Ending ‘truth friction’ in Northern Ireland’s culture war?

Guest post by Professor William J V Neill, Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast and Emeritus Professor of Spatial Planning at the University of Aberdeen.

In a recent article for the journal Parliamentary Affairs, Professor Peter Shirlow, Blair Chair at Liverpool University, sharply criticises the impoverished language game involved in dealing with an unhealed past in Northern Ireland.

He makes useful suggestions for moving a thwarted conflict transformation conversation on with a call for a more suitable and less provocative vocabulary. The central argument is that it is the responsibility of politicians and others to question in particular the utility of harsh and one-sided assertions regarding the past.

Denial is unpalatable, Shirlow suggests, when tied to amplified demand in a proxy conflict where clashing mutually assured deafness (MAD) claims and demands are involved in dealing with the legacy of the past. Such ‘truth friction’ is described as an important aspect of the continuance of that conflict by other means.

This is a situation requiring the less ambitious but frustrating job of conflict management. The implicit task in moving beyond this, is one of assisting a renegotiation of meaning involving a more authentic and empathetic cultural exchange. However, the exhortation to break this self-harming behaviour and to move on to a more fruitful exchange between what he calls ‘ethnic tribune’ parties, faces some difficulties which Shirlow considerably under-plays.

First, he underestimates the degree to which, from a unionist point of view, the wider ‘cultural war’ is seemingly without end, unrelenting and asymmetrical. Second, there is the risk of emptying past conflict of any moral content. Third, there is the need to come up with perhaps novel ideas to move beyond exhortation to challenge in more concrete ways the prevailing tyrannical order of the sensible in attempts to shift the ground to conflict transformation.

Concerning the asymmetrical nature of cultural warfare the terrain was described by Michael Gove some time ago:

The hollowing out of Northern Ireland’s Britishness is a progressive process, whereby the British State divests itself of responsibilities and strips the Province of evidence of its British character. Whether or not the IRA’s military war is over there is a culture war raging in Ulster and in this war Britain is at best neutral, and much more often, an objective ally of republicanism (Gove, 2000)

It is this underlying suspicion that currently makes the acceptance of an Irish Language Act difficult for unionism. The comments of Gerry Adams that an equality agenda is a Trojan Horse for unionists, rather than primarily a value in itself in securing parity of esteem, is now firmly lodged in the unionist psyche. The denigration by republicans of a unionist tradition characterised as a stereotypical sectarian monolith is now the subject of frequent critical comment by seasoned political commentators, sympathetic admittedly towards a liberal unionist position. The following is a selection from the recent Irish press.

Sinn Féin has pitched its latest maneuverings at Stormont as a battle for inalienable rights against intractable unionist bigotry (Newton Emerson)

…an Irish language act will not resolve the political crisis, because, if it could, unionists would happily endorse one. If it could be resolved by more space being provided for statues of republican icons in the grounds of Stormont or Belfast City Hall, unionists would go the distance on that, too. If it could be resolved by curbing the number of Orange parades and Union Flags in July and August, I’m pretty sure most unionists could live with that. But the fact is this: no amount of trying to provide ‘parity of esteem’ for Sinn Féin’s agenda would result in a moment being reached at which Sinn Féin would say; “OK, that’s fine. That’s all we wanted. Let’s get on, now, with building a new era”… (Alex Kane)

…as the Provos realised that they had to abandon their failed military strategy, they set about undermining unionist culture, and refashioned history to render perpetrators as victims, victims as perpetrators, and all unionists as bullies and bigots (Ruth Dudley Edwards)

…culture functioned as an integral path for Irish Republicans to move away from physical force methods’ with culture not decommissioned by republicans but rather ‘militarised’ (Connal Parr)

In this context of culture war, Shirlow’s call for the ‘capacity to take a reasoned and indeed fair approach to the past’ is likely to remain pure exhortation. Further, the worthy academic desire to take a balanced approach between protagonists risks leaching in this case moral content from previous willed actions.

