What really happened in the act of Partition itself?

Look at what happened” urged Colum Eastwood, remarking on the service of reflection at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, adding it was “very clearly no celebration of partition”. Perhaps Eastwood is right, but what do we really mean when we ‘reflect’ on Partition? Several years ago, reflecting on his faith, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams described it as “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”. Some regarded this as blather, but it seems to capture the mood of the service aforementioned – with the question mark hanging over Partition, now more than ever.

Where Eastwood asks us to look at what ‘actually’ happened at this service of reflection, Dr Brian Hanley – Trinity College lecturer in history, and (joint) author of doorstoppers such as ‘The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party’ – argues that we should much rather reflect upon what ‘actually’ happened in the act of Partition itself. He refers to the “harsh truths” of Partition – that it was “imposed on Ireland a century ago, against the wishes of the majority of its people, for instance.

Is there any way to reconcile the two? Roland Barthes, the French literary critic and theorist, conceptualised La mort de l’auteur – The Death of the Author. Referring to a passage in Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’, he asks:

“Who is speaking in this way?…Is it the man Balzac?…It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices…to which we cannot assign a specific origin” (Emphasis added)

Barthes goes on to note that, in modern literary criticism, this desire to assign a specific origin is a constant: “The explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it”. Where we see an effect, we want to see the cause. Barthes, however, rebels against this instinct:

“We know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” (Emphasis added)

Perhaps this sounds a bit too postmodern but bear with him. Barthes effectively argues that for writing to have a future, and for us to be born as readers – real readers, in whom the multiplicity of writings, citations, cultures that go into a book are collected and unified into the whole story – we must resist that common (and possibly natural) temptation to know not only the book’s author but also their life story and influences. We must stop reading as though we are biographers, dissecting stories and their characters to find the ‘man behind the curtain’. There is no man behind the curtain. The writing speaks for itself, with its own special voice.

As Hemingway once put it, at the end of his tether with biographer-readers dissecting himself and his classic:

“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.”

Partition was the real author of this story – be it the story of this place, or of the service of reflection in Armagh’s St Patrick’s Cathedral. Is it naïve for us to imagine the death of this particular Author? As far as Hanley is concerned, this particular Author rightfully puts up a fight, and will not be so easily divorced from his work in favour of idealised futures and visions of reconciliation. Whether commemorating 1916 or 1921, he argues that:

“Trying to avoid contentious political questions [is] always problematic, since central to the current idea of commemoration [is] the very politically driven view that it must reflect the existence of “two traditions” in Ireland as well as a “shared history” with Britain.”

A vision of “shared history”, he adds, that was “always flawed, eliding as it did questions of imperialism, power, class and inequality and often attempting to avoid contentious issues.” Ultimately, Hanley argues:

“Attempting to commemorate partition and avoiding mentioning these facts lest they give offence will ultimately satisfy nobody.”

Eastwood, meanwhile, declared his feeling that partition was “coming to an end” – and that “[if] we want to create a shared island we have to be prepared to share rooms with people who disagree with us”.

Perhaps both are right. Hanley may well have a point: Partition, like the Author, cannot really ‘die’ until we are properly acquainted with them to begin with, and honestly confront them. All of us. Warts and all. Likewise, however, the Author – Partition – is not the whole story. While we must grant that he was – and is – behind the story, perhaps Eastwood is also right – that yesterday’s service was something deeper than ‘celebration’; about something more than ‘Partition’.

While Eastwood believes that the story of Partition may soon be at an end, however, any certainty on this question – whether on the part of ‘believers’ or ‘dissenters’ – is arguably just as premature as ever. The reliability of polling has yet to fully recover from the likes of 2016 US Presidential Election, for instance – and ‘gut feeling’ about what we all perceive to be politically ‘inevitable’ is a notoriously harsh mistress. There is only one real test here – a Border Poll. Given that this can only be called by a British Secretary of State on the remarkably vague grounds that:

[If] at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland

Then even this remains unpredictable and elusive, never mind the actual outcome. How are we to objectively measure “appears likely”? Hypothetically, however, supposing Eastwood is correct – then that is all the more reason to focus less on how our current story began and focus more on how our next story will begin. As it says on the wall of Belfast’s Garrick Bar:

“A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.”