‘Born in this island, maimed by history/and creed-infected, by my father taught/the stubborn habit of unfettered thought’.
So runs John Hewitt’s poem The Dilemma, a bitter indictment of how Irish republicans had requisitioned the past in the service of their narrow political project.
We are left in little doubt at the end of The Dilemma that the celebrated Ulster bard found himself ‘caught in the crossfire of their false campaign’.
The arrest and detention of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams in the ongoing PSNI investigation into the murder of Jean McConville in 1972 is notable for how it has exposed the republican ability to speak from two sides of their mouth on the past.
By calling for inquiries into the use of lethal force by the state (accounting for 10 per cent of troubles-related deaths – republicans were responsible for 60 per cent and loyalists 30 per cent respectively) they seem prepared to hear everyone else’s ‘truth’ except their own.
As with Hewitt’s poem, we are condemned to bear witness to the growing sanitisation of history and the excusing away of violent nationalism’s worst excesses.
It was that other inconsolable sceptic of nationalism George Orwell who warned us that ‘the nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them’.
It appears that history has become an unwelcome handmaiden to the Northern Ireland peace process because of its ability to throw up uncomfortable questions.
One has only to consult the fêted Haass proposals to see how a universalist position on the illegality of terrorist violence has been buried under a thicket of bureaucratic ‘newspeak’.
So how are we to avoid the mistakes which led to the murders of almost 4,000 people and the maiming of ten times as many more?
Well, for one thing, as citizens of a much-larger liberal democracy, we have the ‘right to remember’ the past as it really happened. In this, historians can play an invaluable role in helping to extinguish the most inflammatory lies about the past.
Although it may seem like inauspicious times for historians to debunk myths about the past – in light of the collapse of Boston College’s ill-fated Belfast Project – it is impossible to side-step uncomfortable truths about the past. Haass’s proposals may be imperfect but they at least hold out the prospect of working through the past in a meaningful way.
One of Haass’s recommendations is for a Historical Timeline Group to determine the raw facts of what happened between 1968 and 1998. If nothing else, historians can provide much-needed contextualisation here so as to ensure the integrity of the past is preserved.
Moreover, this might also facilitate the necessary political shift towards a shared understanding of the past as a warning about the dangers of violence and to reinforce the morally-acceptable position that it must never be permitted to happen again.
l Dr Aaron Edwards is a historian, writer and lecturer. His most recent book is Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law (Mainstream Publishing, 2014).