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History as a Liberating, Not Enslaving, Force in Politics

The World | IRELAND

May 23, 1999|Kelly Candaele | Kelly Candaele, a contributing writer for Irish America magazine, has written about Ireland for several national publications

Hume seeks a broader view of the nation-state and Irish identity that reflects the economic and technological changes that require a shared sovereignty and interdependence. He wants to "break the bondage of fear" that divides Catholic from Protestant, nationalist from Unionist. He wants a mental escape, as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney says, "from binary thinking."

Adams, too, realizes that the world has changed. He knows that the only path to peace is through mutual gestures across the boundaries of identity and history that separate Northern Ireland's Unionist and nationalist communities. "If we are to be reconciled with our Unionist neighbors," he told convention delegates, "then we must accept how they see themselves--through a new politics and new ways of dealing with old problems." Acceptance of how Unionists see themselves means engaging their history and culture, not as an inventory of oppression, but with a psychological openness and empathy that is rare in polarized communities.

Soon, Unionist Orange lodges, also established at the end of the 18th century, will be sending marchers through Catholic neighborhoods banging the atavistic drums of their "sacred" history, proving that to remember everything is a form of madness. A "parades commission" has been set up to deliberate the place and times of these ritual marches. So much of Ireland's history now seems on the intellectual and political negotiating table.

An Irish historian once asked in a moment of sardonic reflection whether the Irish suffered from a "surfeit of history." Perhaps the question can be put another way. Can two communities assimilate their respective pasts, not by rummaging through catalogs of atrocities that have embittered them, but by using the lessons of history as a liberating tool? That would be difficult, indeed, but it's possible that history can become less a Joycean "nightmare from which we are trying to awake" and more a source of strength, a healing. The outcome of the continuing negotiations might determine whether the Irish will find a history that, in the poetic cadences of Heaney, is a "glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential."*

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