Northern Ireland, it seems, has a problem with moving on. Decades (centuries) of strife and conflict. The pain, the trauma, all of it passed down from generation to generation. In the year of our lord 2021, we’re still angry about it all. Still hurt, still frustrated and in pain.
Step forward the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis. They have seen the light and taken a bold, brave step to help us move forward.
The government has proposed a statute of limitations on offences that occurred during the Troubles prior to ’98. It would apply equally to soldiers, the IRA, security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. It is, in effect, an amnesty. In addition, government wants to legislate to stop civil claims and inquests. There will be some form of information recovery process.
“We know from our recent history, particularly with the implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, that we can achieve more when we are bold and move forward together,” said Lewis, in the House of Commons. He even quoted the writer Margaret Fariless Barber, “To look backwards for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward.” How poetic.
The government’s proposals have faced backlash from victims’ groups in Northern Ireland. On the day of Lewis’ announcement, the airwaves of Radio Ulster were filled with victims, often close to tears, talking about how the proposals were robbing them of their right to justice. Some felt ignored and unimportant. Some backed the amnesty but felt angry about how it had been handled.
The government’s sentiment found form in Simon Jenkin’s latest column for The Guardian. Writing about the proposals, Jenkins wrote “What the country most desperately needs, is the ability to put past conflicts behind it. It needs to deploy that much underrated quality in any nation’s history: the ability to forget.”
Jenkins wants a “forget party” to get support in Northern Ireland and see the benefit in a united Ireland. The fact that bombs were set off and people were killed to bring about said united Ireland is apparently not important.
But here we are. Northern Ireland must move on. Boris is going to take us by the hand and bring us forward together into a new age. We must transition. Forget.
How do you forget when your country’s conflict is embedded into the fabric of society? When people live with the repercussion’s day by day. When you still remember a bit of it. When you only have to ask your family to hear the horror stories.
My mum, a nurse, who saw the aftermath of shootings and bombings in the hospital. Who is still angry about how the Troubles affected her opportunities and teenage years.
A member of my family, a reservist, who was in the same regiment as the corporals who were murdered. “That could have been me,” he says, with barely concealed anger, when you ask him about it.
My Granda, who worked the checkpoints in Belfast city centre as a civilian searcher. I’ve only recently heard the stories. How, one day, the IRA drove a truck through a checkpoint he was guarding with a bomb in the back.
And my family’s experience of The Troubles was tame compared to others. They didn’t have soldiers hiding in their garden. Didn’t suffer the daily humiliation of being stopped and searched. Didn’t lose anyone they loved. Weren’t driven out of their homes due to intimidation or sectarian attacks.
We are being asked to move on, to reconcile because others want to forget. Why? Because they are fed up. Because our pain, the trauma of our past, the complexity of it all, is just too inconvenient. We disrupt narratives. We make things difficult.
Brexit, those borders between north, south and the Irish sea. Those pesky nationalists and republicans with their grievances. Their demands for an open border, messing up Brexit and making it difficult. Their refusal to pipe down and go away.
Those annoying, irritating unionists and loyalists. Them, with their bonfires, their marches, their British identity and their hatred of the Irish sea border. Those pesky protests against the Protocol. How embarrassing. Where did that come from? Where did they learn to wave the flag? How dare they feel angry and upset.
(It goes further than Brexit, backwards and backwards until you lose count).
Northern Ireland followed Britain home like a stay cat, you see. Britain was just walking home one day when we followed it, moved in and demanded a block grant. You’ll find the names of our dead, from every creed, written into stone on battlefields across the world. Men and woman who paid with blood to fight wars for others. And yet, we are a burden and so is our pain.
( Another thing people want to forget: the rest of the world. The Empire. What happened overseas in our name. )
States everywhere, those with power and influence, always want people to forget. The UK isn’t unique in this regard. Northern Ireland isn’t a special case. Hillsborough, the Windrush deportations, Charles De Menezes and the Iraq War. The government has always protected itself at the expense of its own people. Is it any wonder people don’t have Northern Ireland at the top of their priority list? They have their own pain to deal with.
You can’t force to people to move on when they’re not ready. Not everyone is prepared to reconcile. Forgetting benefits those in Northern Ireland who committed violent acts, state and non-state. It makes it easier for those that sat by and allowed them to happen. Forgetting means the same atrocities and mistakes can be repeated. It allows the same lies to be told again.
How can Northern Ireland move forward? I don’t know, but it can’t happen by erasing the past. If we are to move on let it be for us, not for others. I don’t want my generation to be weighed down by history, but we can’t forget it either. You can shift borders, boundaries, close cases and shut court houses. You can’t destroy memory.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.