I received a slightly strange response in reply to this article, which essentially argued that we cannot move on from our past in Northern Ireland simply by ignoring it. The strange response told me that I was talking nonsense (indeed, that I was “holding the country back”) because after all “countries like Germany” just moved on from their past.
Which is strange – because Germany most certainly did not do that.
On the contrary, Germany embraced a concept known as Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (this is loosely translated as “Coming to Terms with the Past” but I would suggest it implies also a notion of necessary awkwardness in so doing) – indeed not once but, particularly in the East, twice, as it sought to overcome both the horrors of the Third Reich and subsequently the grip of Communism.
I would suggest it consisted of three things, taken chronologically:
- admitting that the past did happen, that it was negative, and that it is necessary to come to terms with it;
- attempting to remedy past wrongs to any extent possible (while accepting they will never be fully remedied);
- learning from that past in an attempt to ensure it is not repeated.
The Germans did take all of these on. Through a process of “denazification”, there was an admission of guilt and an acceptance of defeat; through a process sometimes referred to as “Aufarbeitung”, there were some attempts at remedying past wrongs (albeit many symbolic); and from the very structures of government right through to memorials at Concentration Camps there are constant reminders of the past and processes in place to avoid its repetition.
This is, of course, incredibly simplified, but the point is the Germans did not just wake up on 9 May 1945 and say “Well, we’d better just move on”. On the contrary, the past continues to weigh heavily – in political debate, in the landscape, in many symbolic ways (for example, as a matter of tradition post-War German Presidents always make their first foreign visit to Poland). Some of this is indeed done by deliberate omission (anything from simple acceptance that some issues are beyond the confines of legitimate political debate, right through to symbolic things like refusal to allow “NS”, “SA” or “SS” on vehicle registration plates), but the omission is deliberate and build into the culture as part of the “admitting”, “remedying” and “learning”.
Of course, no direct parallel can be made between that and Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, certain fundamentals apply – it is essential to accept that a past of sectarianism, prejudice, seizures, repression, violence and terrorism did take place; it is necessary to remedy that as far as possible (it is fair to say many gains have been made here, for example in fair employment legislation); and it is important to learn from the past to ensure it is not repeated (or, put another way, to ensure the society of the past is replaced by something better and less likely to lead to repression and violence).
Not moving on isn’t an option. But nor is just moving on…