Lord Bew on the Prospects for Dealing with the Past

Yesterday’s House of Lords debate on the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks raised questions about the responsibility of the British and Irish governments, as well as the Northern Ireland parties, in moving forward on addressing the legacy of the past.

Lord Bew’s remarks on the unlikeliness of ‘a shared process of recovery from the past’ were particularly sobering for those who think progress in many aspects of Northern Irish life will remain stalled until such a process takes place.

He succinctly summarised mutually exclusive ‘unionist’ and ‘republican’ views on the past and lamented that those who hold these views do not wish to hear challenges from different perspectives.

For me, Bew’s observations underline why an overarching process on the past is so important.

Without such a process, each ‘community’ can construct its own story of the past, unhindered by alternative narratives and perspectives.

I don’t think that we can ever come to agreement and construct an overarching ‘history’ of the Troubles. But being exposed to competing perspectives on the past can at least raise awareness that there’s not just one side to the story.

While that might not produce agreement, in some cases it can promote understanding and even empathy.

Here’s what Bew had to say:

… I regret to say this because I feel the needs of the victims so strongly and it is such a disappointing thing to say, particularly for those young scholars who want to participate in this process—increasingly to the view that the idea of a shared process of recovery from the past is not a very likely project. It was one I used to strongly and until recently believe in. I have not given up on it completely but I am increasingly sceptical.

The unionist community basically believes that the state is responsible for only 10% of deaths, loyalist paramilitaries for 30% and republicans for 60%. They therefore believe that any narrative must reflect the fact that the lion’s share of the killing was carried out by republicans. It is quite straightforward: that is their view of the matter and that is what they want to hear.

The republican community, on the other hand, with the support of a large cast of journalists, clerics and NGOs, focuses on broader explanatory factors which emphasise long-term structural factors, discrimination, sectarianism, institutional culpability and collusion. This can sometimes be linked to a broader discourse of human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation.

These are two world views you can accept or quote. They are fundamentally opposed. It is hard to see how you can have a shared process when you acknowledge this fact.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Gladys – history is subjective. What’s the quote about it being written by the victors and in NI there were and will be no obvious “victors”. Its an abysmal waste of time for navel gazers tied up in the past and ignoring the future. Forget about the past, its past. Embrace the present and forge a future and **** the past.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh Sergiogiorgio, when an individual forgets the past, its called amnesia at best. It means that they loose much of how the function, personally and socially. On a more serious train, and rather more accurate to what you are calling for, it may be neurotic suppression of memory to handle trauma short term. If this impacts it creates neurotic damage to the person. The collective memory is equally important, and you forget it at your peril. Rather, the attempt should be made to empathise with that you do not agree with, and to look at history in an unpartisan manner. This trains the observer in tolerance. Simply “forgetting” locks him (or her) in the mess with no way out.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I’m sorry Seaan, but you are talking the principles of psychology to a sociopathic patient, ie, Northern Ireland. Do you seriously think anyone wants to face up to the past – the unionist majority, the Provo’s, the British Government? It’s not an exercise of truth and reconciliation, it’s a blame game at best, and at worst, a money making exercise for the lawyers and any man and his dog who was “affected”. It would achieve nothing, cost a fortune, and only deepen divisions. Let sleeping dogs lie.

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “The unionist community basically believes that the state is responsible for only 10% of deaths, loyalist paramilitaries for 30% and republicans for 60%. They therefore believe that any narrative must reflect the fact that the lion’s share of the killing was carried out by republicans. It is quite straightforward: that is their view of the matter and that is what they want to hear.

    The republican community, on the other hand, with the support of a large cast of journalists, clerics and NGOs, focuses on broader explanatory factors which emphasise long-term structural factors, discrimination, sectarianism, institutional culpability and collusion. This can sometimes be linked to a broader discourse of human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation.

    These are two world views you can accept or quote. They are fundamentally opposed. It is hard to see how you can have a shared process when you acknowledge this fact.”

    Are these two world views fundamentally opposed though? I could well accept that the majority of killings were carried out by republicans and at the same time accept that they were driven to this by structural factors such as discrimination and sectarianism etc Surely a single narrative can account for the statistics about killings as well as the social factors that provided the background for these killings?

    Unionist and Republican politicians may want to present a one sided mythological view but surely schools, universities and the media can project a more historically informed view. I come from a broadly unionist background but that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of reading about the troubles on Wikipedia and realising that a simplistic ‘good vs evil’ narrative is over simplistic to point of falsity.

    Maybe there can’t be agreement on the past by contemporary politicians for fear of looking weak in the eyes of fundamentalists by conceding points to ‘them’uns’ but an educated and informed public are perfectly capable of realizing that the troubles were more complex than either side’s self serving myths suggest.

  • tmitch57

    “What’s the quote about it being written by the victors and in NI there were and will be no obvious “victors”.
    SG, I disagree. The republicans were the obvious losers and the Alliance and SDLP were ideologically the winners as it was their policies that undergirded the GFA. Alliance wanted something that was less mechanistically sectarian, but which also reflected mandatory power sharing rather than simple majoritarian democracy. But in terms of power both Sinn Fein and the DUP were the winners i.e. those most responsible for The Troubles became its beneficiaries. The Shinners are now busily rewriting history in terms of the Republican Movement’s goals at the start of The Troubles. I personally agree that attempting to agree on a common version of the past in the short term is a wasted effort. It will take generations to accomplish and will require an integrated school system and the efforts of professional historians, most probably based in Britain and Ireland rather than in NI.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    So the losers become the winners – extremism rules, how classically Northern Irish, and a neat demonstration of why a Truth and Reconcilation commission is a dead duck for this wee province. I agree with the generational timeline Mitch, much as I’d love to see the “Truth”, I just don’t think NI will be mature enough for this debate for years to come.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Shame the educated and informed public don’t hold the purse strings, nor take the decisions. This educated and informed public either vote these di**heads in, or stay at home and vote for no one. How educated and informed!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I entirely agree with you about the political “exercise” in examining the past. The agendas of interested parties ensure that no-one can ever look at more than they already want to see. But for any healthy withdrawal from this impasse we need to each of us try and look at the historical record with as much with empathy for the “other” as we can manage. This is really the only way out of the impasse, the “cultural” route as opposed to the “political” route. Unfortunately all too many of our reputable historians, Roy Foster as one example, Eamonn Phoenix for another, have framed their history to percieved political requirements. While this will ensure their views are supported by powerful interests, it offers little real help for the rest of us.