Thursday, 23 March 2017

Walking on air

Walking on air

The passing of Derry man Martin McGuinness this week had me thinking of the last time I visited the north of Ireland. It was two or three years ago and while I was there I took a trip on the Tour bus which travels around the fine city of Belfast. Not that I was into what some call ‘conflict tourism,’ rather it seemed an easy way to see the city. It was interesting to see for the first time so many of the streets and areas which made the news reports so often when I was growing up. The peace wall dividing part of the city is an echo of those times and a reminder that tensions can still be raised at times. On that sunny morning I had the surreal experience of sitting on the top deck of the bus as it wound its way around streets where ordinary folk were living ordinary lives. A man walking his dog glanced up at the tour bus in time to be photographed by some Chinese tourists. Another chap cutting his grass barely seemed to notice the bus edging along the road by his house.

From the ordinary streets of the city the bus then moved on to the Parliament building at Stormont, surely the grandest ever Parliament constructed for such a small province? The statue of a Dublin Lawyer, Edward Carson, stands in defiant pose. This was the man, above all others, who guided the Unionists down the path of partition and in that sense he remains a figure of distaste to many Republican Irishmen who saw the division of their country as an unforgivable crime. He was not without some sensibilities though and warned the new Northern Ireland province in 1920s not to treat the Catholic minority marooned in the six counties poorly…

"We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.’’

Any unbiased history shows clearly that the new Northern Ireland state failed to listen to him and discrimination, biased policing and denial of basic civil rights, such as one man one vote, was denied to the minority Catholic population.

The excellent tour guide on the bus was clearly well schooled in the art of sounding totally neutral as he narrated this journey around the city’s main historical features. From the impressive City Hall to the much bombed Europa Hotel; from the new Titanic Quarter and the old Harland and Wolff shipyard, he gave us some fascinating, if carefully scripted, information. He smiled as he told the tourists on the bus that the ‘H & W’ signs painted onto the huge cranes in Harland and Wolff’s meant, ‘Hello and Welcome.’ Having read Andrew Boyd’s book ‘Holy War in Belfast’ it seems clear that the shipyard was not always a welcoming place for members of the minority community in the province.

It’s hard to travel around Belfast and not notice the murals or memorials to the various incidents which signpost the conflict. One such place is the area around St Matthew’s church in Short Strand. It was here in that hot summer of 1970 that local people acted to protect their area against what they saw as a loyalist incursion. They knew well what had occurred the previous summer when Catholic streets were burned to the ground as the Police did nothing. The ensuing gun battle around St Matthew’s lasted all night and left 3 dead and 28 wounded but the pogrom was avoided.  Loyalists, of course, have their own version of events but what cannot be denied is that such occurrences marked the continuing spiral of violence which was to tear that society apart for the best part of 30 years.  God alone knows how ordinary folk managed to bring up their children and do their best for their families in the midst of the chaos around them.  I don’t make judgements about the hard choices people had to make then. When the state fails in its duty to protect citizens, who can blame people for protecting their families and homes themselves?

The tabloids here in the UK have not been kind to Martin McGuinness and as usual portray Britain’s role in Ireland as some sort of peace mission keeping the two tribes of waring Paddies apart. The truth is more prosaic as anyone who studies the conflict will soon discover. None of the armed factions came out of it with their honour intact. Not the paramilitaries, not the politicians and certainly not the security apparatus of the British state which demonstrated that old ruthlessness which Indians, Boers, Kenyans and many others have long known about.

The unity of any people is first conceived in their minds. There is a case for arguing that the violence of the troubles made Irish unity a more distant prospect. The peace process was in many ways remarkable, seemingly implacable enemies worked together and McGuinness and Ian Paisley seemed to strike up a genuine friendship. Paisley seemed to mellow greatly after his near death experience in the early 1990s and talked of wanting to be remembered as a peacemaker. McGuinness never gave up his aim of reunifying his country but accepted that the armed struggle was over. The vast majority in the province will surely be happy that it is?

At the demographics show that Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority in a generation, there needs to be a coming together of people. There is a need to escape the ‘winners and losers’ mentality of the past and try to forge a future where everyone has a respected place. None of this is easy but even on some of the darkest of the troubles there were shafts of light cutting through the darkness. I recall in the aftermath of the Remembrance Day explosion in Enniskillen the astonishing courage of Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter that day. He said of her as they lay in the rubble…

‘She held my hand tightly, gripped me as hard as she could. She said ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me and those were the last words I ever heard her say. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.’

The hope for all conflicts is that good people can forgive and look forward instead of back all of the time. Most people know well the faults and failings of the past but there needs to be more focus on the sort of society we can create in the future. Bill Clinton said of Martin McGuinness today…

‘’After growing up at a time of rage and resentment, he decided to fight discrimination by whatever means available to the passionate young, including violence. He realised that you could have an Ireland that was free, independent and self-governing and still inclusive. That the dreams of little children were no more or no less legitimate just because of their faith background or their family's history or the sins of their parents."

Clinton spoke of the need to honour McGuinness by finishing his work and quoted Seamus Heaney who received the Nobel Prize for literature. Clinton said…

‘Heaney said that the secret of his success was deciding to walk on air against his better judgement. Believe me when the people who made this peace did it every single one of them decided to take a flying leap into the unknown against their better judgement.’’

As projections show that Catholics will be in a majority in Northern Ireland within 20 years, there will be challenges ahead should that translate into majority support for reunification. That is by no means certain but at the end of the day people need to live together for true unity is surely far more than the absence of borders just as peace is more than the absence of war.

I’m hopeful that the land of my forebears will reach an accommodation in future in which all are equally respected and valued. Whatever they decide, I hope it is without the rancour and violence of the past.

It has been a long and painful road for Ireland but there is always hope and there are always good people working away for a better future.

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