Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: We in Northern Ireland are like the Bourbons... we have learnt nothing, but we have forgotten nothing either

Instead of remembering the past, participants are too busy justifying their involvement, says Malachi O'Doherty

An injured man is led away following the Abercorn Bar bomb in March 1972
An injured man is led away following the Abercorn Bar bomb in March 1972

By Malachi O'Doherty

Do countries remember their pasts? At least enough to make a difference? Do they retain the lessons of past experience and know how to avoid repeating their mistakes? I doubt it.

Most people in Britain in the 1960s had a memory of the worst war the world had ever known. Many had lived under bombardment, had sheltered underground and had known personally some of those who had died horribly, in flames, or under rubble.

So, understandably, the Labour government of 1964 under Harold Wilson refused to join the American project to try and stop the spread of communism in south-east Asia.

The United States had a previous war in Korea for the same purpose just a decade earlier and it had not gone well, ending in the partition of Korea and an unstable, informal peace.

Why had Americans still got a taste for war when Britain hadn't? Perhaps because the US homeland had not been reduced to rubble, as Britain's had.

There is a theory that it was that same shared experience of horror that inclined the British to develop a National Health Service, based on a sense that we are all responsible for each other, while America clung to the theory that a country thrives when individuals are responsible only for themselves.

To play with these ideas a little further:

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Why were so many in Northern Ireland ready for war in the 1970s?

Was that anything to do with their not having had a bellyful of it themselves in the 1940s, as much of England had? Or was it that a generation had emerged that didn't remember the 1940s anyway?

The war in Vietnam that Britain stayed out of proved a disaster for the United States. Tens of thousands of young Americans were killed and the political culture at home was rent with protest.

But move forward to the start of the new century and an America, which had resolved never to get bogged down again, was ready for more wars and a British prime minister with no past experience of war was ready to join in.

In fact, Britain's taste for war had been rediscovered in the early 1980s by Margaret Thatcher, when she launched a task force against the Falkland Islands to recover them from Argentina, which had taken them over in the confident belief that Britain would not go to war.

Then, in the desert wars of the 1990s, in the Balkans and then the Middle East, there had been big change.

Britain and America could fight wars with minimal losses on their side, attacking mostly from the air, later even by drones directed from thousands of miles away.

Afghan wedding parties might get bombed, but US and British wedding parties would not.

Still, the conviction that sustained the countries in their enthusiasm for war was that they were good, noble and decent, doing the right thing for the good of all.

And they believed that that is what they had always done.

They continued to commemorate past wars with an emphasis on sacrifice and brotherhood, comradeship rather than carnage.

What I remember from past wars, big and small, is that, in their beginnings, people were excited.

I sat in a works canteen on the morning after the start of the first invasion of Iraq, listening to men discuss videos of attacks on bridges with the excitement they would bring to a football match.

And I recall a similar buzz around shootings in the street, the charge of adrenalin and people smiling, not yet disgusted, as years later, or even quite afraid.

The generation that had lived through the worst of the Troubles, the 1970s and '80s, would never want those days back, but the only way to pass that wariness onto another generation is to remember clearly how things were then, how bad they can get here.

And who is preserving that memory?

The Spotlight series on the Secret History of the Troubles conveys a sense of how bad it got, but those who should remember are still more concerned to justify what they did than to allow their experience to be a lesson for another generation on the mistakes they shouldn't make.

The Army, as a major institution, studies its own experience. One of the things we learnt from last week's Secret History is that generals were aware of the damage being done by the Parachute Regiment, one senior officer calling them "hooligans in uniform".

A few years ago, I was invited to lecture junior officers in Germany and I prepared a talk on Bloody Sunday, but found that they had already assimilated the experience into their training.

And the fact is that, in the later period of the Troubles, one of the calming influences was the reduced killings by the Army and the police and, indeed, by the IRA and loyalists, too.

The police today have clearly learnt from the blundering, brutish behaviour of the RUC in the late '60s and early '70s.

In 1972, the Army announced that petrol bombers would be shot dead, When petrol bombers attacked police vehicles in Derry last week, the officers sat inside and watched the flames billow on their windscreens and did nothing. Hopefully, they got photographic evidence of the skitters and will deal with them later.

The IRA learnt that "armed struggle" was best deployed as a bargaining chip for a resolution well short of a British withdrawal.

That was a lesson well learnt and deftly applied, but republicans still deny that that is what they did and continue to mythologise about a war for "Irish freedom".

And while their take on history justifies their hero Bobby Sands, for some incomprehensible reason, attacking a furniture shop, the danger is that young people in the future will be moved to advance protest through similar vandalism.

The British Army is still not taking responsibility for past murders, other than to reflect on them internally and discuss them in training.

The RUC has become the PSNI and also passes on the lessons, but doesn't communicate any corporate remorse. And it is the same with republicans and loyalists.

They change, but pretend that there still exists an honourable continuity with what they did before and what their forebears did.

This is negligence.

And because of this negligence and the apparent ease with which even nations forget and repeat mistakes, we need to keep telling the clearest and most accurate story of the past to each generation.

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