Eamonn is getting a bit of stick for publishing Declan Kearney’s rather, erm, ambitious claims that Sinn Fein was an inspiration for the NI Civil Rights movement. Truth is you have to publish unconventional views help break conventional thinking.
There is some truth in Declan’s account of the past. But the IRA he refers to was the pre Troubles organisation which had come to the rather conclusive view that its border campaign had been needlessly destructive of NI’s already fragile social capital.
That’s not a view widely shared within Declan’s own Provisional tradition of broad Republicanism (some of which was subsumed into the SDLP). Indeed, once formed they singlemindedly set about ramping up the military pressure on the state(let).
For instance, when I was looking up that commemoration in Castlewellan the other day, I went directly to that tome of great passion and patient diligence, Lost Lives to see what drew the southern President-Elect of Sinn Fein north.
Turns out that 47-year-old Vol Peter McNulty blew himself up with a bomb he was planting at the town’s RUC station. It was one of at least three separate attacks that week, which resulted in the deaths of three policemen. A tragic week which ended with the slaughter (and slander) of Bloody Sunday.
Bloody Sunday was also undoubtedly the precise moment the NICRA died and was then replaced by a serious pursuit of wanton slaughter which only then began in earnest. 1972 was indeed, as Malachi O’Doherty marks in his great eponymous book, a telling year.
Little good came of it at the time, and indeed an awful lot of residual bad blood dates from this time of intense and unprecedented slaughter.
Of course, everyone is entitled to go about their own particular business of appropriating the past for their own present political purposes. Most political parties do it to one extent or another to try and push rivals off the well-stream of the national story.
But there is a case to be made for some kind of historical investigation to provide some class of redress to unrestrained mythmaking and Liam Kennedy in the Belfast Telegraph makes a credible pitch for one.
Who owns the past? That is the provocative title of a book by the eminent American historian Eric Foner. Professor Foner, who has spent time in Northern Ireland, is to the forefront of debates in the United States over museum presentations of America’s racist and divided past.
The answer, of course, is that no one group, gender, faction, or political party, does. There are multiple voices, experiences, interpretations. And herein lies a major economic, cultural and political opportunity.
He lays out some of the potential detail…
Through the medium of public history, Northern Ireland can speak both to its own divided self and to a wider world in terms of peace and reconciliation.
The silver lining is that there is an unparalleled opportunity to bring into being a world-class museum, interpretative centre and visitor attraction. (The term “museum” is used here as shorthand for a more complex concept.)
Unlike the successful Titanic project, where original material is necessarily limited, the Troubles are incredibly well-documented in terms of interviews, television and film footage, radio reports, posters, murals, oral testimonies, autobiographies, drama, novels, poetry, music and the visual arts.
Then there is material culture relating to police and Army vehicles, prisons, courts, flags and emblems, weaponry, watch towers, ambush sites, uniforms and much else.
We envisage the museum project as drawing on the expertise not only of architects, designers, historians, political scientists and museum curators, but also of software engineers, filmmakers, writers, artists and musicians.
If the project is worth doing, it is worth doing on a scale commensurate with the importance of the subject. This means a budget probably in excess of that for Titanic Belfast. Once the fixed costs are put in place, and of course this is a huge operation in terms of attracting funding from charitable foundations and statutory agencies, it should be possible to operate on a profitable basis. One might envisage spin-off enterprises, as well.
There are at least two major international foundations that might be attracted to the project, because of the global significance of the Troubles and the pathways to peace.
It is also possible, even in a post-Brexit world, to continue to connect to European Union funding via the North-South Ministerial Council.
We are now sufficiently distant in time to undertake this huge challenge in terms of handling with sensitivity a deeply divided past. Much of the necessary expertise for the software aspects of the project exist.
Seriousness, scale and attention to granular detail would be valuable for citizens, journalists, academics and politicians alike. Our present inability to appraise the past accurately has been exacerbated by the collapse of commercial journalism.
But as Liam notes under separate cover, there is a price to be paid for not investing in a more honest approach to the past than treating it as a playground for partial storytelling or atavistic propaganda.
What is being proposed would be much more than the mutual reinforcing of the pathologies of our traumatic past. But rather dealing in shared memory as a means of generating information and using the stories that arise as a means for transformation…
“Information is the key to transformation. That does not necessarily mean more information, better statistics, bigger databases, or the World Wide Web, though all of these may play a part. It means relevant, compelling, select, powerful, timely, accurate information flowing in new ways to new recipients, carrying new content, suggesting new rules and goals (that are themselves information). When its information flows are changed, any system will behave differently.”
– — Donella Meadows