The past has a future in Northern Ireland

May 11, 2007|By Tony Platt

Tuesday marked the historic restoration of power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants, Irish republicans and British loyalists in Northern Ireland - and the beginning of a new set of difficult challenges, including how to remember the bloody past.

"It is recognized that victims have a right to remember," stated the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which provided the framework for the restoration of local government.

It's a little shocking to read this principle enshrined in the cold print of an official document. In the United States, the government tends to protect our right to forget. There is no public holiday to mark the emancipation of slaves, for example, one of the most significant events in U.S. history. Too often, we paper over our violent history with an official myth of progress.

How will Northern Ireland implement its right to remember? The lure of amnesia will be strong, as it was in Germany at the end of World War II, when proponents of the Cold War promoted a "move-on mentality," and in Spain after Gen. Francisco Franco's death in 1975, when the government issued a "pact of forgetting."

The tendency to forget is understandable. Many people are reluctant to relive suffering or to burden their children with painful memories. And governments have their own reasons for forgetting. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the new government banned the teaching of the region's history in order to avoid recriminations.

In Northern Ireland, some people say it would be better for economic development and tourism if what comes to define the region are the Mourne Mountains and its medieval past rather than the decades of "the Troubles." Better to appreciate Derry's Walled City and ancient cannons than to look too closely at the legacies of Catholic-Protestant warfare in Bogside.

But the suppressed past has a tendency to simmer and re-emerge at unexpected moments. Today's Germany is engaged in a profound reflection about Nazism, and Spain is about to re-examine the legacies of fascism.

In Northern Ireland, there will be some tiptoeing around hard issues. Before it closed for reconstruction, the Ulster Museum's exhibition, Conflict: The Irish at War, paid minimal attention to the contemporary period and ignored the role of Britain in the conflict.

It seems that there will be a museum (a.k.a. the International Center for Conflict Transformation) on the grounds of the notorious Long Kesh/The Maze - the prison where Bobby Sands and other IRA militants died. The new name indicates a desire at least to make the site serve the needs of both remembrance and education of all parties to the struggle. And yet the emotions stirred by the site - the cells where men starved - will make this a difficult challenge.

Although physical violence has been drastically reduced in Northern Ireland, we should expect culture wars to proliferate.

In the future, it might be relatively easy to fly new flags at Stormont - once a unionist stronghold and now the seat of Northern Ireland's partnership government - but it will be harder to topple, transform or supplement the Protestant monument to the British loyalist Sir Edward Carson that frames Stormont's entrance. And imagine how difficult it will be to produce a new textbook on Northern Irish history for schoolchildren that is acceptable to the leading political parties.

And yet, a few weeks after the March vote, Belfast celebrated St. Patrick's Day in the center of the city without incident or sectarian tension. More important, grass-roots organizations and communities have successfully "decommissioned" neighborhood murals that encouraged violence on both sides of the divide.

It is most encouraging, however, that in 2006, the Belfast organization Healing Through Remembering could convene a task force of republicans, unionists and independents - many formerly on the battle lines - to produce a thoughtful investigation into how to make peace with the past.

If left to government and commercial interests on high, public history is almost always turned into cultural pabulum and profitable kitsch. But Belfast and Derry's long history of social struggles, vital debates and dedicated community organizations suggests that the politics of remembrance will be vigorously contested from below. And that makes for hope for the future of the past in Northern Ireland.

Tony Platt was visiting professor at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Queen's University, Belfast, in March. He is co-author of "Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler's Nuremberg Laws." This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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