A lesson in French is a lesson for Ireland
A new book on twentieth century French history was published last July. Written by British historian Ron Kedward, it's called La Vie en Bleu and examines not just the events of French history in the last century, but the changing attitudes of the French people to La France and to their own history.
The book's last section, Issues of Identity 1960-2000, raises a lot of questions relevant to places beyond France. Here, for example.
French people have been obsessed with memories of major cataclysmic events that hit the country in the twentieth century: two disastrous wars, occupation, loss of empire and more besides. The memories you choose to dwell on and how you interpret them define the way you see the place you live in. France's great hero General de Gaulle, president in the 1960s, carefully constructed a myth of Resistance and Liberation as the defining features of twentieth century French history.
For people of de Gaulle's age that 'official' myth provided an honourable and justifiable explanation of the major event of their lives. It wasn't true but it was comforting and reassuring. The fact is that despite 'Allo 'Allo and its jolly conspiracies against comic Nazi occupiers, most French people played no part at all in the Resistance which, as an organisation itself, played little part in the Liberation: before 1944, to all intents and purposes, it was invisible.
In 1968 de Gaulle was turfed out and a new generation began to construct its own history, first looking at France's recent ignominious departure from Algeria, led by de Gaulle, then backwards to the defeat in Vietnam, then back again to examine what their parents had, or in most cases, had not done in the war. This picking at old scabs their parents had healed produced much pain and acrimony. There were attempts to ban some films and TV programmes about the Second World War and the behaviour of French troops in Algeria in the 1950s.
As Kedward points out, the French concentration on memory was "neither neutral nor innocent". On the one hand it was all about denying responsibility and on the other about recrimination. It's the same here. Since the IRA ceasefire in 1994, but especially since the Good Friday Agreement, a huge industry, largely funded by the British administration here, has burgeoned around victimology and its twin nemesis, truth and reconciliation.
We have a sea of victims' groups. We have 'professional victims who make a living out of it from official funding, dredging up the past, appearing on TV, travelling to speaking engagements, 'reacting' to every move the British government makes in political development. We have semi-official groups. We have victims' groups for republicans, for loyalists, for relatives of security forces, for specific major incidents. We have self-appointed, untrained, but not unpaid, victims counsellors. We have groups demanding inquiries into particular incidents, others into the behaviour of whole groups of state forces. We have a victims' minister and a victims' commissioner.
Many of them want a 'truth and reconciliation' commission. They propose various models ranging from South Africa's to Chile's, even though none of them worked satisfactorily. In fact, a commission, if ever one were established here, would be about neither truth nor reconciliation. The purpose would be to blame 'the other side' and 'prove' your side was right. There, yah see, told ya. That's why it'll never happen. Besides, how could the British administration set one up without admitting, as they've just done in the OTR bill, that they were part of the conflict?
What's going on here is each side's attempt to stamp its seal of approval on the past 40 years, and it is 40, for next year is the anniversary of the UVF bringing the gun back into Irish politics when Gusty Spence's gang murdered John Scullion and Peter Ward. Next year is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the hunger strikes and the ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
No unionist will choose to dwell on any of those events as a way to define the place they live in, whereas, of course, for nationalists north and south they are exactly what they will point to. Unionists instead will concentrate on 'innocent' victims while denying responsibility for anything that happened since 1966.
‘Blair the betrayer’
British trying to pervert Nelson probe
Shredding the truth about informers