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Readings in Nonviolence

Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Splintered memories: Dealing and not dealing with the past

A review article on "Transitional Justice and the Politics of Inscription: Memory, Space and Narrative in Northern Ireland" by Joseph S Robinson, Routledge, 2018. By Rob Fairmichael

"We Irish are always being accused of looking backwards too much. Sometimes, however, we don't look back far enough – or carefully enough, or honestly enough." Dervla Murphy in "A Place Apart", 1978.

On reading the book
I enjoy a challenge, well, not something too much out of my depth. Having been at workshops with Joe Robinson about the content of this book I was keen to read it when published. I had attended a series of four sessions which had been run under the aegis of the Junction (Derry) where he was employed while working on the book, and I had found the concepts explored were excellent. His approach seems empathetic, humane, even-handed and comprehensive.

Reading the book was certainly a challenge for a non-academic 'lay person' like myself who is not well versed in memory studies and related areas and in this piece you can judge how much sense I made of it all – but just reading this review you won't be able to tell how accurate my judgement is, or indeed how well I represent his arguments! And having stated this is it also clear that I may be unable to judge how well he treats the arguments of certain theorists. I deliberately tackled the book in small chunks and soon found I was looking forward to reading the next part. However I was reminded of the Denis the Menace cartoons where Walter (the wimp) enjoys doing Extra Hard Sums, in my case in reading this book it was Extra Hard Words, although to be honest the earlier part is more theoretical and harder going than later.

In this review I want to briefly outline some of Joe Robinson's key concepts before considering what it means for people in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. While primarily based on Northern Irish examples he does, very usefully, refer to examples from other places, e.g. the USA and Argentina. Obviously the book applies primarily to people in transitional societies but lessons could be drawn for anywhere, and he does make the point that many countries can be considered transitional.

No full stop
It is quite clear from early on (e.g. page 11) that Robinson rejects the idea of a 'full stop' for victims, basically telling them or their loved ones to stop being victims and get on with their lives. Furthermore he wants to 'rehumanise' victims so they become themselves, valuable and fallible human beings, neither a statistic nor a martyr. He argues that "only through rehumanising the victims of political violence can we truly undercut the tautological and vicious internal logic of the state of exception*. Only by demonstrating the vibrant qualities of a human life, and making the places through which that vibrancy can be communicated, can we truly challenge and resist the recourse to violence, past, present, and future." (pages 12-13). * by 'state of exception' he is referring to justifications for killing because of the special circumstances that a group claims in relation to whatever category the person or group feels deserve to die.

He is also scathing about the Good Friday Agreement referring to its, in academic terminology, "pseudo-democratic and overtly anti-pluralist consociational structure", although he does not analyse this in detail (page 15). On the failure of the Bloomfield, Eames Bradley, and Haas O'Sullivan reports and efforts on victims, survivors, and moving on, he concludes that "All fundamentally underestimated the need to address the difficult memories of the Troubles in public space." (page 16) All of this may seem quite damning but his arguments are generally well argued
Furthermore, Joe Robinson sees 'reconciliation', and the demand for reconciliation to be delivered through some sort of 'full stop' approach to have totalitarian overtones (page 16) and be based on a 'cult of the future' as opposed to a 'cult of the dead'. He summarises the division on this issue (page 25) as "Northern Ireland is spatially dominated by two dialectics: one that justifies and legitimises past violence, and one that suborns the past to a shared future and the reconciliatory imperative." I agree that 'reconciliation' as a demand, rather than the outworking of a process, is dangerous and counterproductive.

Robinson looks at the origins of transitional justice (page 37) and the evolution of social memory studies (page 42). He is critical of Freud, Nietzsche and others (page 45) and analyses a variety of theorists in the field. He speaks more favourably of Maurice Halbwachs but also critiques his approach. In relation to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (page 58) he concludes that "by enacting or attempting to enact symbolic closure, the TRC commissioners led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu created an implicit (and sometimes explicit) dichotomy between the right way of speaking for the dead and the wrong way." Referring to work by Hamber and Wilson he writes of the "aim to construct a consensual memory product that is largely depolicitised, a unified, coherent grand narrative of past violence that celebrates 'moving on', 'reconciliation' and 'forgiveness' as the 'correct' way of remembering a violent past." And while Desmond Tutu is undoubtedly a man of courage and integrity who has great achievements, in regard to Northern Ireland I would say he did not cover himself with glory in what seemed to be forcing a false reconciliation on a victim in the BBC Northern Ireland programme "Facing the Truth" in 2006. This was searing to watch and seemed highly inappropriate.

The state of exception
Robinson considers the evolution of the concept of 'state of exception', and Giorgio Agamben's development and analysis of the subject, how justification of killing comes about. Understandably – and scaringly - (page 63) he says Agamben "argues that the modern western state has proclaimed a supposedly temporary state of exception in response to the 'Global War on Terror' that is fast transmuting itself into a permanent state of existence." This is a common enough analysis. Robinson concludes (page 66) that "the state of exception is an institutional fiction with the power of performative reality that facilitates the suspension of the citizenship and humanity of a political subject in response to a constructed state of political crisis."

