Postcards from the edge (Observer)

Postcards from the edge
Henry McDonald (Observer)
21 October 2001

A new exhibition in Belfast highlights how hatred and bigotry are still fuelling violence

Santa Claus is spread-eagled against a wall. Two sinister shadows, the outline of soldiers with berets and guns, are cast against the brickwork. Father Christmas is about to be frisked by the menacing figures behind him, the forces of repression are about to interrupt his annual sweep across the rooftops of the world to deliver toys to children on 24 December. And the message reads: ‘Christmas Greetings from N. Ireland.’

This was the first Christmas card I can remember resting on our mantelpiece above the fire inside our old house in the Markets area of central Belfast. It was issued by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to highlight state oppression culminating in internment in 1971. The card was a reminder that thousands of men, including several of my close relatives, would spend Christmas behind the wire in Long Kesh, detained without trial, their human rights horribly violated just to placate Brian Faulkner and the ancien regime at Stormont.

Perhaps given the family connection to internment and the fact that a British Army Saracen had smashed into our house during the violent state clampdown that previous August, the NICRA Christmas card has lodged in my memory for three decades. Occasionally over the last 30 years I would pull apart cupboards and rifle through old holdalls at my parents’ house searching for ‘Christmas Greetings from N. Ireland’. All to no avail — until, that is, I visited the Linen Hall Library last Wednesday afternoon.

The library is currently holding one of the most fascinating exhibitions ever held in Ireland. Troubled Images offers 3,000 posters and images from the Northern Ireland conflict. It is history captured in pictures and to my delight on page 21 of the booklet to accompany the exhibition was the NICRA Christmas card from 1971.

The memories of No.1 Eliza Street, the Markets (a ringside seat during the early Troubles), good and bad, nodded back.

There are some stomach-churning images, such as the poster appealing for information about the IRA’s bomb massacre at the La Mon hotel.

Even today the picture of that charred torso (it appears to have been a woman) accompanied by the repetition of the word ‘Murder’ chills the blood.

Other simple messages on rudimentary posters and leaflets provide graphic evidence of how twisted and bitter some people in this society were back then and probably still are now. One poster, black writing on a white background, reads: ‘Congratulations Paratroopers. Sunday Jan 30th’ — a gloating reference to the British Army’s slaughter of 14 innocent civilians on Bloody Sunday 1972. If historians were to seek out proof of unionist idiocy and obstinacy in the early Troubles they need only to point to moronic messages like that one.

This magnificent collection is also a useful way of tracking the trajectory of, for example, the Provisional republican movement, from uncompromising revolutionary nationalism to the semi-constitutional party politics of the twenty-first century.

It is fascinating to move along the website’s timeline from the 1970s, where you encounter the bellicose imagery, the ‘Onwards to Victory’ slogans and masked men in macho machine gun-toting poses, But then move on the line towards the late 1990s and the old semiotics of armed struggled are replaced with those of peace and vacuous catch-all phrases such as ‘parity of esteem’. Travel along the timeline and you will be taken on a journey from the metaphors of revolution to those of reform.

Milan Kundera once wrote that the struggle against totalitarian power was ‘the struggle against forgetting’.

To stand up for truth in the face of organised lying by the former Communist regime in Prague was for Kinder as it was for other dissidents, notably Vaclav Havel, an act of resistance. Ireland may be a democracy but we too are living in a strange era of forgetting today where hunger strikers for instance who killed and died for united Ireland-or-nothing nationalism are now somehow doves of peace.

In the era of forgetting we are asked to believe that 1981 — one of the most violent years of the Troubles — was in fact the genesis of the peace process. This too is a form of organized lying designed to bolster the present Sinn Fein leadership and their attempts to sell what is in essence a partitionist settlement as a stepping stone towards Irish unity.

The exhibition, it should be stressed — brilliantly compiled by Yvonne Murphy, Allan Leonard, Gordon Gillespie and Kris Brown — is laid out in an entirely impartial and neutral fashion. Nonetheless for those struggling against forgetting, for those tracking the truth about the Troubles, this collection provides a rich seam of material.