Fergal Keane: Ireland has paid a high price for its dishonest myth-making

'The people of Ulster must come to terms with the history they want their children to learn'
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The Independent Online

Never have I been so glad to hear a single piece of news. I was standing in one of the Afghan refugee slums (the word "camp" is far too glamorous to describe them) in Quetta when a colleague with a short wave radio jumped out of his car and waved me over. The World Service had just broadcast a report from Belfast announcing the decommissioning of IRA weapons. After days of listening to the stories of people dispossessed and maimed by the war in Afghanistan I was ready for hope. I was also aware of the screaming paradox.

The event that had given unstoppable momentum to peace in Ireland was ensuring a catastrophe for the people of Afghanistan.

After 11 September, the IRA lost any excuse to hold on to weapons. Their leaders, used to being fêted in Washington, knew the republican movement was on a fast ride to nowhere as long as it was linked to terrorism. So the pragmatic and goal-oriented Adams, McGuinness and company laid the bare truth in front of the militarists. The age of terror is over in Ireland, speeded on its way by the barbarism in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Having heard republicans – admittedly people in the grassroots – say repeatedly that not an ounce of Semtex would be destroyed or handed over, I was still a little surprised to hear General de Chastelain's announcement. What Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have shown is a shrewdness and sense of the moment that have too often eluded their opponents. They are tough and unsentimental fellows; the republicanism of dead martyrs, that dreary and rain-soaked empire of the past, is being dismantled brick by ancient brick. By decommissioning weapons, not to mention entering government at Stormont, the Sinn Fein leadership has embarked on the most radical campaign of revisionism in the history of Ireland.

A vast pasture of sacred cows has been dispatched to the abattoir and only a few green fascists are pining. In a generation or two even those pathetic remnants of muscular nationalism will have been consigned to history. God Save Ireland, as we used to sing at school! It is hard to explain just how liberating a moment this is if you didn't sit through those history lessons at school in an Ireland "not merely free but Gaelic as well".

I love my native language. I love our music and writing. I love my country's landscape, and part of my soul will always loiter on a country lane somewhere west of Ardmore. But I have never had anything but loathing for the creed of Gaelic nationalist exceptionalism. It reached its zenith in the Thirties in De Valera's fairy-tale country but lingered on long into my childhood, thrown over our shoulders like a damp raincoat. It was so dull – and dangerous.

When the IRA boys were bombing and shooting their way through the 70s, how often did we hear our own politicians say they were doing the things the men of the old IRA would never have done? It was all pious claptrap. The only difference was that the new model IRA had automatic weapons, plastic explosives and fought a modern urban guerrilla war as well as the ambush fight of the countryside. Our own political leaders used the mantle of violent republicanism as a kind of political chest expander; puny men puffing themselves up on the spilled blood of another generation. Did none of them along the way stop and recognise the savage dishonesty of their position?

All those walks and marches to the republican plots at graveyards up and down the country, that cynical chancer Charlie Haughey nodding and winking at the Provos while he took tea with Margaret Thatcher, the millions of hours of speeches exalting the Fenian dead and the simplistic rubbish rammed down the throats of hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. All of this they kept up while people were being slaughtered up the road, taking care to be home between the clean safe sheets of a southern bed by nightfall. No wonder the nationalists up north loathed us, called us Free State traitors. While they were abandoned in the sectarian hell of an Orange statelet their southern cousins preened themselves

Our culture was happy with the language of rebellion and blood sacrifice but only in the past tense. We condemned the northern republicans as savage and unrepresentative, and when they pointed out that our own state had been born out of the violence of an unrepresentative few (for that is what the leaders of the 1916 rising most definitely were), we simply drew down the shutters. The idea that there might be some historical and moral equation between the men who murdered a policeman on the streets of Listowel in County Kerry in 1921 and those who shot an RUC man in front of his children in 1975 was unacceptable. And in any case the men of the old IRA were honourable.

On the national question, the politics of the republic were too often atrocious. This happened for a number of reasons, but I am bothered chiefly by the mangling and manipulation of our history. The past was never faced honestly – some might say a young nation struggling to emerge from the bitterness of a civil war couldn't afford that honesty. Well, we paid a high price for our self-mythologising. We were undermined every step of the way. How could you have a prime minister slating the IRA as murderers one day, then trotting up to Glasnevin cemetery to pay homage to dead IRA killers the next. We had all that and worse.

In fact they are still at it. The other week we buried several dead IRA men from the 1921/22 conflict. It was a grand public ceremony drummed up for the electoral benefit of Mr Charles J Haughey's successor, Bertie Ahern. There has been no word yet of a public ceremony for those other Irishmen who were murdered in the uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary by their fellow Irishmen of the IRA. Even in the new Ireland we are careful about who we celebrate. If the peace in the north is to hold, or at least if they are to build a society worth living in, they cannot afford the decades of dishonesty with which we lived in the south.

That is why some form of Truth Commission is vital. The IRA and the killers on the loyalist side, and the secret soldiers and policemen who fought on the other side, all have truths to tell. Some know where long vanished bodies are buried, others know the who and why of murders and mistakes. All possess at least a little fragment of a shared history. The alternative is that the evil that was committed becomes mythologised.

The blood and guts spilled on the pavement are soaped out and we walk on over history, unseeing and careless. The people of Ulster must come to terms with the history they want their children to learn. It must be a shared lesson and it needs to be pulled into the brightest, sharpest light. That can only begin when the truth is told.

I know that Ulster is as secretive a place as you could likely come across, but there are many kinds of Truth Commission, and it shouldn't be beyond the creative brains of that province to come up with its own model. For the sake of history and the future, I pray that it happens.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent