Forwards into the past, backwards into the future.






For a post-Truth Past; an Inverted Present?

There is genuine frustration within what might be described as ‘Middle Ulster’ – a term of art which includes both Unionists and those Nationalists that have not yet been seduced by Sinn Fein mantras. That frustration is in making sense of what passes for political discourse in Northern Ireland, which seems to exist in a land where morality has been turned on its head, where the moral compass has lost its axis.

How can this apparent condition of moral inversion be explained?

At what point did terrorists become ‘victims’? How are those who defended the legal State now considered to be criminals? When did it become a norm that those who refused to support violence are expected to be in debt to those who did? And in what world does being asked to ‘deal with the past’ means you must become the underwriter of a narrative of subversion?

How has this happened?

It is tempting to think of this assault on moral sensibility as being peculiar to our own time and distinctive of a warped present in which we live.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s case has its own appalling character. This syndrome, however, has a universal character and its own peculiar history.

Appalled by not only the excesses of the French revolutionaries but also by the complicity of German academics and poets in romanticising and/or ignoring their effect, Hegel (Who Thinks Abstractly?) described the condition as ‘a kind of slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness’.

Slovenly sentimentality involves what we today would call virtue-signaling – or to use a more dated (perhaps more loaded) term, fellow-travelling – from a broad spectrum who emphasise peace, goodwill and harmony. Those who take this position are often well-meaning, and decent, but the defining characteristic is the wish to be untroubled about the present (this includes many in UK Government). All share a disposition to appease, or to ‘be liked’.

Badness comprises paramilitaries of all hues and involves a deeply-layered strategy to continue the ‘war’ (and criminality) by other means while presenting as part of normality. The claims of the ‘bad’ may seen to be contradictory, but so far this agenda seems to have been pursued with reasonable success. That is because the sea on which they sail is no longer that of terrorist sympathy, but is now the sea of sentimentality.

On the sea of sentimentality sail the vessels of ‘transitional justice advocates’, ‘human rights activists’ and all the usual crew whose rhetoric is virtue, progress and justice but who, perhaps wittingly or unwittingly, feed and foster the self-serving narrative of the bad.

There is a contradiction in this slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness and yet it consolidates, rather than undermines, the agenda.

We find, therefore, that adjusting political culture in the interests of peace (who could disagree with peace and the wholly appropriate ‘sentiment’ of ending the Troubles) has resulted in an insistence that notions of right and justice should not apply. This substitution involves setting aside the rule of law and subordinating it entirely to the demands of politics.

This was starkly evident from the Downey trial and subsequent focus on ‘comfort letters’ – better sounding than ‘get-out-of-jail-free letters’, though we have never learned how many of those letters amounted to absolution and who is there to ask?

We have reached a space where individuals responsible for violence, whether in planning or implementing criminal acts of terror, can displace personal accountability. Murder is represented as part of the generalised ‘human tragedy’ of the Troubles.

We are meant to believe that individuals are not responsible because everyone is responsible. It was not choice or agency of individuals, rather it was ‘conditions’ which made violence inevitable/necessary – it is not possible to attribute responsibility to terrorists alone since there are no clean hands in Northern Ireland’s history. ‘It was the conditions wot made me do it m’laud.’

Consequent to the proposition that everyone was indeed caught up in the situation, by conditions that explain everything, if follows that only some – mostly terrorists – have been held to account for their actions. In order to redeem history by setting the balance to rights, it is now time for others to pay their dues – ‘state actors’ – even if this tends to exonerate terror and condemn the police and army.

The end of this vista may not be the gallows, as Edmund Burke reflected on the consequence sentimentality and badness in Reflections on the French Revolution, resulting from:

“…the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors”.

Today the immediate conclusion certainly means more inquests, more police ombudsman reports, more criminal case review referrals, and more Article 2 cases at the European Court of Human Rights.

This split-mind syndrome is a relationship between a disposition to ‘overcome the past’ (let’s move on) and the need to ‘come to terms with the past’ (let’s go back).

In short, it would seem that at one and the same time people are being asked to move on (but only on the grounds accepted by badness) and to go back (in order to attribute blame, exact payback, and/or punish and excoriate those who bravely held a line against a maelstrom of terror).

The general description for this process would be ‘re-writing history’.

True. However there is another and more critical aspect to the outworkings of this process. It is that the institutions of law and administration – upon which any decent society depends for its measure of ‘right’ – appear to be working against what most people think of as being right, or just.

We can identify this in a number of forms.

First is the inversion of accountability.

Recently, the onus for rehabilitation has become focused on others acquiescing in perpetrators’ storytelling; adopting terminology and phrasing (wouldn’t want to offend the terrorist) rather than demanding that perpetrators reflect on how they could have readily chosen alternative ways of acting. We have seen evidence of this, sometimes unexpectedly, in the slovenly sentimental adjustment to language – ‘combatants’, ‘ex-combatants’, ‘non-combatants’ (bring every actor in to a zone of moral equivalence); ‘no hierarchy of victims’ (except when it suits us); and so on….

