Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Sir George Quigley


  1.  Dr ATQ Stewart has aptly described in The Shape of Irish History (2001) the extent to which we are conditioned by history:

    ". . . It has made us what we are, and is in our bloodstream, in the language we speak, the culture we proclaim, the homes, streets and cities we live in. The call of the past to us is insistent; we cannot ignore it. It presses irredentist claims upon us, impatient for us to pass under its sway".

  In The Narrow Ground (1977) Dr Stewart has written about how `beneath the maze of streets the subterranean fire eternally smouldered, because the course of Irish history never created the circumstances in which it could die out'. The challenge for today is to create those circumstances.

  2.  I am impressed by the extent to which the role of historians in helping put together divided societies is being increasingly emphasized. The Committee will no doubt be aware of an interesting series of articles in various issues of History Today from November 2003 onwards on this topic in a variety of contexts, including Northern Ireland.

  3.  It is not difficult to see why this should be so, since it is not only history, but competing versions of history, which press their claims upon us. It has been well said that prejudice, hatred and fear in divided societies are heavily based on attitudes to history, which is often no more than semi-mythological interpretations of the past.

  4.  In my Report (2002) reviewing the Parades Commission and the legislation under which it was set up (chapter 7), I suggested that "both traditions need to try harder to see all the historical actors as players caught up in the complicated choreography of tragic conflict, which converted difference into the disastrous division which still persists. A history which knows only black and white must sharpen present antagonisms, making it seem as if (in TK Hoppen's words) time itself has lost the power to separate the centuries. It is our own choice as a society whether we escape from the enslavement of history. The most effective form of revolt may be a joint attempt by both traditions to take ownership of our entire history". In chapter 25 of the Report I envisaged a pilot history programme, attractively packaged and widely available, to encourage the exploration of what this might entail.

  5.  I attach (Annex A)[5] the History Today article (by Professor Richard English) to which I allude in para 2 above. In it he describes four main areas of contribution open to historians in our coming to terms with our traumatic past. Particularly important are:

    —  Challenging simplistic or self-servingly amnesiac accounts of the past which support a self-legitimating process on all sides.

    —  Dispelling some of the more unhelpfully outrageous readings of the past.

    —  Eroding the notion that one's own sectional and contemporary view of the past is the only truly valid one.

    —  Demonstrating the contingency rather than the inevitability of Ulster history so that current and future political responses can be made with an awareness of the importance and the range of the choices in which we can all participate.


  6.  Remembering the past poses particular difficulty in a deeply divided society. The suggestion by former Belfast Lord Mayor Alex Maskey of a public debate about the use of commemorations has made little headway. Even events to commemorate victims of the Troubles can (as current examples show) fail to command universal support.

  7.  I attach (annex B)[6] a perceptive article published a few weeks ago in The Guardian which discusses an interesting concept of remembering. Its basic thesis is that remembering should have more to do with action than with recollection, just as Christians are urged to "do . . . In remembrance". "The test", the article suggests, is "not how effectively we can look back and recall but how seriously we can `remember' and ensure that tomorrow is a different day".

  8.  Applying this concept to our own situation would mean (in words used in chapter 9 of my Parades Report) having (and of course delivering) a vision of an "inclusive, open, tolerant, compassionate society whose members have the self-confidence to embrace diversity and thrive on difference".

  9.  I attach (Annex C) an extract from remarks I made at a recent Conference which sought to elaborate this a little further. Inter alia, it makes the point that all who accept the responsibilities of good citizenship have a part to play in shaping the values which prevent our ever repeating our tragic past. That clearly includes the victims of the Troubles but it also includes those who have served sentence for their activities during the Troubles and now wish to be integrated into the normal life of our society and make their contribution to building a better future.


  10.  Discussions of Reconciliation are often confined to how one enables the victims of the troubled years to achieve closure. The Chilean experience described in the May 2004 issue of History Today (pp 27-29) illustrates the difficulties. The South African experience has proved seductive in some quarters but, before contemplating its adoption, it would be prudent to remember that arrangements arising out of the circumstances of one conflict are not necessarily apt for another, nor can they necessarily be made apt by tweaking or selective borrowing. A senior member of the ANC expressed to me very clearly the view that the Commission in South Africa worked because it was part of the original peace settlement. It is at least arguable that, coming so late in the day in Northern Ireland, the creation of such machinery could well be simply another cause of controversy and division unless it was supported strongly by all the main political parties and by the key organisations who played a part in the Troubles, whether as members of paramilitary organisations or of the security forces.

