Saturday, June 18, 2011

We can't handle the truth

I sincerely hope that this does not sound too insensitive but is this really headline news? I was always under the impression that everyone, nationalist and unionist, accepted that the Provisional IRA were responsible for the atrocity at Kingsmill in 1976 and that the South Armagh Republican Action Force was a piece of fiction. Will the HET's next revelation be that the INLA were responsible for the massacre at Darkley rather than the equally fictitious Catholic Reaction Force? Overall the report from the HET into the murders of these ten Protestant workers will have no tangible effect. It will not tell us anything we did not already know. It will not bring anyone to justice for the crime. Unionists will be angry. Republicans will point to the need to investigate similar killings of Catholics. And when it's all over we'll still be at the point where we started. Closure? You must be joking.

In the years since the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement we have been exceedingly inept here in Northern Ireland at our attempts to investigate our recent troubles. Perhaps the reason for this lies in the very fact that they are so recent. Whether it is the Historical Enquiries Team or the Consultative Group on the Past or the never-ending flow of inquiries into various paramilitary and state killings, the end result has usually been a report that pleases one side of the sectarian fence and leaves the other side indulging in that favourite pastime of ours, whataboutery.

There was a time when I would have supported something along the lines of a South Africa-style truth commission but not now. The one piece of truth that has been uncovered over the past decade or so is that we are incapable of dealing with our past, at least not at the moment. Two and a half years ago I wrote a short post on this website regarding the Consultative Group on the past where I suggested it was time, in a political sense, to start concentrating on the future. I stated:

The best way to "deal with the legacy of the past" (as the CGP claims it is doing) is to stop dwelling on it and move on. I don't mean this to sound cold. I am not for one moment suggesting that the past be swept under the carpet or simply forgotten about, not that there would ever be any chance of that happening. We live in a society addicted to graveside orations and the commemoration of past battles so no one need worry about a sudden bout of mass amnesia hitting the province. However, the endless stream of costly committees and inquiries dealing with controversial elements of our past are achieving nothing other than keeping old wounds open.

Someday we will be able to deal with our past, but do not expect it to come anytime soon. Until then I suggest we, to use a horrible cliché, draw a line in the sand and just get on with things. Spanish people have only in recent times found themselves able to discuss their civil war which ended more than seventy years ago. The unwritten 'pacto de olvido' is probably the best template available when it comes to the way in which we in Northern Ireland confront our past. Sad? Indeed, very sad. But also true.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

I don't mean to preach

I didn't go to the World Atheist Convention in Dublin last weekend, though I doubt my failure to attend is considered a sin in such circles. However, Anthony McIntyre did and was kind enough to scribble up a short report afterwards on the day's goings on. Like Anthony I am not an "atheist activist" either. Indeed, the very notion of 'organised' atheism or some form of evangelical non-believer is enough to make me cringe. Thankfully I have never come across such a person. What I have come across though are members of the religious community complaining about "proselytising atheists."

That was the phrase a friend of mine used the other day. "If you don't believe in anything," he said, "why would you feel the need to go on about it?" I didn't get drawn into a lengthy debate (people of faith tend not to enjoy such things) but I did say that if his statement is accurate then would it not be equally true to say that if you do believe in a god why do you feel the need to "go on about it?" Or, to put it another way, why would you feel the need to have that god put in your country's constitution? Or, for another example, why would you feel the need for your church to control the schools our children are educated in? I could go on but you get the gist of what I'm saying.

As Christopher Hitchens put it so succinctly, "our belief is not a belief." In other words we atheists do not gather together in temples to shriek and celebrate our lack of faith. Nor is there a modern equivalent of the League of the Militant Godless going around attempting to enforce a brand of state atheism on society. If either of these two things ever occur I'll be the first to oppose them. Two things are currently in vogue though.

The first is the spontaneous reigniting of a philosophical debate on whether a god (or gods) exists or not. Bestsellers such as The God Delusion, god is not Great and Letters to a Christian Nation all appeared at around the same time. They were not coordinated. Their impact was not planned by a Machiavellian group of atheists. They are not part of any organised movement seeking recruits for its cause. That some in the faith-based community mistake contributions to a debate as proselytising speaks volumes. For me it is a sign that they fear reason. Evidence of this can be seen from the frankly idiotic retort of one the respondents to Anthony McIntyre's piece who made the comment "qui nimis probat, nihil probat" ("he who proves too much, proves nothing"). I don't know about you but I think I'll stick with the side that "proves too much."

The second thing that we have been seeing a lot of recently and is often mistaken for 'evangelical atheism' is actually little more than good old fashioned secularism. True, groups like the National Secular Society in the UK might well be chock-a-block with those horrible godless types, but their goals remain purely political. They are not attempting to 'save' anyone. They are not looking for converts. They merely strive to achieve that age old objective of the separation of church and state. I once came across one enlightened chap at university, a north Antrim Protestant no less, who described himself as a 'secular Christian'. If only the almighty could send us a few more of those in future.

So there you have it. I just thought I should get those couple of things straight. I'll stop blathering now and be on my merry way. I certainly wouldn't want to make it look like I was proselytising or anything.