Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Telling our story is not the same as creating a shrine

Site or flight: an artist’s impression of the proposed conflict centre at the Maze
Site or flight: an artist’s impression of the proposed conflict centre at the Maze

Commemoration is not the same as veneration. Telling a story – if it is an honest, rounded and impartial narrative – is not the same as building a shrine.

This is an important intellectual and practical distinction. Yet many unionists, and unionist-oriented victims, react to the prospect of a conflict centre at the Maze prison as though they are one and the same thing.

DUP MLA Gregory Campbell wants to ignore the stories of the hunger strikers and other prisoners completely, warning that "to make reference, or have as a central focal-point, any attention to people who were convicted terrorists, or who starved themselves to death, would be inappropriate".

TUV leader Jim Allister, speaking of the Maze plans, appears to think that the choice of such a site would automatically and in itself "glorify terrorism".

Let's be clear: no reasonable person in this country wishes to see some kind of uncritical, flag-waving temple to terrorism being erected at the Maze site, or anywhere else.

And it's understandable that people who have been damaged by the murderous actions of paramilitaries should initially feel fear, or horror, or rage, at the thought of their oppressors' stories being included in an interpretative centre.

The assumption is that, by their very inclusion, some kind of legitimacy, or credibility, is conferred upon these men and women and their terrible actions.

Yet what should also be remembered is that foregrounding these people is a way of holding them and their beliefs to public account.

Much depends on the skill, rigour and impartiality of the story-telling and in this case it seems that the board overseeing the development has the requisite breadth and independence to deliver on that vital objective. Time will tell.

Sticking our fingers in our ears and turning our backs – in short, seeking to airbrush the prisoners and perpetrators out of history, as Campbell seems to suggest – is certainly not the answer.

This appalling accumulation of events happened. They happened here. If we are to have any hope of moving forward with integrity, those harsh, bitter stories must be told, alongside those of their victims.

Never as a justification for murderous violence, for nothing justifies that, but in the healing interests of honesty and truth.

Of course, there is no doubt that the Maze development is loaded, both emotionally and politically, with all kinds of dubious freight.

Yet, in spite of that – indeed, maybe even because of that – this death-haunted repository of brutality, desperation and sheer bloody evil could be the very place where we can finally tell the story of the Troubles.

A clean, new, neutral site would lack the same ghastly resonance. What happened was horrific. Where better to begin the narrative of our journey out of the darkness than at the ideological melting-pot of that horror?

There are precedents for this kind of project in other troubled cities. The Topography of Terror museum in Berlin was built on the former site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters.

Through powerful photographs and text, it unflinchingly documents the Nazi reign of terror. Visitors can also examine the excavated cellars of the original buildings, where many political prisoners were tortured and executed.

Similarly, in Budapest, the House of Terror, which dramatically chronicles the atrocities perpetrated on the Hungarian people by both the Stalinist and the fascist regimes, is located in the very building which was once the party headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis and, later, the communist secret police.

Inside, curators have preserved the meeting room of the Nazi leadership, as well as the office of the head of the KGB in Budapest. In the lift travelling down to the dank prison cells, there is an interview with a man who was responsible for hanging many of those prisoners.

By telling the stories of communist, or fascist, ringleaders, spies and torturers, are these institutions glorifying state-sponsored terrorism? By siting them on the ground where such evil acts took place, are they setting up a shrine?

Of course not. The very opposite is true. But these cities have had the confidence, the courage and the imagination to face up to the iniquities of their own murky pasts. So far, we have not. Neither is there any hope of a single, agreed narrative of the conflict.

But, in ensuring that all stories are told, we can – if nothing else – allow people to make up their own minds about who was innocent and who was culpable in this twisted, filthy war.

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