Laura Brody

August 15th, 2014

If I have learned anything at all in the past few months, it is that the conflict in and about Northern Ireland is much deeper and much more complex than meets the eye. Although the ‘Troubles’ are often portrayed as being a conflict between two opposing communities, Protestants and Catholics, this simplification engenders the false impression that the conflict is about religion as well as suppresses the existence of divisions within these two wider communities.

The conflict in Northern Ireland is not about religion – it is about territory. Broadly speaking, Nationalists and Republicans (the majority of whom happen to be Catholic) desire to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, and Unionists and Loyalists (the majority of whom happen to be Protestant) desire Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom under British rule. Although religion is used as a political indicator in Northern Ireland, it is not part of a perfect equation.IMG_3710

There are indeed Protestant Nationalists, Protestant Republicans, Catholic Unionists and Catholic Loyalists. There are also those who identify politically and not religiously, or vice versa. Furthermore, there are those individuals, some locals, who do not identify at all with religion or politics in Northern Ireland. In addition to this, the political communities mentioned above are not without their own internal divisions. As the focus of my research was on the Irish Republican History Museum in West Belfast, I will use Republicanism as an example.

Irish playwright and former IRA member Brendan Behan once said that the first item on any Republican agenda is ‘the split’. After a largely inactive period from the 1920s to the 1960s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) split in 1969 between the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA. Violent feuding ensued between the two factions, and as the ‘Troubles’ progressed, several more groups including, but not limited to, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), Continuity IRA, Real IRA, and Oglaigh na hEireann split from these two factions, each with its own political wing.

blog2In order to better understand such divisions, I held interviews with thirteen members of both the Republican and Nationalist communities in Belfast. In each interview I also asked about the relationship between Nationalism and Republicanism. Despite Nationalism and Republicanism being very different from one another, most expressed that the two could not be easily separated. Some argued that Republicanism is a more extreme form of Nationalism, others that Nationalism is a prerequisite for Republicanism, and others still that regardless of undeniably shared values, it is possible for Republicanism to exist without any form of Nationalism at all. I have indeed personally met Republicans in Northern Ireland who don’t believe in the reunion of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

So I will say once again, then, that the conflict in and about Northern Ireland is anything but simple, anything but black and white, and certainly cannot be reduced to a conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Nevertheless, these misconceptions exist and are perpetuated by historical representations of the Troubles that paint pictures of Northern Irish society devoid of reality.

The Irish Republican History Museum contributes to this confusion in some ways, one being its referral to ‘Catholics’ rather than Republicans in parts of its narrative of Republican history. The inseparability of Nationalism from Republicanism, and the relationship of both to Catholicism, results in both communities placing emphasis on events such as the Easter Rising in 1916 or Bloody Sunday in 1972. Thus the museum’s emphasis on such events perpetuates confusion even further about whether the museum is supposed to represent Nationalists in addition to Republicans. Furthermore, Republicanism is presented as a unified movement with no allusion to the divisions discussed earlier.blog1

After spending the summer in Belfast, I have learned that historical representation in Northern Ireland is not as much about the politics of remembering as it is about the politics of forgetting. Common in national struggle museums, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, are narratives driven by self-victimization and the vilification of an opposing community. Such narratives evoke sympathy for the community represented by the museum through emphasis on atrocities committed against that community, the omission of any history revealing aggression from within that same community, as well the omission of any history with the potential to evoke sympathy for the opposing community.

Despite popular belief, then, museums are no exception to bias and can oftentimes be equivocated to propaganda in societies such as Northern Ireland that remain divided. Yet it is important to note that the Irish Republican History Museum, among others, is only selective and not untruthful in its narrative of the past, and that individuals have the right to remember the past in their own way. Whereas historical acknowledgment and commemoration are imperative to addressing the legacy of a violent past, however, what is right for individuals is not always what is right for society (and vice versa). So at what point do we limit the right to the expression of personal memory with the need to move forward through collective memory? It is precisely this question that makes memory so politically charged not only in Northern Ireland, but in all societies.