Media/civic society have a role in dealing with Past

A recent report by Cardiff University identified a glaring flaw (in my view) in the BBC’s coverage of European issues. It turns out that Conservatives receive vastly more air time on the subject than their electoral strength would justify, however determined, compared to Labour.

The problem was that the whole “European issue” is covered by the BBC through the peculiar and narrow prism of Conservative Party divisions on the subject. Broader issues upon which the European Union has direct relevance to our daily lives (international trade, immigration policy, education/learning opportunities, citizens’ travel, employment law, retail regulations, cross-border policing protocols, reciprocal health arrangements and so on) are scarcely covered at all merely because the BBC has a fixation with a narrow party-political point.

It strikes me that we have a similar – though in fact more understandable – problem in Northern Ireland when it comes to dealing with the past, or indeed with anything else. Because absolutely everything is viewed through a “Unionist versus Nationalist” prism, a range of views cannot be covered (and nor, indeed, can the point that the prism may well be wrong in the first place). In fairness to the BBC and other broadcasters, that “Unionist versus Nationalist” prism is built in to the very political structures, but it is unhelpful to view everything through it.

For example, coverage of the Castlederg parade in August focused on “Republican” support for it, and “Unionist” opposition to it. But were those really the “sides”? What about the SDLP, which in its press statement clearly opposed it as an offence to victims? What about the Progressives (the “Middle Ground”) who also clearly opposed it on community relations grounds? What about victims of IRA terrorism from a broadly Nationalist/Republican background? And indeed how could “Unionists”, silent over a similar parade commemorating (glorifying?) a terrorist murderer in Shankill the following month, be assumed to be against such things?

The whole thing then makes it easier for people to put forward simplistic, narrow, one-sided views of the past and have them foisted upon everyone assumed to be on their “side”. That Sinn Fein regards IRA “volunteers” to have been “patriots”, but the SDLP and all other major parties south of the border do not, is a fundamental division. However, it is rarely put forward, to the extent that many inner-city Protestants genuinely believe “all Catholics” take the Sinn Fein view; more complicatedly still, people have many reasons for choosing Sinn Fein over the SDLP (or Alliance or whomever) or vice-versa, not only to do with the past, so it cannot be assumed even that all Sinn Fein voters buy the Sinn Fein narrative (or indeed that all non-SF voters don’t). Unionists too range from those who believe that “all terrorism is wrong” (themselves split between those who actually believe that and those who say it but really mean “all IRA terrorism”) to those who are sympathetic at least with the reasons people joined the IRA, if not with the IRA campaign itself. Even in Castlederg, Unionists ranged between those who believed the parade should have been banned to those who believed the parade should not have taken place (but, implicitly, could not be banned in a liberal society); and between those who were against it on the grounds that parades glorifying terrorism should not take place ranging to those who were against it because it was offensive to victims (but in fact, implicitly, accepting a Republican entitlement to commemorate “their dead”).

That is a comparatively straightforward example, but it raises a lot of fundamental issues, few of which justify a simplistic “Republican versus Unionist” prism of analysis. They include, among others:

  • attitudes to terrorism (and varying attitudes to various types of terrorism on various groups’ behalf);
  • dealing with perpetrators of violence;
  • ways of commemorating the past (ranging from glorification to rueful reflection);
  • victims’ rights (and the concept of the “innocent victim”); and
  • balkanisation of commemoration (the underlying notion that certain types of reflection or even glorification are appropriate, but only in particular localities).

For as long as we lack a proper civic discussion of these things (perhaps starting from a general viewpoint rather than quoting specific, inevitably emotionally charged, examples) we will be unable to move on – and the simplistic debate, along the predictable two-way prism, will continue to rage not just in the media but also on the Assembly floor where really MLAs ought to have better things to do…

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