Remembering for a better future: The potential of ethical commemoration

Remembering for a better future: The potential of ethical commemoration
by Allison LIRA for Shared Future News
30 March 2019

The Civil Rights Commemoration Committee, in association with Slugger O’Toole and as part of the Imagine Festival, organised an event discussing whether the Troubles can be ethically commemorated in Northern Ireland. The panel included Seamus Farrell, who is currently involved with the Junction’s Ethical & Shared Remembering Project; Maureen Hetherington, who is also involved in the Junction’s work around ethical remembering; Gladys Ganiel, a Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast; and Nelson McCausland, a former DUP MLA. The event was chaired by Tim Attwood of the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee.

In 1972, in the wake of losing his 14-year-old son in Bloody Friday, Reverend Joe Parker along with the organisation, Witness for Peace, planted 436 crosses on the grounds of Belfast City Hall to represent all the lives that had been lost up until that point in the Troubles. The crosses represented all loss of life, including civilians, combatants, and soldiers up to that point. To this day, Tim Attwood pointed out, the event stands as one of the few inclusive commemorations of the Troubles in the history of Northern Ireland. In light of this, Attwood asked the panel whether ethical commemoration of the Troubles is possible.

The panel began to unpack this question by spending some time describing the features of ethical commemoration, both in terms of what it is and what it isn’t. Seamus Farrell said that facilitating ethical conversations about the past needs to be about honest engagement and respect. He laid out a few maxims of facilitating ethical remembering: legitimate grievances are not the preserve of any one community (inclusive remembering), issues of yesterday are not necessarily the issues of today (perspective-giving remembering), the goal of remembering is to create a future that bears no resemblance to the past (future-oriented remembering), and to remember all of what happened (whole remembering) as a way of guarding against “whataboutery” and selective amnesia.

Maureen Hetherington echoed Farrell’s description of ethical remembering as “whole remembering” and the importance of keeping in mind that the less time that has passed, the less complete of a picture there is. She also expressed that there is a lot to be learned from the centennial commemorations such as the ones that Junction has been facilitating. One of the ways the centennial commemorations should inform how the Troubles are commemorated is to keep in mind that it took 100 years to commemorate the centennial events in a balanced way. She argued that we know more 100 years out than we did 50 years out and that the Troubles should be remembered with this in mind. Remembering the Troubles therefore should be with the recognition that the picture is still incomplete and that emotions are still raw.

Hetherington touched upon the need for inclusive remembering, advocating for the incorporation of marginalised voices in the making of public memory. She argued that ethical remembering holds no place for divisive and exclusive political agendas. Gladys Ganiel also supported a conceptualisation of ethical commemoration as inclusive. To achieve this goal, however, she questioned whether “ethical” is the most useful way of conceptualising what is needed. She argued that “ethical” evokes connotations of making judgements about what’s right or wrong, which can be counterproductive. In her research around the Presbyterian response to the Troubles, Ganiel found the concept of “grace” or “graceful commemoration” as potentially more useful. “Grace” is conceptualised as “free and unmerited favour” and as a gift that is bestowed on yourself and on others. It could be a way to capture the full spectrum of perspectives and experiences of the Troubles in an inclusive way.

Reflecting on his own experiences during the 50 year commemorations, Nelson McCausland supported the idea that ethical remembering is inclusive. He noted that in listening to the perspectives of those with a different experience of the movement, Republicans, those in the Labor movement, etc., he was able to confirm some of his understanding of that time, but it also challenged some of his thinking. In being open to different perspectives, he was able to come to a better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. He argued that inclusive commemorating is important in fighting against a sense of competitive victimhood or the idea that the victimised cannot also be the victimiser.

