The question of representation is a key issue in the issues of commemorations, many of which have had their ownership taken by the very individuals who are viewed as embodying the antithesis of the communal spirit evidenced at such events. This ownership is seeking to emphasise the exclusivity of a community, while binding that exclusivity to dysfunctional rhetoric so many in these communities have sought to move beyond.
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By Dr. Orna Young
As I stood at a parade to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force, it struck me how history has been negotiated in Northern Ireland to effectively constitute meaning in the present. This meaning is mediated and is responsible for what we view as collective identity and the exclusive events and cultural practices which take place in its name. To an onlooker, yesterday’s parade and celebrations may be considered evidence of how history aids in forming community cohesion and group solidarity, as it provides us with a cultural reference point. For the families, couples, groups of friends and children at the parade, the cultural reference point presents itself as belonging and recognition of community. For others (particularly those participating in the parade itself) it is the culmination of so many evenings spent practising, bonds of solidarity, the identity of their area and an inherited, inter-generational practice. To dismiss parades and commemorations as cultural muscle flexing is therefore misunderstanding the embedded and important meaning their historical basis provides communities with. Such analysis seemed lost on a blustery Saturday afternoon where the main focus seemed to be on the costumes; small children imitating those in the parade; and others singing the lyrics to the songs being played. I was struck with a sense of pride, of shared experience, and my own feeling that as observers we, the crowd, were being granted a small and fleeting insight into what this aspect of their identity means to members of these bands.
For many events and commemorations jar with the political rhetoric attributed to them. A man in a mask erecting flags on the Newtownards Road seems far removed from a baton-throwing four year old girl at a parade with her parents. The question of representation is therefore a key issue in the issues of commemorations, many of which have had their ownership taken by the very individuals who are viewed as embodying the antithesis of the communal spirit evidenced at such events. This ownership is seeking to emphasise the exclusivity of a community, while binding that exclusivity to dysfunctional rhetoric so many in these communities have sought to move beyond. The assertion that the appearance of the Ulster Volunteer Force (U.V.F.) on multiple flags means the same thing in 2013 as it did in 1913 just simply cannot be defended. The letters ‘U.V.F’ illicit a dramatically different response in 2013; a bloody forty year conflict has ensured that.
Rather than historic revisionism, it is perhaps in this case helpful to consider it as historic reassignment; the same letters yet they now conjure up a dramatically different picture. Some may argue that there is indeed continuity between the idea of the resistance of Home Rule in 1913 and the resistance of current political arrangements in Northern Ireland. However, there is one marked difference; resistance in the current cultural context does not have the same support as it did in 1913. The emphasis on commemoration therefore moves towards a sense of essentialism; towards difference and ‘otherness’, to a differentiated sense of community. Remembering or marking becomes another means by which conflict is reconstituted, another tool to set us all apart.
The question must therefore be asked, with the decade of centenaries upon us, how do we give equal access to our own history? How do we reclaim historical events and retrieve them from those who seek to endow them with their own narratives, agendas and prejudice? How do we share our history?
Dr. Orna Young is a researcher working with the Institute for Conflict Research, Belfast. In her role she specialises on issues related to conflict, peacebuilding, human rights and social transformation. Orna holds a PhD in Politics from Queen’s University Belfast, where she researched the nature of conflict transformation and peacebuilding in interface areas of North Belfast. Her wider research interests focus on alternative applications and considerations of conflict transformation and social capital, as well as urban conflict and group identities. Orna is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.
The article was originally published on Orna Young’s blog, ‘Thoughts on people, peace and power’.