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Troubles tourism a rose-tinted vision horror that stalked Northern Ireland

Like the veterans who fought the Nazis, those caught up in our own conflict are rarely the ones telling its story. Instead, we get the dubious, sanitised version of those trying to cash in, writes Malachi O'Doherty

When I was young there were a lot more people who remembered the Second World War. They included my mother, who nursed in London through the Blitz, and my father, who worked with the 'Yanks' in Derry. And practically every other adult I met.

Anyone who was 15 years older than me - which includes every teacher I had - would have been alive during the German bombing of Belfast and would have had memories of it.

Yet I recall no one talking about it.

I remember stories about rationing, about smuggling across the Irish border, about women drawing the semblance of a stocking seam on their legs with a pen. And I remember hearing tales about the GIs and their ciggies and chocolate and gum and how they got on with the girls. Unsurprisingly, people retain the memories of war that amuse them rather than afflict them.

And that is what is happening to our recollections and memorialising of the Troubles.

The whole sorry period is now dissolving into a soft focus.

That was the impression I got from the story about former IRA prisoners Gerard Hodgins and Richard O'Rawe revisiting the Crumlin Road Gaol to sample the food in the restaurant there.

Both prisoners spent five years on the dirty protest and have horrific stories of that time to tell.

Both were active, armed members of the IRA who had made it their business to kill or at least try to kill.

And neither, to be fair, hides that fact.

But the public visiting The Crum will have little real sense of the horror that men experienced there and will have no significant challenge to the question of whether they deserved what they went through, or to what extent they brought it on themselves.

Turning Crumlin Road Gaol into a relic of bad times allows for nostalgia and little else.

They would hardly sell many of their nice buns if the walls bore images of the misery of the prisoners, the faces of the murdered prison officers.

You can take a tour, of course, and hear that history and you can hear the ghost stories too in the paranormal tour.

All no doubt instructive yet primarily entertaining. I had a similar uneasiness about the Hole in the Wall archive-based programme on 1969 on the BBC on Tuesday night.

Here was a beautiful blend of archive footage and the popular music of the time, with deftly drawn connections between the two.

And you could see what a bleak city Belfast was then - the drab little houses of the lower Falls, the narrow streets, the greater poverty and ill health of the people, the snorting arrogance of Army officers and former Army officers in political life.

But a bad year had been turned into easy viewing and easy listening.

I was, like a lot of other viewers no doubt, trying to find myself in the footage.

It looked and felt like ancient history and it's as well that that is where it belongs, in a past so remote that it is almost impossible to recover the real feel of it. And who would want the real feel of it anyway?

After the Second World War, men sat in their armchairs and scowled at their children and refused to talk about what was really annoying them.

People who had been merely inconvenienced rather than tortured and aggrieved were left to tell the stories.

And somehow, when you thought about it, it didn't seem to have been that bad after all.

That is what is happening here now.

The Terror Tours are taking people round the murals and the peacelines.

One of the big attractions is the International Wall, which suggests that Northern Ireland was part of an almost global resistance movement when, in fact, its problem was that it was cut off and self centred.

But how else is the story to be told than by those who have an incentive to tell it and make a few bob out of it?

The tourist board wants nothing to do with the recent past.

We have a monument to the Titanic, all right. Eager to have a big story to tell, the State conscientiously avoided the one we had all just lived through.

Meanwhile the Troubles story has been inherited by those who can tell it and sell it, who can recall it without anger or tears. But what about the rest of us?

Maybe a lot of people don't want their story told, don't want to be reminded of the bombings and shootings.

It is hard enough for some people to walk up, say, the main street in Omagh, without them having to face a representative reminder of the horror that happened there.

Sufficient is the Obelisk, a response to ugliness and darkness with beauty and light.

And even there, the text in the memorial garden was sanitised.

More heart-rending still is the Omagh Bomb Archive in the town library. I know no more powerful and candid memorial to the Troubles anywhere.

It is like entering a chapel of rest. It gathers together the books of condolences from around the world, among other things.

But we have yet to find the balance between frank and open remembering and setting the past behind us, between softening the images that haunt us into attractions for tourists and saying plainly to ourselves and our visitors what it was all really like.

There are some here who still can't get those images out of their heads anyway. Do they really want the past reproduced or enacted in front of them? Do the rest of us have a right to impose it on them?

Do they want their children asking questions? Do they have answers yet themselves?

There is something to be said for letting the whole package of memory and pain drift further back into forgetting, at least for those who can forget.

For the others?

We are long overdue a proper memorial; not necessarily one that will tell the story, but one that will symbolise the grief and the political confusion that brought us to it.

Then, I think, for those who can bear it, we need a museum to the Troubles. One that will tell everything, from the bombs to Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday, to the knee-cappings and the back-alley killings, the maggots in the filthy cells of Long Kesh, the work of the ambulance service and the police, gathering up the bits, everything.

Then there would always be a corrective available to those who provide just nostalgia, sentimentality and propaganda.

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