Critics of my plan for a Museum of the Troubles are sincere, but misguided… it is a vital antidote to collective amnesia about the past
Queen's University academic Liam Kennedy sparked an at times feverish debate with his proposal for a permanent monument to the conflict. It could be the jewel in Belfast's crown, he tells the scheme's detractors
How is it that my good friend and great man of literature, Jack Foster, can be so wrong about matters as varied as Brexit and a Museum of the Troubles? More seriously, his critique ('Why the last thing we all need is a Museum of the Troubles', Comment, February 14) is both thoughtful and heartfelt. I would commend it to all of us who inhabit the "narrow ground" that is Northern Ireland.
Jack begins, and rightly so, by questioning the euphemism "the Troubles". He prefers the "Years of Disgrace". Others have their own summary phrase. For some those years of conflict represented a continuation of the civil rights campaign of the 1960s, but pursued by other means. For others the descent into street violence at the end of the 1960s resulted from a communist-republican conspiracy. Far-fetched as both views may seem, they are lines of interpretation of the Troubles that were sincerely held.
That is what is so wonderful about history (we'll come to heritage in a moment): it offers context and perspective and seeks to present well-grounded interpretations in place of myth, half-truth and wishful thinking.
There may be a variety of interpretations, of course, depending on value judgments, but history-making is ultimately a truth-seeking activity, however approximate and incomplete the current narratives may turn out to be. And it makes space for different voices.
Thus, I would have no difficulty in representing either of the two positions above in a Museum of the Troubles, but alongside many, many other voices.
Years ago I came to the unfashionable conclusion that "the Troubles" wasn't all that bad as a label for the conflict. Here was a complicated theatre of violence involving the Army, the RUC, various republican factions and various loyalist factions. Moreover, there was intense struggle within the two major political communities as between constitutionalists and militants.
The people's phrase, the Troubles, captures the muddled and the many-sided nature of the conflict and has troubling psychological connotations.
"Museums in divided societies work only when history can be turned into heritage," my friend proclaims. I'm not sure of the basis for this grand generalisation and I note that the Americans, for one, have not delayed the opening of a National Museum of African-American History and Culture until such time as the racist residues still present in US society have been neutralised. I would suggest we have come a long way since the mayhem of the 1990s and collective amnesia will hardly help with outstanding issues. There seems to be a danger of present-mindedness here, of allowing current difficulties to obscure longer-term trends.
But, even if valid, let's confront the problem head-on, making ourselves international leaders rather than followers. Through the popular medium of a Troubles Museum, or a Troubles Complex, there is an opportunity to deepen understanding of our contested history, to confront rebarbative aspects of our recent past and also to see how ordinary men and women, speaking through the medium of oral and other archives, struggled to lead lives in the midst of killing and destruction.
Then there are the songwriters, poets, musicians, artists, satirists, photographers and filmmakers, who responded in different ways to the times in which we were trapped. There is a story of many colours to be told here, both to ourselves and to visitors from abroad.
I can understand how Jack Foster, and indeed others such as the former MLA Basil McCrea, should have concerns about how the project might deal with atrocities in the past, from that of McGurk's bar in the 1970s to Loughinisland in the 1990s. I acknowledge there is a real challenge here, with a need for sensitivity of a high order and a dialogue with victims and survivors.
In the original article (Comment, January 31) I spoke of a narrative arc - the changing times of the 1960s, the descent into violence in the 1970s and the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. There is much more than simply bloodshed in our recent history.
It may well be that the Troubles needs to be contextualised within the longer and broader history of the north, or of Belfast, but it would be economic and financial illiteracy on the part of policy-makers not to recognise that the world beyond our shores identifies (or misidentifies) Northern Ireland with the Troubles.
What is proposed is more than a museum: it is a project that seeks to fuse economic, social and cultural objectives. Not least there is an urgent need for a means of dealing with the legacy of the past.
This could be a doorway into another time, offering possibilities of understanding and empathy. There is also the prospect of an oral history archive, of other Troubles-related archives (documents, newspapers, cartoons, memoirs, photos, film and TV footage).
Additional modules might include a Peace and Research Centre as originally mooted, but which was ploughed into the mud out at Moira, temporary exhibition spaces that addressed conflicts, peace and reconciliation processes elsewhere, the centralisation of some victim-support services, as well as linkages to other cultural and heritage centres in Belfast and beyond.
One could imagine a summer season of Troubles-related plays, poetry readings or films, thereby drawing the Lyric Theatre, the Black Box, Crescent Arts Centre or Queen's Film Theatre into a web of related experiences, catalysed initially by a visit to the Troubles Complex.
There are two further elements I'd like to bring under the spotlight.
All of us have had the experience of being questioned by visitors as to living in a divided society, of its contested histories and much else. How do people know who's a Catholic or who's a Protestant? There is no reason why there should not be an auditorium within the complex where professional tutors conduct mini-discussions on the questions that bubble upwards following the immersive experience of voyaging through the galleries. This should be particularly valuable for schoolchildren, young people and the naturally curious.
Secondly, there is the question of religion, but not in the usual sense. What separates Northern Ireland from places like Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia in the 1990s is the role played by the mainstream Churches in not espousing "faith and fatherland" stances. The Troubles was many things. It was not a jihad. The major Churches merit a place of respect within the complex and might afford a place of sanctuary for visitors finding themselves troubled by the experience.
Finally, to take up the thorny issue of politics that Jack raises, there is indeed the problem of a bagful of Kilkenny cats. Our politicians, in other words.
Still, a city that named a span across the Connswater as the Sam Thompson Bridge, a decision freighted with the symbolism of bridging difference, of trade union solidarity and of people's creativity, is capable of setting down principled guidelines and then stepping back and allowing an array of independent talents, from architects and archivists to curators, historians and computer scientists, to work on what could be another jewel in the crown of a once industrial powerhouse that is now re-emerging as a cool, but edgy, city.
Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of economic history at Queen's University Belfast and is part of a group of academics and business consultants promoting the idea of a Museum of the Troubles. He is co-editor (with Phil Ollerenshaw) of Ulster Since 1600: Politics, Economy and Society (Oxford, 2013)