‘Starting with a blank canvas’ – by John Howcroft

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In dealing with the destructive legacies of our past, we must firstly acknowledge that we are not starting from a blank canvas.

The canvas of our past is already loaded with many pre-colours, has a restrictive palette from which to choose, is framed in certain ways, and is still missing many important brushstrokes.

Indeed, the ‘past’ remains an extremely complex, sensitive, emotive and divisive issue to which we have already applied much of those enduring pre-colours in overladen layers, so much so that the canvas itself has become rather rigid, inflexible and deeply stained with disputed colours.

Whilst much of the detail has been applied in colours from our traditional palette, which themselves do not tend to mix very well, we also have an inherent preference to view these in a restrictive format, with no discerning artistic eye for the intricacies that would allow the more subtle and diverse shades to shine through affording a much richer interpretation.

Indeed, it is our over-reliance on narrow and parochial viewpoints that limit us in seeking out our ‘brand new day.’

When presented with an already deeply discoloured canvas, any new brushstrokes will naturally remain resistant, and our traditional palette of competitive-colours will continue to dominate.

This ensures that we typically continue to reject all colours, which don’t fit within our carefully constructed ideological framing, as these are not colours we want on the canvas or a brushstroke we are prepared to acknowledge or accept.

If we are to re-imagine, re-consider and re-paint our past it is only through carefully peeling back those deeply layered pre-colours and exposing them to the light of reality. In that way we can allow ourselves to return to a blank-canvas, construct new framing, and supplement the palette with paint of a brighter cue.

Only then can any new brushstrokes be applied with hindsight, imagination, generosity and caution.

It is not just our lack of vision as well as a distorted ideological optical nerve that keeps us colour-blind, but it is also our language and how we articulate, that shortchanges us.

Far too often our language heavily weighted with perception and accusation, is nailed down with rigid ideological tacks.

We ought to be aware that language is the interface with our own thoughts and outward expression. This is more often than not a product of learned and predictive behaviour rather than some new construct.

In understanding our present we still refer to the phrasebook of our past.

Of course, we invariably cling to what we know, that with which we were most familiar and comfortable, that which gave us the greater certainty and meaning. It is a human trait forged in our own insecurity.

It was in OPPRESSION, RESISTANCE & DEFENCE that many of us found our greater meaning and certainty. Regrettably we have ended up clinging to the language that best encapsulated that mind-set rather than facing up to an uncertain world. That is our default position.

The reality is this: we can’t hope to solve the complexity of our current problems with the same mindsets that created those problems in the first place. We need new linguistic and imaginative skill sets to set the compass for our unchartered course.


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About Author

John Howcroft is a former life sentence Loyalist prisoner, community development worker, and North Belfast UPRG representative.


  1. John I really liked this contribution – its deep but thoughtful and considered! I apologise in advance in my response is not as ‘colourful’!

    The current piecemeal approach to dealing with the past is a bit like ‘painting by colours’. I often see the broad outline but I am indeed often uncomfortable with the finer detail and the questions that this presents.

    This is evidenced in Ann Cadwallader’s book published this weekend. The broad outline highlights the accountability gaps and the further dark chapters not yet written. Indeed there are many more books to be written by all.

    Although I do try to be objective I agree that we all paint with our own colours. We see the world through the prism of our lived experience.

    The key starting point is perhaps for all sides to realise that we are not starting with the blank canvass – and what we have is a disturbing landscape of pain, hurt and loss. A landscape to which all contributed!

    You have said: “We can’t hope to solve the complexity of our current problems with the same mindsets that created those problems in the first place”. This generation however has it within its gift to break that dogged cycle of conflict and to hand on to future generations that elusive blank canvass.

    This is perhaps where the Haass Process can assist to lift imaginations so that we focus on the big picture of building a better society.

    I am conscious that this will require all to interrogate, investigate and challenge our, “over-reliance on narrow and parochial viewpoints.” This will require maturity, confidence and leadership – and frankly some are not up for the challenge.

    As we look to the future we can collectively create a new canvass with new colours and I know that you – with others – work everyday to put something positive on that canvass.

    I see good will everyday as I know you do. That may – hopefully – be the game changer!

    • John,
      just wanted to acknowledge your response.
      i like the idea of lifting the imagination and remodeling behaviors and the attitudes that underpin these.
      However, these concepts are often constrained by both the limitations of our imagination and by the boundaries of our belonging.

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