He then goes on to take a detailed and fascinating look at republican, loyalist and security force justifications for their state of exception which is one of the highlights of the book, including that (page 83) "British policy bears a significant responsibility for catalysing and legitimising the republican state of exception." Personally I feel clear that the British state only backtracked on its 'state of exception' when it realised it was counterproductive to its aims; human rights pressure did have an impact but the very slow realisation that creating martyrs did not assist its aims was a bigger issue. And, with one or two remarkable exceptions (e.g. Bloody Sunday) the British state remains unwilling to be open on what it was up to, or indeed to pay to help others find truth and at least partial closure.

Joe Robinson rejects the concept of a hierarchy of victims or perspective (page 104) but he also rejects the notion that everyone is equally blameless. His approach here borrows from Primo Levi's 'Grey Zone' (page 106), "the zone of moral ambiguity where there is no possibility of simple guilt or simple innocence". This is developed into empathic dissonance, contradictory views which "if they are contradictions....are necessary contradictions." This holds fluid conceptions of guilt and innocence, not equating everyone but on the other hand not rejecting the notion that perpetrators who died or were injured were also victims, and not building a formalised hierarchy of victims. This is a difficult area but given the conflicting Truths of a situation like Northern Ireland, is a human and humane response. He does however recognise the therapeutic nature of straightforward concepts of guilt and innocence for the family of victims.

The understanding which is shared of places of memory in the book is an interesting one. He says 'sites' of memory have to be understood in the broader context of 'places of memory' (which includes non-material aspects). He talks of 'places of haunting' (where the past haunts the present) and of 'dead bodies' as a current concept. Some of this is understandable but difficult in terminology: "dead bodies may live on after they have perished, especially if the manner of their death is significant and social actors feel a need to be haunted by them." (page 121) One of the most moving sections in the book (page 125) is where he deals with "The wedding photograph" where all but the bride in a wedding photo (four out of five) were killed by the IRA around 1984 as members of the UDR in West Tyrone. He deals with the intricacies of killings on different sides, all very moving.

Remembering and splintering
He looks at how different victims and groups of victims are remembered and memorialised, and does so in a positively critical manner. He also looks briefly at resistance to violent inscription (memorialising of those who were involved in the violence). In terms of family remembrance, there is a detailed and empathic account on 'Remembering Terry Enright', a youth worker and parent from Turf Lodge, Belfast, who was shot, aged 28, in 1998. The family took control of how he was remembered and have done an enormous amount of work to turn a tragedy into a positive opportunity for young people in the area. This example is the polar opposite to the objectification which often happens: "The danger is when the politicised object colonises the body entirely, and for whatever reason or whatever variety of reasons – political, social, or personal, forces the ghost to repeat, over and over again, the same ritualised narrative until the narrative takes over the body entirely." (page 188)

Robinson argues that today memories in Northern Ireland are splintered, even going separate ways within the individual Catholic and Protestant communities. But he also argues that this is no bad thing. Looking at the examples of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from the USA, he concludes that both serve, in different ways, to close debate and thinking rather than open it up; " ..the production of 'national' or large-scale places of traumatic memory can in fact prevent the type of dissonance and empathic unsettlement I have argued is crucial to facilitate an ongoing critical reflection..." (page 191). He portrays the Vietnam memorial as being more 'open' than the Holocaust one, in terms of dictating how people should remember, but the point is who is left out of it – the millions of dead in Vietnam and wider south-east Asia killed as a result of US military action there – possibly fifty or sixty times the number of US armed forces personnel killed, a vast differential which is totally ignored.

As to 'splintering memory' in Northern Ireland being a good thing, he argues that it "seems to suggest that Northern Ireland as a whole is becoming more polyphonic, but this unique social reality is being held back and muted by the consociational project, which normalised sectarian narratives, accepted the fictive historical project of the state of exception, and provided no formal political space for institutional challenges to the entrenched legacies of sectarianism that spawned both Sinn Féin and the DUP." (page 206) His perception of the growth of polyphony (harmonisation through different parts) is a fascinating and positive one.
There are a few minor errors of terminology or nomenclature in the book. The 'A' in 'UDA' is for Association, not 'Army' as used at one point, though the Glossary has it right. Ballynafeigh in Belfast is not the 'Lower' Ormeau Road which is generally agreed to begin on the city side of the Ormeau Bridge on the river Lagan. And I very much doubt that an interviewee spoke favourably of the Salvation Army because he spent his first fortnight in London in a Sally Ann 'hospital' – you can probably blame a strong Norn Iron accent for this take on 'hostel'. But these are minor errors in what is a very well researched and referenced book (there are 25 pages in the bibliography).

Taking the ideas forward
So where to from there? Well, there are certainly numerous lessons for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere, not least that supportive and empathetic tolerance needs to be exercised for those who are dealing with the past and victimhood in their own way, and an emphatic rejection of attempting to 'draw a line' under the past for victims, something which I already felt was oppressive, unfair, and counterproductive.

