Belfast Telegraph

Shore up the dam of the past or it may fracture again

Learn how to tackle our legacy issues, or prepare for the next round of terrorism and an ugly polarisation of society here, warns Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

What do you think would have happened if two UVF flags had been flown - albeit briefly - over Stormont last week and if Sir James Galway had said that he would never return to live in Northern Ireland while Sinn Fein/IRA was in government, because Martin McGuinness was one of the primary causes of the Troubles?

That's a very easy question to answer: there would have been exactly the same fallout that there was after nationalist flags were flown and Galway singled out Paisley for blame; although it would have been the republicans/nationalists who were disgruntled, rather than the unionists/loyalists.

We tend to take sides in Northern Ireland. From a fairly early age we opt for an interpretation of history and we stick with it. We may be fuzzy on some of the details and there are times when it's difficult to separate the fact from the fiction, but so what?

My history is my history and your history is propaganda. Both sides run with the advice of the editor from the Shinbone Star in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The fallout from the flags and Galway stories (and, as I say, it didn't really matter which flags were flown, or which politician Galway picked) sums up the difficulty we will always have when it comes to making sense of the past and addressing what are known as the "legacy issues".

Generally speaking, we don't believe the other side. We don't want to believe them, because believing them undermines and weakens our own position.

And even if someone does manage to throw a "sorry" or "apology" into the conversation it will always be followed by something like: "But, given what was being done to our side, we didn't really have much of a choice but to do what we did in response."

So, when a world-renowned flautist can stir up a hornets' nest with a very personal opinion of where the blame lies, just imagine how much more complicated it gets when you're dealing with the political parties, the paramilitaries, the security forces, two governments, the general public and the "victims".

Let's be honest: after almost 20 years of a peace/political process and power-sharing Government, we can't even agree on the definition of "victim". We don't even agree on what we mean by the Troubles.

What Galway proved, if proof were even necessary, was that anything resembling an opinion or judgment on the past will send people scurrying to their respective side of the fence. In other words, you dabble at your peril.

I was surprised, therefore, when David Trimble became part of the fallout by seeming to endorse Galway's opinion. This is what he said:

"Had there been no Paisley, would there have been the Troubles? Probably not. That is not the same thing as saying that he caused the Troubles. That's not the same thing as saying that he bears a unique blame for it. Lots of other people bear a responsibility as well. I'm not putting the sole blame for the Troubles on him.

"But I'm saying that he was a very significant factor in creating them. Go back to the very start. Who were the people responsible for all the bombings in, what was it, 1968? The bombings of the power supplies and all the rest of it? They were Paisleyites."

Trimble is right - Paisley was a significant factor in the late-1960s. But so, too, was William Craig, Terence O'Neill's former Home Secretary (he banned a march by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in October 1968 and accused the organisation of being a political front for the IRA).

It was Craig who was a key player in undermining O'Neill's authority and hampering his modernising agenda. It was Craig (along with Faulkner and other UUP figures), much more so than Paisley, who was responsible for weakening O'Neill's position and platform and fuelling the discontent being expressed by the likes of John Hume, Gerry Fitt, Austin Currie and Paddy Devlin.

And let's not forget that, when Craig established Vanguard in 1972 (of which Trimble was a member), he made separate speeches in which he said "it may be our job to liquidate the enemy" and "I am prepared to come out and shoot and kill, let's put the bluff aside. I am prepared to kill and those behind me will have my full support".

Paisley, Craig, O'Neill, Hume, McGuinness, Adams, Faulkner, Andy Tyrie, David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, David Trimble et al were products of a very peculiar political, electoral, social, religious, constitutional, sectarian governing environment.

All played a part during the key years of the Troubles and all of them would probably seek to justify or excuse the part they played. But it was that peculiar environment, more than anything else, that created the circumstances in which the Troubles became inevitable.

You can point to an individual, or a group of individuals, or a number of organisations, or institutions, and try and say that they bear a greater responsibility than others: but that approach will get you nowhere. The settlement of 1920/21 represented unfinished business and created a climate in which mutual fear and hostility was nurtured and encouraged on both sides. At some point the dam was going to break and if it hadn't been those people listed above, then it would have been others, in exactly the same shoes and with precisely the same views.

Trying to ignore that reality will make it impossible to get to grips with our collective past and learn from our collective mistakes. Neither Trimble nor Galway has moved the debate ahead. All they have done is encourage people to rally for or against Paisley with entirely predictable defences built around whataboutery and "themuns started it". Unedifying. Unhelpful. And, in most cases, missing the point altogether.

People ask me why I'm so pessimistic about the process. Well, it's mostly to do with the fact that we still have a very peculiar political, electoral, social, religious, constitutional, sectarian governing environment here. We haven't really addressed the problems that beset us almost 50 years ago and, in not addressing them, we leave ourselves exposed to a rerun of the Troubles.

Because, when you don't or can't agree on the source of the Troubles, then the next generation won't know how to stop another outburst.

Yet Trimble and Galway may have done us a favour after all. They have highlighted the joint danger facing both the politician and non-politician when it comes to the past and responsibility.

And, in so doing, they have also highlighted the need to find a way of dealing with it. Because if we don't, then all we have now - and all we can hope to have - is a breathing space until the next round of terrorism and ugly polarisation.

Belfast Telegraph


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