Human beings suffer, they torture one another; they get hurt and get hard. No poem or play or song can fully right a wrong, inflicted or endured, said Seamus Heaney – renowned Irish poet who recently passed away – in his translation of Sophocles ‘The Cure at Troy’.
Recently our news has been filled with revelations about the crimes of the Troubles. Retribution is being sought. Iconic and seemingly untouchable political figures, such as Gerry Adams, are being arrested for crimes committed decades ago.
Meanwhile, the UK government seeks to compensate victims of IRA terrorism with Libyan involvement, and new developments about the horrors of the Omagh bombing are arising. A new wave of justice and accountability is encroaching through the nation.
Great, one might say; justice for all. But, as soon as you take away the vacuum of political ideology, a disturbing question arises. Is justice something that we necessarily want? Is bringing people to account for issues that occurred decades ago really worth it? Is it possible that we are merely rubbing salt on old wounds?
Northern Ireland has made incredible progress over the past years. It wasn’t that long ago that bomb scares terrorised the populace daily, tourism was nonexistent, and foreign corporations were scared to invest, discouraged by a shameful reputation.
Now it’s metropolitan, rapidly liberalising and an increasingly more prosperous place than we could have dreamed of scant few years ago. Why? Mainly because of legislation, like the Good Friday Agreement, that put peace and order before ideology. Where the previously rouge organisation of the IRA was given recognition in the form of Sinn Fein and given a legitimate platform.
Though they may have been criminals under UK legislation, the IRA was given the ability to transition into leaders who are capable of making some, if slow, non-violent progress for the good of everyone involved. If every ex-paramilitary in Stormont was prosecuted for their crimes it would be half empty. This is no secret, everyone knows.
One generation’s terrorist is another’s politician, and who are we to stand in the way of progress? There are things more important than justice. The more we move away from the culture of petty tribalism and blame, the better it is for everyone.
At the risk of sounding sentimental and cliché, I will say that you can’t change the past. It’s immutable. It might as well be a million miles away. But what we can change is the future; the country can move on. The country should move on.
Atrocities were committed on both sides, things that will haunt and scar parents, siblings and children until the day they die. But you can never make right for a lost child or spouse.
I’m not saying that people should forgive and forget, because forgetting something like that is impossible, beyond human nature. But sins of the past shouldn’t weigh down upon the present. The families of those affected may deserve compensation. Why cause more suffering and bitterness when so much has already been caused? Revenge at best is a half glory, and the pain of someone else will never make the victims whole again.
The Troubles were exceptional circumstances and exceptional times, herego terrible things happened. Revenge might feel good, it might even look good, but it’s not going to solve the deep and systematic problems that dwell in Northern Ireland on an almost daily basis. What it does cause is anger, bitterness, and violence – be it political or emotional. It’s a vicious cycle, and a nasty one; but it’s one that can and should be broken.
If we want to make way for the future, we must let go of the past. In societal terms, this means not reinforcing history. Not forgetting, it means dissociating it from the destructive sentimentality that hinders development. It doesn’t mean forgetting the grief, or the anguish, but putting it aside.
We’ve already seen natural, organic development. We know it is possible. All that is left now is to actively pursue it. Putting ideas into action and individuals in societies.
Perhaps best said in the words of the great English poet, Philip Larkin, “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can.”