Violent attacks on sites of memory in Northern Ireland are nothing new. From the infamous Remembrance Day bombing of 1987 to the vandalisation of memorials in the post-troubles period, the claim to ownership of narratives of the past have been violently asserted on many occassions by the self-appointed guardians of history on both sides of the divide.
But recent violent incidents around the commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising have struck me as particularly depressing, as protesters (in both cases from the dissident IRA-linked 32 County Sovereignty Movement) targeted memorials that, while being mainly located within a republican tradition, attempted to reach out to the other community and promote some sense, no matter how small, of a shared understanding of the past. A mural in west Belfast was attacked because the artists (who had the backing of Sinn Fein) had the temerity to include a depiction of the founding figure of Ulster Unionism Edward Carson, and volunteers of UVF who joined him in his fight against Home Rule. In Dublin, a memorial wall became the site of a protest (leading to the arrest of a 15 year old) because it gave equal weighting to all those who died in the Rising, Irish rebel and British personnel.
We are reaching the mid-point (and you could the high-point) of the ‘decade of centenaries’, marking the key events from 1912-22 which led to the creation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. This violence over commemorations of the Easter Rising, no matter how few people were involved, does not fill me with hope for the ability of the project ‘to promote reconciliation’ by encouraging ‘the marking of forthcoming centenaries in a spirit of mutual respect, and the promotion of understanding’. Events to commemorate the Battle of the Somme this summer may aim to draw attention to the fact that Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists, fought and died together, but the discourse of ‘no surrender’ and the sacrifice of the sons of Ulster for the Union will no doubt dominate in memorial services held in the loyalist heartlands, as the discourse of national liberation and the sacrifice of Padraig Pearse for Irish freedom did in the Easter Rising commemorations.
I do not write this to express surprise at the fact that opposed narratives of history are clashing as different groups in Northern Ireland remember their key events in the ‘decade of centenaries’. The past is always interpreted in the light of the present, is always something shaped and framed by present understandings. This process is most acute in cases where identities are seen as under threat, with history being mined as a resource in order to strengthen claims on belonging in the present. That this is done in partial and selective ways, leading to disagreement over the ‘correct’ way to engage with issues of historical legacy, should not be a surprise. Such a process of is central to the subjective experience of many people in Ireland, people whose sense of history is integral to their identity. It cannot be easily challenged by a deconstructive political ethos, so highlighting the constructed nature of this process of identity formation is not what I wish to do.
What I do think should be highlighted, however, and what should be challenged, is the manner in which the peace process has thus far failed to deliver the shared present that can allow for non-exclusive narratives of the past to develop. Institutionalised division is embedded in the framework of the Stormont administration, resulting in frequent deadlock between the governing parties. The very fact that welfare reform became intermingled over the last number of years with issues of parades, flags and the legacy of ‘the troubles’ is indicative of the distance between the major parties, not just on issues of historical memory but on day-to-day issues affecting the lives of people in Northern Ireland.
While the ‘decade of centenaries’ may have some positive effects in terms of providing opportunities for reappraisals of the past and inclusive commemorative events, it while not provide a panacea for overcoming disagreement about the past while the present (and future) remain divided. While the fault-lines of the conflict are replicated in the political institutions of the country, a shared understanding of the past will not develop. Attacks on shared memorials will remain the pursuit of a violent minority, but shared memorials will themselves be a minority pursuit, relegated to the peripheries of festivals of remembrance which will continue the mythologisation of violent pasts and exclusive claims to belonging.