The recent Brexit debate has brought a focus on Northern Ireland not seen since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to 30 years of conflict. With that political agreement, the guns fell silent, and the hope was that this would bring greater respect for identity through the creation of a more plural society.
One particular challenge was the potential divisiveness of the centenaries of historical events that have shaped the Ireland of today: the Ulster Covenant, first world war, Easter Rising, war of independence and partition. The partition led to the establishment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1921.
The post-Brexit environment could present similar challenges through the rise of identity politics allied to the challenge of a diverse and multicultural society – all within the different claims of identity and what it means to be British, English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish in the UK today.
Heritage in this context is not straightforward. It is nuanced and can often be challenging, raising issues and topics that some feel are best left alone. Yet for many, engaging with difficult heritage opens up different ways of looking at the past, ways that help us to better understand not just the past, but also some of the challenges of the present.
In Northern Ireland, a set of principles was developed to support community engagement with “difficult” heritage. These principles challenge narratives that are rooted in myth rather than evidence, and have been particularly helpful for heritage work in spaces where community “ownership” is contested.
The principles for engaging with heritage are to start from the historical facts; recognise the implications and consequences of what happened; understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist; and show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period.
These ethical principles seek to create a framework within which groups and communities can engage with their heritage in fresh, stimulating and respectful ways. They present the opportunity to seek out the hidden and neglected stories about places, people and events that have made a difference in the past.
The once silent voices of women and children, and minority communities, begin to be revealed. It is often these previously silent voices that can reveal the greater complexity of the past, and find meaning that is so relevant for us all when facing the challenges of today.
Contradictions are exposed that enable people to think in different ways. Powerful stories emerge that can provide greater insight into who we are. Most importantly, stories are rooted in the available evidence that can be found in museums, archives and libraries.
Exploring the past using a conscious, pluralist approach helps not just to shed light on that past, but to also make us open to imagine wider possibilities in the present. It is through these multiple perspectives and narratives that an ethical and evidenced-based approach emerges, to enable communities to engage with those difficult and challenging topics.
Using these principles encourages a debate about the past, helping us to look for wider connections, the national beyond the local, and the international beyond the national. In these ways, heritage is a process that can be shaped in positive and creative ways.
Within the context of postcolonial approaches to heritage collections, statues and sites, this approach welcomes the open discussion of the implications of power, racism and violence. Outside of Northern Ireland, organisations such as the National Trust are already adopting this approach.
By allowing ourselves to be brave when we look at the past, an honest and more authentic use of heritage can emerge. This view of heritage is highly inclusive because it is open to the great variety of rich stories that are waiting to be uncovered and told.
Paul Mullan is the director of the National Lottery Heritage Fund in Northern Ireland