President Higgins of Ireland State visit to UK with Queen Elizabeth - HeadStuff.orgThe recent state visit by The President of Ireland to Britain highlights many facets of the relationships between the peoples of the two adjacent western European islands.


No, it’s not much. Just a place and some memories and time passing into ever shortening futures. But you survived, too. You’re a survivor.


In particular, it highlights the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.



The most excitable reaction to the presidential visit from the London media was to the attendance at a dinner in Windsor Castle of Martin McGuinness. He is Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and formerly a leading figure in the Provisional Wing of The Irish Republican Army, a decommissioned anti-state military organisation.


The same London media outlets who focused on Martin McGuiness’ attendance and his past also frequently carry stories and opinion pieces in which the people of Northern Ireland are urged, entreated and exhorted to move on from the past and move its legacy from current events to history.


They forget that the past is multiform and is forever present. The past is eternally a current event, held in many different views. The London media view, though dominant, is only one such view.


There is no go-between to negotiate the troubled past of a conflict in which thousands of people lost their lives over four decades and which is rooted in colonial relationships between the two islands over many centuries.


The remarks of former London government Minister Norman Tebbit, in which he looked forward to the occasion when a dissident republican would shoot Martin McGuinness in the back of the head, illustrate the pain victims of violence experience on a daily basis, long after the tragedy that was visited upon them has past. His remarks do not illustrate the grace of other victims of violence associated with the conflict in Northern Ireland, as offered by people such as Gordon Wilson and Kay Duddy. The reaction of victims of violence are as varied as the persons themselves.


I’m a survivor. I survived. Through all the pain, anguish, hurt, grief, history, time and blood. I survived. That’s my legacy. Your legacy too.


Norman Tebbit’s remarks and the focus of the London media on Martin McGuinness’ attendance underline just how difficult and painful the legacy of the past is.


Simply asserting that it must be dealt with is not enough. The legacy of the past is a site of continuing contestation. It need no be violent, but it is a struggle and it is painful.


Arriving at a set of agreed understandings of the nature of the conflict may not be possible. For some it was a terrorist, law and order matter. For others, it was a war of defence, survival and liberation.


Look, war is about targets. Collateral damage. Lists getting longer. They do this, we do that. One of ours, one of theirs. Some in uniforms, some in civvies, Some legitimate, some illegitimate …

All dead.

All dead. The lowest common denominator. The bottom line.


If it became possible to agree such a frame-work of understanding, then it might be possible for state and non-state combatants to acknowledge what they did. And from such acknowledgements, may come genuine justice and possible prosecutions. Or amnesties, if agreed by citizens.


No guarantee. Simply calling on victims to ‘move on’, particularly when such calls come from the power centre of one of the main protagonists in the conflict, is not sufficient. It feels like the victims, the foot-soldiers, the dead and the maimed must ‘get over it’ on terms that suit and do not disturb the powerful.


The bomb didn’t start it. Talk started it. And talk will finish it.

And new games, with new rules. If we can find them.


Genuine attempts to create processes and practices to resolve matters from the past are grounded in the truth that it is indeed another country but one we can visit with open-eyed and generous-hearted wisdom. And with an assertion that things will be different. So different that the new past we now make will not be the same as the old one we made.


It’s very hard.

It is. We’ll always be waiting.