all the tired old cliches that provide a constant
soundtrack to the peace process, for well-meaning
naivety none quite matches the notion that learning
the lessons of our history will ensure that mistakes
are not repeated.
allowing that we might be capable of learning from
past mistakes if we could ever agree on what they
were, it is particularly inapt because it presupposes
a common analysis of the historical narrative from
which we are expected to learn.
is certainly not the case in Northern Ireland, and
is never likely to be. Each community here has an
almost completely different view, and often experience,
of the past 30-odd years. We cling to opposing versions
of the same history and, consequently, take altogether
different lessons from it.
aside from the recent past, most of us have been
raised on a historical overview carefully filtered
and tailored over generations that reinforces, at
least to some degree, the politics and prejudices
of the community to which we belong.
that encounter a broader narrative usually simply
ignore, or choose to disbelieve, the awkward bits
that defy twisting into line with an already well-formed
very few that reject their own sides' pre-packaged
analysis in favour of a counter perspective almost
invariably take to their "new" history
with all the fervour and narrow-mindedness of religious
converts, and merely swap one blinkered attitude
in fairness, is it only people from the North, or
even just non-historians, who differ on history.
week, I listened to two eminent Irish historians,
Ruth Dudley Edwards and Tim Pat Coogan, discuss
Ken Loach's Palm d'Or-winning film, The Wind that
Shakes the Barley, on BBC Radio Ulster. (Neither
historian had seen the film.) Dudley Edwards was
highly critical of what she saw as being little
more than a lopsided, anti-British, pro-IRA propaganda
piece. At one point, she suggested that historical
accuracy would have been better served if Loach
had made reference to the IRA's pogrom against the
Protestant population in Cork.
reply, Coogan, who praised the film, snorted something
about revisionist historians having ignored the
fact that the murdered Protestants of Cork were
from the inference that killing people as suspected
informers was somehow more reasonable than on account
of their religion, what lessons of history were
ordinary (non-historian) mortals meant to take from
that little interchange between experts about the
contents of a film they had yet to see? Simply that
many historians have the same tendency as the rest
of us to judge - or, in this case, prejudge - or
present history in accordance with their own political
viewpoint. I have seldom, if ever, read or watched
anything on aspects of Irish history where the politics
of the author or presenter did not soon become apparent.
are people above appropriating and bending other
peoples' histories to their own ends. In the run
up to the recent commemorations, many commentators,
politicians and historians in the Republic sought
to draw direct parallels between the 1916 Rising
and the American and French revolutions. For lots
of reasons, it is an unlikely threesome.
the French choose to celebrate Bastille Day is entirely
a matter for them, but why anyone else would want
to be associated with the orgy of bloodletting that
was the French revolution is beyond me.
the exception of Thomas Jefferson, and even he changed
his mind as events unfolded, the leaders of the
American revolution certainly didn't. Washington,
Franklin, and the two Adamses all made clear in
correspondence at the time that they were completely
opposed to the uprising in France.
least because, such was the random nature of the
killing spree, many of the earliest victims of the
guillotine were personal friends and long-time supporters
of the American fight for independence.
the British imperial connection, the 1916 Rising
differed fundamentally from the American revolution
as well. Unlike in the Irish case, American independence
was declared, and the subsequent war supported and
directed, by elected representatives acting on behalf
of each of the then 13 American colonies.
all free societies, a constant harmless debate rages
over the minutiae of local and international history.
taken beyond irrefutable dates and bare historical
facts, it is a propaganda tool used to justify or
bolster contemporary positions.
can be many things, but is too divisive to ever
be a healer. This hardly matters in a normal society.
In the North, which is hardly normal, we are already
battling over whose version of history will become
the accepted narrative. There is already more than
enough division. What we actually need is less history,
other cliche, about putting the past behind us,
is much sounder advice.