How the past shapes the present: Dealing with the past and Northern Ireland's Assembly election


Published 24 th February 2017 by Daniel Kirkpatrick
Image of the Stormont buildings in Northern Ireland
©RobertPaulYoung

On 2 March 2017 Northern Ireland goes once again to the polls to cast their votes only 9 months after the previous Assembly election. Who and what caused the latest in a long series of political fallouts has been debated at length, but there remains standing in the corner of the proverbial room a large and now ageing elephant that refuses to go away. Some have named this elephant our "toxic legacy", "baggage", and "failure", but its better known name is: 'the past'.

In December 2014 the British and Irish Government, alongside the majority of parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, agreed a way forward on the issues of 'the past', named the Stormont House Agreement. This included establishing an Oral History Archive, a Mental Trauma Service, the Historical Investigations Unit, an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, and An Implementation and Reconciliation Group. Then in November 2015, after further talks, parties agreed on an implementation plan - the Fresh Start Agreement - whereby the UK Government agreed to provide £150million towards these projects. But disagreements over the definition of victims, the release of archival material by governments, and the prosecution of state actors, have together ensured many of the institutional proposals never received the necessary funding. Indeed, this election has once again brought these issues to the surface making agreement seem an increasingly elusive fantasy.

Image of the Fresh Start Agreement in Norther Ireland There is a well known parable which I believe captures these challenges, that of the blind men and the elephant. In this parable there is a group of blind men who each are holding a part of an elephant. However, when they then set about describing it to each other they find that they are in complete disagreement. You see, one was holding the tusk, another a leg, another the trunk, and yet another the tail.

Although these men will each be correct in their own description, their overall disagreement is due to their single perspective. If they then swapped positions to touch the other parts of the elephant a fuller picture would have emerged. Indeed, simply acknowledging that their knowledge was limited, the blind men would have been able to test whether their description was correct. The blindness suffered by each of these men was not necessarily the problem, but their unwillingness to work together. Likewise, the identity and narrative of one community regarding the past doesn't have to preclude another's.

Recent polls suggest that once again Northern Ireland will vote along tribal lines, meaning the political stalemate over the euphemistically named 'dealing with the past' is only likely to continue. Indeed, within and across so-called 'tribes' , the past represents a key issue on which to outbid opponents. Image of a UVF mural in Northern Ireland

The party manifestos and policy positions illustrate this, with Arlene Foster stating how "[t]his election is about republicans trying to rewrite the past", and the DUP manifesto explaining: "We will not permit the rewriting of the past or the persecution of the security forces". In contrast Michelle O'Neill prioritised the issue speaking at the commemoration of four IRA men shot by the SAS in 1992. Indeed the polarisation is apparent with Sinn Fein's manifesto stating: "There can be no hierarchy of victimhood; all harm andloss must be acknowledged...[Our priorities include] opposition to partisan immunity for British state forces".

The UUP highlights issues of mental health and PTSD while maintaining that "we will not tolerate the rewriting of history". The SDLP is calling for all those committed crimes to be held to account, whether state or nonstate actors. And Alliance is accusing the largest parties of playing "political football" with these issues, stating in their manifesto: "the peace process remains under threat as the direct result of other politicians".

Much like in the parable, we have multiple and contradictory interpretations over what the past is and how to address it, as each community holds tightly onto its chosen part of the proverbial elephant. Instead of exploring the other side's perspective, acknowledging their identity and pain, we have political rhetoric which inflames the situation. But the ever impending danger of this, is that, with each side taking its part of the elephant away we are left only with the dismembered body of the past.

Perhaps though the parable offers some solutions, as although this election cycle highlights the challenges, our elephant may yet survive, as once the political dust settles, leaders will once again enter into negotiations. The question is, whether they will hold fast to their partisan positions, or whether they begin removing their blindfolds.