  11.  Even on this basis, the initiative could raise unrealistic expectations, resulting in bitterness and recrimination if these were not fulfilled. Given the lapse of time, it seems unlikely that the "truth" could be established in more than a minority of cases unless there was overwhelming co-operation from those involved. It seems likely that a significant proportion in these cases would wish "justice" to be done as well as truth to be told and that many of them would feel betrayed by the whole process if this did not (as it presumably would not, by reason of the Good Friday Agreement) result in prison sentences being served. The process might result in closure for some but Commission hearings rehearsing repeatedly over a probably prolonged period the traumatic and harrowing events of the Troubles could well prove highly destabilising in the present very fraught transition phase.

  12.  It can be argued that this is a necessary price which has to be paid for an ultimately stable future. But the experience of other countries that have taken a different view should be examined in some detail. I think particularly of Spain, where, post-Franco, the parties agreed what was virtually a pact of forgetfulness in regard to the preceding 40 years of civil war and dictatorship, whilst Spain got on (successfully) with building a very different future. It is only now, when the wounds are less raw, that Spain (with historians playing a major role) is addressing that past—but on the basis (the Basque issue aside) of a largely united nation. The Central and Eastern European countries that were until recently part of the Soviet bloc would also bear examination. The transition here has been remarkably smooth, with these countries steadily focusing forward to a new future in the European Union.

  13.  In Erna Paris' Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History (2000) there is a fascinating account of how what had actually happened in France 1940-44 underwent an opportune transformation in order to create the myth which formed the conceptual underpinnings of the post-war republic. As she puts it: "After an initial flourish of rough justice, during which the most visible pro-Nazi collaborators were summarily despatched, the rest of the population [many of them considered necessary to the success of post-war society] was more than pleased to accept the designation of resistant in the hope that thousands of other equivocal acts would never see the light of day".

  It was half a century later, when the nation had become stable and prosperous, that people who had fought, as Erna Paris puts it, "to chronicle their personal and collective experience in the face of an official history that [had] been falsified" had their day in court.

  14.  It would also be useful to find out (if it has not already been done) what the reactions of victims have been to initiatives already taken which have publicly recorded their stories eg Lost lives (1999) by David McKittrick et al and the BBC programme a few years ago which enabled victims over a period of weeks to broadcast their individual (and very moving) stories. In the latter case, for example, how far was the mere telling of the story conducive to closure or what more did they feel was needed?

  15.  It would also be important to assess the significance of a contribution by the sociologist Dr Chris Gilligan to a recent research seminar at the University of Strathclyde. He is reported to have said:

    "Trauma counselling encourages people to interpret their unease in terms of their own individual difficulty in dealing with experiences they suffered during the Troubles. Often, however, the source of their unhappiness or distress lies in the politics of the peace process".

  To the extent that this observation has validity, (and it would be useful to have the full text), it would suggest that it could be as important to reconcile victims to the present as to enable them to explore the past.


  16.  It seems to me important that the Committee's inquiry should frame the reconciliation issue in terms of the society as a whole and not just of the individuals impacted most directly by the Troubles. That entails (as I argued in chapter 9 of the Parades Report) moving rapidly from acceptance of separation towards the objective of sharing and of inclusivity—a point I developed further in my remarks at Annex C[7]. Otherwise ours will be a society which continues to be characterised by overt or latent hostility. That also lends force to the point made earlier that reconciliation may best be achieved by ensuring that all, whatever their experience or their view of the past, are encouraged to share in the creation of a different future, to which much of the past is best regarded as a poor prologue.


  17.  In line with the intentions of the Committee itself, I have eschewed in these hasty notes any attempt at prescription. The issues are too complex, and the evidence from elsewhere too ambiguous and its relevance to our own situation too problematical, for that. But I do lean to the view that, since the past will not go away, the better we understand it, the less its ability to get its second wind and overtake our future efforts. And I tend to believe that striving might and main for a better future can exorcise many of the ghosts of a past which, whatever we may do, can never be undone.

13 December 2004

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