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Editor's Viewpoint

Disputed statues are complex issue

Editor's Viewpoint


The Hans Sloane statue in Killyleagh

The Hans Sloane statue in Killyleagh

The Hans Sloane statue in Killyleagh

Fortunately, the weekend's 'Protect Our Statues' protest in Belfast passed off peacefully compared to the truly shocking scenes of violence in central London. The demonstration on Saturday at the City Hall was organised to coincide with a mooted Black Lives Matter rally, which in the end did not take place.

Unlike at the previous weekend's demonstrations in Belfast and Londonderry, no fines or community resolution notices were issued, understandably prompting complaints of double standards.

Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 the issue of race has once again emerged as the deepest fault line in US society, and anti-racism protests have spread far beyond its shores.

Here Amnesty International has called for McGarel Town Hall in Larne to be renamed.

Charles McGarel (1788-1876), who provided the funds for its construction, was a sugar plantation owner and slave dealer.

In London a statue of the Co Down-born polymath Sir Hans Sloane, a co-founder of the British Museum, is under threat because he acquired some of his wealth from his slave trader father-in-law.

Meanwhile, the police in Glasgow are guarding a statue of King William of Orange, who owned shares in the slaving company founded by Edward Colston.

Colston's own statue was thrown into Bristol Docks last week, but has since been rescued and is destined for a local museum.

It is but a short step from removing the statue of controversial historical figures to airbrushing them altogether from the history books.

As we here know to our cost, the suppression of unpalatable or inconvenient historical facts never works. Like the infamous knotweed, they just grow back more tangled and tortuous.

The toppling of statues is a blunt solution for a complex problem.

It is much better to add the context to the life of the individual being commemorated, for example by improved signage and other means to present his or her reputation in the round.

The Spanish writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." That is the first lesson we need to take from these fraught times. However, the residue of history and its relevance to modern events is much more complex than people think, and there are no easy solutions.

Belfast Telegraph