This is the original version of a paper, subsequently amended, submitted to the Queen’s University blog series ‘Compromise after Conflict’
It has become common, predominantly among Belfast’s professional class, to suggest that to move forward towards consensus and compromise we have to “draw a line under the past”.
This could not be more wrong.
For the past is precisely what divides us – to the extent that it is woven into “Unionist” and “Republican” culture. Try to forget about it, and you leave the very division we should be seeking to overcome in place; the very division which comes back to bite us time and time again.
Underlying this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the division. A lot of professional, suburban people believe that the sectarian divide is essentially a political creation. This too could not be more wrong. It is in fact a social and cultural construct, which is then merely reflected by politicians who are, lest we forget, elected by voters – voters who are themselves conditioned by that social and cultural construct.
It is a social and cultural construct caused by our past – culture is, after all, built up over centuries. Whether we like it or not, most Unionists are predominantly descended from people of overwhelmingly Protestant faith who arrived during or after the Plantation (whether or not they were directly part of it); most Nationalists are predominantly descended of people of overwhelmingly Catholic faith who were native to Ireland before the Plantation. Understandably, Unionists believe their ancestors’ move across the Irish Sea (usually in search of new land to work) to have been entirely legitimate, and they see the Partition of Ireland as already a sufficient compromise with Nationalists. Understandably also, Nationalists believe their ancestors were victims of a brutal and illegitimate land grab from the native people, and they see the Partition of Ireland as another appalling representation of this illegitimate British presence. Daily culture – from cricket and militaristic bands to the GAA and reflections of militant Republicanism – is reflective of two distinct traditions with an entirely distinct view of the past.
In other words, to ask people to forget their past is not just to ask them to forget recent suffering (for which they may still, entirely legitimately, want a sense of closure, truth and/or justice), but also to ask them to forget their culture. Put that way, frankly, it is a contemptible suggestion.
This is in fact why so many otherwise reasonable people on either “side” are wary of a “Shared Future”, suspecting (apparently correctly, judging by the above) that it is really a means of subtly banishing their culture. Those who suggest “forgetting the past” suggest implicitly that we should all just forget who we are, and why we are that way. Yet in fact ignorance of who we are, and why, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
If we really want consensus, first we have to come to terms with the scale of our social and cultural division, built as it is upon centuries of hostility and decades of outright conflict. Then we have to do the really tough bit – we have to accept that, for all our own family history may point in the direction of one particular “just” constitutional outcome, and for all that we are entitled to desire that outcome, we have absolutely no right in a divided society to expect that outcome. We have to deal with the fact that a vision of Northern Ireland which seems perfectly “reasonable” to us may appear totally alien to many of our fellow citizens, just as theirs may be to us.
We have to accept that we will need to come to terms with our past and how we go about remembering it; but that, in so doing, we have no right to put any conditions based on just one reading of that past on our collective future. What does that mean? Well, for a start, we may have to learn to tolerate a constitutional position which is not the one we would instinctively prefer. For all our talk about compromise and consensus, how many of us are really offering to do that?