History’s most powerful lesson - Past can be a trap choking wise choices

Though it always will be with us, history does not force itself into our everyday consciousness, even if it irrevocably shapes attitudes. It is human that many positions are inherited rather than reached. Tribal cultures and communal mythologies prevail. Consensus clings. Some days history is like distant thunder, barely perceptible, not that proximate. 

Other days it is as if Thor has smuggled his thunder into the very rooms we live and work in. It is not necessary to know that at Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna, in September 1683, Europe repelled an Islamic army, to understand that current events have a historic significance beyond the ordinary. 

Lord Saville chaired the Bloody Sunday inquiry, looking into the events of 1972 (PA)
Lord Saville chaired the Bloody Sunday inquiry, looking into the events of 1972 (PA)

Yesterday’s announcement by the North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) that just one former British soldier will be charged over Bloody Sunday killings can hardly be seen in any context other than historic, as it deals with events from almost half a century ago. The decision will not have satisfied either side of the enduring divide. It re-energises conflict.

Relatives of those murdered on that awful 1972 day may feel that, despite David Cameron’s 2010 admissions, justice has been denied again. Others will feel trust has been broken by even discussing the possibility of holding a soldier to normal standards of justice. Trust was certainly broken in John Widgery’s immediate report when he recorded that British soldiers were fired on first. 

Yesterday’s announcement follows Mark Saville’s 2010 report that found the 13 people murdered were innocent, that the killings were unjustified. The reality that Saville was able to accept evidence that a court cannot does little to appease the hurt — indeed it may even exacerbate it. The festering continues, especially as the Good Friday Agreement pardons’ legislation is to be revised to apply from a new start date of January, 1968, and apply to former members of the British security forces.

However, issues around the PPS ruling on murders committed 47 years ago seems dew-fresh compared to the comedy of errors destroying what was left of the reputation, justified or imagined, of Britain’s parliamentary democracy. The Brexit debacle seems ever-more a continuation of the 1644 Battle of Marston Moor or even, for the more entrenched Europhobes, Agincourt in 1415. 

The chaos — described by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte as “like the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way” — is as much a consequence of historical illiteracy as anything else. Though it is unlikely, the Brexit debacle should provoke a review of how history is taught in Britain. 

They could, imagine, earn from our experience. It is not coincidental that when a less romanticised, less vividly green version of our history was introduced to our schools we realised potential we never even knew we had.

Our interaction with history is almost a defining characteristic but today protests will be held in 75 countries — 21 in Ireland — to try to ensure we have a history to bequeath. School strikes demanding action on climate change prompted by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg underline how being more interested in the past rather than the future can be the ultimate betrayal of history. 

Surely, history’s most powerful lesson is that the future is far more important than the past?

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