There has, over recent years, been a surge in claims that our societies are imbibing untruths. This idea, that we are living in a “post-truth” world, gave rise to the publication of a rash of books and articles in 2016-2017. But, in fact, such arguments have been going around for years.
In 2005, for example, Peter Oborne published a book called The Rise of Political Lying. During Tony Blair’s premiership such claims were – justifiably or otherwise – routine. Before “post-truth” we had “spin”; before the alleged lies of the current era, we had Alastair Campbell.
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But even if we take the most extreme claims about “post-truth” and “spin” we still get nothing akin to an earlier period. It’s one from which many people learned, and which many more could do with understanding: it’s the decay of language that occurred during the Northern Ireland conflict (The Troubles), and both during and after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Amid the flood of current events, one small but significant recent demonstration of this trend is worth remembering.
The BBC recently broadcast the first film in a new series called Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History. This particular programme which made the headlines because of one piece of footage in particular.
The BBC was clearly – and perhaps correctly – keen to demonstrate balance. In order to do so, it focused on two leaders, one from each side of the divide. These were the two men who ended up rather implausibly leading the devolved assembly together for a time: Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley.
The programme raised the claim (made by a former British Army officer) that the Protestant leader had personally financed a bomb by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in County Down in 1969. Ian Paisley’s son, Ian Paisley Jr, responded by saying that the claims were completely untrue and that the BBC was demonstrating bias against his late father and his whole family.
But the ‘balance’ in the film was the more interesting revelation and produced a more curious response. This was the more important – and harder to refute – piece of evidence the BBC had unearthed against Paisley’s nemesis-turned-partner, Martin McGuinness.
There has never been very much dispute that McGuinness was a leader of the Provisional IRA; indeed he admitted as much under oath at Lord Saville’s Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, among other occasions. The IRA was not, of course, a pacifist organisation, and over the course of three decades, carried out thousands of bombings, shootings and other atrocities. Obviously, Martin McGuinness was involved (though there is a dispute over the question of how long) in many such attacks, and it is accepted by all but the most blind or ignorant that his hands were not clean.
Nevertheless, there is something striking about a piece of footage unearthed by the Spotlight team, showing a Provisional IRA gang preparing a car bomb in Derry/Londonderry in 1972. The number plate matches that of a car that exploded half an hour later on Shipquay Street in the city centre, and the footage shows a young Martin McGuinness inspecting the vehicle after the others had finished priming it.
While a fellow former member of the IRA identifies him in the film, even people who did not know McGuinness well could recognise him – in particular his stoop-backed gait. The film also includes footage of McGuinness sitting in a car holding a rifle and revolver while a group of young children are peering through its open window.
As I say, nothing about this should be surprising. But what is, if not surprising then at least notable, is the response from the Republican leader’s family. Like Ian Paisley Jr, McGuinness’s son Fiachra also felt moved to defend his father, and in an act of filial piety issued a photograph of the McGuinness family on social media with the caption “Fought against injustices, Fought for equality for everyone. #Proud“.
And this is, of course, fascinating. In the ordinary run of things, it would be deemed impossible to hold these two ideas simultaneously in just the one head. One may be the sort of person who primes car bombs and then sets them off in the centre of busy cities; or one may be the sort of person who fights tirelessly for equality for everyone. But it is hard to see how setting off bombs in the centre of cities could be part of a tireless campaign to fight for equality for everyone.
This is why no one should see the decay of political language as new, or especially worse now. In fact, I would suggest that truth and language have never been more divergent than they became around the time that terrorists such as Martin McGuinness became the heroes of the post-Good Friday Agreement truce.
For those who lived through the peace process and studied it closely (people such as the writers Jenny McCartney and Ruth Dudley-Edwards) it was a period in which language – and political language in particular – became not just completely meaningless but the opposite of itself.
People who had spent their entire lives maiming and killing people became “men of peace”, and people who criticised them, or even highlighted what these “men of peace” had been up to right up until the day before yesterday, suddenly became “opponents of peace”.
So somebody who had had a relative murdered by Mr McGuinness and his friends was no longer able to criticise their loved one’s killers without themselves being presented as the problem; without themselves being presented as bitter, stuck in the past or motivated by some sinister forces, or in some way “anti-peace”. Unlike the killers — who were “pro-peace”.
This strange inversion of the language continues to this day. Now we live in an era which admires not just “peace” but also “social justice”, and so it is that people who want to reclaim or defend anybody from the recent past know they must present them as having spent their life fighting not just against “injustice” but having fought for “equality”.
It is why, in 2016, the Sinn Fein senator Fintan Warfield argued that the IRA hunger strikers had died for “gay rights”, a claim that Bobby Sands and co would have given you a few strong words about if you had put that to them at the time. But in the 2010s all must be seen in this new luminous rainbow-coloured light.
As I say, political language may have broken down today, but never will it ever be capable of being more degraded than it became in Northern Ireland in recent decades. One of the only places in the world where a tireless campaign of bombing could seriously be portrayed as a tireless campaign for equality and social justice.