Should We Celebrate Contentious Anniversaries?

A conference entitled 'Remembering the Future' poses the question to historians, journalists and politicians

This is a decade of potentially contentious centenaries: the signing of the Ulster Covenant (2012), the Easter Rebellion and the Battle of the Somme (2016). And, omitted from the official programme but raised from the floor, the 1914 hunger strikes and arson campaigns of the suffragettes.

Landmines all, yet the Community Relations Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund organised the March 21 Remembering the Future conference confident that these were obstacles that could be overcome.

Duncan Morrow and Paul Mullan, the respective heads of both organisations, stated in the March 18 Belfast Telegraph that ‘we might even have a new culture of learning and robust debate which is enlightening and enriching and neither partisan nor bland’.

Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland is broadly on message in his address. Northern Ireland will deal with the anniversaries in the context of the ‘shared and better future’ offered by the Good Friday Agreement.

Since ignoring the anniversaries ‘was not an option’, the cultural institutions will have to work together in a coherent way to ‘encourage debate and discussion’ and to challenge ‘myths and misunderstandings’. McCausland advocates for a ‘multi-faceted’ approach as opposed to a ‘two traditions’ one.

The next speaker, BBC Middle East Correspondent Jeremy Bowen, has limited encouragement to offer. He says he could not conceive of a similar gathering of Jews and Arabs sitting down in Jerusalem City Hall to discuss the Holocaust and the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine.

Fintan O’Toole, Deputy Editor of the Irish Times, concedes that commemorations can be extraordinarily damaging but argues that ‘landscapes of amnesia’ are debilitating. Commemoration is not history, it is a form of cultural intervention, and it is accordingly quite valid to seek to use it to shape a better future.

He goes on to warn of the danger of an ‘equal opportunities divvy-up’ between traditions, which could be ‘catastrophic’, suggesting the avoidance of ‘celebration’ that involves pre-judgement. Instead, communities should provoke themselves rather than others through confrontation with the difficult bits of their own histories. People should ask ‘Who do we think we are?’ For O'Toole the arts could enable this and he cites Sean O’Casey’s challenge to Irish society after the War of Independence and the Civil War.

An academically-led panel discussion chaired by William Crawley elaborates further on the topics raised by the speakers. Marianne Elliot argues that historians need to come down from their ‘ivory towers’. Something Eamonn Phoenix does ably, as he reminds us of minorities who had not gone with the flow of their own communities.

Brian Walker, while positive about possibilities, feels that some anniversaries can never be fully embraced on a cross-community basis. The Twelfth of July is one example cited, although he admits its Orangefest makeover had made it more acceptable.

Johnston McMaster of the Irish School of Ecumenics reminds us that we are looking back at a bloody decade. We need to recognise the ‘symbiotic relationship between all these events’ and to embrace an ‘ethic of narrative flexibility’. There is ‘no one version of Irish history’. He has worked with ex-prisoners across the divide examining the texts of the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Proclamation and their significance.

Journalist and author Susan McKay identifies our moment as one where we ‘haven’t quite settled’ into a new post-conflict identity. How we commemorate is crucial to that process. The Drumcree conflict, ostensibly about remembering the Somme, was clearly the wrong way to do it. Commemoration must inform and embrace the young. Above all the victims of the Troubles have ‘a right to know what happened’.

Next up are the politicians. Mervyn Storey of the DUP is worried about ‘revisionism’, normally a bugbear to Republicans and the left. Of course, it can also question the view of Unionist triumphs of the period. Stephen Parry of Alliance, Dolores Kelly of the SDLP, Ian Adamson of the Ulster Unionists, and Tom Hartley for Sinn Fein are much less concerned.

Adamson memorably describes history as ‘the last earthwork of power'. He thinks that anniversaries should be marked, but is less enthusiastic about commemorations with their dangers of ‘triumphalism’. He describes his work with the Somme Association and their involvement in ensuring recognition of Nationalist dead on the First World War battlefields.

Tantalisingly he mentions a united Unionist committee that has been set up to deal with commemoration issues. Will this have a user friendly agenda in the CRC/HLF context, one wonders?

The benign Tom Hartley then breaks the Good Friday Agreement by preferring to speak of ‘us’ rather than ‘shared’ commemoration. It could be a ‘dialogue of invitation’ in which none of us ‘should be quite sure where it would lead’.

It is all positive enough to ensure that the CRC and HLF can proceed to the next stage by confirming their guidelines for funding, so expect serial commemorations near you in the years to come.