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'Remembering': Victims, Survivors and Commemoration
From Mourning to Melancholia? The Ambivalent Role of Commemoration
in Facilitating Peace-Building in Northern Ireland.

by Dr John Nagle (2008)
Early draft of paper published in the
Irish Journal of Anthropology, 11(1): 28-34. ISSN: 1393-8592.



This paper explores the potential of commemoration to assist successfully with contemporary conflict transition efforts in Northern Ireland. It asks whether commemoration, as a form of addressing Northern Ireland’s relatively recent violent past, can, as Brandon Hamber (2006: 562) asserts, ‘bolster national attempts to “re-establish” society, and as such have a healing and restorative dimension’. Instead of focusing on solutions to socio-economic disparities, peace-builder John Paul Lederach’s (1997) approach to the psycho-social dimensions of conflict offers a provocative model through which to assess the role of commemoration in creating sustainable reconciliation.


The Janus face of commemoration in conflict transitional societies

Commemoration is Janus faced. As much as commemorative practice often evokes an aura of timeless continuity with the past, commemoration can serve simultaneously as a rite to signify rupture from tradition. In the case of the French and American revolutions, writes Gillis (1994: 8), ‘the need to commemorate arose directly out of an ideologically driven desire to break with the past, to construct as great a distance as possible between the new age and the old’. In societies journeying through the liminal space of ‘conflict transition’ (Lederach 1997), the ruptured face of commemoration is often brought to the fore. This rupture is articulated as an exacting effort to abstain from ancient grievances by advocating redress, healing and reparation, a mechanism to confront the wounds of the past and offer a new and inclusive future (Bloomfield 1998). In classic rites de passage fashion, commemoration, in this sense, marks and then refashions the boundary separating previous identities which perpetuated generations of acrimony and division with a new identity proclaiming reconciliation and a shared future.

In Northern Ireland the present task of commemoration and remembrance could be its possible role in helping to ‘bring closure’ to the past three decades characterized by civil violence, euphemistically titled ‘the Troubles’. Acts of commemoration have thus been identified by a number of agencies, such as the charity-funded NGO, Healing Through Remembering, as a means through which ‘healing can take place for all people affected by the conflict in and about Northern Ireland’. Part of the attraction of commemoration is that it can possess the therapeutic power to cauterize the social and psychological wounds of individuals and communities. By healing wounds opened by conflict, commemoration acts as a final break from a nightmarish sense of history, to paraphrase James Joyce, which Northern Ireland currently is trying to awaken from.

This recurring nightmare has often been perpetuated through commemorative practice in Northern Ireland. Talismanic dates (McBride 2001), such as the yearly commemorations for 1688, 1690 and 1916, are seen as ensuring that the nationalist and unionist protagonists are unable to escape from ‘dancing to history’s tune’ (Bell 1993: 829), a choreography that creates a timelessness around the problem of conflict rendering it impervious to political solutions (McBride 2001). Social memory is thus identified as key to institutionalizing acrimony because it reenacts and recreates the old conflict of opposing ethnic groups (Jarman 1997: 3–4). It is for this reason that Joep Leerssen (2001), following Freud, has identified, the ‘uncanny’ [unheimlich] aspect of Northern Irish commemorative practice. Commemoration in Northern Ireland has been in the form of ‘nightmarish recurrences characterised by their combination of repetitive familiarity and their disconcerting repulsion’ (Leerssen 2001: 222).

This paper explores the possibility of commemoration to successfully assist with contemporary conflict transition efforts in Northern Ireland. It asks whether commemoration, as a form of addressing Northern Ireland’s relatively recent violent past, can, as Brandon Hamber (2006: 562) asserts, ‘bolster national attempts to “re-establish” society, and as such can have a healing and restorative dimension’. Peace-builder John Paul Lederach’s (1997) formulation which addresses the psycho-social dimensions of conflict, rather than wholly fixating on rectifying socio-economic disparities, provides a provocative model to assess the role of commemoration in creating sustainable reconciliation. Lederach’s holistic focus combines two key components: middle ranking organisations (NGOs, academics) who work to engender grassroots, cross-community collaborative networks, as opposed to the top-down diplomatic statist courting of insurgent political leaders; and addressing the past as a means to work towards a collective future in order to establish functional relationships between opposed groups, who view each other through the prism of mutual hatred and fear.

