Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Pain Of Remembrance In Northern Ireland


An incredibly moving edition of Radio Ulster's The Nolan Show today included commentary from victims, victims' relatives and witnesses affected by both the IRA's 1993 Shankill bombing and a subsequent Loyalist attack against Catholic workmen in Belfast prior to the Greysteel murders. The considered reflections upon sectarian division and closure expressed by the bereaved and emotionally traumatised was sobering in the extreme.

Whether or not the resolution of the Ulster Troubles was grounded upon military stalemate or political stratagem it has been generally accepted that the institutional framework in situ since the start of the century would provide social space within which shared remembrance - or conversely a pact of forgetting - might endure.

In the past week in Belfast there have been memorial services for the nine Protestant civilians murdered in the Shankill bombing and in four other explosions along the road over the course of the conflict - the two left dead at the Four Step Inn in September 1971, four at the Balmoral furniture store in December 1971 (including two minors), five at the Mountainview Tavern in April 1975 and another five killed at the Bayardo Bar in August of the same year.

There has also been a plaque unveiled in North Belfast by the surviving 1993 bomber in honour of his colleague who blew himself up in the blast. Despite the fact that the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister has underscored the need for sensitivity regarding the Shankill victims' families - and in fact a public apology from the former IRA volunteer himself at the unveiling - public reaction has been understandably incendiary from the Protestant community in light of the dedication to a paramilitary who died "on active service".

The past few years have seen significant revisionist interpretations of the Northern Ireland conflict emanate from both Republican and Loyalist political sources regarding the paramilitary modus operandi of the period and the socio-political fractures that underpinned the allegedly foregone nature of the conflict as it devolved into decades of mass murder. In a post-conflict Northern Ireland - let alone within a Belfast so fundamentally changed from the Sixties and Seventies by way of depopulation, deindustrialisation and religious demographic - it is now clearly apparent that conflict over cultural determiners and even memory itself has the potential to sow seeds of discord that were meant to have long dissipated from the end of the Nineties.

Hence the past week has clearly underscored the depth of communal divisions within Ulster itself -  let alone the sheer moral ambiguity surrounding the requirement to publicly commemorate a bomber whose victims included two young girls aged 13 and 7. The mainstream media certainly needs to urgently illuminate and forensically challenge these revisionist trends with extreme prejudice as they impinge upon the core wider issues of what constitutes victimhood, the unequivocal parity of suffering across the two communities and how the Ulster people can move forward with such toxic historical baggage.

Certainly the constant journalistic refrain that a political mandate qualifies the tone of political rhetoric in play cannot equate any longer with what appears to be significant body blows to post-conflict diplomacy or indeed the fact that such revisionism is now insulting the intelligence of one's political opponents in extremis.

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