Art can transcend GFA ‘institutional sclerosis’: Paul Arthur
by Allan LEONARD
13 April 2023
Professor Paul Arthur (Ulster University) suggested that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement could be interpreted as “the end of the beginning”, when we moved from a political life of zero-sum (if you’re winning, I must be losing), to one of agreeing to disagree (with an element of mutual respect). He elaborated on this during his talk at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in Limavady, as part of a series of events co-hosted with his university and the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, to mark the 25 years of the peace accord.
Before the talk, guests explored an exhibition at the centre, The Good Friday Agreement: Work in Progress, which contained arpilleras and other textiles, memorabilia, and books. The curator, Roberta Bacic, explained how the textile pieces were the outcomes of local workshops. As their collection of works grew, the Conflict Textiles team got support from Ulster University to commission textile portraits of peacemakers. Bacic pointed to the first on display, of John Hume; others will appear in the next few months. She elaborated on the form of textile for the portraits:
“They convey not only the image, but the time and conversations that take place where people are sewing, but also the internal space of the conversation of the touch of the materiality of the sewing.”
Assembling in another room, Prof. Arthur began with his outline of what he called “the lifecycle of a peace agreement”: analysis, negotiation, and implementation. He related this to the work of Johan Galtung, who similarly described a peace process as going through three phases: diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy.
Arthur said that one of the things that came out “in terms of the interminable conflict” is that “the enlisting of history is one in which both traditions indulge”. Arthur quoted historian Oliver MacDonagh’s description of “splendid failure”:
“Irishmen have a repetitive view of Irish history, and that such a view inclines them to prize the moral as against the actual, and the bearing of witness as against success.”
Arthur responded: “We don’t expect to succeed. It’s about the lifelong struggle.”
He also cited ATQ Stewart: “The past is a convenient quarry which provides ammunition to use against enemies in the present.” Arthur said that one of the biggest challenges of post-agreement therapy is to get beyond this repetitive cycle.
Arthur marked the end of the diagnostic stage by quoting Richard Rose and his seminal work, Northern Ireland: A Time of Choice. After evaluating many scenarios, Rose came to the bleak conclusion: “The problem is that there is no solution.” Arthur responded, “As a citizen of Northern Ireland, you cannot believe that; you want to find a way forward. I found that bleakness too much.”
Yet the 1970s and 1980s was a period where many were chasing solutions, “without knowing what the problem was”, he said, particularly by the UK and Ireland governments, which generally saw the issue as between “two tiny communities” in the north.
From the Sunningdale Agreement, to the 1982–86 Northern Ireland Assembly, the Anglo–Irish Agreement, the Hume–Adams Talks, the Mayhew Talks, the Downing Street Declaration, the Frameworks Documents, and the Multi-Party Talks, we arrived on 10 April 1998 with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, Arthur was emphatic about referring to the accord as the “Good Friday Agreement” and not the “Belfast Agreement”, quoting literature Professor Marilynn Richtarik, who sees the Good Friday Agreement as having “penitential resonance”. Arthur’s view was: “In the context of a Christian society such as ours, that should count for something.”
Arthur made the point that with the agreement, “the game has changed”, moving beyond zero-sum politics. To him, this means that political behaviour up to the point of reaching the agreement, such as maximising positions for negotiation leverage, may not be acceptable post-agreement: “You have to change your behaviour because you’re now part of a joint exercise.”
Arthur acknowledged, as many do, that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement itself did not resolve several contentious issues, but provided a basis for them to be addressed. This included decommissioning (“or ‘demilitarisation’, as insisted by Sinn Féin”), reformation of the policing and justice services, and amendments to the legislation that implements the accord (following the St Andrews Agreement in 2006).
He argued that looking back, we have embedded the agreement “very slowly, with huge breaks [in continuity]”. Arthur labelled the past 25 years as “institutional sclerosis”, with the period of 2011–16 as better.
Considering the way forward, Arthur explored the topic of memory: “amnesia and transcendence”. On the “burden of memory”, he cited Fintan O’Toole, who in 2005 wrote:
“What matters is not what happened, but how it is remembered. And that is what the IRA is now fighting for. Its struggle is for the control of the memory of the Northern Ireland conflict. Its weapons are the lies of evasion and strategic ambiguities. Its aim is to reshape the memory of a vicious, absurdly sectarian campaign of mass murder into the afterglow of a glorious struggle for liberation.”
Arthur stressed how memory can be misappropriated, and the need to recognise the difference between memory and history.
Arthur argued that “amnesia has its purposes”, referencing the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that the capacity to forget is a gift of grace. For Arthur, this meant that in coming out of conflict, there may be a period when you need to forget so that “you’re not using history as a quarry to attack your enemies in the present”.
The thrust of Arthur’s arguments, he explained, is for us to think less of “big”, but more about thinking humanely and creatively. He quoted psychiatrist Brian Lawler, who said:
“Creativity is a pathway of hope. It enhances empathy and compassion. It changes emotions. And by generating and enhancing emotions, behaviour changes and how we care for people changes.”
Arthur said that as bad as things were during the Troubles, they could have been worse without the “acts of transcendence” by “transcenders”. Here, he gave the example of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter died at the 1987 Enniskillen bombing:
“Anyone can remember what might have happened had he not used the words that he had, which really did change the climate in which people could begin to deal with that [atrocity].”
Arthur argued that the arts have played a huge role as transcenders:
“Take something as simple as storytelling, which South Africans describe as ‘the gentle act of re-perceiving’. We can talk to each other not in any sort of threat… We can tell our stories to try to move things onwards.”
He listed several artists across many forms:
- Colin Davidson (Silent Testimony portrait paintings)
- David Parks (author of The Truth Commissioner)
- Colum McCann (author of TransAtlantic)
- Seamus Heaney (especially his speech, “Crediting Poetry”, at the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony)
- Gail McConnel (especially The Sun is Open, a long poem about her father, murdered by the IRA)
- David McKittrick et al (authors of Lost Lives)
Arthur highlighted the book, Lost Lives:
“I would insist… that every family has a copy of Lost Lives and consulted it at least once a week. Just pick any page and read about a particular death. What it does is remove us from statistics. It removes us to the humanity of how people died. It tells their stories.”
Prof. Arthur concluded that the book laid bare “our horrible capacity for brutality”:
“We can allow ourselves personal remorse, and when we move from the personal to the societal, [we] begin to move into the next phase of therapy.”
During the question-and-answer session, Gillian Robinson (former director, INCORE) suggested that the work of Conflict Textiles could be included as a therapeutic exercise: “It brings people together to help them tell their stories.” Roberta Bacic added: “In our conversations, it’s not about the past but who they are in the present. The participants don’t see themselves as victims, but explore what they have in common with others elsewhere.”
In response to my question about the work of artist Gail Ritchie and her Im/material Monument exhibition — with her suggestion that perhaps the only monument you need is in your head and that traditional, grand monuments can reinforce a lodgement of specific narratives — Arthur gave examples of bad memorialisation: the Valley of the Fallen monument in Spain (commissioned by the dictator Franco) and the Anglo-Boer War Memorial in Johannesburg, South Africa:
“Memorialisation has been what I call the appropriation of memory for particular political purposes.”
Another guest in the audience suggested that the TV series, Derry Girls, with its dark humour, has done more to help us reflect on our past in considering where we are now. Arthur agreed, and argued that this and other locally driven projects, such as the Londonderry Bands Forum, will assist us more:
“I have more faith and confidence in the wider community than in our ‘institutional sclerosis’. If you go back to the Good Friday Agreement, it was the community who led it forward.”