Is There Still Hope for Reconciliation in Northern Ireland?

Just as the walls have begun to come down in Northern Ireland, Brexit risks putting another back up. The question remains whether the Irish Peace Process can survive the shock.

At the time of writing, just under twelve weeks remain until the United Kingdom potentially crashes out of the European Union without an exit deal. This means that just under twelve weeks remain until border checks are reinstated between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a free-movement zone that has existed in some form since 1923, and completely since 1997.

It’s clear that the return of borders in Northern Ireland is now an all-too-possible reality. As recently as 4th January, the Guardian reported that some 1000 police officers from Scotland and England were preparing for deployment in Northern Ireland in the event of public disorder resulting from a no-deal Brexit. The return of armed officers from Scotland and England echoes the deployment of British soldiers during the worst periods of political violence in the “The Troubles,” a conflict which witnessed over 3000 deaths in acts of terror and assassination over the course of three decades.

The deployment is a sobering reminder that a conflict thought resolved is still anything but, and although violence almost certainly won’t return to levels seen during The Troubles, the process of reconciliation between divided communities remains fragile. Since 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement brokered a political agreement between Nationalists, who favor becoming a part of Ireland, and Unionists, who prefer remaining a part of the United Kingdom, communities divided by decades of violence have struggled to reconcile. School segregation, housing discrimination, and even physical barriers have created divisions, both physical and otherwise, between neighborhoods which remain long after the conflict’s end.

Tearing Down the Walls

Bringing down physical walls is essential to peace to Northern Ireland. Some 99 “Peace Walls” alone separate Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from Unionist Protestant spaces in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, while even more exist in other towns such as Derry and Portadown. Before Brexit, the future of these walls looked to be ending: in 2017, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice proposed a deadline of 2023 for all Peace Walls to be removed. The first of these were demolished as of 2016, heralding positive signs for the island’s future.

But a hard border between Northern Ireland and its most important neighbor, Ireland, throws this progress into question once again. Complications don’t just arise due to trade barriers, or the logistics of moving from one part of Ireland to another– issues often cited in Westminster Brexit debates. For the people of Northern Ireland, the physical border is as much a psychological barrier to peace as a physical one. The free movement of people in Ireland is viewed by Nationalists as a step towards a United Ireland, in which Irish people on either side of a border are differentiated by little more than kilometers vs miles on roadside signs. For Unionists, open borders still allow Northern Ireland to remain an essential part of the United Kingdom, an important distinction for many Unionists who identify as British. It’s no surprise that over half of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, a vote largely shared in both Unionist and Nationalist communities.

In this light, a hard border in Northern Ireland doesn’t just mean leaving the European Union – it means tearing up twenty years of hard-earned peace, in which removing barriers between Ireland and Northern Ireland is just as important as tearing down the walls between Nationalist and Unionist neighborhoods. Already, radical political factions on either end of the Nationalist/Unionist divide have used the potential for a no-deal Brexit to push their own sectarian goals, to the detriment of the peace process. Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican party, has called for a referendum on Irish Unity in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a referendum Unionists vehemently oppose. For the hard-right DUP, currently in a loose coalition with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives, a hard border is preferable to a possible compromise customs border in the Irish Sea, which the party believes would delegitimize the British identity of Unionists in Northern Ireland.

A Fragile Future

Neither of these options will bring about greater peace, but instead could very well serve to destroy it. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was created under the idea that Unionism and Nationalism could live side-by-side in Northern Ireland without violence, and its success was only possible when powerful leaders on both sides – such as Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and the DUP’s Ian Paisley – decided to battle their differences in the halls of the legislature instead the streets of Belfast. Today’s leaders in the still paralyzed Northern Ireland Assembly, Arlene Foster of the DUP and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, increasingly treat Nationalism and Unionism as a matter of politics instead of peace, and the Brexit debate as yet another a vehicle for political goals. Their brinkmanship in these regards could once again send their tiny corner of the island of Ireland over the edge.

While working in Northern Ireland as a peace volunteer in 2017, I saw firsthand how the shock of Brexit might tear apart the fragile peace. Schoolchildren still receive education in segregated facilities; streets in Belfast are still defined as Nationalist or Unionist—with barriers between them; and the extremist militias of twenty years ago remain the forms of the Real IRA or the Red Hand Defenders, ready to take advantage of a return to sectarianism. While there is hope for Ireland’s future – with young people especially beginning to see past Nationalist/Unionist identities – it is an uncertain hope, and one that is very much fragile in the face of a no-deal Brexit.

Reconciliation is a slow, uneasy process, and Northern Ireland still needs its own time to heal from the traumas of the past. During the short-sighted Brexit vote, the peace process was all but forgotten in the rest of Britain, but as the fate of a no-deal Brexit becomes more certain, it can no longer be taken for granted. As the peace walls fall in Belfast and Derry, another still cannot rise in its place in Ireland if sustainable peace is to be achieved. Either a deal must be made where the return of the border is rejected outright, or better yet Northern Ireland could not leave at all.