Problematically, however, current peace building initiatives in Northern Ireland are largely dominated by pragmatic top-down diplomatic endeavours which have concentrated largely on eradicating political violence and maintaining peace at all costs (O’Flynn and Russell 2005). These initiatives, predicated on enabling power-sharing arrangements between nationalists and unionists, have been accompanied by the state funding of agencies which ostensibly carry out grassroots ‘single identity’ community rather than ‘cross community’ work. Moreover, because peace agreements have tended to shore up and valorize the differences between nationalists and unionists, the performance of memory, especially tropes of victimhood, continues to express ethno-national distinctions between the two factions.


Peace building in Northern Ireland: a Lederachian perspective

The major issue which continues to confront Northern Ireland is that of building sustainable peace. Top-down diplomatic efforts post-1997 have concentrated on brokering paramilitary ceasefires, facilitating peace agreements, achieving acts of military decommissioning, constituting civil reform and brokering a power-sharing executive between nationalists and unionists with varying degrees of success.
Less top-down approaches to conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, especially those devised by Lederach, look towards a more holistic methodology which encompasses profound reconciliation between the antagonistic parties by sustaining a ‘wide network of relationships and mechanisms that promote justice and address the root causes of enmity before they can regenerate destabilizing tensions’ (Lederach 1997: 26). This focus on reconciliation includes a frame of reference which hopes to build functional relationships between opposed groups.

In Lederach’s (1997) formulation the construction of functional interpersonal and social relationships is predicated on addressing the ‘psycho-social’ elements of conflict as much as tackling pervasive socio-economic and political inequalities. According to Lederach, since conflict flows from the close proximity of opposing groups, long-standing animosities rooted in a perceived threat to identity and survival are reinforced by high levels of violence and the direct experience of atrocities. The conflicting groups’ animosity, perception of enmity, and deep-rooted fear and hatred of the other, cannot be dealt with without being germane to the protagonists’ experiential and subjective realities which shape their existential perspectives and needs (Lederach 1997: 24). The immediacy of hatred and prejudice, of racism and xenophobia, as primary factors and motivators of the conflict, means that its transformation must be rooted in social-psychological and spiritual dimensions that traditionally have been rendered irrelevant or outside the competency of international diplomacy.

Reconciliation, in this analysis, looks towards forging relationships by engaging the protagonists to view each other in terms of a common humanity, ‘as humans in relationship’ (Lederach 1997: 24). A central component of this project is concerned with methods that address the past for both groups ‘without getting locked into a vicious cycle of mutual exclusiveness inherent in the past’ (Lederach 1997: 26). This inclusivity is achieved through acknowledging the other’s trauma of loss and the anger that accompanies the pain and the memory of injustices experienced. As Lederach (1997: 26) explains, ‘acknowledgement through hearing one another’s stories validates experience and feelings and represents the first step toward restoration of the person and the relationship’. Simultaneously, such emphasis on the past as a means to fashion reconciliation works best when it provides a space for people to look forward and envision a shared future. Reconciliation, as Lederach explains, is thus a place, a social space, an encounter in which narratives of the past and future can meet and become singular. Though Lederach recognizes that this simultaneous orientation of melding together the past and the future is paradoxical, this is to be carefully nourished. Instead of prioritizing either the past or the future, providing a space for grieving the past permits a reorientation toward the future and, inversely, envisioning a common future creates new lenses for dealing with the past.


What role for commemoration in peace building?

