The ‘decade of centenaries’ will only fuel conflict over memory in Northern Ireland while the present remains divided.

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.

Burning the Temple: Destructive constructions and constructive destructions

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In mid-February East Belfast was once again the scene of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks. First, on the night of 15th February, the James McCurrie Robert Neill Memorial Garden on the Lower Newtownards Road was vandalised, in the latest of several incidents stretching back to 2004. The following night a Catholic church about a mile away in Willowfield was daubed with sectarian slogans in an apparent revenge attack. In this corner of Northern Ireland a memorial to two Protestant men, shot dead by the Provisional IRA in June 1970 during a gun battle centred on St Matthew’s Church, continues to fuel violence.

The James McCurrie Robert Neill Memorial Garden

A number of years ago I examined the regular attacks on the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden and, while depressing to see it in the news again, I can’t say that it’s a surprise. In my article ‘Resisting Memory’ I wrote that the memorial garden can

be described as an exclusively unionist-Protestant monument, which is designed as much to indict republicans, and by implication, the wider nationalist-Catholic community, as to commemorate the murdered men. It (re)writes a tragic instance of death into a historical narrative of unprovoked republican violence, obscuring the competing historical claims of republicans defending Catholics from violent attack. A selective story is given presence by the memorial, carried into the present and opening towards a future of continued vigilance against threats to Protestant culture and heritage.

The deaths of McCurrie, Neill and the other men commemorated are placed in the overall context of historical struggle through their insertion into the narrative of Protestant resistance to all attempts to wrench them from their place in the United Kingdom. As [Jenny] Edkins might put it, this scripting gives the families of the victims purchase on the events, allowing them to construct a story that can be remembered, while simultaneously allowing them to forget the raw trauma of the moment of the attack. However, this works to obscure and displace alternative understandings of the deaths — as personal tragedy, as senseless violence, as remnants of a time that has since passed.

The article argued that the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida can provide more constructive ways of resisting attempts to fix historical meaning than vandalism or desecration.

Targeting the assumptions behind the memorial, rather than the physical structure itself, reveals the impossibility of neutrally representing the past in the present. The memorial is built upon an imagined and constructed idea of the past, which is constitutive of its attempt to tell the ‘truth’ about what happened in the past. This is not a past that is utilised from the terms of the present, but a past that is constructed in the present, that is constructed co-extensively with the present.

When this is accepted, the question becomes one of building a politics in the present that can allow for shared understandings of the past, rather than building our present politics on notions of historical legacy. The actions of cross-community groups such as Healing through Remembering and Kirk Simpson’s suggestions to construct a shared memorial to civilian victims of ‘the Troubles’, point towards what such a politics, and its shared understanding of the past, might look like. The ability to think such a politics can be promoted through an ethos of deconstructive engagement with divisive understandings of the past.

The return of violence to the memorial garden in February 2015 seemed to highlight once again the difficulties of actualising such a philosophy. But I did not have to wait long after reading about the most recent attack to see a beautiful and inspiring vision of an alternative means of memorialising our past.

On 22nd March the lovingly hand-crafted ‘Temple’, designed by Californian artist David Best, was set alight in the Waterside area of London/Derry (a city whose very name symbolises the division over history in this part of the world). A sign at the entrance of the Temple invited visitors to ‘Leave a memory behind, let go of the past and look to the future’. This was not a memorial in the common sense of the word, but a blank slate upon which people could inscribe their own memories in ways of their own choosing.

This project did not claim to act as memorial to ‘the troubles’, even a subversive one. It is not a Northern Irish version of the German ‘counter-monuments’ to defeat and disaster that Edkins describes in her book Trauma and the Memory of Politics, which are designed to be buried or sunk over time, leaving a submerged trace at the burial site. The self-conscious target of the organiser Helen Marriage was the competing traditions of summer bonfires, held on the 11th July by Loyalists to commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and by Republicans on 9th August to mark the introduction of internment in 1972. Marriage’s original interest ‘was about taking the bonfire tradition and subverting it’ by creating ‘a bonfire about inclusivity, peace and letting go of the past’.

As Best told BBC Radio Four’s Front Row programme, the Temple was built around loss, but not in any narrowly-defined political sense. ‘The degree of loss goes from rape and murder to someone losing their dog’, he explained. ‘There are a whole lot of different losses in peoples’ lives’. Those touching the flames to the Temple included a woman who had survived breast cancer and a mother whose son had committed suicide eight months earlier.

The contrasts between the Temple and the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden are clear to see. One is attempting reclaim shared public space, while the other marks out space for one specific community. One is dedicated to a generalisable conception of loss, while the other commemorates specific deaths represented and remembered in a specific way. And one is now nothing but ash scattered across the earth, while the other remains a Union-flagged, walled-and-gated symbol of defiant identity, and a target for the hatred of others.

The McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden will have no doubt been repaired after the latest attack, but it will continue to provoke violence and counter-violence in the locality. It is a construction that is destructive of community relations, through the transmission of a particular version of the past into the present and future, in a manner which accuses the Catholic-Nationalist other of causing damage and death.

The burning of the Temple, on the other hand, was a constructive destruction. The fire left no physical trace, and did not attempt to crystallise and make permanent a particular understanding of the past or present to be carried into the future. Singular memories will be preserved in the minds of those who were present at the burning, being communicated and reconstituted in myriad ways into the future, free of all claims of central ownership or official sanction.

The intentional immolation can therefore be seen as delivering the Temple from the threat of violence that the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden will continue to face. It will not be inscribed into a particular narrative of history, and it will not be a target for symbolic violence aimed at heightening tension, mistrust and fear. Those possibilities went up in the flames on the 22nd March, and the reseeded field where the Temple once stood holds the possibility of growing into a space reclaimed from exclusive understandings of the past.

Burning memorials may be a drastic step, but when the alternative is allowing them to solidify into physical manifestations of division which replicate the violence of the past in new ways, you could be forgiven for looking around for fresh historical symbols to put to the flames.

Of course the past cannot be simply burnt away. It is something that we must live with, particularly in societies like Northern Ireland. But it is something that must not be allowed to determine our present and future. In my 2012 article I concluded that the issue of the vandalisation of the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden

highlights the pressing need to complete the deconstructive gesture, and move beyond the deconstructed system that sees memorials as representative of a past, even one utilised in the present for political purposes. Memory cannot be ‘reclaimed’ in such cases, as to attempt to do so can only provoke yet greater affirmation of memory on the side of those who feel their memory has been attacked. To resist truly the damaging effects of exclusionary commemoration, we must deconstruct the assumed links between history and memory, explode the concept of memory as a reflection of the past, and work to reveal the inherent undecidability of all assertions of memory in the present.

The burning of the Temple provides a blueprint for such a deconstruction of memory, a constructive destruction that highlights in heat and light the impossibility of capturing and containing the past. The present may always be chipped through with traces of the past, but what we do with those traces is a decision for the present and future.

If we can burn away our divisive and exclusive understandings of the past we will not be left with no past and no identity, but with a scorched earth upon which to build new understandings of the past that are not tied to divisive and exclusive understandings of the present. Until then, we are left only with the images