Photo Credit: Devin Windelspecht

Remembering Mass Violence

The 27th of January marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and around the world people paid respect to the victims of the the Holocaust. In December, managing editor Megan Manion and senior editor Rachel Salcedo traveled to Poland and here offer some reflections on their visit to sites of Holocaust remembrance:

Poland in December likely wouldn’t strike most people as a desirable travel destination, but for us the dark, cold, and snow felt somehow fitting for what we had planned to be a decidedly sombre experience. We visited a number of memorials throughout the country—most notably, Auschwitz-Birkenau—as we sought to think through the vastly complex and layered histories of multiple occupations, mass atrocity, and the building of a national collective memory. As scholars of transitional justice, we were interested in understanding the praxis and politics of memorializing violence that occurs at such a large scale.

After suffering under the profound violence of German occupation, Poland was given little respite before Soviet occupation began, so remembering the damage of the Holocaust became caught up in the unfolding trauma of totalitarian repression. Thus, we considered the politics of identity in conflict settings and the narration of those identities in post-conflict reconstruction. We also contemplated what it means to memorialize certain instances of violence in lieu or at the expense of others. Below, we consider the politics of memorialization and the challenges of narrating a cohesive national memory that conflicts with the complexity of survivors’ realities.

What does it mean to be a memorial?

A memorial takes many forms, and largely depends upon who is doing the memorializing as much as what they are attempting to remember. A critical feature of memorials is that they engage the spectator in the experience of their subjects. Memorializing should be understood as an active process narrating an experience of violence; thus a site of that experience must be understood, at least in part, to be about evoking a response.

One of the key ways Auschwitz-Birkenau is effective in this regard derives from allowing visitors to live its history, standing where victims stood and imagining themselves amongst the prisoners. It is so difficult to fully understand how quickly and how brutally people lost their lives in extermination camps, particularly when today we are inundated with images of the Second World War and partly-fictionalized imaginings of what it was like for those who suffered in concentration camps. In reality, however, these images pale in comparison to what one is able to imagine when standing along the tracks leading to Birkenau’s gas chambers or in cells where prisoners were made to sleep eight to a bed, stacked on top of one another three bunks high.

Walking along these tracks toward the ruins of gas chambers that Nazi authorities destroyed before the camps were liberated, we imagined the racing thoughts that might have crossed a young mother’s mind as she made the same short walk seventy years ago: would she have been relieved by her decision not to be separated from her child? Would she realize that this decision sealed her fate, and that if she’d let an elderly woman take the baby she might have been allowed to live? Or would she be too tired and worn down and disoriented to have these thoughts, to be fearful anymore?

As the memorial stands, it demonstrates the damage of the Nazi regime and the evil contained in the camps by clearly showing the harm done to all groups targeted. In functioning as a museum, however, the site literally narrates the experience of a victim as they moved through the camp and the overall experience of those targeted by the Nazis. In this way, the amount of information presented to guests means that at times Auschwitz-Birkenau struggles as a site of memory: space for memorializing the victims is often truncated by the memory of what was done to them.

We felt this conflict through much of the camp, most palpably in the buildings that once housed prisoners at Auschwitz and which today display victims’ possessions. Walking along halls that contain thousands and thousands of shoes, stacked haphazardly on top of one another, looking almost as if they had been thrown into the display, our attention was drawn to the few dainty heels and sandals that lie alone toward the front. Another room offers the same organization of eyeglasses, another contains pots and pans, another suitcases—all labeled as though they might be reunited with their owners.

Another room contains orphaned prosthetics and crutches, another still is filled with hairbrushes and shaving materials. But none of these displays compare to the dimly lit room filled with a mountain of actual human hair, matted and tangled together so you can’t quite tell the hair color or type; in fact you don’t immediately identify the mountain as hair at all, in part because it is difficult to accept the reality that you are looking at. This literal dehumanization of victims in order to illustrate the dehumanization that occured at the hands of the Nazis acts at some points to overpower the individuals that were there.

Why is remembering different than memorializing?

Personal and public memory play different roles in post-conflict communities, and with those roles come particular politics. Remembering is a personal process of naming what someone has survived. To remember, one must engage in a performance of that trauma in order to take ownership of one’s narrative, body and agency. Engaging personally reimagines what it means to be a victim, and indeed, a survivor.

In the words of French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, jailed by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, “The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories to an other than the self” (89). Personal memory—a survivor remembering what was done to them, or a perpetrator remembering what they did—establishes a socially liminal site at which healing is presumed to begin. Remembering then can be understood as distinct from memorializing, in that remembering atrocity allows someone to grieve and mourn harm done to them, while memorializing serves to create a publicly meaningful truth of what happened to others.

