Blinding Dates

I have a problem with dates. When I read history, I rarely remember the dates mentioned. In fact, I go out of my way not to remember them. For me, what happened and how it happened is a lot more important than when it happened. It seems to me that chronology only comes into it when you want to consider how or if two or more events were interrelated. Or if you are Columbo.

Actually, that’s not entirely right. Thinking about the events of the last 90 or so years, I find it illuminating to think about an event in world history -say the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War- and map those to the history of my own family and other people I know and think about what they were doing at the time. I find this a useful way of, er, ‘keeping it real’.

When I say dates, I mean it in the more punctilious sense. Like finding some sort of significance in the fact that Neville Chamberlain resigned on 10th May 1940.

With this in mind, I found this article by Jim Gibney a bit odd.

At 11.45am, 16 minutes after proceedings began, all the ministers of the new administration were affirmed. Sixteen minutes of time changed the face of Ireland’s political landscape and set the scene for the next phase of the republican struggle – the countdown to the reunification of Ireland.

This paragraph, and those which immediately precede it in the piece, seem to be an attempt to confer some sense of historical resonance to the occasion he describes, by means of a spot of date-fetishism. This sort of thing -the most prominent examples of late are ‘9/11’ and ‘7/7’, but you also have the likes of 1690, 1916- has always struck me as the first cousin of numerology and astrology. The dates per se have no importance, but they get filled with meaning by those who deem it necessary.

At a personal level, I have no objection to people wishing me a happy birthday. But once you get to commemorations at a collective level, ideology rears its fat carbuncle-blighted arse. (Granted, there is an ideology behind the celebration of birthdays, and then you have political birthday celebrations but I don’t have time for that right now, so shut up) This means that certain interests decide that some things are worth remembering more than others. Furthermore, it takes the ‘thing’ worth remembering, and reinterprets it, usually putting it to some official purpose or other.

So, to use an obvious example, George Bush uses American Independence Day to validate the ‘war on terror’ of his own administration (but maybe this is not such a great example: for him and his handlers, a visit to the barbers is a validation of the war on terror).

I guess that what bothers me about Gibney’s article is that his odd preoccupation with dates is accompanied by a tendentious rewrite of recent history. It is as though the dates are there to lend legitimacy to the history.

This is why his date matters:

‘From this point forward through the operation of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement – the all-Ireland ministerial council, the executive and assembly – all the people of this island for the first time since partition will be part of a single, island-wide political entity.’

This might be true, but all the people of this island have already been part of a single political entity post-partition. It’s called the European Union. To give the statement some sort of proper significance, Gibney has to insert the rather dreary qualifier of ‘island-wide’.

Then there’s this:

On Tuesday the building housed those with a story of a different kind – nationalists. A displaced people, a maligned people, a marginalised people at last found their rightful place at the centre of political power.

Nationalists were not in the main ‘displaced’. Palestinians, for example, are a displaced people. But every Irish nationalist had citizenship rights. Displacement might have meant Craigavon, but we aren’t talking refugee camps here. Second, they were not in the main ‘maligned’. By fearful unionists maybe, but not by citizens of the Irish republic, and not, as it happens, by citizens of the United Kingdom or the rest of the world. Third, nationalists are not -or at least were not- a people. I never once heard someone in an adult conversation say ‘we nationalists’. But this may be the company I have kept over the years.

You get the feeling that Gibney has had to talk up nationalist oppression in order to justify the rather dreary institutions that have been set up after decades of fear, murder and bombing. Then he calls forth a dramatis personae of Irish republicanism, as if their presence in Stormont can serve as a distraction to the fact that partition still exists, and all the death was worth nothing. Yet the facts on the ground -whatever his hyperbole- indicate that partition is still there, and will remain for a fairly long stretch. Not that it matters that much now that we’ve got the EU, though.

He then says:

Bobby Ballagh, Ireland’s leading artist, recalled fallow times when revisionists held sway in the south.

He could have added that it’s now bumper season for revisionists in the north.

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