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Better to Put the Past Behind Us


David Adams, Irish Times • 9 June 2006

Of all the tired old cliches that provide a constant soundtrack to the peace process, for well-meaning naivety none quite matches the notion that learning the lessons of our history will ensure that mistakes are not repeated.

Even allowing that we might be capable of learning from past mistakes if we could ever agree on what they were, it is particularly inapt because it presupposes a common analysis of the historical narrative from which we are expected to learn.

That is certainly not the case in Northern Ireland, and is never likely to be. Each community here has an almost completely different view, and often experience, of the past 30-odd years. We cling to opposing versions of the same history and, consequently, take altogether different lessons from it.

Even aside from the recent past, most of us have been raised on a historical overview carefully filtered and tailored over generations that reinforces, at least to some degree, the politics and prejudices of the community to which we belong.

Those that encounter a broader narrative usually simply ignore, or choose to disbelieve, the awkward bits that defy twisting into line with an already well-formed worldview.

The very few that reject their own sides' pre-packaged analysis in favour of a counter perspective almost invariably take to their "new" history with all the fervour and narrow-mindedness of religious converts, and merely swap one blinkered attitude for another.

Nor, in fairness, is it only people from the North, or even just non-historians, who differ on history.

Last week, I listened to two eminent Irish historians, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Tim Pat Coogan, discuss Ken Loach's Palm d'Or-winning film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, on BBC Radio Ulster. (Neither historian had seen the film.) Dudley Edwards was highly critical of what she saw as being little more than a lopsided, anti-British, pro-IRA propaganda piece. At one point, she suggested that historical accuracy would have been better served if Loach had made reference to the IRA's pogrom against the Protestant population in Cork.

In reply, Coogan, who praised the film, snorted something about revisionist historians having ignored the fact that the murdered Protestants of Cork were informers.

Aside from the inference that killing people as suspected informers was somehow more reasonable than on account of their religion, what lessons of history were ordinary (non-historian) mortals meant to take from that little interchange between experts about the contents of a film they had yet to see? Simply that many historians have the same tendency as the rest of us to judge - or, in this case, prejudge - or present history in accordance with their own political viewpoint. I have seldom, if ever, read or watched anything on aspects of Irish history where the politics of the author or presenter did not soon become apparent.

Nor are people above appropriating and bending other peoples' histories to their own ends. In the run up to the recent commemorations, many commentators, politicians and historians in the Republic sought to draw direct parallels between the 1916 Rising and the American and French revolutions. For lots of reasons, it is an unlikely threesome.

That the French choose to celebrate Bastille Day is entirely a matter for them, but why anyone else would want to be associated with the orgy of bloodletting that was the French revolution is beyond me.

With the exception of Thomas Jefferson, and even he changed his mind as events unfolded, the leaders of the American revolution certainly didn't. Washington, Franklin, and the two Adamses all made clear in correspondence at the time that they were completely opposed to the uprising in France.

Not least because, such was the random nature of the killing spree, many of the earliest victims of the guillotine were personal friends and long-time supporters of the American fight for independence.

Beyond the British imperial connection, the 1916 Rising differed fundamentally from the American revolution as well. Unlike in the Irish case, American independence was declared, and the subsequent war supported and directed, by elected representatives acting on behalf of each of the then 13 American colonies.

In all free societies, a constant harmless debate rages over the minutiae of local and international history.

When taken beyond irrefutable dates and bare historical facts, it is a propaganda tool used to justify or bolster contemporary positions.

History can be many things, but is too divisive to ever be a healer. This hardly matters in a normal society. In the North, which is hardly normal, we are already battling over whose version of history will become the accepted narrative. There is already more than enough division. What we actually need is less history, not more.

The other cliche, about putting the past behind us, is much sounder advice.



Reprinted with permission from the author.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

14 June 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Mark of Cain
Anthony McIntyre

Debris of the Dirty War
Mick Hall

More Claims
Martin Ingram

Case Unproven
Anthony McIntyre

Chain Gang
John Kennedy

Better to Put the Past Behind US
David Adams

The Gamblers
Dr John Coulter

Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Profile: Caroline Fourest
Anthony McIntyre

Le «manifeste des douze» fait réagir
Caroline Fourest

Reaction to the Manifesto (English Translation)
Liam O Ruairc

Freedom of Speech index

6 June 2006

We Believe Freddie McGuinness
Anthony McIntyre

Under Scrutiny
John Kennedy

Unionism's New Puppetmasters
Robert Matthews

Dr John Coulter

Two Peace Processes
Mick Hall

'The Beginning of the End has Past …'
Davy Carlin

How Many Grannies?
Dr John Coulter

Even the Dogs Bark in Irish?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Bards for St Brigid's
Paul Dougherty

USA v Iran
John Kennedy

Threat to Iran Based on Duplicity
David Adams

Manifesto of the Third Camp against US Militarism and Islamic Terrorism

Profile: Bernard Henry-Levy
Anthony McIntyre

BHL: Bernard Henri-Levy
Liam O Ruairc

Freedom of Speech index



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