Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

How we deal with the past will help shape our future

Tolerating difference and respecting ourselves and others are the standards by which history will judge us, says Jacqueline Irwin

The marking of the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant passed off peacefully last weekend - thanks to the work of many people. It was one of many significant centenaries that will occur during 2012-2022.

Given our divided history, many of them may be a challenge to the peace that has been so painstakingly built in more recent times. However, they may also represent an opportunity.

Discussions in the lead-up to last Saturday underlined the risks we face when it comes to celebrating our past, but the same events also show us the possibility for change.

How do we remember a divided past when we are trying to build a shared future? Political leadership and a positive approach from civil society have the potential to accelerate the transformation of our society to one that can tolerate difference, acknowledge the value of freedom of expression and place respect for ourselves and others at the heart of all celebration.

Since last year, the Community Relations Council and Heritage Lottery Fund have been working together to promote an open conversation about how we remember our past in the public sphere.

In the end, we came up with a set of principles aimed at helping us to see the act of remembering in the context of an inclusive and accepting society:

1. Start from the historical facts;

2. Recognise the implications and consequences of what happened;

3. Understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist;

4. Show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period.

The principles are simple, but they set us a challenge, whether we are organising a commemoration event, or reacting to one.

The purpose is not to make us all the same but to help us recognise we are different and that we should be free to express our differences, while being respectful of others.

That is the underpinning social contract that will allow difference to flourish in a shared space. If we can come to an agreement about that, at all levels of society, we have the basis of moving forward without fear of loss of identity, or culture.

This decade of centenaries and the contribution that it might make to our approach to cultural celebration is recognised by many bodies, including museums, libraries, universities, local councils, cultural groups and Government departments.

In March, the Executive took the decision to play a key role in organising events for the forthcoming decade and agreed they should be organised to ensure an educational focus with an emphasis on reflection, inclusion, tolerance, respect, responsibility and interdependence.

In May, the Assembly Commission identified similar principles by which it would commission events to mark the forthcoming anniversaries, highlighting inclusion, tolerance and respect for our shared history and differing views on it.

The importance of historical facts and the wider context was also emphasised, as was the need to allow for discussion and differing views and perspectives. The UK and Irish governments have also been considering this issue. Identity matters everywhere.

Earlier in the year, the Community Relations Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed to the forthcoming decade of centenaries with a series of talks, entitled Remembering the Future, which examined the period from 1912 to 1923, a time that shaped our political and cultural allegiances.

Over 10 weeks, the talks looked at many strands of our identity and the relationships that cross these islands which were, and remain, complex and intertwined.

The recordings of the talks can be found on the web page of the Community Relations Council - www.nicrc.org.uk

Tolerance and respect are the challenges facing our generation and history will judge us on them.

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