Lederach’s model for reconciliation does not specifically refer to the auxiliary function of commemoration in sustainable peace-building projects. Nevertheless, a review of literature on commemorative practice can illuminate both the progressive and ambivalent role commemoration can provide in attempts to engender reconciliation. Firstly, commemoration can assist the process of ‘acknowledgement’ in so far as the physical and symbolic acknowledgment of the suffering of victims embodied in commemorative acts can also act as ‘reparations’ (Hamber 2006), apologies and attempts to amend the hurt individuals and groups have caused. Secondly, commemoration can, in some circumstances, help bereavement or the trauma experienced by survivors of human rights abuses. Commemorative practice can achieve this by facilitating a mechanism through which the bereaved and survivors of human rights abuse can simultaneously mediate their grief or trauma and provide a map to work towards an inclusive future. Finally, by facilitating grass-roots cross-community networks to collaborate on commemorative schema, this can help instil functional relationships between opposed groups.

The so-called ‘healing’ properties of commemoration is one specific way in which remembering practices have been identified as facilitating reconciliation in a range of different contexts. Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory and Sites of Mourning (1995), in particular, elaborates how Great War Memorials in Europe acted as a mediating and healing agent for the bereaved. Winter’s approach to conceptualizing commemoration elaborates how the private pain of past experience is alleviated through being symbolized in shared forms. Utilizing Freud’s 1917 distinction between healthy ‘mourning’ and unhealthy ‘melancholia’, Winter asks if:

rituals and war memorials, and in particular the reading of the names of the fallen, and the touching of those statues or those names, were means of avoiding crushing melancholia, of passing through mourning, of separation from the dead and beginning to live again? (1995: 115). 

Healthy mourning for an individual experiencing grief is outlined as a teleological process. Though the individual ‘goes through mourning’, it is a fixed journey that reaches a definite conclusion. When completed, the individual can begin to move on. The mourning concludes when the libido has yielded its attachment to the lost object, leaving the individual free to form new attachments. This progression is narrative as it frames ‘healthy mourning’ as a passage, although often difficult, from point A (attachment to the lost object) to point B (attachment to the new object).

The dire consequences of failing to remember and mourn healthily through commemorative practice have been transposed onto whole societies. The dangers of a society not commemorating, mourning and dealing in a satisfactory fashion with the horrors of the recent past were outlined by the Mitscherlichs (1975), two German psychoanalysts. Like Winter, they also applied Freud’s distinction between ‘mourning’ and ‘melancholia’ to the collective inability of Germany to mourn through confronting the nation’s then recent Nazi past. The ability to recall whole segments of the national past faded away, leaving destructive blank spaces in individual autobiographies and creating patterns of intergenerational complicity and conflict that contributed to a culture of alienation from the indifference not only to the past but ‘to anything that entails responsibility’ (see Gilroy 2004: 107–108).

To assist healing at the individual and societal level a broad range of commemorative templates have been identified by theorists for facilitating healing, from melancholia to mourning. More permanent commemorative practices, particularly statues and monuments, can be seen as assisting the mourning process by encapsulating and containing the sense of grief – relegating it to a certain location, for example. Greg Forter (2003: 139) comments on this process, pointing out that ‘mourning helps us to relinquish real objects by building psychic memorials to them –the memorials we call “memories”’. Physical memorials can help the mourner resign (decathect) the traces of the lost objects by rendering them memorable for the first time. In the context of conflict transition, memorials can provide what Hamber (2006) calls ‘symbolic reparations’, of making amends and trying to redress in some way the wrongs meted out to individuals and groups. For the bereaved, symbolic reparations, like memorials, ‘can help concretize a traumatic event, aid an individual to come to terms with it, and help label responsibility’ (Hamber 2006: 566). By serving as a visual representation of what was lost, the commemoration acts as a focal point in the grieving process, allowing individuals space to channel their emotions and address them in a focused or specific way.

