We have to learn to deal with the past

I have already challenged the usefulness of the word “reconciliation” on this blog but, since the issue of the “past” continues to be prominent, I will return to it.

I am in little doubt that the majority view concerning the past in Northern Ireland was the one expressed to me at a “Youth Talk” event in Derry on Friday – namely that we should draw a line under it and move on. I would argue two things in response to that: firstly, yes, politicians should draw a line under it and move on; but secondly, no, we cannot leave dealing with the past to an entirely unmanaged process because it would leave too many injustices unresolved.

Firstly, we cannot leave the issue to be led by politicians for reasons which were obvious on Friday morning’s Nolan programme and indeed long before. To be specific: not only do politicians disagree on the past, they actually gain from disagreeing on the past, and they know it. The whole Unionist/Nationalist communal split is constructed on a disagreement about the past – and specifically on a biased sense of grievance and blame. Can’t deal with internal party divisions? Challenge Sinn Fein to apologise for 30 years of violence! Can’t deal with welfare reform? Challenge Unionists to apologise for 50 years of misrule! Actually agreeing on the past would weaken their power base, depriving them of the communal biases upon which those bases are almost invariably built – and, to make matters worse, it might force them to take concrete and viable positions on real issues.

So, we can rule politicians out of the equation, at least in terms of providing any genuine leadership on the issue.

Secondly, however, we are faced with a reality that many of us still have a genuine sense of injustice. This comes in all kinds of forms: some relatives still do not know what happened to their loved ones or who did it, and want to find out (others do not, it should be noted); some people more broadly dispute certain equations, perhaps wishing to raise ‘Bloody Sunday 1972’ above ‘Deal 1989’, or ‘Enniskillen 1987’ over ‘Gibraltar 1988’, or to prioritise ‘Bloody Friday 1972’ or ‘Teebane 1992’ or ‘Loughinisland 1994’ for one particular reason or another, some genuine, some less so; some people simply find it outrageous that apologists for the IRA or even Ulster Resistance are now leading our devolved government. If we leave it to an unmanaged process, it will continue to be a thorn used to heighten that injustice (and abused to maintain our communal-based political system).

So, how do we deal with it? That would need an answer from someone much more expert than I am. However, a few frequently suggested things will definitely not work:

– there can be no ‘truth’, because too many people refuse to tell it;

– there can be no ‘reconciliation’, because there was no ‘conciliation’ to start with;

– there will be few ‘apologies’, because no workable process can be led by the people who need to provide them; and

– there can be no ‘just drawing a line’ because too many injustices remain unresolved.

A few other things do spring to mind:

– ‘Republicans’ (however defined) will never issue a ‘one-off apology’ but could well reach the stage where the logical progression of their political representatives’ stated position they have apologised and accepted as ‘wrong’ every atrocity they carried out, thus rendering their campaign universally regarded as futile; and

– the UK Government could tell the truth about some incidents without the need for a full-blown ‘inquiry’, and there may be a means of prioritising those incidents (to achieve the prime objective of ‘resolving injustice’ as opposed to ‘truth’ or ‘reconciliation’ or any such) to the stage that, quickly, relatives of innocent victims of state violence know that that innocence is recognised.

This will not be popular, but there is a term for what, essentially, I am proposing: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. People may be immediately discomforted by the parallel, but here’s a thought: Vergangenheitsbewältigung unquestionably worked.

In other words, I take the view that far from “drawing a line”, what we need to do is come to terms with the past as part of moving into our future – and do so as a civic society, not as a remote political issue.

The models we have looked at elsewhere have not demonstrably achieved that; but there are models which have. However discomforting the parallels may be, that discomfort is as nothing to going through the process; and the discomfort of going through the process is as nothing compared to the discomfort of not going through it…


One thought on “We have to learn to deal with the past

  1. The Listener says:

    As we seek life moves relentlessly on. We should now seek to forget the detail of the past. Those who gieve, should grieve, and eventuially nature will heal their wounds, for that is the nature of grieving. You use the German language, well today, hardly anyone below the age of 60 ( a last age to read comics with evil Germans with coal scuttle helmets getting their comeupence from the brave Tommies) thinks much about the cruelties of WW11. Today Germany is a partner nation, it is a nice place to go. The actual very evil, i.e. concentration camp guards, SS police extermination squads, are now around late 90s 100s or more likely dead. Soon it will be so here, and as the young people you quote would wish, lets move ahead. Let us develop relationships with one another on a truly human basis and just forget the niceties of the evil, save to remain in a general sense mindful that people were killed during a period of senseless madness.

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