Hetherington also described ethical commemoration as future-oriented. She described future-oriented remembering as remembering that learns the lessons of the past and gives no space for justifying violence. Ganiel supported that ethical commemoration should be future-oriented by noting that in her research, people often introduced the concept of forgiveness with little prompting. She noted that often forgiveness wasn’t necessarily about forgiving. For many, there seemed to be a motivation to honor their lost loved ones by remembering what happened in a way that builds a better future.

Lastly, Ganiel argued for the need to remember those who pushed for peace and were resilient in the face of setbacks, people like Father Jerry Reynolds, rather than solely focusing on the death and destruction of the past. McCausland added that it’s also important to recognise the “unsung heroes” of the Troubles, the ones that played the underappreciated role of preserving normalcy. He argued that it’s important to recognise that the vast majority in Northern Ireland did not participate in violence and to celebrate those who supported peace by going on with their lives as well as they could.

Getting to the question of whether ethical commemoration in Northern Ireland is possible, the panel pointed to Ganiel’s work on Father Jerry Reynolds, the Ulster Museum exhibit on the Troubles, and especially the Junction’s Ethical and Shared Remembering project as proof that ethical remembering can be done. Farrell praised the Junction’s project, which looks at events from 1912-1922, as indicative of how commemoration and remembering can be useful and constructive when done under a conscious ethics-based framework. Under such a framework, remembering can enable people to move beyond the division of difference. Farrell said that the project has demonstrated that people can get to a place where they feel at ease with each other about the events that happened in the past.

However, the panel acknowledged that ethically remembering the Troubles is a lot harder than remembering the centennial events. Farrell said that trying to ethically remember more recent history is “messier”. Many in the panel noted the governing body’s inability to come to a productive consensus on commemoration issues. Farrell acknowledged the tendency in government and in the media to perpetuate divisiveness. And Ganiel raised concerns around the current scale of ethical commemorating, fearing that in its current state it is not enough to fight off the divisive commemoration that is pervasive in Northern Ireland. Attwood asked the panel how ethical remembering is supposed to address the raw emotions that are still present and that to some extent are exploited by the political establishment.

The panel faltered in coming up with viable solutions to these challenges, significantly weakening the idea that ethical commemoration of the Troubles is presently possible. Ganiel advocated for expanding the scale of ethical commemoration projects through institutional backing. Hetherington, however, pointed to the deep dysfunction in government, arguing that Northern Ireland cannot wait for a top-down solution. Hetherington instead called upon the civil sector to step it up, but without more institutional support, it is unclear how this is to happen. Hetherington herself seemed to realise this when she advocated for putting in place a policy connected to funding that would monitor commemoration and preclude exclusive and sectarian projects. Lastly, although some on the panel praised the public as ready to remember in a way that transcends sectarian divides, when McCausland was asked about why Stormont is so divided on the issue of commemoration, McCausland argued that government is largely a reflection of the attitudes of the public.

Perhaps the panel was most convincing in their position that the future of Northern Ireland depends on ethical commemoration being possible. McCausland spoke of the need for society to guard against creating another generation that becomes involved in violence due to being “fed a diet of pseudo-history”, and lamented the fact that over 20 years after the ceasefires, paramilitarism is still causing havoc. Hetherington noted that already, young people in the ceasefire generation are being radicalised due to a failure to ethically commemorate. To sum up the panel’s position, Farrell stated: “Yes, we can commemorate ethically, but with great difficulty. Although it will be difficult, it needs to be done.” A failure to adequately deal with the past, he warned, runs the risk that “the past will end up colonising the future.”

Despite this bleak picture, the panel pointed to a few rays of hope in moving ethical commemoration forward. Hetherington pointed to the healing and transcending nature of cross-community remembering. Farrell emphasised the need to remember through a future-oriented lens, and Ganiel encouraged young people to get involved in their communities. Hetherington and Farrell offered the audience a Margaret Mead quote that goes: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” On this note, Farrell drew encouragement from his sense that community leaders at least understand that community problems can only be solved by working together.

Image source: The Linen Memorial (c) Lycia TROUTON

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