No one agrees on the North’s history - so why don’t we just stick to the facts

Opinion: Forget interpretation, let the people decide what all the killing was for

A watchtower and perimeter wall marks the boundary of the former Maze Prison. “I have heard of schoolchildren arguing with their teachers that there were no loyalist prisoners in the Maze. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Bloomberg News

A watchtower and perimeter wall marks the boundary of the former Maze Prison. “I have heard of schoolchildren arguing with their teachers that there were no loyalist prisoners in the Maze. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Bloomberg News

Thu, Aug 29, 2013, 07:56

History is contentious in Northern Ireland but there is a way for us to hang on it.

For many it is an embarrassment. The work of reflecting on the past is let fall to the partisan groups with passionate reasons for remembering in their own self-justifying ways. So we have public art in Belfast that says nothing of our history, or at least nothing of the Troubles.

At the same time the side streets and housing estates are adorned with propagandist murals celebrating paramilitary factions as if they were all only a credit to us and to themselves.

There is one exception and that is the commemoration of the sinking of the Titanic. This is respectable history.

It is as if Northern Ireland knew it was grieving but had little sense of why and had been sold a false memory by a quack.

I pass people on the streets every day with saddened faces. If I see a man over 35 with a limp, I know the most likely cause is a bullet. And yet we are not overshadowed still by the loss of hundreds in the cold waters of the north Atlantic. Death and terror are much closer than that.

We avoid the discussion of history, it seems, because we can not agree on its meaning. I have an idea.

While unionists wince at the mention of the IRA and republicans wish to honour their “war dead” and the two sides can never agree on a shared understanding of why more than 3,000 people died, there is no need for much dissension over the details of what actually happened. We could memorialise the facts.

The DUP leader, Peter Robinson, recently pulled out of a plan to retain cells in the old Maze prison and establish a peace centre there, a project on which he had previously reached agreement with Sinn Féin.

But Sinn Féin’s enthusiasm had alarmed his base and his colleagues reminded him that history was best left alone.


Anodyne art
We see that avoidance of the past not just in the anodyne nature of public art: we see an avoidance of the Troubles in theatre and television and literature. Publishers warn writers that it doesn’t sell.

If you are writing a play about the Troubles you’d better be sure to get a few laughs in: bear in mind that it was all really just a geg.

We’ve had tragically few efforts at social history on television about the humour of the Troubles. Sure aren’t we all grand now?

This will embarrass us in the future and it is not necessary.

Ideas such as a truth commission may not float because nobody trusts everyone to be frank about their past. But there is another way. Why not just record the full details of what happened?

Very little of that exhibition on the Titanic goes into the reason for the ship’s sinking.

Similarly, we could just establish a museum or significant exhibition or tourist attraction that provides an audit of events and then let people judge for themselves what it all means and to whom it is or isn’t a credit.

Then when people hear a republican talk of the war and the need for it they will be equipped to ask where the need was to bomb barber shops and shoot so many young men in the legs.

When they hear loyalists identify with the fallen at the Somme they can make their own comparisons with the behaviour of the Shankill Butchers.

If we don’t do this, others will write the history with their own agendas. They are already doing this.

I have heard of schoolchildren arguing with their teachers that there were no loyalist prisoners in the Maze. Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly recently said on The Nolan Show that the IRA had secured us the vote. No one corrected him, presumably because it is all just too much trouble to unpack the detail.

But for want of a clear presentation of the nature of the Troubles, which can be done without interpretation, allowing people to judge for themselves, the mythologising of the “war” will become entrenched. And this will be mostly to the disadvantage of those who are currently most concerned that there should be no record or monument to the Troubles.


Agreed version of history
The Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt recently tried, and failed, to have teaching notes on a novel withdrawn because they prompted schoolchildren to discuss the hunger strikes. He seems to think that we can have no discussion of history until an agreed version has been arrived at. Which will never happen – and indeed should never happen.

I first learned about the second World War through Brian Inglis’s brilliant television series All Our Yesterdays, which recapped on events 25 years after they happened. Twenty-five years apparently isn’t long enough here to allow the toxins to drain.

We have a generation growing up that will know only what it learns from political parties who frame the debate simply around whether activists were terrorists or freedom fighters.

Perhaps we should open a window on the whole thing: the hundreds of kneecappings, the under-car bombs, the informants shot in the head, the smeared cells, the mutilations, the school buses and work buses attacked, the census worker shot, the secret burials, the smug politicians, the knives and the guns and the nails. We should let our tourists and our children see all of it and trust them to work out for themselves whether there is or was any meaning or credit in it.

Malachi O’Doherty is writer in residence at Queen’s University, Belfast.”

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