Voices ‘From Below’ and why we need to start listening

By Kevin Hearty

If we are prepared to tell our own story then we must be prepared to let others do the same…

Some months ago a former member of the security forces accosted me over my monograph Critical Engagement: Irish Republicanism, Memory Politics and Policing. I was accused of peddling ‘untruths’, trying to ‘rewrite the past’, and regurgitating ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘terrorist’ propaganda. This was all on the basis that the analysis contained within the book did not tally with this person’s own lived experiences. In their experience the security forces were not sectarian because they themselves were a Catholic, the security forces did not brutalise people because they themselves had not been involved in this during their own service, and non-state actors, not the state, were the totality of evil because it was their violence that had left an indelible impact on this person.

Setting aside the worrying, yet utterly predictable, fallacy of conflating the researcher with the researched, I do not doubt for a single second that the book would make uncomfortable reading for a former member of the security forces. I also have no qualms in saying that the experiences contained within the book would be incongruous with those of many former members of the security forces. Yet here’s the thing; they weren’t meant to be. In fact, the opening pages explicitly point out that it would examine Irish republican memories of policing and that this would necessarily come at the expense of exploring other policing narratives. Other worthwhile works that examined the legacy of policing from other perspectives were nonetheless signposted and there was even acknowledgement at certain junctures that particular tropes of the Irish republican narrative were likely to be rejected or challenged by others. This, judging by the person’s reaction, was not enough though. Seemingly they would have preferred if Irish republican experiences of policing were not examined, so that they themselves would not have to uncomfortably recognise that there are experiences of the conflict that lie beyond their own jaundiced view of the policing legacy. Of course, their view of the policing legacy is no more jaundiced than that of the Irish republicans who were kind enough to tell me of their experiences, but at the same time it is not any less jaundiced either.

The genesis of the problem is that what are packaged as ‘official’ accounts of the conflict have tended to reflect the experiences of the person who took umbrage at the book rather than those who told me their stories. These ‘official’ accounts were written for the most part by a compliant media under state influence. The problem with this is that the state, despite its own insistence, was not a neutral party during the conflict; as a simple matter of logic, then, the narrative pieced together by the state cannot be an apolitical narrative that reflects the totality of different lived perspectives. What this ‘official’ narrative does, however, is to reflect the voices and experiences the state wants the world to hear while excluding the voices and experiences it does not want the world to hear. Some experiences, like those of the security forces, get hyper-visibility while other more problematic experiences, like those of the victims of the many forms of state violence, get cloaked in invisibility. Ironically, if perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these same media outlets are today peddling the same line through their trenchant opposition to the ‘legacy scandal’ and the ‘rewriting of the past’ – even recruiting some fellow-travellers within academia to bolster their position.

When these excluded voices ‘from below’ are finally taken out into the open to be examined and discussed, the immediate reaction by those discomfited by them is to dismiss them as a ‘rewriting of the past’. The natural rejoinder to that, of course, is that if the past was so inadequately, so self-interestedly and so partially (mis)written in the first instance then perhaps it ought to be rewritten after the conflict to recognise and accommodate new experiences, new voices and new perspectives that are slowly emerging. Denying any discursive space to these experiences does not mean that they didn’t happen, nor does it mean that other experiences are somehow ‘untrue’. What it reflects at the most fundamental level is that any account of the conflict, whether written or spoken, will be intrinsically rooted in the experiences of any given individual during the conflict.

The many different facets and dimensions of any given individual’s life provide a rich narrative plurality for the conflict to be understood, examined and studied from multifarious perspectives. Indeed, it is such thinking that underpins the proposal for an Oral History Archive (OHA) to be set up under the Stormont House Agreement. If the OHA is to fulfil its purported remit then it will by necessity have to accommodate disparate and often contradictory experiences and narratives. This doesn’t mean that it has to say that some submissions are ‘true’ and others are ‘untrue’; no, it simply has to give the requisite narrative space for these experiences to be told and heard. There will be some experiences that many of us can identify with but there will likely be just as many – if not more – that we cannot identify with. That doesn’t make these experiences ‘untrue’ nor does it mean that the person presenting them is trying to ‘rewrite’ the past.

There is a plenitude of existing written and spoken accounts of the past that most of us will struggle to connect with through our own lived experiences. Can many of us connect with Tim Brannigan’s experience as a mixed-race former republican prisoner from West Belfast? What about Sam McCrory’s experience as an openly homosexual loyalist paramilitary? Can the majority of victims in the North of Ireland identify with Timothy Knatchbull’s experience of spending time at exclusive schools, and in the company of high society, including the British royal family, as he struggled to come to terms with the loss of his twin brother, grandmother and grandfather at Mullaghmore? We can’t and we don’t on any number of levels, yet who would summarily dismiss them as ‘untrue’ because they do not correlate with our own lived experience?

If we are prepared to accept that as many people as possible should write or tell their own lived experiences of the conflict via the OHA (or any other oral history or memory initiative) then we must also accept that this presents a concomitant need to accept that this applies equally to those with contrasting lived experiences to ourselves. Telling our own story has to come, necessarily, at the expense of being willing to allow others to tell their own story too. We don’t have to agree with it, we don’t even have to like it, we just have to accept that they have a right to tell it no matter how uncomfortable it might be for us to hear it.

(Image: Surveillance Mast at Castlereagh Holding Centre, Burns Library, Boston College Flickr)

Dr Kevin Hearty is a post-doctoral research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast in the School of Law. The themes of his research are in transitional justice, human rights and the politics of memory. His book ‘Critical Engagement: Irish Republicanism, Memory Politics and Policing’ was published in 2017 by Liverpool University Press. He tweets on @hearty_kevin. 

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