The Good Friday Agreement twenty years on – Why can’t we get over the Troubles?

Sometimes an idea for an article just comes along. I was listening to the radio last week and Dermot Nesbitt, one of the Ulster Unionist negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, was speaking on Nolan about its 18th anniversary. He pointed out that that when he was a young man, the Second World War had ended eighteen years previously and none of his generation thought about it.  Young people were more interested in Beatlemania than the Battle of Britain and that got me thinking: Why can’t we get over the Troubles?

I’m referring to Northern Ireland society as a whole, not the grieving relatives of the slain or the maimed who still carry their scars and disabilities. Almost without exception, they carry their burden with calm and remarkable dignity which is a lot more than can be said for the place in general where bitterness is the flavor of the day and what-aboutery a national sport. If we take 1994, the date of the ceasefires as the end to The Troubles, teenagers who weren’t a gleam in their father’s eye in 1994 are engaging in recreational sectarian rioting because they feel ‘left out’ at having missed the more politically motivated riots of their fathers and, God help us, grandfathers. The rioters of 1969 have now got their bus passes and the young men who bore arms in the 1980s are now grandfathers with arthritis and diabetes, yet the grisly history of our past still dominates the news media, political and talk shows. Why do we insist on refighting the battles of the past?

Our politicians, when they head to Downing Street with a begging bowl to avoid taking tough decisions, moan about us being a special case and a society emerging from conflict. Emerging? To use Dermot Nesbitt’s Second World War analogy, let’s equate 1994 with 1945. In February 1945 American bombers laid fifteen square miles of Tokyo to waste in a firestorm that devoured 83,000 lives. [i] Six months later, the Americans dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki taking another 100,000 lives, inflicting radiation sickness and deaths from cancer for decades to come. The war ended with almost every major Japanese town and city in ashes, millions of homeless and the population in a state of near starvation.  Nineteen years later, yes NINETEEN years later, Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games and Japan was one of the world’s leading economies. While Hiroshima is not going to unveil a statue of Harry S Trumann any time soon, Japan has forgiven its old enemy; Disneyland has a park in Tokyo and the relations between the two countries are as good as they can be. The Japanese did not blame America for all their ills, or wallow in victimhood, they got on with building a peaceful and prosperous country. Not perfect, nowhere is, but there is a lesson to be learned and before someone asks, yes, the Americans still occupy part of Japan as anyone in Okinawa will tell you.

While the Troubles were no cake walk, particularly for people living in the thick of it, the 70s, 80s and 90s saw the Vietnam War and genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The last two are chilling examples of what the Northern Ireland conflict could have degenerated into. We are not unique. Other societies have endured far worse and have been traumatised to an extent we can’t even imagine yet we cling to the idea we are somehow a special case. Contrary to popular legend, most of the world’s population are blissfully unaware of our Troubles and even fewer care about them. They have problems enough of their own to get on with. Let’s take the American city of Philadelphia as another comparison. It has a population of 1.5m, a similar number to Northern Ireland’s population through most of the Troubles. Over the past 10 years its annual body count from homicide has ranged from 246 to 391.[ii] Only the four worst years of the Troubles – 1972-76 surpass even the best Philadelphia year of 246 deaths.[iii] Violent death is ubiquitous in much of the world included its richest country.

The problem perhaps is that we can’t define what the problem was. Have we gone through a low intensity civil war, an armed insurgency against British Rule or a law and order problem? Probably a bit of all three, but until we nail down exactly what happened the blame game and endless what-aboutery will be exactly that – endless. The German Federal Republic has produced a comprehensive, multi-volume, official history of the Second World War that lays bare all the crimes of the third Reich but also a detailed, sometimes brutally honest analysis of the conflict which includes the suffering of its own people. Maybe we could do get a team of distinguished historians, none of them from Britain or Ireland, to examine the conflict to tell us, in the most impartial and informed way possible, what actually happened. We can’t trust ourselves to do that. Our moral compass has become so skewed murder is now a matter of opinion. If we approve of the killer and disapprove of the person killed, it is not considered murder at all, often not even a matter of regret, but all killings by the ‘other side’ are always murder most foul and the perpetrators must be hounded to the ends of the earth. As a society do we really want to emulate what is happening in Germany where a 93 year old former clerk at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a man who individually killed no one but who knew people were being killed, is awaiting trial for the murder of 300,000 people?[iv] Is that really justice?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, if I did I would be standing in the assembly elections – I’ve merely thrown a few suggestions out there for consideration and discussion. In response I would like to read what a teenager or twenty-something thinks of this self-obsessing.  Doubtless many readers will object to what I have said and tell me in no uncertain terms, but we can’t go on like this, we really can’t. Does anyone think the status quo is the best way ahead? How long will it take us to ‘emerge from conflict’?  Until the last former ‘combatant’ dies? If we can’t walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes then at least let us try to imagine why people we hate, behaved as they did, what events and influences took them down a particular road in life?  Simply dismissing the enemy – our neighbours -as evil bastards deserving of a jail cell or bullet has left us in the dreadful mire we are currently stuck in. History teaches us that decent people will do dreadful things in dreadful circumstances. As a society we must decide whether our violent past will define us forever or whether we can be better than this.

Let the what-aboutery commence.

Sam Thompson can be contacted on Twitter @Jarriesam

[i] Spector, 2001, p.505 & TIME magazine 19/03/1945

[ii] https://www.phillypolice.com/crime-maps-stats/

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles#Casualties

[iv] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/21/bookkeeper-of-auschwitz-oskar-groning-admits-moral-guilt-as-trial-opens

Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam

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