Pauline Hadaway's articles
Lost in the Maze
Speaking in the wake of last month’s tragic spate of suicides in north Belfast, Irish President Mary McAleese blamed the peace process for failing young people in Northern Ireland, parts of which, she said, remained ‘stuck in a time warp’ of sectarianism and paramilitarism, where, in the context of rising prosperity across Ireland, levels of poverty were often ‘worse than during the Troubles’.Working class areas like Ardoyne and Tigers Bay may bear the brunt of sectarianism, paramilitary punishment squads and economic failure, but are they uniquely ‘stuck in a time warp’? Just hours before the funeral of 18 year old Bernard Cairns, north Belfast’s 13th suicide victim of 2004, nominees and representatives of Northern Ireland’s main political parties sat down together at a public consultation in Belfast’s King’s Hall, to consider the future of HMP Maze. As the NI Prison Service prepares to hand over land and buildings to the office of the first and deputy first minister, Sinn Fein put its case for the old H-blocks to be preserved as a museum, while the DUP’s representative on the Maze consultation panel, suggested a museum should not be the over-riding consideration, observing that the site provided an opportunity ‘to build for the future’. PUP representative David Ervine, sympathetic to local unionist concerns that the site may become a ‘shrine’ to republican hunger strikers, later commented that the old prison simply be leveled to the ground. The British government meanwhile is conducting a feasibility study into the viability of a national sports stadium.
While politicians clearly have an important role to play in planning what is best for the region’s future, discussions around the future of the Maze, affected by conflicting interpretations of the site’s historical meaning, inevitably founder amidst diametrically opposed and seemingly irreconcilable views of its place in history. In other words, development plans for the 360 acre site are not only subject to normal economic and planning constraints, but even at the level of imagining future potential, the significance of the past will always be a determining factor. Of course, the residue of the North’s troubled past is visible everywhere, not least in the proliferation of walls, compounds and military installations, which disfigure the landscape, denoting Northern Ireland’s historic failure to function as a modern democratic state. In this sense the dialogue between past and present is not only inescapable, but meaningful and relevant, as ideas for building a better future may be continually informed and measured against what is known and to a large extent still experienced of the past. In the forward tide of lived experience, where solutions flow from interpretation, so the past must always remain open to interrogation and revision. Nevertheless questions remain as to why, in a chronically underdeveloped region, crying out for more jobs, better transport and social provision, so much discussion, imagination and financial resource are being invested in endlessly revisiting and memorialising traumas of the recent past. Expressed through structures and processes of commemoration, memorial and inquiry, almost every aspect of public life in the north is increasingly informed by the quest to establish a consensus on history, to as it were fix a formally agreed set of meanings and, somehow sort out yesterday’s problems, tomorrow.
From its inception the Belfast Agreement has placed disputes around interpretations of history at the centre of contemporary political life in the North, as in 1998 British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced his government’s intention to set up a judicial inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Beyond seeking some point of agreement on the facts, the aim of the inquiry, stated in Blair’s 1998 parliamentary address, was to ‘establish the truth about what happened that day’ (my italics); not for the straightforward purpose of either laying charges against, or clearing the names of, individuals and institutions, nor to open up a war of ideas, public analysis and debate, but in pursuit of consensus and reconciliation as the basis for ‘building a secure future for the people of Northern Ireland’. Five years and £127 million pounds later, as the journey from truth to reconciliation appears increasingly fraught and uncertain, one thing at least is clear: historical truth is not neatly pinned down, nor can it easily be measured against immoveable standards of judgement, fixed in the here and now. 14 people died after British paratroopers opened fire on demonstrators in Derry on 30th January 1972. That much is certain. Some argue that the Paratroopers acted criminally, others that they acted as they did because they believed their standing orders justified it. For republicans, Bloody Sunday was simply an inevitable consequence of British policy in Ireland, a policy of military containment, which later sanctioned state sponsored assassination, covertly through collusion with paramilitary groups or openly through a policy of ‘shoot to kill’.
Whatever your politics, it is hardly unreasonable to acknowledge that Bloody Sunday took place within an historical and political context. For friends and families of the dead, Bloody Sunday, no less than Bloody Friday, La Mon or Enniskillen, will always remain a tragic and painful reality. The rest of us, untouched by private anger and pain, having no authentic claim to victimhood, must ultimately recognise these acts of violence as matters of historical fact. How we understand, interpret or ultimately respond to these facts, entirely depends on our politics, how we view the society we live in and the kind of future we desire.
Interpretations of the past are continually shaped in the arena of political action and debate. As society sets new goals and standards, so the judgement of history is always reserved in the light of things still unknown or yet to come. Post conflict, as institutions of the state reorganise and re-present themselves, arguments around events like Bloody Sunday remain profoundly significant in the contribution they can make towards deeper analysis and understanding of the new political landscapes. However, these arguments belong outside fixed terms of reference, in the realm of live public debate, where meaning may continuously be challenged and subject to scrutiny. Institutionalising questions of historic legitimacy within the North’s political structures simply promotes a process of never ending dispute and political stalemate. Furthermore, in mediating between institutions and their detractors or victims, the formal judicial inquiry may actually undermine democracy, sidelining real public debate and shifting political power from the electorate and those they mandate into the hands of un-elected, supposedly neutral, referees. Far from challenging the state and its institutions, judicial inquiry opens up new points of contact between the state and an increasingly marginalized public.
On 14th July 1789 the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille, hated symbol of the despotism and oppression of the ancien regime. Within two days of its fall, the National Assembly ordered that the prison be razed to the ground, so the people might rejoice that ‘grass grew where the Bastille stood’. Post conflict Belfast is a long way from revolutionary France and perhaps in these uncertain times it might be better to reserve judgement on the ‘future of the Maze’, turning our minds instead to the project of building a better future for all of us who remain in its shadow.