Many modern forms of commemorative practice work seem to function best when they include a space in which individuals can make symbolic exchanges, votive deposits and gift-giving to and with the dead. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Wall, for example, allows the individual to see and even touch the names of the dead as well as to leave secret messages. Other forms of symbolic exchange can include ‘flowers, flags, letters, poems, photographs, teddy bears, dog (identity) tags, wedding rings, high school yearbooks and other offerings’ (Doss 2002: 66). Such symbolic exchange has almost become the defining feature of contemporary commemorative practices, many of which seem to spring up in spontaneous fashion overnight in what Jack Santino (2001) has termed ‘spontaneous shrines and the public memorialisation of death’. At the location of Princess Di’s death, at the site of the demolished World Trade Centre in New York City, or at ‘Memory Fence’ (Doss 2002), as it was quickly called in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing, people came to adorn sites with tributes as tokens of remembrance, while people who lost family and friends in incidents added personal belongings which they regularly attended to. Regarding ‘Memory Fence’, Erica Doss (2002) notes that some 50,000 items had been left. Items placed by families and survivors were left indefinitely, but other materials were collected every 30 days, catalogued and stored in a local warehouse maintained by a museum-trained archivist.

As Santino (2001: 81) notes, these spontaneous shrines mark the sites of untimely deaths. They function as a means of consecrating the death for the bereaved who maintain and attend the shrines by attempting to re-establish some kind of spiritual balance that was upset through sudden, violent, or early death. While the spontaneous shrines mediate or appease the unquiet dead, they further help the living to reconcile the death. Similarly, Kirsten Hass’s (1998) survey of the inventory of items left at the Vietnam Wall demonstrates how the process of leaving personal items assisted with attempts to mediate the dead and the living in order to create an appropriate memory; that is, to make sense of a senseless war, and to make it somewhat meaningful (Santino 2001: 81).

Indeed, as Hamber (2006: 581) stresses, acts and objects of reparation to victims ‘have a greater likelihood of being considered meaningful and of being of value to recipients if they have a direct and personalized reference to the issue or form of suffering they are trying to deal with’. 


Against commemoration?

To state that commemoration can facilitate ‘healing’ without any recourse to critical enquiry, however, is to risk platitudinous sentiment. There is need for clarity when writing about what ‘healing’ means in terms of wounded societies and individuals and the role commemoration can have in facilitating it. For the individual this includes those directly affected by the conflict, whether the bereaved, people who have suffered injuries or been threatened with violence, or those who have been exposed to violence. Problematically, however, such lists run the risk of excluding others. Current, though highly-contested definitions of post-traumatic psychopathology have spread far beyond combat-related stress to include accounts of death or injury (in contrast to direct encounters) (Lerner and Micale 2001). The danger of mapping trauma onto whole populations, like Northern Ireland, is clear. Firstly, the conflict in Northern Ireland was unevenly distributed. Some localities and communities were almost wholly immune from the ravages of violence whilst others were immersed on an almost daily basis. The broadband application of ‘trauma’ ‘has served to further obscure rather than clarify what one person’s trauma might have in common with the trauma of somebody else. The danger of trauma theory is that it implicates us all in an undifferentiated world of hurt’ (Gray and Oliver 2004: 10).

If the relationship between commemoration and healing is complex and ambivalent, at best, is it therefore possible to argue against remembering and commemoration? Or even, just as problematically, is it right to query whether healing can ever really occur? Indeed, as Winter and Sivan (1999: 32) note, what healing does occur ‘is at best healing for a while, and when old age sets in, healing may cease together and wounds re-open. Mourning may never end, and when it seems to be completed, it may re-emerge’. Moreover, Hamber (2006: 576-578) argues that acts of reparations for human rights violations, such as the building of memorials to recognize and give a focus for victims to bereave, cannot repair the irreparable. Such acts, of course, cannot bring back the dead. In fact, in some cases, accepting reparations can be guilt-inducing for survivors, a ‘disrespectful act that betrays the loss they have endured, or the memory of those killed’ (Hamber 2006: 568).

