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The past is still casting its shadow over Northern Ireland

By Brian Rowan

Published 19/01/2016

Renowned artist: Colin Davidson
Renowned artist: Colin Davidson

Away from all the political arguments over what to do about the past and present, the Silent Testimony exhibition has shown us what can be done.

The 18 portraits by acclaimed artist Colin Davidson show the continuing impact of the conflict years on the injured, their families, the families of the dead and the wider community. In his words, it is about "right now".

Around 60,000 people visited the exhibition in that quiet space created within the Ulster Museum. Now Davidson's portraits are to be taken to Paris.

He doesn't want to be dragged into political arguments but, in recent days, he thought out loudly about the agreement last November that saved Stormont. "I wonder what sort of fresh start it has been for the people who have suffered loss," he said.

It was gently spoken, but the comment had an edge. It also followed an earlier statement by the actor Jimmy Nesbitt that victims have been let down.

The political focus is still around the creation of a Historical Investigations Unit, an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group. But even if those structures were in place, would people be any closer to the information and answers and truth they are seeking?

"Can we expect, for example, paramilitary organisations to accept corporate responsibility and provide information on motives or is there an expectation of specific operational information for each and every incident?" the loyalist Winston Irvine recently asked.

His comment makes clear that the past is not just stuck in national security mud, but in other uncertainties.

This day week - January 26 - Irvine will join the Belfast republican Eibhlin Glenholmes, Chief Constable George Hamilton and the academics Kieran McEvoy and John Barry in an event at Queen's University when the questions on the past and present will again be addressed.

The wider conversation on past and present needs a different focus - an emphasis on what can be done.

  • For details on the Queen's event, contact

Brian Rowan is the author of Unfinished Peace (Colourpoint Books)

Belfast Telegraph

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