The historical geographer David Lowenthal claimed that “the Irish do not live in the past rather Ireland’s history lives in the present.” One could add that “the present” is always a moving moment. As we are now 25 years after the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, it is important to engage with what we know about the recent past of the Northern Ireland Troubles and how it is shaped by our contemporary context. One cannot deny that the maintaining of “peace” after conflict has not been a straightforward or linear process. There are many reasons for this. Alongside high-level political crises, the lack of structural changes on the ground have made it difficult to move far beyond what Colin Knox has called “negative peace.” Currently, peace is threatened by the fall-out from Brexit, especially the poor decision-making of both Westminster and their short-term “kingmakers,” the DUP; the heightened importance of the border (and where de facto it lies); demographic changes signaling an end to a built-in unionist majority; and an extended commemorative period that has focused the wider public on the formation of the state one hundred years ago. It has been a welcome intellectual exercise to engage with both Ian McBride’s thought-provoking argument for the framing of the Troubles through the lens of ethnicity and Aidan Beatty’s blog post that looks to the possible return of the robust Irish historiographical debates that were the norm as they reacted to the last decades of the conflict. With such rich material there are many points of departure that one could engage with but I will briefly focus on two: the significance of standpoint, positionality, and disciplinary lens and the need to engage with the structural context, especially in using a post/colonial framework.
One of the most interesting aspects of McBride’s article is his departure from a solely historical-political disciplinary standpoint to explore the recent conflict by deploying anthropological and geographic insights. The use of Boal’s article on territoriality is particularly compelling as it illustrates how concepts such as ethnicity and territoriality can reveal demarcated lived experience on the fracture-lines between the Falls and Shankill Roads, both synonymous with their respective communities, immediately before the conflict. But it seems naïve to label this time as a “high point of community relations” or Boal’s findings as self-evidently true. As with many studies of the Troubles, the lack of engagement with lived experience between partition and the outbreak of the conflict in 1969 is problematic because a cursory exploration of life along the Falls and Shankill Roads reveals that both communities had and still have a lived experience and a memory of cycles of sectarian violence that date back decades. The loyalist paramilitary grouping the Ulster Volunteer Force had from 1966 focused their murder attempts on presumed Catholic civilians by moving across those psychic barriers between the Shankill and the Falls Road, including the areas surveyed by Boal during the period of fieldwork. Indeed, Boal notes in a follow-up reflection on this original article that sectarian violence had been cyclical in that area from at least the 1880s and he acknowledged his own lack of historical context in the original article. For those who work with lived experience and memory from those interfaces (for example, Claire Hackett or Lucy Newby), the reality is almost always more messy than the claim of near neighbours living completely separate lives. Whether through necessity or desire, intermingling occurred due to social, culture and economic necessities. These experiences were elided at the time or conveniently forgotten once walls went up. Guy Beiner’s concept of “forgetful remembrance” serves as a useful case-study in how inconvenient memory can be reconfigured in Ulster, but material culture is also important. Once division solidified along the Falls and Shankill interface – with the erection of temporary and then more permanent “peace walls” after 1969 – the ability to maintain low-level, everyday interactions became greatly diminished. My own grandfather often complained that his overarching experience of peace walls – from the relative distance of the Falls Road area of Broadway – was that he could no longer do his weekly shopping on the Shankill because they made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to cross the interface relatively unobserved.
A conflict like the Troubles not only had different manifestations across time and space – the late 1960s on the Falls-Shankill interface is very different from the 1990s in, say rural Strangford – but also across intersections, especially of class and gender. So while I applaud McBride’s efforts to broaden the disciplinary angles it is important to extend perspectives further and look to what structural logics created and maintained Northern Ireland up to that point as well as what has happened since 1969. The latter includes acknowledging both the materialization of division in peace walls, and public policy itself, have not only maintained but reinforced divisions that impact primarily working-class areas and continues to shape how people navigate those streets. I have argued elsewhere that on the ground materialized division, such as peace walls, have acted as barriers but also increasingly as mirrors. Their presence has reinforced division at low points in community relations in particular locations – mostly urban, working-class communities. But they have also allowed for reimagined pasts to be projected onto those fractured micro-communities through grassroots memorialization processes that have intensified throughout the “peace.” In this respect we must engage with both top-down and bottom-up processes of identity and memory creation that require analysis beyond religion, politics, or indeed, ethnicity.
My last point relates to the use of a post/colonial framing in understanding the longer-term history of the north of Ireland. In employing colonial theories it is important to be explicit about what forms colonialism took shape, over time and place, and whether and how they have receded or been retained in the post/colonial context. I was surprised that the term “settler colonialism” was used in the McBride article without definition in the North of Ireland context and how it is employed in the present. Personally, I do not find settler colonialism – which is a colonial model based on removal and even eradication of indigenous people – a useful category for understanding the histories of this region. Nor should historical colonialism be displaced onto people and their communal identity – settler/native – in framing how it has shaped, and continues to shape, the North and its recent conflict. For me, it is more useful to explore how coloniality, as framed by Walter Mignolo and others, endures through implicit logics and structures. It is clear that coloniality can involve many structural and material forms that perpetuate its logics of division, inequality, hierarchy, and that expose how it categorizes and displays its world view through knowledge production and cultural representation. Through the concept of coloniality one can move beyond the spectacular event to expose what underpins normality, and acceptable knowledge claims and power dynamics, revealing how continuities of division, religious governance, classism, and patriarchy are maintained.
There are different ways to know and understand the recent, conflicted past. Understanding the past is always going to be directed by the politics of the present. This includes considering what research is undertaken, funded by whom, following whose patronage networks, and how it is provided with, or withheld from, a platform in academic and public forums. Perhaps, following the recent Irish Decade of Centenaries, it is now time for us to move beyond overarching political theories of conflict and instead to forefront the intersections of class and gender more broadly. Indeed, I believe we need a quiet revolution – not gendered by the masculinized, ferocious debates of the past – but marked by eclectic approaches and generous allowances for differences of standpoint and perspective. It is time for us to move away from the dominance of grand narratives and instead seek to understand the interplay of absences as well as presences, locate those written out of traditional archival histories, and allow for other experiences – including those of Claire Mitchell’s “Alternative Protestants” - to be retrieved from creative configurations of sources and methods.
Laura McAtackney is Professor in the Radical Humanities Laboratory and Archaeology, University College Cork, Ireland, and Professor of Heritage Studies at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark. She is also Docent in Contemporary Historical Archaeology at the University of Oulu, Finland. Amongst many interests her research focuses on material-based approaches to understanding lived experience and memory in institutions, post-conflict, and post-colonial societies. She has active research ongoing in Ireland on gendered experiences of the Irish Civil War (1922-1923), gendered institutions on the island of Ireland (post-1921) and the Northern Irish Troubles and peace process (including co-editing The Routledge Handbook of the Northern Irish conflict and peace process (2024) with Máirtín Ó Catháin), She is also completing a Danish Independent Research Council-funded project on the US Virgin Island of St Croix, Enduring Materialities of Colonialism.
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