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.
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…