It is of note, then, that Auschwitz-Birkenau attempts to narrate the objective truth of WWII by identifying the victims who exist outside of public meaning. As the text throughout the camp and our guide articulated, though Jews were targeted most in number and were most prevalent in Nazi documentation, others also lost their lives and their freedom. Persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, religious communities, and prisoners of war were targeted alongside Jews: Nazis stole their property, their dignity, and their humanity before murdering them. In a way that seems to controvert public narratives, Auschwitz-Birkenau made explicit reference to these victims who also lost their lives, but are pushed to the margins of memory and memorial.

Where do we locate a person’s humanity?

This question is a central one that drew us to work in human rights and transitional justice in the first place. A critical factor of understanding atrocity and conflict is unpacking profound questions of what gives someone the right not to be brutalized, what is right and just in war and politics, and ultimately, what makes us human and why. But the politics of identity are a very real framework through which we individually and collectively identify who has the right to be; however, this approach risks being reductive and may distract from the lived reality of mass atrocity for victims and perpetrators.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, we struggled to comprehend what it must have felt like for victims who lived and died there. But we also considered the experience on the other side of the fence. What must it have been like for the Nazis, what makes someone comfortable with such cruelty? It should be noted that, according to our guide at the camp, Nazi officers stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps throughout Poland had to request placement there; thus, we must argue against common narratives of complicity—camp authorities and operators perpetrated atrocity with measured intent and even enthusiasm. How was cruelty and hatred so effectively and efficiently weaponized?

At least one explanation is derived from the politics of establishing the ideal enemy. The millions of people who counted as the enemy were subjected to unbelievable cruelty and violence because they were treated as if they were not human. Where the enemy is not even human, violence against them is allowed and, more importantly, just.

Reflecting on the memorialization of these events, as well as the events themselves, feels especially urgent at this moment in history. As we see a surge of right wing leadership globally, as well as a rise in nationalism and xenophobia overall, it is important for us to consider the narratives we have constructed through memorials of the Holocaust in order to prevent us from going down a similar path. If we really mean it when we say “never again”, then we must begin to have more open conversations about our histories, and our performance of public and private memory surrounding atrocities—we hope that this can be a starting point.

Photo Credits: Rachel Salcedo

Book Review: Signs Preceding the End of the World

Herrera, Yuri. Signs Preceding the End of the World. Translated by Lisa Dillman. London: And Other Stories, 2015.

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman, arrived in English in 2015, mere months after many thousands of “unaccompanied minors” from Central America arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum and amidst intensifying presidential campaigns. As the reductive national conversation obsessed over border policy, security, and national identity – but rarely considering the individuals whose border-crossing transgresses these mutually reinforcing processes of nation-building – Herrera’s narrative, barely one hundred pages long, was not just a translation from Spanish to English, but an attempt to translate the very experiences that are so absent from mainstream discussion.

Makina, the novella’s heroine, undertakes a journey to the “other side” on her mother’s behalf, to beg her brother to come home. Mexico and the U.S. are rarely mentioned explicitly. Their deliberate, nameless invocation is almost mythical: “signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, […] salt of the only earth worth knowing” (56) describes American society, for example. Though Herrera’s ethereal approach to writing borderlands skirts magical realism—a somewhat overused catch-all for Latin American fiction—Signs might better be termed an epic. When we meet Makina, she is already working connections in Mexico to plan the crossing and her movement never stops: confronting abusers on the journey, crossing the river, running from a vigilante militiaman. Finally, she reunites with her brother, whose life in the U.S. under an assumed identity is nothing like his messages home had implied.

Translation—both literal and metaphorical—abounds in Signs, and Herrera’s poetic language (bolstered by Dillman’s translation, carefully replicating his colloquial, immediate tone) illustrates complexity too often ignored by American discourse. Fluent in Spanish and English, Makina’s ability to literally translate her surroundings rescues her from situations that might have meant deportation for a monolingual Spanish-speaker; at one point, she talks several detainees out of an immigration roundup and the arbitrary nature of the encounter comes into stark relief, as we understand exactly what would happen without her.

Figuratively, Makina’s observations of the U.S. (as quoted above) offer the English-speaking reader an inverted viewpoint from which to understand America. Above all, she is presented as a messenger, constantly reaffirming her desire to return home—introducing the possibility that not all migration in North America has the same motivations or stakes as hegemonic narratives would have us believe. Makina’s internal wrestling with expectation, responsibility, and the impermanence of migration makes accessible a state of existence almost invisible in American discourse: “You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot. You are the door, not the one who walks through it” (18).

On the other hand, one wonders whether the fantastical, epic nature of Herrera’s narrative makes Makina’s case sympathetic only insofar as it is exceptional. For a society so preoccupied with identifying right and wrong among its immigrants, Makina’s example is, frankly, dangerous—it might for instance help the skeptical reader further demonise her brother’s “illegality”. Despite this, perhaps it is not that Herrera and Dillman have somehow failed in rendering Makina’s story, but that many more such accounts will be needed in English before the American conversation surrounding migration truly begins responding to their unquestionable particularity.

Photo Credit: Rachel Salcedo