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Power-sharing and memory-sharing in Northern Ireland: a case study of Healing Through Remembering during consociational volatility

Abstract

This article explores the relationship between the (in)effectiveness of consociationalism and the culture of co-remembrance in Northern Ireland during and between the first and second Executives. It seeks to answer to what extent successes or failures in forming and running a working Executive affected civil society attempts to foster curative remembering between deeply divided communities. Focussing on the ‘memory-power nexus’, the article analyses grassroots initiatives in ‘remembrance work’, the effects the first and second Executives and the interregnum had on them, and their attempts to shape policy in return. Conventional wisdom holds that favourable political conditions are the preconditions for the success of social ‘reconciliation projects’. This study critically reviews this commonly held belief by examining (counter) evidence on the ground, and finds that ‘memory-sharing’ actually and ironically suffered from the perceived success of power-sharing.

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Notes

  1. As of writing in early 2022, the resignation of the First Minister (DUP) over the Northern Ireland Protocol and rivalry within unionism ahead of the Assembly election in May once again ended the NIE. Such resilience thus remains under periodic test.

  2. Translated from the German by the author.

  3. For a general introduction of the organisation, see Wells (2010, 173–198).

  4. Notwithstanding their indispensable value in forming the factual basis for subsequent memory-sharing, official undertakings such as the Bloody Sunday Inquiry (2000–2010) and the Ballymurphy Inquests (2014–2021) are not by themselves considered as instances of co-remembrance in this study for the lack of cross-community jointness.

  5. This ‘cross-community jointness’ is also crucial for the concept’s ethical dimension: in power-sharing, it is about ensuring a share of power (and responsibility) by the minority so that the abuse of power by the majority can be mitigated. In memory-sharing, it is about ensuring that the witness of victims and survivors has a share of our memory, the memory of bystanders and perpetrators and their later generations, so that our self-glorification and self-pity can be mitigated. In this regard, though it is true that such co-remembrance bespeaks no wholesale acceptance of the others’ historical narrative, it is also not necessary, for the recognition of the others’ victimhood is possible despite—not subsumed under—contesting historical narratives.

  6. These included close to sixty groups, institutions and individuals including the NIO, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, the four major churches (Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian), as well as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Notable exceptions are the political parties and the First Minister and deputy First Minister designates (HTR 2000, p. 34).

  7. Justice wasn’t even mentioned in the HTR consultation, merely ‘trials in the courts’ as among the possibilities within ‘national strategies’ for remembering processes (HTR 2002, p. 67).

  8. As of writing in early 2022, the annual Day of Reflection, to be hosted by the Belfast City Council this year, might actually be held in ‘a room in the City Hall’ (Madden 2022).

  9. Whilst it is true that archives do not by themselves possess memory-sharing qualities, the way HTR (2002, v, 42) conceptualized the archiving of storytelling does imply the ‘affirmation’ of ‘individual and collective experiences’ of the ‘others and ourselves’, and aspires to ‘house together’ different perspectives and to ‘strengthen our communal forms of remembering’.

  10. Author’s calculation based on HTR’s published annual reports 2002–2007.

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Funding

This work was funded by the Research Grants Council, University Grants Committee, Hong Kong (Grant Number 22612318).

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Correspondence to C. K. Martin Chung.

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Chung, C.K.M. Power-sharing and memory-sharing in Northern Ireland: a case study of Healing Through Remembering during consociational volatility. Br Polit (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-022-00209-8

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Keywords

  • Devolution
  • Politics of memory
  • Truth recovery
  • Healing Through Remembering
  • Northern Ireland