Monday, November 15, 2004

Owning Public Spaces

One advantage of kicking off a blog is that zero-readership encourages, well, courage. So let’s start with something easy: Remembrance Sunday. As a Southerner, born and raised in the Republic but living in Northern Ireland (long enough to know I shouldn't say anything about this stuff), I’m more than a little perplexed by Remembrance Sunday. It goes without saying that I’m hardly going to be turned on by British Nationalism – by the occasion dressed up as ‘the nation remembers’ as Channel 4 put it. And I’m certainly not a fan of the militarism of the ceremonies themselves.

Still, lots of Irishmen died in the British army during both World Wars. I have at least one relative, a great-uncle, who fought in Burma. I’d be very surprised if some digging didn’t reveal more British soldiers in my past. It stands to reason – all of Ireland was part of the UK until 1922 and even after that the British Army was (and remains to a small extent) a pretty sure financial bet. But for the most part, this element of the Irish story has been forgotten(although there are notable exceptions to this).

When I lived in England I would stomach my discomfort and stand in front of the Union Jack with Ireland’s messy complicated role in the UK’s history in mind. I can’t take responsibility for the motives of others in being there, but I was there in large part to commemorate people who – not just during WWI – were slaughtered, not for noble ideals but because they thought the army was better than hunger.

What leaves me perplexed about Remembrance Sunday here in Belfast is the degree to which one side of the community – the Unionist side – owns the event. It’s hardly a surprise, on face of it, given the inherent Britishness of the occasion. But the fact is that, to my mind at least, nationalists and republicans should be as willing to commemorate war dead, and although this day is by no means perfect, it’s better than denying their existence.

Public occasions in Northern Ireland are very rarely owned by both communities. The 12th and St. Patrick’s Day are perceived, not without reason, as sectraian attempts to stake a claim to the city for the day, ensuring that the other lot know that they’re not welcome. Remembrance Sunday itself involves speeches by paramilitary leaders (although this one was not particularly bad news) and flute bands as well as the more official British pomp. The poppy no more includes nationalists than the Easter lily includes unionists.

Neither side of the community, in its public displays, does complicated very well.

Not much to be said about that, except that I think that this, and all the links, reflect the way in which Northern Ireland is characterised by a sectarianism of truth. With some exceptions, each side of the community seems to claim that they are the primary victims of the conflict and that they themselves are only guilty of responding to the other’s provocations or crimes or whatever. Everyone thinks that their resentment is justified and that the resentment of the other side is insincere or trivial or both.

What hope for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Northern Ireland? The South African TRC was partly possible because one element of the community was willing to admit that they had been the primary engine of the wrongs upon which SA’s conflict had been founded. In Northern Ireland, there is no sense of shared guilt. The ownership of public space simply mirrors this sorry state of affairs. Indeed, when someone does try to cross the divide, their move is, perhaps understandably, rebuffed. Those who are engaged in the laudible work of creating a shared sense of the past have their work cut out.

No comments: