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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