The Art(s) of Dealing with the Past.

We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Catherine Turner, Durham Law School. Catherine can be reached at

Those you Meet on the Street, the most recent play by Lawrence McKeown has just finished its run in Belfast. The play, commissioned by the Healing Through Remembering initiative, and produced by Kabosh Theatre Company, centres around the widow of an RUC superintendent murdered by the IRA, the local Sinn Fein MLA and his constituency assistant, Frank. Central to the play is the theme of dealing with the past that has come to dominate the political landscape in Northern Ireland in recent years.

The play deals with this theme on two levels, the personal and the political.

On the personal level the audience watches as the widow, Elizabeth, battles her suspicion of her Sinn Fein representative to go and ask for help with anti social behavior on her street. In the course of the play the protagonists exchange personal stories, and confide in each other the devastating effect that conflict and murder has had on their lives. In exploring this relationship the play addresses important questions of interpersonal reconciliation. Community relations work in Northern Ireland depends on the idea of recognition. To break down barriers created by deep-rooted communal conflict, for many years community relations organisations have encouraged and facilitated contact between members of opposing communities at a local level. The purpose of this contact is to encourage people to listen to the stories of others; to hear how other people have experienced conflict and to recognize that although their community background and political beliefs may be different, that they are human after all. In this way it seeks to break down barriers to communication and understanding that perpetuate conflict.

This rationale is then transposed, not unproblematically, to the political level. In the play the constituency assistant Frank, exhorts his boss to think of the possibilities for reconciliation if victims of IRA violence were given the opportunity to ask questions, to hear the truth of the murder of their loved one. He gives the example of an elderly couple whose son, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, had been murdered. He states his belief that if the IRA were to engage with that couple, to explain that their son had been murdered because he was a member of the armed forces of a state with which the IRA was at war, not because he was a protestant, that the couple could somehow accept this, and that this would make their loss easier to understand. In this way the rationale of interpersonal reconciliation is applied to a broader political context. These are common claims made in support of truth recovery in transitional societies. Two benefits are expected to flow from truth seeking. The first is that the families of victims will be provided with any information they need in respect of unanswered questions about the death of their loved one, therefore providing closure. The other benefit, according to proponents, is that hearing the ‘truth’ of the conflict allows society to arrive at an agreed narrative of the conflict, its causes and its consequences that allows society to move on. In short, it is assumed that truth is a positive force.

To me, watching the play confirmed a trend that I see as apparent in the republican discourse on dealing with the past, namely that reconciliation will be achieved when unionists (in particular) recognize, and accept as valid, the Republican narrative of the conflict. This view of dealing with the past was not interrogated or challenged in the play. But the purpose of the play was not to persuade the audience of the rights or wrongs of those claims. It was certainly not intended as a form of propaganda to convince audiences that the IRA was right all along. The purpose of the play was to get the audience to think about the process of dealing with the past, by dealing with the powerful theme of how to deal with a legacy of murder and violence where perpetrator and victim must live side by side in a small space.

I have outlined my impressions of the play and of its significance. However these are my impressions, based on my (relatively privileged) experience of life in Northern Ireland. Others will have experienced the events discussed in the play personally, in a way that I have not, and their views on the significance of the play and its themes will be different from mine. Within the audience present in the small theatre that night there will have been many different reactions to the play and different emotions raised by it.  That was the point of the play. The play has been presented to a number of different groups, of all different political persuasions. Post show discussions have been facilitated by a qualified practitioner, and the responses have varied from show to show. In this way the arts are reaching people and places that formal legal and political processes do not. They are reaching out to those who have been directly affected by the conflict and asking them to consider, in a safe space, what dealing with the past means to them. In a political climate where the past is a constant subject of political wrangling and stalemate, the arts play a vital function in addressing these difficult issues and moving the debate forward. Through the informality of the setting they give voice to those who might not otherwise be willing to come forward, and play an important role in preparing the ground for any formal process that might arise from the Stormont Agreement. In the current financial climate, where cuts to the arts are deep and wide ranging, we must not lose sight of the contribution that the arts can make. The past is messy, therefore our approach to it needs to be creative, not formulaic. If we are to make progress in dealing with the past, then initiatives such as these can have a significant positive impact.