Don’t Mention the War: The need to discuss our master narrative
by Allison LIRA for Shared Future News
4 February 2019
In the launching of Vicky Cosstick’s latest book, Don’t Mention the War: Exploring Aspects of the Legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles, a dynamic panel discussed aspects of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict reality that have been left out of what Cosstick called the “master narrative”, arguing that this exclusion has been a contributor to and a product of the “frozen peace process” in Northern Ireland. The launch event was held in collaboration with Northern Slant and the research for the book was funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
The panel included artist Rita Duffy, Claire Bailey MLA (Green Party Northern Ireland), Professor John Brewer (Queen’s University Belfast), and Denis Bradley (former co-chairman, Consultative Group on the Past), and was chaired by Northern Slant’s very own Connor Daly. During the event, the panel discussed many of the major themes in Cosstick’s work, including the extent to which women’s experiences, the role of the media in fueling tensions, and the issue of intergenerational trauma have largely been excluded from the conversation surrounding the legacy of the past.
Straight away, Rita Duffy congratulated Cosstick on her new book, highlighting the dimension of the female voice and how this has been omitted in our “master narrative”. Duffy explained how she recently sold a series of black-and-white drawings to the Imperial War Museum: “They bought them because they have nothing of Northern Ireland from a female perspective.”
“I don’t think it’s delusional. I don’t think it’s sexist. I think it is absolutely spot-on accurate and well after time that we actually start to address this,” said Duffy.
The panellists observed Northern Ireland’s obsession with the past, and how this endless replaying is conducted using a very narrow lens, particularly excluding the role that women played. Clare Bailey noted that it’s “completely undeniable that our whole discourse and public narrative of the conflict is male dominated. When we think of the conflict we think about deaths, about murder, about prisoners, about all that hard stuff. But what we never … allow in are just … the everyday stories of people who had to live through this, who had to hold families together through this, who tried to keep the community together through this, and they were largely woman.”
Bailey shared that during the conflict, her mother, like thousands of other women throughout Northern Ireland, voluntarily ran the community centre at the bottom of her street. She noted that many women in her estate and elsewhere contributed their time to ensure a sense of normalcy and cohesion within the neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, women were not adequately recognised for the important community work that they did during the conflict. After the conflict was over, many of the functions that woman used to hold were professionalised and taken over by ex-combatants: “And again that male discourse has edged in and taken over what I grew up as understanding in terms of community development and holding that sense of community together. The space for stories to be told has not been allowed into this process.”
Brewer supported Bailey’s point by pointing out that the bulk of social science done in the region was produced by men, about men. He called this “patriarchal social science” and noted that one of the consequences of this is that aspects of the conflict deemed less important were silenced, producing “hidden victims”. The role of family structures in producing “a sense of the everyday and normality that enabled people to survive” has historically been undervalued within social science in Northern Ireland, Brewer argued.
In discussing aspects of Northern Ireland’s legacy that do receive a lot of attention, Professor John Brewer heavily criticised both journalists in Northern Ireland and journalists in England for participating in “conflict journalism”. He claimed that “Northern Ireland has a pathological obsession with the past” and that this was fueled by journalists who would rather “endlessly reproduce the past” rather than help society “learn how to live together in the future”.
Brewer rejected the notion that journalism in Northern Ireland was being conducted in an unbiased fashion and accused journalists of failing to realise that not only are they a part of the conflict, they also contribute to it. Brewer advocated a move towards “peace journalism”, and defended his position by arguing that peace journalism was not about avoiding controversy, but was instead about “helping us to balance the past with the future” in order to help society learn to “live together in tolerance”. On advancing this point, Brewer said, “There is a thorough misunderstanding of what peace means. Peace is thought to mean the outbreak of agreement. That is absolute nonsense. Peace is about the way you handle continued disagreement.”
Some, including Claire Bailey and Denis Bradley, agreed with Brewer. Bailey, for example, criticised newspapers for perpetuating a binary sense of identity and worried about the extent to which this way of framing has affected the newer generations. Others were more hesitant to put the brunt of the blame on journalists. During the audience comment period, journalist Brian Pelan suggested that maybe newspaper managers were more to blame for media coverage of the conflict than journalists.
Along with a discussion on the “hidden victims” (or better yet the hidden heroes), there was also a brief discussion on the “hidden” ongoing legacy issues that the panel thought were currently being ignored. Brewer argued that we ought to be having a “wider discussion” on legacy issues, a discussion that should include high levels of suicide, addiction, unemployment, and domestic violence. The others in the panel concurred.
Bailey pointed out that the availability of mental health and addiction services in Northern Ireland were insufficient to address the need and she argued that Northern Ireland’s stance of looking the other way on legacy issues, especially on issues of addiction, was spurring on the continued presence of dissidents in some communities.
To address these legacy issues, Bailey called for people to hold their representatives accountable and argued that progress would also require more balance (including gendered balance) across all levels of government.
Brexit: A bigger murky field
Despite an explicit awareness of the shortcomings of Northern Ireland’s peace process thus far, the panel, by and large, seemed pretty confident in Northern Ireland’s ability to withstand the challenges Brexit has posed to stability in Northern Ireland. Bradley’s opinion was that whereas he thought Northern Ireland has the potential to reach reconciliation within the next 5-10 years, England probably wouldn’t get past the damage currently being done for another 50. Whereas Northern Ireland had been dealing with issues of division for quite a while and had learned a lot, England has not yet had to deal with divisions of this nature.
Bradley cautioned, however, that Northern Ireland would never be fully free unless they managed to address legacy and unless we managed to talk to each other. Bradley suggested that maybe Brexit has given Northern Ireland that opportunity to talk and finally resolve the central issue dividing Northern Ireland, this being the question of sovereignty. Brexit has clearly defined the issue and this he suggested is a gift as now that the issue is unavoidable, it can finally be dealt with.
He also observed that whereas before Brexit, society had become “fearful that we were a strange group of people that were both sectarian and incapable of governing ourselves”, now Northern Ireland had come to realise that there are other people caught in a similar position. With this, Northern Ireland had been taken out of the “murky field” within which they had been trudging in all alone, into a bigger field in which Northern Ireland was freed from the “narrowness of the concentration upon ourselves”. Quintin Oliver agreed with Bradley’s point.
Oliver also added that civil society may play a key role in helping people, Northern Ireland’s representatives, find these important conversations that Northern Ireland is going to have to have if they’re going to survive Brexit. Bailey, on the other hand, noted that if the aim was to build something new, it couldn’t be built by the same people having the same conversations. The discourse would have to be expanded so as to include all and the change would have to come from the bottom up.