The comments in this part are principally about the possibilities for civil society. However it would be remiss to let the state off the hook and not point out that the UK state is avoiding its responsibilities on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland as best (or worst) it can. Of course some of the possibilities depend on political agreement within the North, principally between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but there is much more that the state could and should be doing, e.g. in permitting enquiries, in providing funding to allow enquiries and inquests to take place, facing up to its own role in the conflict, and supporting civil society initiatives. Joe Robinson's 'polyphony' should not be an excuse for the state to opt out and pretend it was a neutral player, so pressure should continue for the state to do much more than it currently sees fit to do.

Letting a thousand flowers bloom is one lesson which is why I would be disappointed that a project like Healing Through Remembering does not have more resources to follow up many of the good ideas which it has explored or gathered. A grounded approach, like the production of arpilleras (textiles telling a story  - one which through its medium majors in the experiences of women but does not exclude men) is, I would argue, one valuable 'subaltern' approach, a term frequently used by Robinson. Other such flowers need tended, fed and watered.

Wikipedia defines subaltern in this context: "In critical theory and postcolonialism, the term subaltern designates the populations which are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland." Perhaps I should state, as I don't want to be putting words into his mouth, that by quoting this definition I am not trying to imply that Robinson takes a colonial or postcolonial view of Northern Ireland; this is not dealt with in the book and he deals sympathetically with all victims of the Troubles including UDR members killed (page 125). Intriguingly, since there are very few (and only unofficial) UDR memorials in Northern Ireland (as a British Army regiment, they are in Britain) he argues that 'subalternism' could apply to UDR and even RUC victims given the state's approach. (page 126)
While it is not a topic that Joe Robinson deals with, looking for ways to find encounter between different remembrance approaches could be one way to take forward developing critical approaches to the past. Obviously this needs done in a supportive programme which allows everyone to express their viewpoint and if people rule out the value of learning someone else's approach then, well, perhaps little can be done in that particular area. This is something which some victims' family members (e.g. page 111) have already explored in relation to learning why their loved one died. While re-examination has been done further back in time in relation to Catholics looking at the First World War (as part of the centenaries), I think this has been done at the expense of being uncritical of that bloody and unnecessary slaughter of many from a whole generation.

Learning about the real person behind the image, rehumanising in Joe Robinson's approach, is certainly necessary. But essential as rehumanising victims undoubtedly is (and humanising all people in the contemporary setting), I feel it is not enough to help Northern Ireland overcome violent antipathies and move it beyond the possibility of killing fields and streets in the future. I would argue strongly that education regarding conflict, and the possibilities for second or third person nonviolent approaches to it, are an essential ingredient in this regard.
The states of exception that took hold in Northern Ireland did so because people saw no alternative. Killing people was possible not just because the enemy was dehumanised but because those willing to jump in at the deep end did not know what else to do. I would argue strongly that there was, and is, an alternative in terms of nonviolent political struggle (second person) and mediative approaches (third person interventions). But if people didn't know or see that, and didn't understand the possibilities, then they did not exist in practice. Where this is the case, then or in the future, society is vulnerable to such states of exception becoming a common norm. Caveat cives ('Citizens beware'). Of course dealing with the fractured nature of society is also a sine qua non of building a peaceful society in Northern Ireland.

Reading the book has also reinforced my feeling of the value of producing peace trails for Ireland, inscribing in space and sites (the terms are differentiated in the book and approach) alternative narratives about peace, justice, inclusion and sustainability but also ones which, in linking with the existence of groups today, reach out to a future which is not oppressive, literally or metaphorically. The book, as previously mentioned in this review, deals with the danger of emphasising reconciliation and the future so much that there is no space for the past or remembering and dealing with the past, an attempt to airbrush the past out of the picture (a point he makes in relation to Belfast city centre, including on pages 119-120, and I agree with Joe Robinson in opposing this sterile approach). This can be dangerous not only because grievances fester but that those who do not deal with the past may be destined to repeat it.
Peace trails are designed to tell different stories to the narratives which are normally shared. In the context of Northern Ireland this is not in any sense to deny either the existence or the message of other narratives (Orange, Green, State or even bourgeois middle class disengagement) but to add to them in a way which may help to take people towards a positive future through an awareness that there were – and are - always people working non-violently for change, and who rejected the state of exception and challenged the dominant sectarian divide. Peace trails in Northern Ireland are not just about the Troubles and civil strife but that is an essential element.

Unfortunately this book is priced at a high academic level, UK£95 hardback, or about UK£31 for the e-book. So you may want to beg it or borrow it from a library or institution. But would I recommend it as a valuable addition to the field? Unhesitatingly. Having enjoyed the challenge of reading the book I feel like I have attended a masterclass on dealing with and remembering the past, and that is intended as a high compliment. Joe Robinson's own take, well worth reading, on how he came to write the book can be found here.

Copyright INNATE 2016