Regarding the case against commemoration and healing, Walter Benjamin avowedly refused to mourn or hold any redemptive hope in commemoration. Considering the vast process of memorialization and commemoration inaugurated in Europe after the Great War, Benjamin ‘steadfastly defied all attempts to heal the wounds caused by the war’ (Jay 1999: 225). Benjamin instead defended repetitive, never-worked-through remembrance. For Benjamin the national memory sites constructed to commemorate the Great War, especially opaque and concealed forms like the Cenotaph, Pyramid and the Mound, sought to justify the sacrifices made in its name. Simply put, never could the horror of the war be transformed into something elevating or ultimately progressive by commemorative practices. To parry shocks through healing practices ‘purchases its fragile peace … at the cost of deeper understanding of the sources of the shocks, which might ultimately lead to changing them’ (Jay 1999: 226). It was not consolation or a superficial anaesthesia-induced ‘closure’ that Benjamin demanded, because this would cushion the trauma to the point where only forgetting would result.

Similarly, for Doss, the ‘spontaneous and, often impermanent, and distinctly unofficial nature of many of these … shrines, grassroots memorials, offering and ritualistic behaviours seem less concerned with producing a critique of historical moments and tragic events than in catharsis and redemption’ (ibid: 60). Wholly fixating on the therapeutic, cathartic and redemptive aspects of commemoration can act to ignore and forget the messy and uncomfortable political causes and historical realities that created bereavement. It is not enough, as Erika Doss (2002: 69) argues, to assume ‘that grieving, in and of itself, is a prescriptive political practice’. Assessing the memorials which sprang up in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine High School killings, Doss notes that a ‘superficial focus on psychic closure – on healing and closure – skirts the causal, historical dimensions of these visibly public deaths. It further fails to provide a shared set of rituals and commemorative forms that might allow citizens to consider critically how to change the conditions that contribute to the culture of violence in America’ (2002: 71). Specifically looking at the memorial solutions offered to commemorate the Oklahoma bomb, Doss writes that the ‘Symbolic Memorial’ contains ‘no references to why the bombing occurred and who was responsible, or to the nation’s history of catastrophic violence’ (2002: 74). Rather than ‘opening a window’ on traumatic events and thus facilitating the stages of mourning – from anger to closure, from mourning to acceptance – the memorials are ‘anaesthetic because the historical and political context of why these deaths occurred has been effaced’ (2002: 78).

Commemorative practice should, instead, provide an educational function. Commemorations, for instance, holocaust commemorations, not only urge us to remember the dead, but it must leave such an effect on its victims that their story must be told to prevent future repetition. Similarly, the civic function of war memorial art is to remind us of a sacrifice which must never be allowed to happen again. The pedagogic aspect of commemoration thus signals the practical synthesis of the questions ‘what’ should be taught and ‘why’, with considerations as to how that teaching should take place. As a pedagogical form, commemoration incorporates a set of evaluations that structure what memories should inform our social imagination as well as a detailed, structured set of operations for presenting and engaging historical representations intended to provoke and sediment affect and meaning. In other words, we should look toward shared commemorative forms that might allow citizens to critically consider how to change the conditions that contribute to conflict in Northern Ireland.


The tremendum horrendum of commemoration

The question of how the past should be addressed in order to establish functional relationships between the opposed Irish nationalist and British unionist groups has been addressed by a number of organizations in recent years. The first major survey was the Bloomfield Report of 1998, which was commissioned by the then Northern Irish Secretary of State. The Bloomfield Report was charged with an inclusive agenda ‘to look at possible ways to recognize the pain and suffering felt by victims of violence arising from the troubles of the last 30 years, including those who have died or been injured in the service of the community’ (Bloomfield 1998). The report advocated a three-strand approach ‘to deal with pain and suffering experienced by victims’. Alongside suggesting that ‘practical help’ should be offered to victims, the report promotes projects to create a non-physical memorial scheme and a physical memorial project. By enlisting suggestions from the public, the report sought to explore ‘the possibility of establishing a new memorial reflecting both the sorrows of the past and hope for a stable future’ (Bloomfield 1998: 8). Some of the suggestions for a non-physical memorial scheme included: a memorial fund which provided financial assistance for victims and a range of cross-community initiatives; a scholarship; a commemorative medal for an assortment of groups and individuals; a day of remembrance/public holiday. Ideas proffered for a permanent memorial incorporated a monument; a memorial park; a memorial building.

