The 19th-century French thinker Ernest Renan asked the question: “What is a Nation?” He answered, in part, that it is a collective exercise in amnesia: “Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation.” What has to be forgotten, in particular, is the violence and brutality that accompanied the act of creation.
It is very striking that, if you talk to Irish people under 40, this desire for forgetfulness is strong. Those who look to Sinn Féin as the only possible vehicle for the creation of a new Ireland seem increasingly irritated by the insistence of those who lived through the Troubles on some kind of moral accountability for the IRA's 30-year campaign of mass killing.
This is easy enough to understand. Younger people have only ever really known the IRA and Sinn Féin as participants in a process of peacemaking. They do not remember a time when the IRA was putting bombs in pubs to kill and maim ordinary young people like themselves.
All of that is "the past". It is not relevant to, say, the housing crisis that they are experiencing as a daily reality. It doesn't bear on the state of the health service or the problems of economic inequality or climate change. It lacks what Martin Luther King called "the fierce urgency of now".
Fair enough. Except the same can be said for so for many things that younger people do care about, often passionately. The past, to adapt the cliche, is both another country and home territory.
Those children died between the 1920s and the 1950s. Does that make their brief lives and obscure deaths 'ancient history'?
Consider, for example, the controversies over the recent report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. That report deals with institutions that no longer exist and with events that, in some cases, go back almost a full century.
I have not heard anyone from Sinn Féin, or anyone who argues that the IRA is ancient history with no bearing on the present, suggest that it is therefore meaningless. On the contrary, the imperative to acknowledge the pain of the past is, in this case, unarguable.
The most lurid and shocking part of that story is the discovery of nearly 800 bodies of infants buried on the grounds of the Bon Secours home in Tuam. Those children died between the 1920s and the 1950s. Does that make their brief lives and obscure deaths “ancient history”?
That institution in Tuam closed down 60 years ago, in 1961. The Provisional IRA shut up shop by decommissioning its weapons just 16 years ago, in 2005. Yet the second story is somehow much more distant than the first.
The same people can see what the nuns did in Tuam as a moral outrage that must never be forgotten and the IRA’s dumping of bodies in secret graves as an unfortunate episode that should stay in the past.
In one frame, there is an entirely justified demand to literally bring up the bodies: the remains of the infants should be excavated, identified, properly memorialised. In another, there is a desire, in the biblical phrase, to let the dead bury their dead.
All of this points to a deep ambivalence about the public memory of recent history. What even is the Irish past?
On the one hand, it is very much a living thing. Over the last 25 years, public discourse has been shaped by the imperative to investigate and acknowledge the brutality and violence of the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries, the mother and baby homes.
On the other hand, the Irish past is inert. The brutality and violence of the Troubles are not worth banging on about. They get in the way of the things that matter now.
The statute of limitations on cruel injustices is weirdly variable. For the Catholic Church, in particular, it never runs out. Nor should it. It is right and proper to reach back over the decades and to enumerate in as much detail as possible the harms it did to Irish people.
But for Sinn Féin and the IRA, the curtain came down when the violence stopped. These sleeping dogs are to be let lie, even while the old curs of Catholic Ireland are constantly roused from their slumbers.
How do we explain this difference? It is not, clearly, about the mere passage of time. Something else is at work.
The violence of the Troubles was as influential in the creation of contemporary Ireland as the church's institutionalised cruelty
It is, ironically, what Sinn Féin itself used to call the partitionist mentality. For young people in the Republic, the church’s crimes matter because they helped to constitute “us”. They touch on the identity of both the State and society. They are part of what we are – and no longer wish to be.
But the IRA’s brutality was exercised, for the most part, north of the Border. It is part of someone else’s story.
It is not the past that is another country – it is “the North”. It is not time that matters but place.
Yet this is profoundly wrong-headed. The violence of the Troubles – and the complex ways in which southern society reacted to it – was as influential in the creation of contemporary Ireland as the church’s institutionalised cruelty had been.
This crazy dance of remembering and forgetting is, however, a means to an end. Recalling the church’s evils serves the same purpose as choosing not to know about the IRA’s. Both help to create a hopeful narrative of a new Ireland escaping from a dark history.
That’s a noble aspiration, but it comes up against one big problem: accountability. A democracy simply cannot work if the people who exercise power do not have to answer for what they do and have done.
The church accumulated vast temporal power in Ireland. It must account for how it used it.
Sinn Féin seeks to exercise power on both sides of the Border. It is vital that it accepts – as it has so far failed to do – that it, too, must account for how it uses power. Part of that process has to be a clear and final acknowledgment of the disaster it helped inflict on the Irish people.
Contrary to Ernest Renan’s dictum, Ireland cannot in fact create a new nation out of selective forgetfulness – or out of its conjoined twin, selective memory. Indeed, one of the things that has prevented the emergence of a single nation on this island is precisely the existence of competing and deeply partial versions of the past.
We can’t escape the past by continuing to explore some of its horrors while ignoring others. If there were to be a genuinely new Ireland, it would be one in which that game of instrumental oblivion is itself consigned to history.