Efforts at reconciliation in North hampered by myths about the Troubles

Opinion: More teaching of history in schools could provide solution


The further we move on from the Troubles in Northern Ireland the more divergent accounts of that period become. Currently US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is mulling over how the past can be reconciled and set to rest. He’s been asked to do that because, though parties can’t agree on what we have been through, they do acknowledge that residual toxins hang in the air.

Gerry Adams says, “We live in a divided society with different, contradictory political allegiances. There are different perspectives on the causes of the conflict, what happened and who was responsible.”

In his blog, Léargas, the Sinn Féin president demonstrates one of those irreconcilable perspectives himself when he launches into claims about state-backed murder that many readers might take for simple historical fact.

Adams writes, “What did all of this mean in practice? In the early years of the ‘Troubles’ it meant the British army forging a new unionist paramilitary organisation – the Ulster Defence Association – out of many small neighbourhood groups.’

If loyalists had indeed been state forces, death squads organised by the government, then it was strange behaviour for the same government’s regular forces and the police to pursue them and have them imprisoned.

No one can say that the state had clean hands in all of this, but it is equally impossible to claim that the state was the mastermind and director of operations behind the loyalists. State forces also tried to manipulate the IRA and one of their apparent objectives in this was to protect Adams himself and the peace process.

You get an insight into the prevalence of myths about the Troubles on comment streams like that after Fintan O’Toole’s column last week, calling on Adams to accept responsibility for his IRA past.

Politically committed people of strong passions will assert that Catholics didn’t have the vote in Northern Ireland until the IRA won it for them. Sinn Féin MLA and former bomber Gerry Kelly said as much recently on Radio Ulster. Sometimes you can rely on someone on a discussion thread providing a correction, as happened in the discussion on Fintan, but often the error stands.

Loyalists defend their own absurdities, imagining that they fought a war against the IRA when, for the most part, they killed random Catholics and each other.

Of course many disagreements are of judgment and analysis, rather than fact. One is entitled to the opinion that the IRA raised the status of Irish people in the North and brought unification closer. One is not entitled to say that they fought to secure the franchise. One may, if one wishes, describe Long Kesh as a prisoner of war camp, but those who do so should then factor in how prisoners completed sentences and were released in huge numbers long before what they call a war was over.

Those who point the finger at one party or cause need to have evidence and need also to accommodate, if only to refute, alternative perspectives if they are to be credible. There is a stark absence of that kind of thinking in Northern Ireland.

So we have myths that Catholics in the North were victims of pogroms, that the IRA defended the Catholic population, that it was an army representative of a community (a community which actually gave most of its votes to parties opposing it), that Northern Ireland was a colony, that Britain had a vested interest in dividing the population and used a puppet government to do so, that Ulster loyalists held a special place in the affections of the British monarchy, that the UVF of the modern period has roots in the Somme, that there never was discrimination, that paramilitaries were only ever in it for the money, that British soldiers were fine and decent people or that they were barbarians, that Catholics were subservient to their church, that the Vatican directed the IRA, that Ulster Protestants are one of the lost tribes of Israel, that the Republic is scheming to swallow up the North, that destiny is set and Irish unity is part of it, that the removal of the flag over the City Hall in Belfast is an affront so appalling that it must be reversed or that the removal of the flag means nothing really and those who protest are only whingers and scroungers.

In varying degrees all these ideas and more influence the day-to-day political thinking of many people. And all of them are highly questionable, at least.

Dr Haass wants to achieve some reconciliation of divergent views of the past to create a basis for co-operation in the future. One approach might be to insist on more teaching of history in schools.

A problem with that is that many young people are so sick of hearing these myths that they wouldn’t study it.

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