Though everyone on this island shares, more or less, a common past many, often conflicting, versions of it are offered as an accurate record.
Religion, or at least the religious beliefs of our forefathers, politics, culture, geography, nationalism, ambition, opportunity or its absence and varying levels of material security all coloured the prism through which we view our past, and by extension our present and our future. Most of us are certain that our view, inherited more often than not, is the authentic, die-in-the-ditch one.
These views, these versions of what went before can be absolute though maybe not as absolute as they once were.
Time, peace and our membership of the EU have made it possible to acknowledge the strands of our past without being accused of betraying the tribe — whichever one suckled us. In a country once, not so very long ago, so bitterly divided that is a considerable achievement. However, that advance is put in context, and challenged, by enduring if ever-more concentrated sectarianism and today’s simmering racism.
Reaching a rounded, disinterested view of the past is a never-ending process as is coming to terms with it. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only society wrestling with these issues. It is almost 45 years since Spain’s Franco died. Like many of the protagonists in our past he was a man of extreme, conservative views and did not tolerate opposition.
Because his legacy was so toxic an unshackled Spain realised it had to reach a new accommodation with its past to advance. Two years after the fascist dictator’s death Spain enacted its Amnesty Law which freed political prisoners and permitted exiles to repatriate.
It, similar to the Good Friday Agreement, guaranteed impunity for those who participated in civil war atrocities and Francoist Spain. This Pact of Forgetting is one of the foundation stones of today’s Spain even if it is still contested by victims and victims’ descendants.
The debate around whether British soldiers might yet be prosecuted over civilian deaths that occurred nearly half a century ago is part of the same purging process. This progress in Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere is predicated on an honest assessment of the facts, an assessment that can only be made if those facts are publicly available.
It is not surprising then that in a country so comfortable with secrecy, and deeply averse to accountability that only four of 61 State agencies obliged to transfer records to the National Archives have done so. Inadequate resources, skills and legislative weaknesses have been blamed for this vulnerability.
However, that failing pales into insignificance as important, powerful entities like Nama, the Central Bank, the National Treasury Management Agency, the Garda Ombudsman, and Tusla are some of more than 150 publicly-funded bodies that are not obliged to maintain or archive records for eventual release. They scrub the slate clean as they go along.
This hiding away, this shielding tacitly endorsed by the denial of resources may suit some interests but they do not serve our society well. In terms of building an informed, cohesive society able to look itself in the eye these evasions seem the epitome of being penny wise but pound foolish.