21 September 2000 Edition

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Hope and History: Debating the future


The curtain went up on Ireland and South Africa's history at Dublin's SFX Theatre last weekend. The final performance of the DubbelJoint/JustUs production of Brenda Murphy's play Forced Upon Us was preceded by a colloquium, organised by the theatre company, featuring Robert McBride from the African National Congress (ANC), civil rights activist Bernadette McAliskey and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

The play is not entertainment. No one could find the story of how the Six-County statelet was established and maintained through violence and brutality to be either entertaining or amusing. It portrays the reality of a Protestant state for a Protestant people, a state founded on the racism and brutality of majority power.

Racism was also centre stage for the first session of the colloquium, in Robert McBride's brilliant and moderated discussion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up by the ANC. His most tempered language did not disguise the full reality of the oppression suffered under Apartheid.

``History began for me when I became conscious that I was oppressed,'' he said. ``History told us their story. How white people came to Africa and discovered us, civilised us, the great white people, who formed a covenant with God that gave them the right to rule over us.

``It was Steve Biko who said, `You're black. You can be proud of it.' You can't free your country before you are free yourself. You have to free yourself of those things that demean you, that give you feelings of inferiority. It is a long way from oppression to achieving freedom.''

He talked of the TRC, of how it had come to be set up. ``We wanted to acknowledge our guilt. How did we treat the spies, the enemy agents. We wanted to acknowledge our mistakes, our abuse of human rights. But this was never enough, even though we'd opened our hearts. So we said, OK then we'll look into it in every aspect, and we set up the TRC.

``In the negotiations, we learnt not to demonise, not to make demons of those we had to negotiate an agreement with. Mandela's first words on his release were the words of reconciliation. He described De Klerk as a man of integrity. Remember always of your enemy that under different circumstances we could have been friends. As long as you demonise or dehumanise him, there is no future. You must keep in mind common humanity.

``But if we are talking about forgiveness, then I have to know what I am to forgive you for. You must reveal it. You must say how you have wronged me.

``And no forgiveness is a luxury we cannot afford. It is to the detriment of providing the services, the improvement of life of the people. We cannot afford continual obsession with forgiveness. We have to go forward. We have to go forward to normality. For 350 years of oppression we can exact a terrible revenge. That revenge is a sentence to life, a life of democracy and human rights.

``Someone asked about `parity of esteem'. There can't be parity of esteem between apartheid and non-racialism. We have to say it is wrong. What are we apologising for? Sorry that we fought for our freedom? No. We are committed to non-racialism. We didn't accede to their bluster, to concede some weird arrangement, of special treatment, or a special number of seats or some `concession' like that.

``The TRC could work because we had a political settlement. We have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights which are second to none. And within this, we could have respect for other people. To forgive then gives freedom. You are always bigger than other people's pettiness.''

McBride quoted Chris Hani: ``Sometimes it is necessary to hug the hyena.''

``I've also had to hug the hyena, though Martin McGuinness gets well off side,'' said Gerry Adams. ``You must not forget that Mr. Trimble has still not brought himself to shake hands with us, even yet.''

The parallels with Robert McBride's address were scarcely surprising. Gerry Adams talked of the need to realise our own history. ``There can be no understanding of what needs to be done unless we understand this island was colonised, and what that has meant,'' he said.

Reiterating McBride, he added: ``You have to free yourself in your head. Only then can you bring about a transformation in society. Even if there was a revolutionary socialist government here it would not be able to do all that is necessary. It would run up against partition.

``The people you are dealing with not only feel disempowered, but they have no role models, today. Go into proud working class areas of Dublin, like Sean McDermott Street, where nearly 100 people have died from the drugs, the response shows the disempowerment of people.

``If we leave it all to a small groups of activists, then we won't get the Ireland we're looking for. Empowerment is a prerequisite.

Just down the road there are kids who don't get a decent breakfast, after 80 years in a sovereign state.''

Adams talked of how Mandela himself might not have been admitted to this `sovereign state' as exile or refugee. ``A multi-racial society is needed here,'' he said ``We have a long way to go.''

He also spoke of the 400 people killed directly by British forces where there has never been an inquest. ``People deserve the truth,'' he said. This can only happen as people become empowered to control their own lives.

``When the Saville Inquiry shows that Bloody Sunday was premeditated, then the whole of the last 30 years acquires a different form. But are the Brits prepared to renounce or repudiate the weapons of containment? The weapons now in use on the Shankill, the weapons which Brian Nelson, their agent, supplied from South Africa? There is a lot of work to be done.''

Fianna Fáil TD Brian Lenihan recalled that all four of his grandparents were involved in the Tan War and split in the Civil War. It had taken 40 years, at least until the 1960s, for people to reconcile themselves to the state in the 26 Counties, he recalled.

In the afternnoon session, Bernadette McAliskey talked of racism, the terrible errors of demonising, and the difficulty of forgiving. An avowed critic of the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, she said she felt betrayed that 98% of the people in the 26 Counties had voted for the Agreement. ``I'll never forgive you for it. People in the 26 Counties do not take responsibility for what is happening in the North.''

For the future, she said: ``I believe that you will get a 32-County Republic. There will be a normalising of politics, but I fear for civil rights, I fear the racism I see growing. I think it will be a very racist state. What, after all, Michael Collins offered.

``Excluding people cannot be democratic. But must democracy always exclude some? The struggle of constitutionalism is to devise a mechanism where groups are not excluded.'' And, as if by way of consolation, she said: ``I am always on the margin, always near to exclusion. That is my nature. But then the people there are so much nicer people.''

Forced Upon Us actor and former Derry Sinn Féin councillor Gerry Doherty took part in the discussion with Bernadette McAliskey. He felt that there were many things that could rock the boat, but he was hopeful that the peace process would survive its difficulties. Of the play's depiction of the racism of the sectarian statelet, he said: ``It's a matter of empowering people through an understanding of their history.''

Doherty is at the very coalface of telling history as it is, of empowering the people through a recognition of their oppression - which both Gerry Adams and Robert McBride averred is the precondition of freedom.

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