A working group of the Victims and Survivors Forum produced an interesting paper last year on dealing with the past (download here). The document addresses a range of issues including truth, justice and reparations. Some space is also given to storytelling and the different narratives held about Northern Ireland’s conflicted past. Specifically, the paper calls for “a collection” of existing storytelling projects as this could make “an important contribution to a shared narrative of what happened”. Needless to say, the paper outlines how difficult it would be to achieve an accepted narrative of the past.
However, the paper is optimistic and argues that a composite narrative of the past may be possible if all different narratives are collected and placed along side each other. It places three caveats on this, that is, such narratives should be supplemented with additional material, not adjudicated, and those who engage with it will have to display a “generosity in listening”.
The Accounts of the Conflict project based at INCORE at the University of Ulster with its core aim of collecting existing stories and making these available on the internet could make a major contribution to the ideal expressed in the Victims and Survivors Forum paper. Accounts of the Conflict will be a complex record of the past, albeit limited by those who choose to deposit their stories with the project. However, by being based on the internet, the archive can further expand and develop over time. A further strength will be that by linking the archive with CAIN, the largest global online repository of information on Northern Ireland, stories can be contextualised.
However, outside of the aspirations to create an archive that is large enough to start to paint some sort of composite picture of the past, the Victims and Survivors Forum paper reminds us of the importance of not just the content of storytelling but how we engage with the past. A first step might be, as Accounts of the Conflict will attempt to do, and the Victims and Survivors Forum advocate, to place narratives alongside each other. But the bigger question remains: What do different groups and individuals do with these stories?
The call for a “generosity in listening” and not just story collecting from one perspective is important. This is a tall order given the hurts experienced in the past, but the importance of “story listening” and not just “story telling” has to be a part of the wider reconciliation agenda.
But one also has to ask if placing narratives next to each other will be sufficient over the long-term. Unquestionably, with time, different narratives will interact and influence one another. Could this result in a reconsideration of aspects of the past? I hope so.
As we learn more about the perspectives of others, hopefully the way we see the past will widen, become more complicated and change, if only in terms of fractional parts of our own understandings. This I call a reconsidered narrative. Although it might sound daunting to even consider this at this point in time, surely it is only when we start to see the flaws in our own accounts of the past that change can happen and genuine acknowledgement can become a reality.