Belfast Telegraph

Why we must do more than look back in anger

The raft of anniversaries this decade gives us the opportunity to create a better understanding of our past, write Duncan Morrow and Paul Mullan

Political anniversaries are usually associated with moments of contention here. Remembering is something we do apart - a competition for dominance, not a chance to re-examine the evidence. Every event is a matter of a partisan celebration or deliberate avoidance, with the risk that every commemoration is a re-run of the division of the past.

In the next 10 years or so there will be a number of critical and contested anniversaries and commemorations of events that continue to shape our lives, even centuries later.

Indeed some are already calling this the Decade of Anniversaries; it will soon be 400 years since the Plantation and 100 years since the Ulster Covenant, Battle of the Somme, the Easter Rising and Partition. By 2018, we will begin the cycle of 50 years since civil rights, the arrival of troops, internment and so on. The question is not whether we remember these events, but how.

Can we turn pivotal events in the past into opportunities for learning, challenge and engagement for a better future?

How we approach and commemorate these events will say much about our maturity as a society. Many of them have taken on resonance and meanings far greater than the actual events.

History has become a battlefield in which we bend events to fit a wider political story, choosing our facts to prove a political point rather than learn more complicated truths.

Voices of those less directly connected to political leadership - whether women, or small minority communities or international context - disappear from view. In Northern Ireland we have sometimes been better at myth-making than history, to the point that we come to the conclusion that only one view - usually our view - can be tolerated.

Clearly conflict still affects us all. But the wider search for a shared and better future now offers us a possibility to set the megaphone aside and make space for pluralism and the contest of evidence. Public spaces, like museums, town halls and art galleries can become places for exploration, learning and challenge instead of simple propaganda or banal neutrality. Broadcasters, artists, historians and writers should be challenged to expand our horizons in an open public space. Commemorations offer an opportunity to revisit old certainties, to think again about received ideas and to compare our own assumptions with those of others in the face of evidence.

Just over 20 years ago, to mark the 300 years since the Williamite wars, the Ulster Museum put on an exhibition, 'Kings in Conflict', which tried to put those seminal events in context; reminding us that the wars were part of a bigger European story, one which saw conflict between King William and King James in a very different light to the simple notion of a Protestant King fighting a Catholic King. Instead of simple Catholic-Protestant battle, 1690 became the year in which the Pope in Rome celebrated the Protestant William's victory.

Such a contextualisation and presentation of wider and broader evidence made for a fascinating story, challenging many long-held beliefs and allowing for a richer and surprising exploration of our past. With so many events in the next decade, we have a real opportunity to turn this place into a centre of tolerance, pluralism and robust learning rather than the usual inter-community ding-dong where nobody learns much but we restate our old positions and make some new wounds.

It was with this in mind that the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Community Relations Council are organising a one-day conference on Monday, entitled Remembering The Future, on how we acknowledge the past through the forthcoming anniversaries. The intention is not to dictate what will happen but to kick-start a public debate on the issue.

Could we, for example, develop a set of shared principles to ensure an open approach to commemoration in the next 10 years, rooted in evidence and recognition of different points of view?

In all of this there is a tremendous opportunity to create a better understanding of our past and to recognise together that the past is a complex inheritance with many interpretations. The challenge for our public institutions and media will be to create the space for a more honest understanding of our past.

Some of the early indications are good with the BBC developing a series on the History of Ireland and with more specific programmes planned. It is also to be hoped that our major cultural institutions, such as the museums, will put on challenging exhibitions and events over the period that greatly enlighten people about our difficult and challenging past and help them to question their preconceptions. A decade of anniversaries is both a challenge and an opportunity. It is our hope that we will end the decade better informed and with a greater understanding of who we are and why our past is important to us.

We might even have a new shared culture of learning and robust debate which is enlightening and enriching and neither partisan nor bland.

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