I was in Omagh last night, talking to an audience that included a selection of History students and their teacher from the local integrated college. We were talking under the general heading of my book title Whose Past Is It Anyway?. Even as we discussed, back on both sides of Belfast Lough, in Carrickfergus and in Bangor, loyalists/unionists were taking a leap back into the past - they were busy attacking the Alliance Party centre and issuing death threats to its members. Why? Because Belfast Alliance councillors had dared to vote - in a completely peaceful, democratic way - for the Union flag to fly over Belfast City Hall on a number of designated days, rather than for 365 days each year. In short, loyalists/unionists had used violence to attack democracy.
In Omagh, our discussion ranged widely. There was quite some time spent looking at the distinction between ‘celebrating’ a centenary and ‘commemorating’ a centenary, with a general feeling that ‘commemorating’ suggested a more thoughtful attitude to the past, seeing what we could learn from it and what no longer made sense. I quoted from Bernadette McAliskey in the book as exemplifying this take on the past:
“The dead are dead - they have no stake in it, they’re not here. They can inform - the past can inform and guide us in our thinking in the present - but we can’t make choices in the present because somebody died at the Somme or because somebody died in the Easter Rising or because somebody signed the Covenant in his blood”.
It was a lively and informative evening. Perhaps the most interesting moment was when a man who was clearly a committed unionist (“When I hear you come on the radio, I do everything short of throwing it out the window”`) made his contribution. He declared that he was celebrating the signing of the Covenant, not simply commemorating it. When it was suggested that it might be helpful to sit down, either with fellow-unionists or better still with natioanalists/republicans, and discuss the different perspectives on the same event and what lessons might be learnt for the future, he was firm. Not interested. Not an inch. End of story.
Maybe it was because he felt outnumbered - there were probably more nationalists/republicans in the audience than unionist - or maybe it was for other reasons. But I remembered the words of Danny Morrison, another of my interviewees from the book. He spoke of the need to “get unionists to relax”. Only when that happens, when they don’t feel threatened, can worthwhile progress be made. The not-interested man in the Omagh audience brought that home forcefully to me. I suppose like other nationalists/republicans, it’s something I tend too often to forget.
On the other hand, I look at an opinion piece in yesterday's Guardian by Gareth Mulvenna, which is talking about the violence at Belfast City Hall on Monday night. It concludes
"Surely parties such as Sinn Fein and the SDLP would not direct such aggressive politics on to the very fringes of society, given that they continually preach about social, economic and political rights? If community relations have been damaged on this occasion, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance need only look in their respective mirrors."
Mmm. If Mr Mulvenna were to look in the mirror, he might see my not-an-inch audience member from last night.