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What 2015 taught us and how we can have better 2016

Published 26/12/2015

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized
A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized
Pastor James McConnell
Ruth Patterson
Aftermath of the Easter Rising
Global warming is a growing concern
The aftermath of the Paris attacks
The Ashers Bakery case was a controversial talking point in 2015
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

We asked five Belfast Telegraph writers what the past year had taught them... and about their aspirations for the year ahead.

Fionola Meredith: 'The Ashers court case divided people here in a whole new way'

The events of 2015 have taught me that prejudice, intolerance and stupid tribalism come in all kinds of colours - not just orange and green.

One of the biggest stories of the year was the Ashers court case and suddenly I found myself where I really didn't want to be: on the side of the defendants, who didn't want to print a message they profoundly disagreed with on a cake. This is because I believe in the freedom to think, act, choose and speak for yourself. Anyone who cares to look will see that I have gone on the record, time and time again, against the dangerous influence of religious fundamentalism on the politics of Northern Ireland.

I've identified and condemned its repressive hand in the banning of gay blood donors, the strenuous resistance to gay adoption and in the Bill to criminalise the purchase of sex, which serves to hurt the very people it claims to protect: sex workers themselves. Most of all, I've spoken out against the fanatical opposition to abortion which unites hardline Christian conservatives across the religious divide. I remain firmly opposed to this insidious influence, with claims to speak with compassion, yet seeks only to repress, silence and control.

The Ashers case divided Northern Ireland in a whole new way. Not along the traditional lines, but into two different camps.

Christian hardliners of all shades were backing Ashers.

So-called "progressives" and "liberals" made up the anti-Ashers camp, under the proud flag of the Equality Commission. In all conscience - and I use the word deliberately - I couldn't fall into line with the expected group.

In taking this stance, I was vilified by people who would have supported my views on gay blood, gay adoption and all the rest. You know what they say in Northern Ireland - if you're not with us, you're against us. And so it turned out to be.

Inevitably, I was denounced as a bigot, a "heterosexual journalist", who couldn't possibly understand the difficulty if I wasn't gay myself.

This is the new tribalism, the new intolerance, and it's every bit as dangerous as the old religious kind.

I wish that 2016 would bring in an era of genuine tolerance, where we don't seek to silence and repress our opponents, but engage them in free debate.

But, on the evidence of this year, I don't hold out much hope.

Suzanne Breen: 'Not many heading towards age of 80 would risk jail to defend free speech'

On paper, I should have hated her. Ruth Patterson stands for so much I'm against. When it comes to "for Queen and country", count me out.

I'm not a loyalist, I believe in the abolition of the monarchy and don't get me started on those flag protesters.

Yet, when I interviewed Ruth last month - an interview which led to her expulsion from the DUP - I instantly liked her.

She was honest, humorous - often self-deprecatingly so - and, above all else, interesting. She came out strongly in favour of gay rights and revealed an afternoon encounter at a Pride parade where Baroness Titti von Tramp addressed her as "mother" and planted a big kiss on her cheek.

There is far more to Ruth Patterson than meets the eye. This year, I learned that I can excuse just about anything in a person except dullness.

Give me a character with diametrically opposed views to mine who is intriguing over someone who ticks all my ideological boxes, but is so boring they'd put me to sleep.

It was the same for me with Pastor James McConnell. I'm a dyed-in-the wool atheist - agnosticism is for wimps - but the firebrand Christian preacher and I got on like a house on fire.

I disagree with just about everything he preaches from his pulpit, but I'd defend to the death his right to preach it. And I admire his spirit. He didn't cop out and take the police warning, as a coward would.

He threw down the gauntlet and told the authorities to take him to court. Not many people heading towards their 80s would risk jail to defend free speech.

So, this year taught me to be more open-minded and to not automatically write off people because of perceived political and religious differences.

In 2016, I want to put more pizzazz into my life. As a working mother with two young children, I often feel like the hamster-on-the-wheel caught up in an endless routine.

Life is all rut and no rapture. In the New Year, I'd like to mix it up more. That doesn't mean a career change, or doing a Shirley Valentine - though the Greek island idea appeals infinitely more than the new lover bit.

I just want to try to do things differently now and again. Catching the odd sunset on the coast. Making a few more live music sessions. Going to see my best friend who moved to the west of Ireland and whom I haven't set eyes upon in five years.

Or heck, throwing financial caution to the wind and heading for a week to New York, the city that could breathe life into the most jaded soul.

We believe we can endlessly postpone the day when we change our lives.

I've seen too many friends struck with serious illnesses this year - long before their time - to not realise the need to stop procrastinating and to seize the moment in 2016.

Malachi O'Doherty: 'Politics at Westminster appears to be as unstable as it is at Stormont'

The last year taught us important lessons - globally and locally.

Our own perpetual political crisis was put in perspective by the escalation of war and the migration from the Middle East. Compared to Isis, our terrorists seem a different breed.

How much more chaotic they could have made this region if they had been eager to die for their causes; how much bloodier if they had actively sought to kill more innocents, instead of always having to slaughter in contexts that could be justified to their followers as accidental and somebody else's fault.

In the past year, the world has come to feel much less stable, much more likely to slide towards global war. The kind of caution my generation had to exercise in the 1970s and 1980s will now colour all our travel to virtually anywhere.

