Despite the Haass setback we are not the prisoners of the past but masters of our own fate

The issues of the Haass process are only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed it might be said that the talks were unlikely to succeed without rigorous challenge and examination of the beliefs and assumptions the parties brought to the table.  Behind the tortuous details of flags, parades and the past are the competing narratives which need to be challenged and explored before we can reach the point of agreement of how to live with them.  Beyond the groves of academe and the broadsheet press this process has barely begun.

The great incentive is the message is that we are not the helpless prisoners of our own fate. We can change it. There’s no point in pinning all the blame on politicians. “The fault dear Brutus lies not in the stars but in ourselves.” We must surely liberate ourselves from the bonds of the past by looking to an obviously more hopeful future.  But equally obviously the past cannot be airbrushed out.

One useful step would be to adopt a structured exploration of the past before reaching the point of solutions. This is where the approach of the Arkiv group of historians and others could make a contribution, regardless of what happens to the Haass process.. Historians and other experts can explain how the history, memory and the power of ideas affect actions and are not imply rooted in human nature.  We need to dig out those ideas and assumptions – loathed and cherished – and take a long hard look at them.

There is no better time than the present as the decade of commemoration hits 2014 and the moment a century ago is recalled when civil war in Ireland may have been averted only by the outbreak of a far greater conflict. The academics of different disciplines and outlooks would probably need their own mini-Hass process  to agree on an approach. There’ll be much to discuss over the year on Haass, hope and history. Here I want to concentrate on the approach of a great historian of the impact of nationalism.

Eric Hobsbawm died just over a year ago.  He remained a Marxist and indeed a CP member to the end, while admitting ruefully the full extent of defeat of the system.   While ideology gave a cutting edge to his analysis Hobsbawm also  transcended it. The following extracts from his book of essays On History were written 20 years ago when the breakup of Yugoslavia was in full spate. Today he would not be short of fresh cases. Our own set of competing nationalisms in our little patch of narrow ground straddles the era. A question for later: might we be reaching the point where the ground is becoming so narrow that nobody will soon be able to stand on it? In the meantime, let’s hear from Hobsbawm.

On History From chap 1 Inside and outside history

History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction.. I used to think that the profession of historian   unlike that say of nuclear physics could at least do no harm. Now I know it can. Our studies can turn into bomb factories like the workshops in which the IRA had learned to transform chemical fertilizer into an explosive. This date of affairs affects historians in two ways. We have a responsibility to historical facts in general and for criticising the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular.

Few of the ideologies of intolerance are based on simple lies or fictions.. The most usual ideological abuse of history is based on anachronism rather than lies..  Myths and invention are essential to the politics of identity .. They are historians’ concerns because the people who formulate such myths are educated people, school teachers, professors (not many I hope) journalists and radio and television producers. Make no mistake about it. History is not ancestral memory or collective tradition. It is what people learned from priests schoolteachers,( the compilers of articles and broadcasters). It is very important for historians to stand aside from the passions of identity politics – even if we feel them also.  After all we are human beings too. Now we have mythological or nationalist history being criticised from within…

About half a century after most of Ireland won its independence, Irish history both in the Republic and in the North is passing through a period of great brilliance because it has succeeded in liberating itself. This is still a matter which  has political implications and risks. The history that is written today breaks with the old tradition which stretches from the Fenians to the IRA still fighting in the name  of the old myths with guns and bombs. But the fact that a new generation has grown up  which can stand back from the passions of the great traumatic and formative moments of their countries’ history is a sign of hope for historians.

Professor Eric Hobsbawm accepts the Medlicott Medal at the Annual Dinner of the Historical Association in Cambridge, April 1999

The idea that nationalist convictions of the political kind are, as it were, inborn and instinctive—for instance the belief that what all Basques want is to secede from Spain and France and the creation of a sovereign territory that belongs exclusively to a Basque “nation”—has no historical basis. It cannot be derived from the feeling, which may well be wired into all social animals, that we all distinguish between an in-group to which we belong, and the others—between “us” and “them”. It has to be acquired. This is where the historians come in and those who teach history or use historical material in the mass media. For it is through the printed word and the image that ideas and ideologies are spread from the minorities among whom they arise to the mass of people, even though the most powerful medium for fixing them in their mind may be in combination with music—as in hymns and national anthems. And, in a world which, for the first time in history will be predominantly literate in a few more decades, the school, and especially the primary school, will be the main medium by or through which, as the Jesuits recognised during the Counter-Reformation, the basic ideas of most people will be acquired before they start looking at the internet.

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