Time to deal with the past?

As voters prepare for another Assembly election, Northern Ireland’s ‘past’ has again formed a fundamental part of the campaign, with candidates on both sides of the divide repeatedly referencing atrocities committed during the Troubles and motives behind them.

The legacy of our conflict is a sensitive topic; it will not be resolved easily, but we cannot expect to move on until the relating issues are adequately dealt with. We know this will require agreement on both sides; this is why the public discourse around the past has left so many voters deeply frustrated, particularly amongst our younger people.

Despite a somewhat harmonious start to our most recent, short-lived Executive, the conflicting narratives and interpretations of the past held by Sinn Féin and the DUP have been brought to light during this campaign. They also provide an insight into their respective vote ‘bases’.

It is no coincidence that Sinn Féin’s heartlands are found in constituencies like West Belfast, Foyle and Mid-Ulster, areas which experienced high levels of violence during the Troubles. Here, familiar references to the conflict surround sacrifice and martyrdom, calls for ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ for those killed through actions of British security forces.

Last week’s remarks by Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill at a commemorative event for four deceased IRA men in Clonoe, County Tyrone illustrates this point.

Conversely, the DUP has largely held to a robust defence of those who stood against violent attempts to break Northern Ireland’s constitutional union with the UK. The narrative has been one of anger and sorrow over the killings of members of armed forces personnel, particularly recently given the UK government’s investigation of former servicemen for murder and manslaughter.

During the same week as Michelle O’Neill spoke of her praise for the men of Clonoe, in the House of Commons DUP MP Jim Shannon shed tears when calling for an end to what he described as a ‘witch hunt’ against British soldiers.

What this election campaign has highlighted is the sheer incompatibility of the two existing interpretations; while republicans encourage a ‘post-conflict’ political agenda, this is rebuked as a cynical attempt to ‘re-write history’.

Not all those who vote for republican or unionist parties are influenced by or share such views on the conflict and related issues which still linger. Still, we recognise that underneath certain issues highlighted throughout this campaign deep divisions remain and the contrasting narratives can still hold some sway at election time.

More than anything, the fallout shows how long a journey we in Northern Ireland still have to travel almost twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement.

About Matthew Jackson

Matthew is a Phd student in History at Queen's University Belfast. Research interests relate to representations of the past, including commemoration and memorialisation.