Friday, 26 June 2015

Commemoration in a divided society

The following is an essay I memorised as revision for a recent exam around the issue of remembrance and commemoration in our post conflict society.  It is quite long but I hope you enjoy.



‘A concealed wound will never scab.’ (Levy, Haaretz Daily Newspaper, May 2015)

This essay will evaluate the concept of commemoration with a particular view on how we commemorate in a society emerging from political conflict.  I will discuss the meaning of commemoration as well as the way it is done in both the private and public realm. I will do this by giving examples of what certain theorists have written about the subject.  To address this question I will focus on the pros and cons of commemoration in deeply divided societies and how commemoration itself can become a political battlefield which can be corrosive to the victims of violence.  I will conclude with attempts to create a new vision of commemoration which views the past as something that can be changed for the better.

Remembering is for both the individual and for society.  It can be done in private and in public.  It can be intrapsychic and interpersonal.  Remembrance refers to the ability to recall past occurrences or to keep in mind some place, person, or event.  The Latin meaning of commemoration stems from com – altogether; and memorat – relate: to remember together.  Commemoration is remembrance in action.  It may be enacted as a ceremony or as a permanent memorial.  How we remember the past is determined by the nature of the past.  In wars fought between nations the acts of commemoration will be different than those fought intranationally.

The old adage ‘History is written by the winners’ stands the tests of time for much of what is put forward as historical fact.  The exploits of the winners and its heroes are mythologised with subsequent generations encouraged to revere them.  Hobsbawm echoes this maxim with the notion of ‘invented tradition’.  This is defined by a set of practices which are used to inculcate certain values such as loyalty, patriotism, and duty in order to cement group cohesion.  Certain memories are selected, popularised and institutionalised to fit the chosen narrative.  Historical memory is used as a method of control in the here and now.

Different dynamics can also determine how a society remembers its past.  Within deeply divided societies wracked by violence there is usually a contested narrative of who is to blame; who won; who lost; who should be remembered; and who should be forgotten.  In situations where there are no clear winners or losers this is especially evident. 

Northern Ireland is one such example.  The peace settlement in NI was a negotiated one.  The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a consociational agreement; a negotiated peace.  The matter of who won and lost was not settled.  This now plays out as a meta-conflict, a conflict about the conflict.  Different counter narratives run side by side.  There is no agreed master narrative upon which to remember and commemorate.  However this does not suppress commemoration or memorialisation.  Fitzgerald (2008) notes that, ‘Northern Ireland is living proof that commemoration is anything but repressed.  Every town, every village and every group in Northern Ireland has been engaged in some type of commemoration’.

This contestation can manifest itself in the arena of victimhood.  Victims and survivors get caught up in the ongoing meta-conflict; where the violence has ceased but the enmity lives on.  Victimhood get mired in what Buruma calls ‘the Olympics of suffering’; colloquially known in Northern Ireland as ‘whataboutery’.  The actual suffering of the victims themselves is disregarded for the arguments of ‘who’ is actually doing the suffering and ‘who’ caused it.  It is ostensibly a single identity issue suggests Nagle (2008).  Only ‘our’ group can be remembered and not ‘yours’ is the prominent discourse.  Nagle points out that despite several consultations into proposals for non-physical and physicals memorials to the victims of the ‘Troubles’ none have been implemented.

The ‘hierarchy of victimhood’ argument has contributed to this impasse claims Nagle.  Many victims and survivors cannot countenance any moral equivalence which says that dead paramilitaries are the same as their innocent loved ones.  ‘Terrorists’ are undeserving of victimhood recognition and therefore have no place on a memorial for victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland.  This is evident in the multiple and ongoing attempts to have the legal definition of a victim changed to exclude paramilitaries.

This divisive paradigm manifests itself in single identity memorialisation and memory performance notes Nagle.  This direction, Nagle argues, further perpetuates victimhood, with paramilitary modes of commemoration being the most intense.  Murals, parades, plaques, rolls of honour which invoke the horrors of the past and what Ricoeur calls ‘epoch-making’ events such as Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday or La Mon are used to reinforce the community’s consciousness of its identity and its narrative a la Hobsbawm.

The state is an important player in the politics of historical memory.  Structurally the state has significantly more power than individual citizens and can therefore control the acts of remembrance as well as who will be remembered and who will not be remembered.  Individuals can lose control of the memory or be silenced.  This loss of control is characteristic in societies transitioning from conflict.