Problematically, some of the submissions to the Bloomfield Report were ostensibly single-identity in synopsis: they sought to memorialize only one group at the expense of the other.  Examples of submissions included ‘a physical memorial, but to the victims of terrorists and to the security forces only’, or awarding a ‘medal to all members of the Security Forces who have been injured as a result of terrorism’ (Bloomfield 2000). This partisan approach to commemoration is generally reflective of a more recent survey which showed that, though 64% of those polled expressed support for a unified memorial, only 49% agreed that the memorial should be for everyone, regardless of whether they are/were paramilitaries, security force personnel and civilians (Cap Gemini Ernst & Young 2001).

Although the Bloomfield Report generally received a positive response from victims, especially for the practical measures it advocated for victims – like reviewing compensation laws for victims – the proposals for a non-physical and physical memorial scheme have as yet not been implemented.  At present, despite some commemorations in Northern Ireland making reference to ‘all the victims of the Troubles’, there is no single memorial to the victims of the conflict from all sides.

Predictably, one reason why a significant constituent is unwilling to countenance an inclusive commemoration is a preexistent ‘hierarchy of victimhood’. Many simply do not want to consider a commemoration which equalizes say, for instance, dead paramilitaries – those that some would deem as ‘terrorists’ – with civilians killed by paramilitaries. On this issue the Bloomfield Report noted that ‘many people feel strongly that any person engaged in unlawful activity, that is killed or injured in pursuit of it, is only a victim of his own criminality and deserves no recognition for it’ (1998: 14). This reaction, though understandable, can sometimes be manipulated by political organizations which target victims for their own ideological ends (Cap Gemini Ernst and Young 2001; Hamber 2006). Research has found, as Hamber (2006a: 133) notes, ‘a continued high jacking of the so-called victim issue, both in terms of individuals and in terms of defining one “community” or the other as the “real” victim’ (see also Deloitte and Touche 2001; Morrissey and Smyth 2002).




Nationalists and unionists thus participate in what Buruma (1999) has called an ‘Olympics of suffering’, in which competitors compete for ‘superior status for their particular psychic suffering’.  One pertinent reason for why this state of affairs exists is that, despite diplomatic successes regarding reducing the level of politically motivated deaths in Northern Ireland almost completely, the conflict transition phase could be said to be one where the sphere of culture and identity has more than ever become the pursuit of war through other means. In other words, nationalists and unionists are presently engaged in a cold war and the discourse of victimhood fulfils a number of emotional (Hamber 2006a) and political functions. Politically, many of the more macro diplomatic negotiations between nationalists and unionists have not been fully resolved; perpetuating ‘victimhood’ and ‘minority community’ is therefore a powerful trope that can be utilized to try to gain more economic and political concessions on the basis of deserved need and at the expense of the less deserving enemy oppressors.

The performance of memory in Northern Ireland, specifically enacted in commemorative acts, is one particular modus operandi in which claims to victimhood are articulated. This can be seen in how Ulster Unionist traumatic experience is characterized by being constantly under siege, its survival relentlessly threatened. The Protestant unionist self-image, articulated through commemoration is represented as ‘an endless repetition of repelled assaults, without hope of absolve finally or of fundamental close’ (MacDonagh 1983: 3–14). Nationalist commemorations, with its pantheon of dead wrought through blood sacrifices, are an expression of grieving and how ancient grievances sustain the recollection of conquest and persecution (McBride 2001).

