We have very little time to start facing up to history

Our most fundamental responsibility to history is to stop it repeating itself

Our most fundamental responsibility to history is to stop it repeating itself. History, in the sense I intend, is the cumulative bad news avalanching from our past, threatening at any moment to engulf us again. Every so often, we have an opportunity to move ahead and confront the landslide, maybe even to arrest it in its tracks. But such moments are rare and fleeting.

If we lack courage or faith or the blessings of the heavens, the wreckage of the past will thunder all the more resolutely on its way. The greatest enemy of truth is the desire for instant peace. Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming normality, or what we take for normality, to be evidence of serenity and well-being. Wishful thinking leads us to ignore the roar of history at our shoulder.

If we in Ireland are to attribute any degree of honesty to the history we have accumulated, we must surely conclude, above all things, that everything is not normal here. If it is, why did we cry in pain? If it is, why did we plead for help? If it is, why did we prostrate ourselves before the world in search of comfort and consolation? Even the most sanitised versions of that history admit to the enormity of the pain, differing only on the nature of its causes. No matter how you look at it, that history is catastrophic beyond belief.

But either our history is true or it is not. And if it is true, are we to assume or pretend that it is a history entirely without consequences in the present? Either we lied about the past or we are lying now. Almost a year ago, we had an opportunity to stop the landslide in its tracks. But, as we rapidly approach the first anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement, there are already signs that the strongest force in the process is the desire of normality to reassert itself. By "normality" I do not mean peace, but the surface appearance of peace allowing us to exist rather than live, the desire for, above all things, respectability. I mean, too, the state of affairs which leads us to mislead ourselves as to the nature of the problem, by allowing us to believe it belongs only to others.


We in Ireland tend to tell ourselves that the source of the conflict which has blighted this land for more than 30 years is the anger or madness of people other than ourselves. Thus, it is not really our problem. There is Us, the normal ones, and there is Them, the psychopathic tribal haters. But the true division is between those who engage in the conflict either by deed or omission, and those who, mindful of the approaching tempest, seek to act like grown-ups.

On the landscape of the Northern conflict there are perhaps a handful of men and women who have faced their responsibilities, both to history and the present. John Hume is one such, Gerry Adams another. Everywhere else there are children - play-acting, squabbling, pretending, mocking and participating in the tumult.

The governments of Great Britain and Ireland, as represented by their respective prime ministers, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, give the impression of acting as exasperated uncles attempting to intervene in a family dispute. They, in a sense, speak for the "Us", the voices of normality, detachment and reason, seeking to bring calm to a raging tribal conflict. But in doing so, in truth, they speak for those whose actions, inactions or silences enable the conflict to continue. And so they too are children. Until they cease to be part of the problem they cannot be part of its solution.

Until they assume the obligations of adults, admit their participation in the conflict and stand up in that spirit to seek its cessation, they will do nothing but feed the madness. It is time for them to stop playing both sides against the middle, to stand up together and say, without further equivocation, what is in the Belfast Agreement and precisely what it means.

Both prime ministers are Irish. Mr Ahern is obviously so, but Mr Blair also, through his mother's family in Donegal. If Tony Blair had been a footballer rather than a politician, he might in the past decade have retired from a glorious career with the Irish football team. He is therefore, even if you accept the standard British fob-off analysis of the "Irish problem", a part of this story, not apart from it.

That is the spirit in which this conflict must be grasped. It is easy to sit in Kensington or Rathmines or Hampstead or Blackrock or Notting Hill or Dalkey and pretend that everything is OK. "Nothing to do with us if those lunatics kill one another. We have done our bit, as sane, civilised people. Let them tear one another apart." The problem is that while this attitude continues, those who engage in the conflict at the front line must carry with them not just their own share of pain and trauma but also the pain and trauma of those who refuse to admit what is going on.

Unhappy the land which is in need of heroes. Well, we are unhappy and we need heroes. And if we do not supply them, our children will need them all the more. And then their children, and their children.

The moment of truth is upon us. Once Good Friday has come and gone, so too will have come and gone perhaps the last opportunity in our lifetimes to stop this madness. The symbolism of that lost year without movement will be set as though a statue in its plinth. How, having done nothing when we had an opportunity to do it, are we to face the searchlights of our children's eyes?

The greatest enemies of lasting peace are not those who seek to kill and maim one another but those who know the truth and will not speak it. As we approach the run-up to the last Easter of the second millennium, we could do worse than contemplate, to our shame, the resonance today of one of the most searing and merciless denunciations in perhaps the whole of Irish history and literature. The words are Padraic Pearse's, the opening lines from his essay Ghosts, written a short time before the 1916 Rising, in which he denounced those of the previous quarter-century who had sought to barter away their children's birthright:

"There has been nothing more terrible in Irish history than the failure of the last generation. Other generations have failed in Ireland, but they have failed nobly; or, failing ignobly, some man among them has redeemed them from infamy by the splendour of his protest. But the failure of the last generation has been mean and shameful, and no man has arisen from it to say or do a splendid thing in virtue of which it shall be forgiven. The whole episode is squalid. It will remain the one sickening chapter in a story which, gallant or sorrowful, has everywhere else some exaltation of pride."

Unless we grasp the opportunity to act like adults, these words will read as gentleness itself by comparison with posterity's indictment of the present hour.