Tuesday 17 September 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Focusing too much on the past can keep old grievances alive - and reignite dormant conflicts'

Remembrance: ‘The Haunting Soldier’ – depicting a weary World War I soldier – stands six metres high in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. It commemorates the centenary of the ending of the war. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Remembrance: ‘The Haunting Soldier’ – depicting a weary World War I soldier – stands six metres high in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. It commemorates the centenary of the ending of the war. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

'Get over it.' 'Move on.' 'Look to the future.'

Few of us have not, at some point in our lives, dispensed such advice. Or been given it.

It may not always be the best or most appropriate advice, but often it is good for the person receiving it. Closing a chapter can be helpful in opening a new one.

Contrast this with how societies collectively think about the past. There is hardly any quote one can think of that is as rarely contested as George Santayana's claim that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Last Sunday's marking of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, in Ireland, across much of Europe and elsewhere around the world, showed how important some events in history have become in the collective memory.

But it was not ever thus. The fascination with commemoration is a relatively recent phenomenon.

It was much remarked upon last weekend that Ireland's commemoration of the 1914-18 war has changed from a time not so long ago when it was ignored by the State. But how it is commemorated has also changed elsewhere, if not so starkly.

The wearing of the poppy in Britain, for instance, has become much more prevalent even over the past couple of decades.

In the 1950s, the sort of gatherings that took place last Sunday were smaller and less significant in national life in Europe, and that is despite many of those alive at the time having suffered personally as a result of war.

It is noteworthy that the phrase 'collective memory' was coined only as recently as that decade and the notion that societies share a view of the past would have been largely alien to people 100 years ago.

Two years ago, American writer David Rieff challenged the conventional wisdom on commemorating past events to the extent that we have come to do so today. His book 'In Praise of Forgetting' is subtle, erudite and thought-provoking. It raises important questions about how we collectively think about the past. These are of particular relevance to this island as we approach the 100th anniversaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Perhaps the greatest challenge over the next few years will be the degree to which violence and the use of force could take prominence.

More specifically, might younger generations come to romanticise or even glorify killing for political ends, and might those who support the physical force tradition on this island use the events to advance their cause?

It should be said this did not happen to any extent during the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. But there should be no reason for complacency, first and foremost because there is an important difference between the Rising and the Civil War. The broader social and political context has also changed in two significant ways over the past couple of years that makes divisive rancour more likely when the wars of 1919-23 are commemorated.

The Civil War pitted Irish people against each other, whereas the Rising can be thought of, perhaps somewhat simplistically, as a fight against an external oppressor. Civil wars scar societies in ways that wars against outsiders do not.

Although Ireland's civil war was brief and relatively unbloody compared to others in Europe around the same time - in Finland and Spain, for example - a sustained focus on it could open old wounds and sow divisions in society.

In the two and a half years since Easter 2016, there have been two changes to the context of how any historical debate might be conducted: Brexit and the more aggressive nature of debate generally.

Anger and hostility towards those with different viewpoints is rising in public discourse across the western world and beyond. There is a great deal of speculation and discussion about why this is the case, but it seems clear many people are less interested in hearing opinions at variance with their own and act aggressively when they do so. In this context, a sustained national conversation on the wars of 1919-23 may do more harm than good.

The UK Brexit referendum took place a few months after the commemorations of the Rising. Predictably, it has caused convulsions on this island. In Northern Ireland, voting on Brexit split along sectarian lines to a large extent. Opinion on the Northern Ireland backstop has been even more polarised - the centrist Ulster Unionist Party supported remaining in the EU, unlike the DUP, but is as opposed to the backstop as its hard-line rival.

Among nationalists, the prospect of a hardening of the Border is viewed with horror and dismay. Brexit has been driven by English nationalists. Being locked in to a state in which such people hold more sway is frightening. Although the reliability of opinion polls in the North is contested, Brexit has certainly widened and deepened support for a united Ireland among nationalists.

For unionists, the pushing of the backstop by the Irish Government has led to widespread charges of attempts at 'annexation' directed at the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.

Whatever one's views on the wisdom of pushing the backstop so hard, there can be no denying that relations between Dublin and unionism have suffered real damage because of it.

If having a deep and sustained focus on commemorating the wars of 1919-23 could emphasise divisions, what are the pros?

A better understanding of history is usually given as the big advantage, with Santayana's warning often and earnestly trotted out by those who make the point.

But there is little evidence to support the view that societies who know little history are doomed to make the same mistakes again and again.

The truth is that history never repeats itself in exactly the same way and, as Rieff points out in his book, an excessive focus on the past can keep historical grievances alive, thereby increasing the risk of reigniting dormant conflicts.

The writer Edna Longley has written in praise of forgetting in a specifically Irish context. She has suggested that our approach to history should "take the form of raising a monument to Amnesia, and forgetting where we put it".

Her suggestion has much to recommend it.

Irish Independent

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