Belfast Telegraph

New times show history just isn't what it used to be

The successful Titanic commemorations have set the template for a decade of more controversial centenaries, says David McKittrick

Remarkable and unprecedented things are happening in the field of history and commemorations in Northern Ireland, aimed at overturning ancient divisive patterns in favour of a constructive new approach.

The effects of this are going to be seen in the course of the next 10 years, with the onset of what is being called the Decade of Anniversaries, which will mark important turning-points, such as the 1916 Easter Rising and the foundation of Northern Ireland.

Serious effort is being expended to avoid giving offence. An early first sign of the new approach has already been seen with regard to Titanic.

Older generations know that the shipyard was traditionally viewed very differently by Protestants and Catholics. The former tended to regard it as a shining example of the Protestant work ethic and of their links to Britain's industrial empire.

But its history, which gave such pride and, indeed, identity to Protestants and unionists, was simultaneously viewed by many Catholics as having a dark side.

Its workforce was overwhelmingly Protestant, leading nationalists to denigrate it as a bastion of discrimination,where few Catholics were given jobs.

Seamus Heaney - not a poet noted for his belligerence - once wrote of a shipyard worker:

That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic -

Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again.

And yet the Titanic commemorations have taken place with barely a resentful grumble from nationalists and republicans. The times of inequality live on in their folk-memory, but today are very rarely referred to in public. As Heaney put it in another poem: whatever you say, say nothing.

The bad old days have not been forgotten, but for the Titanic project the two communities have agreed to, as it were, sink their differences.

Saying nothing will not be an option when the big historical anniversaries come around later this year, for realistically, it will be impossible to ignore events which have left such indelible effects. But the official aim will be to set a whole new tone.

The turbulent period, which began a hundred years ago, led to the establishment of two states in Ireland. It led to the creation of a fully-independent southern state, while the mainly Protestant north-east became Northern Ireland.

Incidents from then include the 1912 actions of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Protestant citizen army which smuggled in 25,000 rifles to emphasise their determination not to be detached from Britain.

They also feature the 1916 Easter Rising which started a chain of violent incidents which led to Britain's withdrawal from the southern state.

These and other milestones are potentially problematic, since they can be viewed as glorifying the use, or threat, of force and were often seen as triumphalist.

But, this time, it's different. The Stormont Executive, as well as the British and Irish governments, is making meticulous plans to ensure the milestones will not cause disturbance, either on the streets or for the political equilibrium.

The unionist and republican parties have together committed themselves to oversee the commemorations 'under the principles of educational focus, reflection, inclusivity, tolerance, respect, responsibility and interdependence.'

To emphasise the priority being given to all this, a working party has been set up, headed jointly by the DUP's Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin - two women who have seen conflict at first hand. The DUP minister's late father, a police officer, was injured in an IRA gun-attack, while the Sinn Fein minister served years behind bars as an IRA prisoner.

It has been agreed by the Executive that, together, they will produce a programme 'which will offer a real opportunity for our society to benefit economically and continue its transformation into a vibrant, diverse and enriched place.'

They will be urging those taking part in events to avoid being on the streets at the same time and to avoid inflammatory language.

There will be lectures and debates aimed at emphasising common heritage, rather than pointing up divisions.

The Dublin government is, meanwhile, making similar preparations in the hope of averting controversy, by setting up an advisory panel of historians, which includes Belfast's Eamon Phoenix. It will be consulting with educational and cultural bodies and local historical associations.

The aim is 'to set a tone that is inclusive and non-triumphalist, ensuring authenticity, proportionality and openness, acknowledging the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the historic story of the island of Ireland and Irish people worldwide.'

All this is a far cry from the days when unionists and republicans would brandish carefully selected segments of history to emphasisE their glorious times at the expense of their opponents. Mutual respect is now the name of the game.

Triumphalism has become both politically and historically incorrect. Gone is much of the old politics of rivalries and antagonism and the habit of refreshing them through the past.

In Belfast's new political dispensation, it seems that even history isn't what it used to be.

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