Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Get shot of history's fraudsters and let the arts tell Northern Ireland's story

Our fixation on public inquiries only serves to make rich lawyers even richer. Excavating the past would be better entrusted to writers and artists, says Henry McDonald

Taking aim: a stage production of The Conquest of Happiness

A hero of the siege of Sarajevo had some brilliant advice for the people of Northern Ireland this autumn in terms of coping with their recent, violent past.

Haris Pasovic kept producing plays – including a version of Beckett's Waiting for Godot with Susan Sontag – while Serbian shells and bullets mercilessly rained down on his city.

The renowned international theatre director has been back and forth to the North West with his anti-war production The Conquest of Happiness, which was premiered in Derry for UK City of Culture 2013.

During a visit to Belfast, Pasovic said the last thing we needed was "the human rights industry" and "the politics industry". Pasovic almost spat out these words, when referring to professional human rights groups and politicians whom, he said, would have their own, skewed agendas.

It would be better, he argued, that novelists, filmmakers, painters, poets and other artists were left to tackle issues from the past and their impact on the future.

Citing his native Bosnia, Pasovic added: "The industry of political conflict is the biggest industry in Bosnia and it is still not exhausted.

"What is needed is to replace these two industries, the industry of political conflict, the industry of human rights, with normal, creative walks of life."

The Bosnian director's call is apposite, given the recent row over a proposed peace centre at the Maze and the way, on both sides, in which history is being twisted to suit competing ideologies.

There are so many lies being peddled to the post-ceasefire generation. Sinn Fein tries to repackage the Provisional IRA's armed campaign (1968-1997) as some kind of continuation of the civil rights struggle, rather than the attempted (and failed) destruction of a state.

Loyalist paramilitaries in east Belfast erase George Best's image and replace it with a masked UVF man beside, incredibly, a quote from the advocate of non-violent resistance, Martin Luther King.

Meanwhile, the victims of state collusion, republican dissident violence, the Provisional IRA's armed campaign and the loyalist paramilitaries all demand new mechanisms for dealing with past crimes.

What Northern Ireland has at present is a piecemeal, chaotic and, in some eyes, one-sided process of individual inquiries, retrospective re-opened murder investigations and the occasional Police Ombudsman report.

The only beneficiaries of this disparate, disjointed attempt to deal with Troubles-related deaths appears to many people to be the legal profession.

Over the last few weeks, Haris's prescription – that truth, or the quest for it, is best left to artists, historians and journalists – has been on display on film and television.

The stunning and deeply moving BBC-RTE documentary on The Disappeared shed far more light into a dark chapter of the conflict than any Historical Enquiries Team investigation, or Police Ombudsman's report could ever do.

Meanwhile, Northern Irish author David Parks has just been nominated for the IMPAC international literary award for his last novel, The Light of Amsterdam.

In his last book – a touching masterpiece, which centrally deals with a lonely, crushed, divorced east Belfast father hoping to reconnect with his alienated son during a weekend break to the Dutch capital – Parks makes few references to the Troubles and its stain on 21st-century Belfast.

However, the Co Down-based schoolteacher has written intelligent and original novels dealing head-on with post-conflict trauma, from Swallowing the Sun to The Truth Commissioner.

Anyone in the world seeking social insight into, say, the east Belfast working-class and middle-class unionist communities should look no further than into the pages of Park's novels.

The DVD of Good Vibrations is currently on sale, which Observer movie critic Mark Kermode dubbed as a great "feelgood movie" of rock 'n' roll (or, more accurately, punk rock) prevailing over, as Stiff Little Fingers once wrote, "the bores and their laws".

Yet Good Vibrations also hammers home some hard truths about what life was actually like growing up in 1970s Belfast.

It brings back starkly the shutdown of the city centre; the security gates and the P-checks you were subjected to inside the ring of steel the military imposed; the ever-present menace of the next bomb and the retreat of people from shared space into paramilitary controlled areas.

For children now being reared on a diet of "armed struggle glorification", the film shows them the way civic life was choked almost to death by that madness.

Every post-primary school child in Northern Ireland should get to see Good Vibrations, not only because the spirit of DIY punk rebellion is a foil to the pop cyborgs morphing out of X Factor, but as an example into another way of living and thinking; of seeing the past clearly through the mists and the myths and to witness once more the absolute misery the Troubles wrought onto an entire generation.

A battalion of human rights barristers would never be able to excavate such basic truths about the Troubles.

We really should heed the wise words of the Bosnian artist who survived a civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives in a far shorter period than our conflict lasted.