The late Seamus Mallon’s withering analysis — “Sunningdale for slow learners” — about how difficult it was to make progress in a divided society may have lost some of its cutting edge, ironically, because time proved the accuracy of his judgement. However, the frustration behind that conclusion, the unpicking of events and policies, is more and more important.
This week has offered valuable opportunities to reflect on how we address historical issues, what kind of outcomes are possible and how those influences might best shape our future. The first, and the most significant, was Wednesday’s Holocaust Memorial Day. January 27 marks the anniversary of the 1945 Soviet liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland where 1.1m men, women, and children were murdered, most of them Jewish.
The scale of that atrocity, and myriad others, is so great it almost defies understanding — which is why, as Second World War witnesses reach a great age, there are renewed obligations to keep the memory of those barbarisms alive. Those atrocities were so great they seem almost beyond recrimination. Yet Wednesday’s events were not in any way triumphalist? Rather, they were an expression of the resignation that humans can be often inhuman.
More importantly, they are the greatest warning we have of where conflict fed by polarised cultural fantasies too often leads.
It may seem fanciful, almost disrespectful, to compare Wednesday’s events with the challenges facing US president Joe Biden but if America is as bitterly divided when his term ends in 2025 as it is now, then bigger, darker questions become unavoidable. That Biden’s vision of progressive change may be the greatest barrier to American unity underlines the square-peg-round-hole irreconcilability of the day. What a tragedy it is that mildly progressive policies and America’s national stability have become so incompatible, especially as this point has been reached through runaway dishonesty and gross gullibility.
It is pertinent, too, that Biden’s personality and campaign seem to embody that conflict. Can he, for four years, wave olive branch after olive branch while trying to unite a polarised country or can he deliver the reforms his constituency mandated? At some point, sooner than may be obvious, he will have to decide which is the more important: Delivering a diluted version of his campaign promises or convincing the Proud Boys that he is not a communist. That he may be unwise to hope for any real Republican support in his bridge-building makes that reckoning all too imminent.
The lessons provided by this week’s Holocaust memorials and the challenges facing Biden come together in a way that might inform how we mark the important but potentially divisive centenaries ahead.
We can, as this week’s Holocaust events did, use them to reflect on tragedy so those events might never be repeated. We can mark those events and look ahead at the opportunity they brought. Or we can, like so many of those who hoped to make America great again, revert to old, destructive animosities and racism. There is a relatively fresh example of how that refusal to move is so dangerous. Just after Mallon offered his slow-learners admonishment the North’s Orange orders asserted, in 1997, their right “to march long the Queen’s highway” at Drumcree. At this remove, far less than half a lifetime later, it is tempting to forget how volatile those days were and how close we sailed to well-charted rocks, almost choking in the aspic of the past.
As those ceremonies approach, this island, particularly as the conversation around reunification gathers momentum, would be best served by mixing respectful remembrance with forward-looking optimism. Today’s Germany, a stable, liberal, welcoming European leader, is a convincing argument for embracing that wider perspective.