The power of “But…”

“But” is a particularly powerful word. Deceptively so. I remember hearing someone describe it as essentially a way of sounding agreeable or interested before saying, essentially, “What I said just now doesn’t count; the important bit of what I’m saying is coming up right now.” One word lets you say “ignore what I’ve just said.” Ever since, I have tried, and usually failed, to reduce my usage of “but”, particularly when I’m debating or arguing about something. Of course, in the heat of the moment, it sometimes gets forgotten, but my point is that I try. Hearing other people use it only strengthens my resolve, and a particular episode last week struck me as the power of “but” to negate an argument or to turn a positive into a negative.

Listening to The Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster on one particular morning – not something I do naturally – a man phoned in to comment on the findings of the Saville Report. Lord Saville conducted a 12 year investigation into the deaths of 14 people, shot by the British Army in Northern Ireland back in 1972, known as Bloody Sunday, and a particularly divisive episode in this little region’s history. History has disputed the situation in which these 14 people died – families and supporters claimed that they were innocent victims, participants in a banned Civil Rights march that turned ugly following a heavy handed response from the police and army; the army claimed that they had come under attack from the IRA and that they had been shot at first. An official inquiry in the immediate aftermath – the Widgery Inquiry – largely exonerated the army and found that many of those killed had been armed in some way. The families disputed this vehemently.

My point, however, is not about the Saville Report, which found that all 13 victims were innocent, and established that there was a complete loss of control and discipline amongst the members of the 1st Paratroopers Batallion, nor about Bloody Sunday itself. Rather, it is about the continuous offerings by ‘ordinary’ people in Northern Ireland that they “want to move on, but…” This is usually followed by a tribal and partisan rant about a specific grievance around something that the ‘other side’ did and has yet to atone for. I can’t remember the specifics of the point raised by the caller to the Nolan Show, other than that he opened by saying that he had no problem with the findings of the Saville Inquiry and that all he wanted was that people in Northern Ireland, from whatever side of the divide, forget the past and “move on” before going on to dig up an episode from the past and say that Northern Ireland’s people would not be able to move on until the grievance in particular was addressed. In terms of disclosure, the caller was unquestionably a unionist and his grievance had something to do with Martin McGuinness, now Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, formerly a senior IRA officer and who was found by Saville to have “probably” been in possession of a sub-machine gun on the scene, on the day of Bloody Sunday.   

Yet, nationalist callers could have a litany of complaints and grievances of their own to raise. Par example, “We need to move on, but Unionists need to…”; “We need to move on, but the British Government needs to…” and so on, and so on. I’m not sure if anyone is particularly aware of the irony of saying look to the future and then dragging up the past to say why they in particular are not willing to move into the future. There is no doubt in my mind that very many great hurts and terrible crimes were committed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles over the course of the past 40 years. We will not, however, “move on” until everyone recognises that every single person in Northern Ireland can claim a grievance and until the past stays in the past.

I once had a conversation with a leader writer for The Times on the steps of Stormont. Looking out over Belfast on a starry spring night, she asked me about my take on what was causing a particular hold up in some negotiations at the time. I remember uttering, in what I thought was some earth shattering realisation that would appear in a Times editorial the next day, that “the problem is everyone wants to mould the future in their own way.” Banality aside, I think maybe the problem has become that everyone wants to mould the past in their own way. Not unique to Northern Ireland at all, but if people are not willing to let go of the past and move on, then maybe the new motto of Northern Ireland should be “But…”


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Filed under Behaviour, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

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