Belfast Telegraph

Stormont failed because the past is still looked upon as something impossible to settle

By Prof Peter Shirlow

As I walked through Belfast yesterday with students, not from these shores, one of them, a cheery lad but with an uncharacteristically solemn expression, pointed at the gable end of the Garrick Bar and said: "Those are wise words after what I heard today".

They read: "A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind."

Few, if any of them, knew about our past, which of course is their past too.

These are young people like our own who want to think forward.

Of course, our young people did not experience what we oldies did, nor did they lose part of their childhood to the daily drama of bombs, security checks and house raids.

But I had thought a central premise of the peace process was to build a future "for the children". A new society in which the young would not follow behind a parent's coffin or wake at night fearful of what might happen next. When I was in my early teens I heard the story of a woman who had lost her son. Later, through her work, she ended up in the home of the mother of her son's killer.

As it dawned on her who this woman was, the killer's brother put on a mawkish record of songs that legitimised violence.

But the story ended with both women in tears as they held each other close. It was a recognition through motherhood concerning one son dead and the other serving a life sentence or more; bluntly, of two lives ruined. They understood the pain of each other's lives because they shared the severity of what had happened.

So, nearly 40 years later, where have we arrived? Yet again at a broken political system in which such trauma acts as a proxy war.

Stormont has failed not because of bad behaviour, corruption or austerity, but because the past cannot be imagined as being possible to settle. Much has been achieved but some of our politicians remain in a political process which feels like war by other means.

The daily row over legitimacy and who was at fault masks the reality that the legacy of conflict. Segregation and deprivation is related to poor mental health of children and youths in the most segregated and disadvantaged areas of this society.

Northern Ireland has a 25% higher level of psychological morbidity compared to neighbouring jurisdictions, and more than a fifth of children under 18 suffer significant mental health problems.

But when do we debate that legacy? We can readily demand files are opened, truth is told and people are placed before the courts. We can scream "apologise" as we deny apology to others.

Being right about the past appears more important than healing, restoring or bringing about a stability required to end re-traumatisation. Convincing the 'other' side that they were wrong will not diminish their suffering.

Stormont should be the site of healing, not the furnace of its destruction. It should not be the place in which the conflict is reproduced. That is not a naivety but part of its purpose.

But what is the price of healing? It seems that few are prepared to offer an opening bid.

For Stormont to function it requires a sense that divisions over the past are a repeated dysfunction.

What Stormont should have achieved by now is a language that stops re-traumatisation of the survivors of violence and policies and plans that deal with the emotional and psychological harm caused.

Not going down the path of prosecutions may sound shameful to some, but there is no space - and there will never be - for an agreed truth.

Those you want answers from are not going to whip themselves into a shamed response. So let us tell ourselves that there are limits on what we can agree, and recognise that truth.

That is not a denial of the past but instead a new beginning for the recognition of the trauma of being harmed and, more importantly, its immediate healing.

Or, if you wish, you can remain fixated upon the past and the hate, rooted in a perpetually failing argument and stuff the consequences of poverty, wasted lives and the consequences upon the young.

Maybe a point to begin with is that your trauma also traumatises me.

  • Prof Peter Shirlow is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

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