Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Pienaar converts me: Northern Ireland is a great place

It took a South African rugby player signing a new contract to stay at Ulster to remind Malachi O'Doherty how wonderful life is here

Pitch perfect: Ruan Pienaar fell in love with our sights, such as Titanic Building and Giant's Causeway.
Titanic Belfast

It takes a South African rugby player, shrugging off international opportunity and opting to stay here, to remind us that we're not as bad as we paint ourselves.

In Burns's poem, to see ourselves as others see us was supposed to reveal our weaknesses writ large and teach us humility. But, this once, it seems to entitle us to puff up a bit and feel good.

And we were reminded of our usual tendency to talk ourselves down by former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, accusing us of low self-esteem in turning to an American diplomat Dr Richard Haass to pull us out of a political mess that we should be able to unravel ourselves.

So, which is closer to the truth: that the people of Northern Ireland are a benighted and afflicted group of unfortunates, destined to wallow in political deadlock, trussed by obstinacy and tradition, or that we are really quite nice to be with, rather attractive, the blessed population of a great wee country?

You could add to the list of evidence against us the religious conservatism, the bleak winter weather.

We are on an island that is buffeted by storms that come like bowling balls across the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico and the only good thing that can be said about these storms is that they hold back the Arctic blasts, which break through occasionally, anyway.

We are an economic nonentity, funded mostly by the British Exchequer, struggling to put together a tourism industry and yet wedded to habits of disruption and obsession that must discourage visitors.

Still and all, those who come say this place is wonderful and that we are friendly and interesting and that they'll be sure to come back.

And those of us who lived through the Troubles and looked out of rain-spattered windows at traffic gridlock in the darkness of a winter afternoon – dark at four – can't help but wonder that foreigners would think so well of us.

So perhaps it is time for a little reminder of what a wonderful place this is and what beautiful people we are.

We dread political stalemate, thinking that the failure of our Executive parties to co-operate makes us look uniquely inept.

But then look across at the United States, the most advanced political culture in the world, and there government really has stalled and shut down.

Here we would have the safety net of direct rule. There is no safety net for the US, other than the hope that political obsessives there aren't entirely suicidal.

So, we are at least no dafter, no more self-destructive, no more politically incompetent than the US Congress.

All political cultures are managed by people and the people here are as intelligent (or as moronic) as people anywhere else. That's a natural law. We should be glad of it.

And look how well-situated we are. Coming into winter and the long dark nights and the cold winds lashing across us is a bit disheartening, true.

But that's the price of the long, bright summer evenings and the early dawns which, because we are used to them, we don't recognise as nature's greatest endowment to this place.

Our summer days may not be as warm as those in Greece, but they are an awful lot longer. And, admit it, it's more comfortable in our 70-degree heat that you can move around in than in the scorched Mediterranean.

We don't have earthquakes, or hurricanes – not big ones anyway. We are not on the Ring of Fire, or any of the other big fault lines, separating tectonic plates rubbing up against each other.

Really, you could hardly find another spot on earth less likely to be cracked up by seismic disruption, swamped by a tsunami, or layered with molten lava.

Okay, there was a lot of that in the distant past and that's what makes our landscape so beautiful, but here it has stopped, while the Himalayas are still under construction.

And Ruan Pienaar isn't the first to decide that he's better off here than abroad, if no richer. I made the same decision myself after years of living abroad, as did my wife – or I'd never have met her – and many of our friends.

In much of my work here, I have been in the BBC and Queen's University, which attract numerous people from abroad.

I used to think that they were here because of the Troubles; trying to establish careers in journalism, or academic life, by establishing reputations in a hot spot.

The BBC treated Northern Ireland as a kind of nursery slope for war correspondents.

But many were here not because of the trouble, but in spite of it, ready to endure bangs in the night and bomb scares, even queues outside the one or two pizzerias on the Golden Mile and the ludicrous licensing laws of back then for the sake of everything else that was so marvellous about the best-situated, most naturally beautiful and, actually, safest spot in the world.

So thank you, Ruan Pienaar, for reminding us that this is a friendly and genial place to live and that there really is no better.

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