One pretty devastating big name from later on was widely believed to have been involved. I’ll try to see if any written sources corroborate what I’ve said, although (whatever academics may think) a rumour which gets written down and printed has no more factual status than the rumour which I heard on the streets of North Belfast in my youth.

    Even when I was a boy most of Belfast’s Jews lived on or near the Antrim Road. As far as I know the Waterworks wasn’t an enormously big deal even in the 1940s.

    Don’t mind me wandering off for a moment into a later time. I’ve been saying in different posts lately that many people on my side of the fence have a lot to apologize for. The same goes for the other side of the fence. I shall never forgive the IRA for murdering my old friend Leonard Kaitcer — numismatist, antique dealer, and prodigious worker for charity. One of many whose family had come to Belfast for safety.

  • Reader

    David Crookes: Not according to completely uncheckable testimony which I have heard, Reader. One pretty devastating big name from later on was widely believed to have been involved.
    OK – the problem is it is reminiscent of the usual loyalist story about the IRA lighting fires on the hills around Belfast to guide in the Luftwaffe and I don’t find it any more credible.
    As for Waterworks – they were a specific target in Luftwaffe raids on London and Paris, and for good reason given the usual proportion of incendiaries in a raid

  • David Crookes

    OK, Reader, but let me see what I can find.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Son of Strongbow, (9.X.13: 5.57pm) I remember a story of my uncle’s regarding Irish involvement in Spain. He was serving in the RAF in some benighted spot the early 1940s and fell into conversation with an Irish Guards sergeant who had served in Spain. The sergeant was a Munster man who had fought in O’Duffy’s legion in Spain, and reeled off a number of his fellows in that enterprise who were now serving in the British forces. Such men were looking for a bit of adventure with very little ideological content apparent in their choices. Its never safe to draw hard conclusions from one fact alone. And after all, it was a band of individuals rather than units of the Irish army who went to Spain. You might as well start blaming Auden for Katyn!!

    And David Crookes, thank you for posting a clarification of what I intended to say ““Die Götzen-Dämmerung” ( = Twilight of the Idols).” As you imply, this description is much more to the point, it was always inanimate shells these people were worshiping. And, as I’ve mentioned on another posting, their “insistence on a perennial protestant “loyalty” [is] firmly rooted in false memories of a period where Quisling style behaviour, self interested bullying and open betrayal marked their ancestors [flagrantly disloyal] behaviour towards of King James II.” A “Loyalty” rooted firmly in the manure of such base betrayal will always display a most distinct flavour.