Here are two quotations.
“The future is being written now and as we help to write that future, we will not let the past be written in a way which demonises patriots like Kevin McKenna... I think Kevin McKenna was right. I think the IRA was right, not in everything that it did, but it was right to fight when faced with the armed aggression of British rule.”
“You didn’t know where to turn, who to talk to or anything else. It was really devastating for the family and to their wives and to the youngsters that they left behind. Retaliation is not going to be any good to anyone, it’s just going to leave more hurt in the community. (But) who else is going to remember them unless I say something about it?”
The first of those quotations was from Gerry Adams, delivering the graveside oration at the funeral of former IRA chief-of-staff McKenna, adding: “Kevin was a republican soldier who had the politics to know when to fight, and the political vision to know when to talk.
“And it was the initiative created by republicans which opened up the potential for the peace process.”
The second was from Pam Morrison, speaking in a BBC interview about the murder of her three brothers by the IRA in the 1980s.
Lance Corporal Ronnie was ambushed and shot while delivering groceries for a local shop.
Private Cecil was shot 16 times leaving the property where his Catholic wife and newborn son were staying.
Private Jimmy was shot 26 times as he arrived in a school bus to collect children from a Derrylin primary school and take them to a swimming pool.
Pam said, “I just could never understand why it was the one family that was targeted so much.”
McKenna was both a very senior member of the Provisionals and then chief-of-staff during the period when Ronnie, Cecil and Jimmy Graham were targeted and killed by the IRA.
He would have known what was being planned. He would probably have given the nod of approval. He would have acknowledged that the strategy behind it was, to all intents and purposes, ethnic cleansing.
By the logic of Adams’ oration the three brothers died because McKenna hadn’t yet decided that it was time to talk about the ‘potential for the peace process,’ even though the ‘ballot-box/armalite’ strategy had been adopted and back-channels to the British government were well oiled.
Both Gerry Adams and Pam Morrison are giving personal perspectives of the Troubles; and both will be applauded by one side and criticised by the other. But at the heart of both those perspectives is how we address our collective legacy and the future.
Adams wants to ‘help write that future,’ while Morrison has gone public on behalf of her brothers because, ‘who else is going to remember them?’
In other words, she doesn’t want them airbrushed from the history of what happened here, let alone deliberately forgotten by those who want to write a one-sided, self-serving history of the period.
Is it possible to write a balanced history?
I doubt it. It is difficult enough when emerging from any conflict, but particularly so in Northern Ireland when the central issue, the constitutional question, remains unresolved and continues to eclipse and predominate every other political issue.
When there is no agreement on a collective future, there can be no agreement on what happened in the past.
Some have suggested that we just draw a line under the past, underpinning it with a de facto amnesty.
Others suggest a Truth and Reconciliation process, where the assorted combatants and political parties give their version of events and confess their crimes without fear of punishment. The case has been made for ‘leaving it to historians and academics’ to sort through the mountain of material and draw up what would be an ‘official and agreed’ history.
The idea of a Northern Ireland equivalent of Spain’s post-Franco pacto del olvido (the pact of forgetting: dig up no bodies, bring no charges, hold no trials and bury the past along with your dead) has also been raised.
But none of these options can work in the absence of agreement on the political and constitutional future.
Victims on both sides, knowing that there is no guarantee of a consensual future and still believing they are being left behind, will continue to demand truth, justice and closure. Political parties which can’t agree on the past, or the future; and can’t sustain political/governing stability in the present, must always pursue an agenda based on shoring up electoral division.
When the rest of us don’t accept an agreed version of our past then we are prey for those who seek to invent and promote their own narratives. And thus does the ‘bloody wheel of history’ continue to turn.
These realities predate the so-called Brexit crisis and the claims of those who cite it as a potential tipping-point here. Even if every single voter in the United Kingdom had backed Remain in June 2016 the reactions to the comments by Adams and Morrison and even to Willie Frazer (‘If there’s a heaven and hell after death this bigot is very clearly in hell now’) would have been exactly the same.
The divisions between us would have been exactly the same.
The Assembly would still have collapsed in January 2017 (read McGuinness’s resignation letter). There would still be a demand for Irish unity and a border poll. The electoral demographics would have continued to shift. We still wouldn’t agree on the past, present, or future.
It’s all about competing narratives now; complicated by the fact that the so-called peace process has been reduced to an almost ephemeral status.
That’s a problem for both unionists (many of their fellow citizens in GB have no affinity to them) and republicans (many people in the south don’t want to inherit our present mess).
We — all of us — are viewed as problem people in a place apart.
If we aren’t capable of understanding ourselves I think we’ll discover, pretty soon, that nobody else could be bothered trying anymore.