Second is the inversion of memory.

Almost 15 years ago Labour MP John McDonnell argued that:

“…without the armed struggle of the IRA over the past 30 years, the Good Friday agreement ‘would not have acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations of many Irish people for a united Ireland. And without that acknowledgement we would have no peace process.”

That sentiment seen then as absurd: at best a selective, and mostly a wrong-headed, reading of history and a morally perverse argument. Yet this has now become a ‘post-truth’ political fact, with little or no effective challenge.

One of the most disturbing effects of the 2017 General Election is that the slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness is now at the heart of a political discourse. The appalling subtext is that slovenly, virtue-signalling, sentimentality fellow-travels with badness and the post-truth fact, the result of which is that for the next generation, for many young people, ‘to make an omelette it is necessary to break a few eggs’.

To which George Orwell’s response to such Newspeak is appropriate: ‘Yes, but where’s the omelette?’ Where indeed?

Third is the exclusion of the majority.

The Haass Report confidently proclaimed:

‘What has happened in the past cannot be changed’.

The concern which many people have – and not just unionists – is that what is happening is exactly the past is changing.

In one of the best books on the mentality of IRA terrorism, The IRA and Armed Struggle, the Spanish academic Rogelio Alonso had an intimation that slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness would write the majority out of history. He asked:

“What place will be occupied in history by those who, with immense civic and human virtue, have resisted using violence, in spite of having the same grievances as those who resorted to terror?”

He thought it essential to delegitimise both republican and loyalist violence. This was the virtuous task of the times for it ‘is a debt contracted by history’.

Implicit too is the view that, unless the historical debt is properly discharged, the past could well repeat itself. Unfortunately, ‘the past’ now seems to be understood only as a dialogue between armed republicanism (sentimentally glossed) and the British state (which colluded against rights, virtue, law and justice). The many are no longer relevant in a conflict of the few.

Fourth, there is historical amnesia:

Henry Patterson once argued that the book Lost Lives is sufficient testimony against such a comprehensive re-writing of history. Can we be so sure any longer?

All that is necessary for slovenly sentimentality to triumph is the dissemination of something more allusive and ill-defined than simple justification of terror.

We have seen the explicit use (or avoidance) of certain words, a domination by the idea of transgression as a consequence of human tragedy rather than human agency; and inversion of narrative by the power of suggestion, rather than story-telling by interrogation of the facts.

One simple example demonstrates the collusion of the slovenly (journalism in this case) and the bad in reshaping perspective on historical fact.

When the Radio 4 Today Programme covered the Report of the Smithwick Tribunal, the BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent presented a summary of the findings on the murder of Superintendents Breen and Buchanan. At one point the Today presenter interjected: ‘All part of the Dirty War, of course’ to which the reporter responded: ‘Yes’.

That exchange represents unreflective collusion, and all the more dangerous for its historical implications and subversion of findings from the Tribunal’s extensive public review of available facts.

The ‘Dirty War’ thesis assumes that ‘one side was as bad as the other’, that one shouldn’t make ethical judgments, and that everyone knows how it was – even the ‘dogs in the street’.

There is no deception involved, or intent of deflection, merely the seduction of the assumed ‘pattern’ or ‘theme’ in history that is a poor substitute for serious historical comprehension. However innocent or inadvertent that example may seem, it carries the implication of a narrative about Northern Ireland’s history suggesting equivalence and justification – equivalence between the acts of terrorists and security forces, justification for the IRA’s campaign.

Fifth, there is institutional inversion.

There is a pervasive sense that institutional structures (from BBC to Courts) are delivering for terrorists and not for victims; or, to put that otherwise, that institutional priorities have become unethically skewed by slovenly sentimentality in favour of the bad and against the good.

Across public institutions, of which much of civic society is viewed as part, there is a comfort and unchallenging tolerance of this narrative (indeed, rent-seeking off the back of this narrative) that feeds widespread public disquiet about the role of institutions and their effect.

One of the objectives of terrorism during the Troubles was to alienate nationalist opinion from public institutions. This has translated into post-Troubles objective to alienate Middle Ulster from public institutions with, whether unconsciously or unknowingly, the inculcation of and slovenly sentimentality of many of those same institutions.

What can be done?

One of the messages of this site is that nothing is inevitable. The strategic success of morally inverting public discourse is not inevitable either.

ThisUnion represents a small contribution towards challenging that strategy.

More needs to be done. There needs to be a recognition of the nature of the strategy, and a more conscious mobilisation against and confrontation with this slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness. This dangerous, all too often lazy, engagement with fuzzy language and false narrative needs to be challenged consistently, coherently and intelligently.

There is a requirement for an active civil engagement – to re-occupy the public realm. We need to challenge and change the language of public discourse.

This is not an easy task; it will be uncomfortable and difficult, but nonetheless essential.

The start point is to acknowledge the task and to reclaim the past for the many who despite the years of violence retained their moral compass.