What Northern Ireland needs in terms of dealing with the past is less the contextualisation of events where in one narrative ‘we were all victims’ (McLaughlin 2013) and more a necessary facing up to the moral content of what was perpetrated during ‘the Troubles’, where an equivalence between paramilitary and so called ‘state violence’ can hollow out responsibility and replace it with a false neutrality of interpretation.

Here the cultural critic and historian John Wilson Foster laments ‘worship at the shrine of parity and equivalence’ because ‘to do so is to expel the essential moral dimension of what happened during those thirty disgraceful years’ (Foster, 2014). As Professor John Brewer points out ‘managing the emotional dynamics of peace discussions is as important as the political deals they discuss’ (Brewer 2014). However, getting to the ‘culture of tolerance, civility and respect in the public sphere’ opined for by Brewer is difficult to imagine in a state where cultural salvos have replaced real ones in a jockeying for advantage in a war of cultural position and attrition.

How to seek a way out of this weary aridness of diminished possibility is a subject on which  Professor Shirlow remains silent. Here I have been arguing for some time for a creative provocation to ‘the Troubles’ memorialisation process in N. Ireland to conjure through the use of the artistic imagination a counter monument in Belfast.

While most monuments function as ideological signifiers and judge and evaluate and thereby coerce viewers to adopt the belief systems they stand for, ‘counter monuments’ memorialize significant historical events by continuing a public conversation about those events rather than treating them as completed facts. Rather than truth and memory construction being  cast in the stone of the proxy conflict which Professor Shirlow sees as subverting ‘rational and fair approaches to the past’ such a project might help to generate something novel out of the grind of the ‘truth friction’ he describes. It might start to develop a more adequate vocabulary and behaviour to heal the past which he points out is required.

In Belfast and Derry’s bid (now on hold) document for designation as European Capital of Culture 2023, there were signs that such a prospect might be possible. Pointing to cultural diversity as a failed concept in Ireland, the document endorses the view that culture  has been ‘used as a continuation of conflict by other means‘ with ‘the binarisms of “us and them” of Catholic or Protestant, British or Irish having stifled our institutions, blunted our creativity and reduced our sense of personal identity‘. Innovative and responsive art concepts addressing this are put forward including an installation from Anthony Gormley associated in particular with the Angel of the North.

My own proposal has been to collide republican memory at the Maze/Long Kesh  prison with unionist Titanic memory in the now restored Drawing Offices of Harland and Wolff. With the depthless reimaging of the latter as a constituent element of a themed hotel on the debased genius loci of the site, this now remains only a rhetorical provocation to the mutually assured separation of ‘truth friction’ where market-driven reimaging is reaching saturation.

Put starkly, Northern Ireland faces the challenge of keeping the rocking boat of the peace process afloat in maintaining a temporary resting place until a more secure berth can be built. Calling off the asymmetrical militarisation of culture and creating space for unionists to claim their Irishness may be a pure fiction, but it is still worth trying to articulate the truth of the matter from a liberal unionist standpoint.  Truth denial is indeed unpalatable as Shirlow reminds us when tied to amplified demand. The big question which Shirlow leaves unanswered is ‘what is to be done?’ Exhortation in a high stakes game of ‘ethnic poker’ is not enough.

Selected references:

Brewer, J.D. (2014). Emotions and the pursuit of peace. Paper presented at Bringing emotions out of the shadows: a symposium. Ulster Museum, March 2.

Foster, J.W. (2014).  Haass Been: Why the Haass–O’Sullivan Proposed Agreement Won’t—and Shouldn’t—Wash. Unpublished paper quoted with permission.

Gove, M. (2000). The Price of Peace: an analysis of British policy in Northern Ireland. Centre for Policy Studies, London

McLaughlin, M. (2013). Quoted in Northern Ireland Assembly, Committee for Finance and Personnel, Official Report (Hansard). Civil Service (Special Advisers) Bill: Briefing from Professor Peter Shirlow, January 16.

Shirlow, P. (2017). Truth Friction in Northern Ireland: Caught between Apologia and Humiliation. Parliamentary Affairs. [Online] Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1093/pa/gsx029>.

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