Locally, we learnt that the political institutions will survive. At last, the bluff was called of the parties which swore they would bring them down if they didn't get their way by a prime minister who didn't come running to save themselves from themselves. Now that bluff is unlikely to work again.

We discovered that Northern Ireland is more socially liberal than the political parties which represent us.

A majority of MLAs voted for same-sex marriage, though they were denied it by a petition of concern, a device for blocking laws which impact one community more than another.

Since this was driven by the DUP, one must suppose that they fear that gay marriage laws would be particularly hard to bear among Protestants.

Politics at Westminster now appears to be as unstable as here, perhaps even more so.

The global economic crisis was one of the major factors generating disillusionment with the besuited and robotic media-savvy party activists who had become normal.

People in political life accepted it as routine that they should not be sincere, not speak their minds, but recite party lines and blank out the questions that are fired at them.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party was a reaction against this. One of the oddest features of the case made against him was how many of those who made it, on the grounds that he was unelectable, said they actually agreed with him.

And the Conservatives are about to tear themselves apart, as well, over Europe.

These fissures will become plain and untenable in 2016.

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'I've decided that there is more to life than paying a bloated mortgage'

Christmas may be the time of year for reflection, but being asked to sum up the last 12 months in a few words does rather bring to mind the man in the BBC's Fast Show who used to come out of a shed, trousers tied up with string and hair all askew, and say things like: "This week, I have been mostly eating bourbon biscuits." To be honest, I never understood why that was meant to be funny, but in the same spirit I now offer the following.

This year, I have been mostly trying to sell my house - and discovering that it's a lot harder than it used to be.

Anyone in the same situation will understand how all-consuming the experience can be and how much of your time it takes up, especially when you keep getting knocked back by disappointment.

I've been on this treadmill since last spring and, in spite of the fact that the house is priced well below what we paid for it 10 years ago, it's still sitting there, a brooding monument to some dreadful past financial decisions.

Be happy while you're living, because you're a long time dead. That's how the old saying goes. Realising how true it is took longer than it should, but I finally wised up this year and decided that there's more to life than paying a bloated mortgage and that it was time to cut my losses, leave sleepless nights behind and move on. As I say, I'm trying.

Boy, am I trying!

I'm not complaining. (Well, maybe a bit.) There are plenty of people far worse off than me. All I hope is that, by this time next year, I'll have managed to draw a line under all the difficult ones that preceded it.

Apart from that, my other main aim during 2016 is to try as far as possible to avoid the nonsense which will undoubtedly surround celebrations of the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Nationalists are entitled to commemorate the date; I just can't help fearing the avalanche of squabbling and point-scoring that will accompany it all.

There's too much dwelling on the past in Ireland. My house and the Easter Rising might not seem to have much in common, but getting rid of one and ignoring the other seems to me a fitting project for the next year.

I'm giving up dwelling on the past. The future's all that matters.

Geoffrey Beattie: 'I hope we overcome our conflicted minds to arrive at shared solutions'

My television is full of images of men, women and children in orange lifejackets, scrambling out of boats onto beaches on various Greek islands, now interchangeable in their emotional connotations.

Joy, relief, happiness is written on their smiling faces. The camera focuses on a beautiful, brown-eyed Syrian child. She is about six years old. "Thank you, Europe, thank you Mrs Merkel," her father shouts excitedly at the camera. He squeezes his child so hard in his excitement that I think that she might cry, but she smiles instead. There are tears of joy in his eyes, his daughter is now smiling straight into the camera, and my heart melts.

Then my eyes are drawn to a group of three young men standing just behind them, taking their lifejackets off, smiling broadly, not Syrian, maybe Afghans, but I can't be sure. And then I find myself involuntarily scanning the group to see who else is there on that beach.

How many other young men are travelling on their own? Where are they from? Are they just economic migrants and, if so, why is that so important to me? What would I do in their situation? Where will they settle? Will we be safe? Will they?

The last image in the news report is a shot of discarded, tangled lifejackets, the detritus of this mass movement of people, the lifejackets lapped by the sea.

What have I learned in 2015? I have learned we are a small world, a lot smaller than we ever thought and the old certainties that governed our old, much larger, world have changed forever.

This almost biblical exodus saw to that. We now see that global problems require global solutions immediately, rather than in a decade or two's time. There is no long grass when it comes to these sorts of issues.

This is the start of their journey on that beach and the start of ours. My emotions are fighting to keep up, empathy, sympathy, shared joy, of course, but also fear (especially following the terrorist attacks in Paris), anxiety, a rising sense of helplessness of being overwhelmed by the million that have come.

My emotions need to direct my thinking, to point me one way rather than another, but they're conflicted and confused at the moment. They are confusing to me and my thoughts.

The UN climate change conference in Paris this month, COP21, showed that sometimes global consensus about global problems can emerge and we will discover soon enough if practical solutions derive from this shared political will.

And I was fortunate in being given the opportunity to present my research on individual psychological responses to climate change at the UN scientific conference in Paris in July.

There was clearly a scientific consensus then and it was more than heartening to see a political consensus emerge five months later.

But this emerging consensus on climate change, it must be remembered, took many decades. When it comes to these other global challenges, we don't have many decades.

My hope for 2016 is that I, and everyone else, manage to overcome our conflicted minds to arrive at shared, consensual solutions a little bit quicker than in the past, because, quite simply, there is no alternative.

No alternative at all.

  • Geoffrey Beattie's Belfast memoir, Protestant Boy, is published by Granta

Belfast Telegraph

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