We must deal with past to move on

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…

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6 thoughts on “We must deal with past to move on

  1. Kieran says:

    Germany unlike Northern Ireland had a desire to move on, she wasn’t being Governed by politicians that were entrenched in the futile beliefs of the past and most importantly she didn’t have politicans that were being paid in one hand to take the Country forward and at the same time dragging the Country back to the past. Might be opportune to add that Germany wasn’t minded to appoint those tried and sentenced at Nuremburg, to positions of Government.
    Ok, so we can’t make direct comparisons between post war Germany and post sectarian conflict, Northern Ireland but, how many years since GFA do we need to 1/ Accept what happened, 2/ Move on from what happened and 3/ Build a new future together?
    I don’t think it will ever happen because too many politicians are benefiting from the status quo. The best example i have ever seen of this happy with the status quo and reverting back to type, was during the flag protests. Instead of showing leadership the main Unionist parties fell in BEHIND the thug elements of the protest and tried to curry favour with them. Then copy and paste the same behaviour to the predictable trouble at Twaddell/Ardoyne shops. I would laugh if i could, but the embarrassment and disgust prevents me from doing so.
    Say what you will about Basil McCrea and his NI21 party, but at least he came out and called a spade a spade. Wrong is wrong is wrong!

  2. Kieran says:

    I believe we all know why a spade is a spade Ian. It boils down to the age old problem of sectarianism and naked hatred for the other sides culture and traditions. I often wonder what would it take to turn this Country into a force for nothing but good, a Country that wasn’t so concerned about commemorating centuries old squabbles and continual point scoring of one another. Imagine what the combined efforts of every political party in this Country trying their best for the citizens that vote them in would look like? A bit of honest to goodness selfishness for the inhabitants of this Country, where politicians grow and nurture our own economy, education and health care.
    What do we get? At best, we get our politicians with begging bowl in hand trying to convince the world that we are a role model for post conflict society, when the summer news reports tell a different story. We have academically intelligent politicians that seem devoid of even a grain of common sense and decency, shouting across the news outlets about erosion of culture, when even a halfwit realises that no one can take away your culture, it is within and not hoisted up a flag pole.
    The drill you speak of i think can best be described with two simple words that are very easy to put into practice, provided the will and determination are there. Humility and compromise! Combine the two of them and you have a solution to our tedious bickering.

    • I’m not convinced we do know why a spade is a spade actually, but maybe I’m not explaining myself.

      I haven’t the faintest clue why anyone would want to burn a Tricolour on a bonfire. It’s just something which makes zero sense to me.

      Over the summer, voluntarily, I did my best to find out – you know, by speaking to those who do so.

      This doesn’t for one second mean that I find it anything other than intolerable. But it does mean that I reckon I’m in a better position to try to move towards a position where it does not happen by countering the arguments for it happening. Without even knowing what those arguments are, I cannot achieve anything (other than by brute force, and we know where that gets us).

      Does that make any sense?

  3. Kieran says:

    I’m on the same wavelength Ian, honestly i get what you’re saying. I would go as far to say those burning a flag on a bonfire know exactly why they are doing it and the reasons they don’t wish to desist. The real issue for politicians will be how do we educate this behaviour out of them? Is it even possible?

    • Well quite. It isn’t as simple as going up to someone and saying “Why are you burning that flag?” – it takes a while, and indeed building of some sort of relationship, before some sort of understanding emerges (and it’s an understanding

      It’s difficult. Which is why most people don’t bother – which isn’t a problem until they then go public with their glorious solutions to everything without having done the hard work or built the hard relationships in order to understand the problem and potentially deliver a solution.

      I honestly think the real issue is for the *electorate* – after all, they put the politicians there. Voters can either go with the easy option of the politicians who tell them what they want to hear and then argue about it in irrelevant Assembly/Council motions, or they can elect people who tell them the truth that this isn’t easy and it’ll take some time. Of course, ironically, it’ll take *more* time if they continue to elect the former!

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