Paramilitary modes of commemoration in Northern Ireland, especially, are the most intense in perpetuating victimhood. Paramilitary murals, parades and marches, songs, rolls of honour for the dead, plaques and commemorative DVDs and webpages articulate what Ricoeur (1988: 187) would call the tremendum horrendum aspect of history. This speaks of the horrors of history, those events which because of their nature must never be forgotten. Horror attaches itself to these events. Horror constitutes the ultimate ethical motivation for the history of victims. These events are what Ricoeur has further termed as ‘epoch-making’. These ‘epoch-making’ events, often born from violence:

draw their specific meaning from their capacity to find or reinforce the community’s consciousness of its identity, its narrative identity, as well as the identity of its members. These events generate feelings of considerable ethical intensity, whether this be fervent commemoration or some manifestation of loathing, or indignation, or of regret or compassion, or the call for forgiveness (1988: 187).

Horror and narrative structure can be clearly seen, read and heard in the contemporary commemorative rites of unionists and nationalist paramilitaries and their political representatives. Relatively ancient and recent events and atrocities which loom large in commemorative practices include, for nationalists, Bloody Sunday in 1972, the death of nationalist hunger strikers in 1981, and the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916; for unionists, the ‘sacrifice’ of protestant soldiers at the battle of the Somme in 1916, the massacre of unionist civilians in Teebane in 1992 and on the Shankill Road 1994.

The obvious horror of these events is continually reproduced through commemorative rituals. Typically these commemorations are not embodied in permanent forms, such as statues and public buildings, which delineate what philosopher Nietzsche termed as ‘monumental time’. That is, commemoration marks a selection from the past of the great achievements and pinnacles of the elites to give us an edifying sense that greatness was once possible and is possible still. Instead, the collective will not to forget in Northern Ireland, notes Leerssen, ‘is not shored up by officially instituted public landmarks but persists by traditional renewal, self-repetition and re-enactment’ (2001: 15). It is the mode of rebel songs, paramilitary murals in Belfast housing estates, and orange lodge parades. The constantly replenishing character of paramilitary-inspired commemoration embodies what Leerssen calls the ‘traumatic paradigm’ (2001:215). This expression of history is spoken ‘from the point of view of the losers, the bereaved, the victims’.

Although these tropes of martyrdom and suffering rendered in performances of social memory are no longer used to perpetuate violence between groups, they nevertheless continue to act as ‘a central facet of the ideological armoury of the group, helping to legitimise and rationalise difference by rooting it in the far-distant past and thus placing weight on the primordial or essential nature of the antagonism or otherness’ (Jarman 1997: 6). Moreover, commemoration, because it clearly articulates identity,  can be the target for defacement, desecration and violent attack from the Other. Such actions, as Longley notes (2001: 231), strive to counter-symbolically erase the other’s historical narrative, culture and territorial presence. The psycho-social dimensions of conflict, elaborated earlier by Lederach (1997), which involves animosity, perception of enmity, and deep-rooted fear and hatred of the other, thus continues to be protracted through the lens of commemoration in Northern Ireland.

This paper has briefly investigated the potential of commemorative practice to assist in peace-building efforts in Northern Ireland. Lederach’s (1997) analysis of civil conflict as being ostensibly rooted in ‘psycho-social’ as much as in economic and social disparities is thus seen to require mechanisms to address the past while imagining a new inclusive future. The invocation to remember, in this perspective, is thus seen as vital to the construction of sustainable peace. This process is not  easy, however. As commemorative practice in Northern Ireland becomes ever more a means for nationalists and unionists to compete in the ‘Olympics of suffering’, and as the state continues to fund so-called ‘single-identity’ commemorative work, commemoration retains its divisive rather than inclusive character.



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Web Page Information
Author: Dr John Nagle
(CAIN Research Associate, Aug 2007 - Mar 2009)
Date of first draft: ?? ??? 2008
Dates of modifications:  
Page compiled by : Dr Martin Melaugh
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