Belfast Telegraph

Time to get into the swing of letting go of the Troubles

By Fionola Meredith

You can't turn a corner in Northern Ireland without bumping into the past. There it is, lurking like some dark, blood-stained and malevolent presence in a horror film, ready to jump out at the worst possible moment.

It's seen as a kind of psychic cloud hovering over this place, threatening the fragile peace, which will never go away until we finally face up to it.

One way or another, almost everyone has bought into the idea that Northern Ireland's past cannot simply be ignored.

We've all signed up to the basic Maya Angelou shtick that “history cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”.

This is the belief that sleeping dogs do not lie: that a healthy, secure future can only be guaranteed by a thorough evisceration of the past, however painful or embarrassing that might be.

It's the old notion of lancing the boil which, if neglected, will suppurate and poison the entire system.

But what we just cannot bring ourselves to do is agree on how this process should look. Competing demands for truth, justice, punishment, understanding and information recovery continue and still we are no further forward.

That shouldn't be a surprise — as things stand, any efforts to ‘deal with the past’, such as the talks convened by Secretary of State Owen Paterson — are doomed to failure, because the political parties on both sides are still clinging far too tightly to their own versions of history. As the historian ATQ Stewart remarked, in Ireland, “the past is simply a convenient quarry which provides ammunition to use against enemies in the present”.

When it comes to truth recovery, our caveman politicians are still chucking rocks, not building bridges. And just as devolution was secured by a brutal carve-up between enemies, you can bet that any solution to dealing with the past will be the result of a nasty, cynical game of political brinkmanship, grudgingly negotiated and meanly administered.

Let's face it — there's no spirit of love and reconciliation in the air, no matter how many pretend games of golf that Martin and Peter have with Rory McIlroy.

Our peace, although vital, is a crudely-made, awkward, artificial thing, built out of grim necessity. An agreed process to dealing with the legacy of the Troubles would be just the same.

And so the dead weight of the past continues to bring us down. In particular, there's a lot of tense anticipation about the forthcoming decade of centenaries, starting with the Ulster Covenant of 1912 and finishing up in 1923 with the end of the Irish Civil War. Sometimes, it feels like there's so much of the past going on, that there's no room for the present. Has the compulsion to ‘deal with the past’, or at least to pussy-foot gingerly around it, itself now become part of the problem?

I can understand why individual victims want answers. For instance, I understand why the family of nine-year-old Gordon Gallagher, killed by an IRA bomb in the garden of his home in Derry in 1973, wants to know what happened and who was responsible for the terrible death of their little boy.

Yet, even if the parties do agree a way of dealing with the past, who's to say that will have the desired cathartic affect? There's no guarantee that raking up past miseries will be healing for our society as a whole.

Sometimes the truth is more unbearably painful — and potentially harmful — than the unanswered questions. There's something to be said for letting the most savage sleeping dogs lie.

Eighteen years after the ceasefires, why are we still trapped by the legacy of the conflict? Why do we still hang on to our collective pain, sometimes almost seeming to nurture and cosset it? It's a terrible thought, but perhaps we're addicted to wallowing in our own misery. Look at Germany after the Second World War: it was a nation crippled by debt, reviled by the world.

But 18 years later, it was well on its way back to becoming a global powerhouse. What's stopping us, a differently damaged society, from doing something similar?

I'm not suggesting that we disregard the past: that would be unwise, not to mention impossible.

But when we allow the past to assume such terrifyingly monstrous proportions, when we allow the very issue of dealing with it to become a barrier to living in the present, it's time to let go.

It's our past and we choose whether to be held back or enabled by it, defined or set free by it. No one will win the war for truth. Let's acknowledge that and move on.

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