Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

We shouldn't let Gerry Kelly write history of Troubles

Let's build a museum to show the true story of the past, warts and all, argues Malachi O'Doherty

Unionism has been strangely inept in the face of the confident republican assertion of the value of its tradition. We saw this in the response to the Castlederg commemoration of the IRA dead and we see it in the discussion about the Peace Centre agreed for the Maze site, which the DUP is drawing back from.

History is now at the heart of political discord in Northern Ireland but nobody is talking about what that history was or what it means.

Republicans argue that there are two narratives and that unionists just have to learn to live with the fact that the IRA dead are as worthy of respect in this society as the fallen of the Somme.

And unionism won't engage with the argument.

We see now the fruits of a hope that history could be forgotten.

To be fair, even John Hume, one of the founders of the peace process, envisaged that a line could be drawn on the past.

All funded public art in Belfast now is anodyne, avoiding all reference to history, with the one exception of the Titanic, which seems to represent a feeling that this city has suffered, while avoiding any mention of recent grief and loss.

And in the housing estates we get localised versions of history played out in murals.

Tourist brochures here say nothing of the Troubles and for want of proper investment in Troubles tourism, which could educate thousands every year, we get vivacious amateurs cornering that market.

In publishing and drama and in broadcasting we get a general avoidance of the Troubles, largely on the understanding that no-one wants to read about them anyway or see them on television. Which may be right.

But perhaps they should be encouraged to read about them and talk about them and be nudged out of an apathy about a past which defines us before ignorance about it chokes the political process.

Former IRA gunman and bomber Gerry Kelly is a prime example of a republican who is proud of his past and would repeat that past if the circumstances required it. And presumably he would, himself, be the judge of whether they did nor not. He believes that the IRA has worked wonders in transforming this society for the better.

It may have been a slip of the tongue when he told Nolan that the IRA had won us the vote, but no-one picked him up on it. It's as if engaging with the detail of the Troubles would be the most tedious route to take in any discussion.

But if we avoid that discussion, the narratives of the paramilitaries and their marvellous achievements will prevail.

If unionism doesn't want this, it should not only be campaigning for a museum at the Maze but getting involved in shaping it.

I would go further and build a substantial exhibition displaying every element of the Troubles.

Not that we should be working to an official version, something Mike Nesbitt seems to want, just the inclusion of every possible aspect of the story.

For the best answer to Gerry Kelly or sentimental loyalists is simply the fullest possible audit of the Troubles; an account of who did what. The closest thing we have to this is the book, Lost Lives.

But I am thinking of something like the Martin Luther King museum in Memphis which provides a walk through history of racism in the southern states, video loops of newsreels, a bus like the one Rosa Parks refused to get off, posters and letters, leading to the balcony on which King died.

I would have the prison cell with the smeared walls. I would have models showing what a kneecapping looks like. I would have a fearsome paratrooper with blackened face kicking in a door. I would have the tally of actions to show the human complexity, all of which refutes the nonsense this was a clash of military powers.

I would have images of the Shankill Butchers, of the market stalls and counterfeited goods, of the honey trap women who lured soldiers to their deaths on the promise of sex, of the ordinary businesses blown up, the hairdressers and the bars, the taxi drivers killed in 'dial a target' operations. I would have the snipers and the bomb makers, the mercury tilt-switch bombs, the pirate radio stations, the letters and magazines and posters, the police and army suicides, the orphans and the ill.

I would play the taped confessions those shot as informers had to make before they died, and highlight the evidence on those tapes that the victims were rehearsed in what to say.

I would show the bombs with their timers nailed down so that couriers couldn't stop them going off. I would show how half the IRA dead in the first years killed themselves carrying those bombs or with guns that went off in cleaning or training.

I would show what an affliction paramilitarism was on the communities that had to endure it.

I would have the journalism that got it wrong and the journalism that got it right, the smug politicians and the crafty ones, those implicated by action and by inaction. And the Churches and the mediators and the go-betweens, some with clean hands some not. The tricks of Special Branch and the cynicism.

We have tried leaving the past behind and it hasn't worked.

Better now to resurrect the whole thing in a museum so that people know what it was that happened here.

And sure, tourists would pay to see it, wouldn't they?

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