The silenced are prevented from healthily mourning and remembering.  Lederach (1997) and Herman (1992) suggest that this is an integral part of the therapeutic, psycho-social, healing process for victims and survivors.  Without space to commemorate victims can stay rooted in, what Winter (1995) calls, ‘crushing melancholia’.

Attempts to supress commemoration can also be counter-productive.  A recent article in the Haaretz newspaper puts forward this view in respect of what Palestinians call the Nakba.  This refers to the period of Palestinian dispossession of their lands and homes during the creation of the state of Israel.  To date the minority Arab population within Israel is not given space to communally remember this ‘epoch-making’ event.  Contested history is forbidden.

The article claims that this stance by the Israeli state is proof of its insecurity about the justness of its cause; and that a people confident in its path would respect the feelings of the minority, and not try to trample on its heritage and memories.  Any reference to the Nakba is seen as an existential threat.

The battle for memory started immediately after it occurred.  All of the villages were destroyed and were covered with trees.  They prevented any mention of their existence.  The concept was one that would erase the memory of a people with trees and suppress its pain and consciousness with laws and force.  This country of monuments forbade any monument to the Nakba: forbade the people to mourn their loss.  Anyone with a rusty key, the symbol of the lost homes, is considered an enemy: any sign marking a destroyed village is an abomination.

The more Israel tries to supress the memory the stronger it gets.  The method is counter-productive. A concealed wound will never scab.  The Nakba lives strong in the Palestinian psyche.  It feeds into the sense of injustice and stymies any hopes for reconciliation.

Such problems with contested or suppressed memory call for a more nuanced solution argues McMaster (2008, 2012), who focuses on the history of memory in Ireland.  All history is selective and certain memories are selected to reinforce our identity in the present.  Different groups remember different traumas and commemorate different glories.  Many of these glories which involve the concept of redemptive violence are mythologised; the heroes sanctified.  The cult of the dead lives strong in Ireland.  The blood sacrifice by the ‘men’ of 1916 in the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising top the bill.  This continues down the years with the sanctification of Bobby Sands who died during the IRA Hunger Strike of 1981.

The memories of the leading figures of redemptive violence are invoked in today’s political sphere to gather votes and to bolster legitimacy by appealing to one side or the other.  The recent election result in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency is a case in point.  The successful unionist candidate claimed that ‘…this is not Bobby Sands’ seat’, much to the dismay of the republican side who had staked this claim when Sands won the seat in 1981.

McMaster appeals for the recovery of ‘lost voices’ as a counter story to the prominent discourse of commemorating acts of redemptive violence.  Subsequently, there have been calls to memorialise the forty children who died during the Easter Rising in 1916 as part of next year’s centenary commemorations.  These forgotten children, who lived mainly in the tenement slums and were caught in the crossfire, have had no place for remembrance in previous decades.

McMaster calls for an ‘ethical analysis’ of Irish history as a way building peace and reconciliation into the future.  Such an ethical analysis would probe, evaluate, critique history in a way that could promote a shared, common understanding of history.  To move beyond the sectarianisation of history and the exclusivity of commemoration.  To see past the victor/victim categories and the zero sum politics.

This could lead us into new, more positive and healing ways of memorialising out past.  Innovative inclusive attempts to commemorate the past in Northern Ireland are scant with one exception being Healing Through Remembering’s Day of Reflection (HTR 2007).  This project initiated a series of events to enable and encourage people to reflect on the conflict, on our own attitudes, and on how to ensure that the conflict can never happen again.

It may take decades for before any permanent physical memorial to all of the victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland could be erected.  Memorials such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Wall.  Such memorials, claims Hamber (2006), can provide ‘symbolic reparations’ and can help to ‘concretise a traumatic event, aid and individual to come to terms with it, and help label responsibility’.  Nagle views such memorials a focal point in the grieving process which allow a safe space for individuals to channel their emotions in a therapeutic way; as something to physically touch and make a symbolic exchange.


In conclusion, this essay has has given an overview of the concepts of remembrance and commemoration touching upon the need for both private and public acts.  I focused upon the power of commemoration in the politics of memory.  This is reflected in the struggles people face when attempting to commemorate in societies emerging from political conflict which manifests in the contestation of victimhood.  Some of this manifestation can be corrosive to victim recovery.  I gave examples of people pushing back against suppression.  McMaster asked us to invent a new history; a history free from the violent shackles of the past.  A future which embraces positive remembrance and commemoration.  A future of hope.

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