A narrative of chaos: Northern Ireland’s murky past

So what did last night’s Insight programme shown on UTV tell us? That covert operatives, secret agents, spies, people in the payment of the security services and people with knowledge of all of this did things that we cannot take in? From Brian Nelson to Freddie Scappaticci and others named and unnamed there was little that was new. We’ve heard it all before. We know all was not as it seemed and we know that hearing it all over again brings no peace of mind and leaves souls more troubled. There was nothing new. Just another reminder of how murky it all was.

Each new telling of the old story may, from time to time, bring out new truths but the picture becomes no clearer. The hope that someone, somewhere will stitch together the story in a comprehensible way is dashed all over again for there is no evident willingness anywhere in the establishment to make that happen. Narratives of the past, multiple as they are, are proven right over and over again without any narrowing of the distance between them. My conviction that there is a common narrative grows but it is not the common narrative that I would hope for, for it is a narrative of chaos.

Last nights ‘revelations’ have to be set alongside the narratives of other organizations. Those other organizations, paramilitary in nature and common parlance, tell their own stories of chaos – of young turks who, maybe under the influence of drink or maybe under the influence of a virulent sectarianism that excused their beliefs, went out and took lives for no other reason than that the target was ‘one of them.’

Such diminishing of human life was nothing short of scandalous no matter where it came from. Human life, precious to the families who cherished and shared that life, was reduced to a statement of intent that one side or the other was going to dominate and was ready to destroy. A war on terrorism or a campaign for freedom or defense sunk to the depths when it became chaotic and out of control. Knowing this is unlikely to help the grieving or the injured but at least it might be an honest admission.

The past is with us as long as it remains unnamed and unacknowledged.

At the same time change has happened. Covert Operatives can no longer carry out their business without a set of standards by which to measure what they do. Handlers have guidelines that they didn’t have before. Leaders of ‘paramilitary’ organizations are facing the truths that at times they were being used and at other times they didn’t have enough control over their own people. Their narratives are becoming more complex and less self-justifying while understandably holding on to a view of why they did what they did and what they set out to be. Nevertheless, things have changed and above all else there needs to be a growing public expression of the conviction that no more victims of a morally collapsed and murky history should be made.

Touching into the human narratives of loss and injury is one thing. Touching into the narratives which explain the past and the actions that were taken by many for different reasons is another. Touching into the narratives of blame and self-justification takes us into a complex set of realities with a complex set of challenges. Touching into the multiple narratives leads me to believe that the common narrative which we might one day share is a narrative about chaos. We have a messy history leaving us in a messy present and the chaos that got us here has a life of its own which must be dismissed with scant acknowledgement or it will take us over and suck us into the chaos all over again. But without scant acknowledgement to disempower it the chaos retains its power to dement us and chip at our ability and will to trust each other. At least we need to hear the multiple narratives, whether we like them or not. Then the choice sits in what narrative we are going to choose for the future.


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