The Past Is A Different State

Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking that what I see before me when I walk down the street at home is peculiar to that place. So on Saturday afternoon and evenings, I’ll walk around and get irritated by young chaps endlessly circling the town, all thick and shiny exhaust pipes, brash spoilers and engine revs, thrilling onlookers as they proceed at 10 mph along the main street in their automotive performative contradiction. And then I’ll think, only in Ireland -or if I’m feeling generous, only in Britain and Ireland- with its inclement weather, property-driven economy, do you find things like this. On the continent, they’re all hanging out languourously at one of the town’s fountains, drinking Martinis (they may have even brought their own ice), all amiably flirtatious with the coy young ladies in the calid orange sun of evening.

Then you go on the continent, and you find out it’s mostly the same story, only with more reggaeton and zebra crossings.

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, to the matter of ‘our politicians’. Perhaps this is another instance of parochial ignorance on my part, but I am inclined to think that the usage of the phrase ‘our politicians’ is far more commonplace in Northern Irish political discourse than it is in other places.

To give you a few recent instances, from a speech by Robin Eames and Denis Bradley on The Past :

Perhaps the most important people when looking to the future and considering our violent past are our local politicians

Our past was a result of a political problem which our politicians too often failed to address and resolve – this prolonged the stalemate and division.

Our local politicians have a choice – they continue to act in this antagonistic way and use the past for selfish political aims and allow themselves to be guided only by the hurt on either side

These were the last examples I came across, but the phrase ‘our politicians’ rings in my ears from thousands of Radio Ulster and BBC Northern Ireland programmes, often couched by the presenter in cosy terms, as in “what are we going to do about our politicians, eh? Will they ever get their act together? Tsk tsk tsk.”

To talk about ‘our politicians’ like that is to say something about what politics is generally assumed to be. ‘Our politicians’ are there to perform a particular service. One leaves plumbing to the plumbers, farming to the farmers, and politics to the politicians (The way one leaves politics to the politicians is analogous to how one leaves ‘history to the historians’).

By talking about how ‘our politicians’ need to do this or do that, and confining the idea of politics to something that takes place in the sphere of professional services, there is another message delivered: ‘politics’ doesn’t involve the likes of you chumps.

All this talking about how the politicians have failed the people points toward a deeper failure: that of democratic forms. You have to wonder about the character of a state -if it can be said to operate truly democratically- when a condition for it to function is a system of sectarian designation.  And then you also have to wonder: when Eames and Bradley talk about the choices facing local politicians – are they not talking out of their respective headgear? The type of politicians Eames and Bradley are talking about operate within state institutions. If the state institutions are such that they guarantee the profitability of sectarian interest, what difference are the choices of individual politicians going to make?

Another point: whatever the stated independence of the Consultative Group on the Past, the simple fact is that it was set up by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, which means that it operates largely on the State’s terms. You can see the mark of the State in the use of the term ‘The Past’ itself, as though ‘The Past’ were a one-off event that needs investigating, one more problem that requires managing. This is not to say that the group participants are out to produce material that will cast the State in an uncritical light: rather, whatever criticism of the State that arises will be issued within a framework already manageable by the State.

You can see how the fact that this is a State-driven initiative influences the content of the interim report. Victims become Nationalist, Republican and Unionist victims.

The role of the State is minimised:

They came from all parts of our community – the hurt they experienced was caused by Republicans, Loyalists and the State – yet their grief was the same.

And even here:

That elements of the State, on some occasions, acted outside the law and through handling of intelligence it could even be said innocent people were allowed to die. We cannot ignore that, in fact, the State sometimes acted illegally.

Yet it’s the character of the State that prefigures all violent paramilitary acts (Republicans wanted its destruction, Loyalists wanted its maintenance and sought to strengthen it), so a framework of judgement in which the State -or worse, elements of it– appears as just one more actor in a bloody drama is insufficient.

A word on ‘elements of the State’. The Department of Education is an element of the State. If it provides for my education, it means that I am educated by the State. The Army is an element of the State. If it operates a counter-insurgency strategy in which loyalist paramilitaries receive arms to go out and murder me, it means I am murdered by the State. The description generally used for such an event is ‘collusion’. But even that connotes some sort of <i>accord</i> between -in the Northern Ireland situation- State forces and loyalist paramilitaries. But the State doesn’t enter into agreement with other groups: it only engages people to act to pursue its ends. The question of <i>accord</i> distracts from the matter of how the State dealt with citizens who, in its terms and for whatever reasons, constituted a barrier to State power.

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May 2008

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