Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: We have far too many commemorations in Northern Ireland... history should be about learning from mistakes, and not repeating them

Whether it's 1690, 1916 or 1969, is it too much to ask that we give the backward looking a break for once, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

Veterans gather in Lisburn to mark the 50th anniversary of Operation Banner
Veterans gather in Lisburn to mark the 50th anniversary of Operation Banner
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

There's a bit in Derry Girls where Clare, the "wee lesbian", decides that political and religious differences are ridiculous and makes a stand against sectarianism by turning up to a party in a Union Jack dress, to the horror of her Catholic schoolmates.

She insists she's "making a point", to which they reply bluntly: "Is the point that you'd like to be beaten up?"

Tribalism and the risk that comes from breaking out of that straitjacket has always been used to stamp down on individuality and one of the most effective ways of doing it is by banging on so much about the past that people start to think it's a betrayal of their ancestors, even of history itself, not to keep fighting the same ancient battles over and over again.

That's the real reason why Sinn Fein leaders seem to spend every other weekend attending memorials to yet another IRA volunteer who threw away his own life - and, more tragically, that of many others - in the name of a united Ireland. It's not to remember the past, but to control the present and shape the future.

This cynical manipulation invariably ends with young hotheads clambering to the top of bonfires to protest about internment, which ended long before they were born, or marching under Orange banners to commemorate events which were folk memories donkey's years before their grandfathers were so much as a twinkle in their great-grandparents eyes.

The truth is that the dead are dead and have no right whatsoever to make demands upon the living. History is for learning from the mistakes of the past, not repeating them over and over again.

The former editor of The Times, Simon Jenkins, has been heavily criticised in recent years for suggesting that now is the time to stop observing Remembrance Day, suggesting that it would be better to have a "Forgetting Day, a Move On Day, a Fresh Start Day" instead.

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Seen from Northern Ireland, it's hard not to conclude that he might be on to something. There are far too many commemorations for such a small place, and their only effect, and increasingly so, is to entrench both sides in their respective bunkers, beholden to their "Fenian dead", or "loyalist martyrs".

Sadly, the 50th anniversary of Operation Banner, the Army's deployment in Northern Ireland in August 1969, has been no different.

Its importance as an historical event is not in doubt.

The arrival of British troops was a turning-point amid the growing tensions of the time and scholars will be contentedly picking through the entrails for years to come.

Beyond that, what does it really matter if it was 50 years ago that soldiers came? It's just a number. The anniversary only has as much significance as we choose to attach to it.

The problem isn't the commemoration of Operation Banner itself, so much as the fact that it represents the start of a whole new wave of 50th anniversary commemorations.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Falls curfew and of the first use of plastic bullets. The year after that, it will be the 50th anniversary of internment. The year 2022 will mark 50 years since Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday. All have the potential to become weapons in the ongoing cultural war.

The relatives of those who died during the Troubles will, naturally, want to mark formative dates on the calendar and should be supported in doing so in any ways that are dignified and appropriate.

But the pain for victims is no greater one year rather than the last just because it happens to fall on a round number.

Three years from now will prove particularly problematic, since 2022 will also mark a century since partition. Get set for a 12-month-long row over who was right and wrong back then, instead of resolving collectively to accept that it happened and that it had nothing whatsoever to do with any of us now living in Northern Ireland, unlike the next 100 years, which really are in our hands.

In a way, it's pointless to argue that these anniversaries should be downplayed for the sake of cross-community harmony when political leaders attach themselves to symbolic events for sectarian advantage all the time, whether it's 1690, 1916, 1969, whenever. Pick a date. They're all equally arbitrary.

The media undoubtedly encourages this mindset, too, by making a big play of these landmark events in an effort to fill news pages and TV screens with endless "what does it all mean?" debates.

If there's a parade to go with it, better still, because that means pictures.

Recent days have seen endless news items about ex-Provos meeting ex-soldiers to discuss their contrasting memories of the early days of Operation Banner, as if that added a single morsel to anyone's understanding.

The needs of victims should be at the centre of every discussion of the future, but is it really asking too much for the media and politicians to give the backward looking a rest, when the consequences are so unhealthy?

The Italians have a word for it. They call it "passatismo", which has been defined by one author as "the burden of a past that inhibits vigorous living in the present".

In Italy it was an imagined folk memory of past greatness that stopped them finding a new place in the world. In Northern Ireland, it's either wallowing in the litany of bygone political or security failures, or else toasting monsters. The effect is the same: it poisons the present and makes it harder to work towards a better future.

So-called "futurists" in Italy, who railed against this nostalgia for the past, thought that a good war would sweep away the old, unhealthy ways and make space for a glorious tomorrow. They soon found out to the country's cost that it didn't work. So did we.

It's still not normal to beat young people over the head all the time with reminders of yesteryear.

The young are supposed to rebel against the things that their elders hold dear in order to forge a future more to their liking.

In Northern Ireland younger generations keep being held back by an expectation of deference to their forefathers, and endless commemorations of a toxic history for which they're not responsible but which they have inherited are part of the problem.

Imagine if they borrowed the futurists' slogan, "Down With The Past!", for five or 10 years, as an experiment if nothing else. Perhaps then everyone would stop acting out the roles handed down to them by their ancestors and discover the things they wanted to be and to do in the future.

It might not work either, but nor does the status quo.

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