Tuesday, 16 October 2012
Forget being sorry - just remember it right
I note that Arlene Foster is keen for an apology from the present Irish government for the failure of the Irish government during the Troubles for not being sufficiently efficient in manning the border and putting an end to the activities of the IRA. A short answer to that might be that since Britain imposed the border with the threat of terrible force, Britain should have been the one to patrol it. But that would be dismissive and even unfair. I'm sure Arlene is sincere in her request and isn't thinking how her request might play with her constituents. At the same time, this whole thing of apology is at core pointless. It doesn't change what happened or didn't happen, it's being asked in this case of people who, for the most part, had nothing to do with the events of which Arlene complains, and were it to be made, the past would continue to be exactly the same. Once deeds are done or neglected, they cannot be changed by an apology or anything else.
The best we can do with the past is remember it as it actually happened and try to learn how to do better in the future. I've been reading a bit about an even bleaker period in Irish history, the Famine, for which Tony Blair made a fatuous apology of sorts, and if ever there was an event which was presented falsely in history, it was and is the Famine. Starting with the name. In Irish it's An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, which is nearer the mark although still relatively mild. How so? Well, here are two short excerpts from that time. They were written in the same month by two different sources. Read and then tell me you still think 'Famine' is the best word to describe what happened over 150 years ago, and why its memory scars the Irish psyche to this day.
"Famine - pale, gaunt, ghastly - is walking throughout Ireland, withering up men like the flowers of the field, consuming millions of human beings with the breath of his mouth; and pestilence is following fast behind him to devour what he leaves, and yet there are men who have the hardihood to deny his presence". (The London Universe, May 1846)
"Ireland must in return behold her best flour, her wheat, her bacon, her butter, her live cattle, all going to England day after day. She dare not ask the cause of this fatal discrepancy - the existence of famine in a country whose staple commodity is food - food - food of the best - and of the most exquisite quality". (The Chronicle and Munster Advertiser, May 1846)
Ask the average English person - or Irish person - why so many died in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland. I'd lay odds the answer you'd get would be "Because the potato crop failed". Which is true, but only a half-truth. The other half is a lie of omission, and one which many historians continue to propagate. Reading accounts like that above explain something of Irish people's hunger for Home Rule in the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond.