Time to admit the reduced role of dealing with the past

In the Sunday Times (£) a review by the historian and failed candidate for Canadian PM Michael Ignatieff of a book  lets a little air into the deadlocked subject of Dealing with the Past, “ In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies” by David Rieff presents arguments to counter our prevailing orthodoxies of the over-riding claims for justice and healing is remembering.

A great Irish historian once said that it would help heal his society if the Irish were to erect a monument to amnesia and then forget where they put it. Then the Irish wouldn’t have to fight over every commemoration that rolls around, the most recent being the centenary of the Easter Rising in 1916, which left behind hundreds of dead and memories embittered to this day.

Ireland might not be the only country, in fact, where there is too much remembering and not enough forgetting.

Passing over the fact that the quote is not from a ” great Irish historian” but from the eminent and brave literary and cultural critic  Edna Longley, Ignatieff extracts some   powerful quotes from Rieff’s book.

“Remembrance may be the ally of justice,” Rieff writes, but it is “no reliable friend of peace.” He points out that Spain managed the transition from dictatorship in the late 1970s thanks to el pacto del olvido, an agreement to forget the crimes of the Franco regime for the sake of the peaceful introduction of democracy.

Rieff does not always choose forgetting over remembering. He would obviously welcome the recent conviction of Radovan Karadzic for his part in the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. He concedes that justice is a good thing, especially in this case, but it is only justice, not healing, not even closure, since some Bosnian Serbs will continue to deny the findings of the court in the Hague till their dying day.

But perhaps we cannot help ourselves..

What if forgetting and remembering, as Freud told us, have precious little to do with the will? What if you really have no choice in the matter? What if memory and forgetting both do their work whatever ethics tells you that you ought to do.”

It comes as no surprise that Rieff offers no clear formula for achieving both peace and justice. And perhaps indeed, we cannot help ourselves.  In our case there seem to be no alternative to keep ploughing through the files looking for evidence and falling for  PR hits such as interrogating the Bloody Sunday soldiers and Gerry Adams which we know will produce little or nothing. For all the protestations of putting victims first, what does this do for victims, other than add to frustration and perpetuate their victimhood?  The bests that it can be said about it is that public opinion  is turning more to the present and future – and the politicians know it. In terms of political calculation, there is no percentage any more in making the past a deal breaker. .

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