“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. Oh Mr. Daedalus, if only you had been in Northern Ireland in 2018. History is everywhere in our political reality, and also somehow nowhere. It is slippery and vague, not unlike the content of a nightmare the moment the dreamer jolts awake.
I turned 18 a few weeks before I voted for the first time, and that vote was on the Belfast Agreement. It was, to me, a no-brainer. I was excited to vote, turning up at the polling station before it even opened with my father who was on his way to work. It felt like an important moment, like a milestone, like surely now the only direction was forward. A few months after that, I started university. I had decided on Politics and History well in advance, and the mood seemed buoyant throughout that time; Northern Ireland was studied with optimism. Students flooded in from abroad to learn the lessons of peacemaking and compromise. There was surely no way back. By the time an Executive actually sat, with Paisley and McGuinness cast as the Chuckle Brothers, it honestly felt remarkable. If those men could work together given their respective pasts, surely anyone could. Right?
But here we are in February 2018 and, in the same week as talks to restore the Assembly collapsed, Jamie Bryson has been invited to Westminster to contribute “innovative ideas” to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Earlier this week, I had a sobering moment that I have been turning over in my head ever since. I teach some courses to adult learners, and in one of those courses we recently discussed the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s. My students are all grown adults, educated, accomplished, and mostly old enough to remember that time. Some of them honestly did not know that before 1969 “one (wo)man one vote” did not apply in Northern Ireland. One told me that she mentioned this to an older relative. He told her “that’s propaganda”.
The popular adage says that history is written by the victors, but in the case of Northern Ireland we simply cannot afford to be glib or dismissive about how our story is told. We cannot trust politicians to pronounce on the history of this place and its many bloody episodes; their interests are far too vested, their own knowledge and interpretation far too mired in the “us and them” narrative at which they excel. Whataboutery, the national sport.
One example of this is the Irish language, appropriately enough. While the DUP, Mr. Bryson and others claim that they object to an Irish Language Act on the grounds that it is effectively a move by Sinn Féin to impose “cultural supremacy”, that they have somehow weaponised the language and hoodwinked other parties into supporting the Act. To claim this requires either a literal or tactical ignorance of the past; with access to Google and the will to learn anyone can find out about the ways in which the language was deliberately suppressed both before partition and during the period when Northern Ireland was a one party state. They only have to look back as far as December 2016 to see a DUP minister make a political decision concerning the language.
It strikes me that Bryson’s uncompromising stance on issues like the Irish language, the flying of the flag on designated days, the Belfast Agreement itself – basically any compromise with nationalism – is one of incredible privilege but also perhaps one borne of a very specific interpretation of history. The privilege, in this instance, of not remembering the despair and darkness of the Troubles and therefore not understanding the hope and optimism most of us felt that the Agreement offered. And it is easy to be uncompromising when absolutely certain that one is on the right side of history. I suspect, though, that the bigger problem lies with a one-sided narrative that simply denies realities and obfuscates facts and, on that front, he is certainly not alone.
We often hear accusations of “rewriting the past” with regards to legacy issues. If we are all honest with ourselves, we could do with writing the past to begin with. A past that includes all perspectives, all wrongs and rights, all sections of the community, all genders, all religions and none. The history of this place is ugly, nobody came away with clean hands. But if we refuse to acknowledge and accept that, if we refuse to see how we got to where we are now, we will be doomed to retreading the same path forever; a nightmare from which we will never awaken.