To me, it is a poignant and emotional sight — the arrival at our airports and seaports of Northern Ireland’s thousands of exiles. Hugs and kisses to mothers and fathers tell a story of a generation who have left this country for a whole variety of reasons.
This week sees the return of the exiles. My personal life, along with that of many thousands of other parents from across this province, has been governed at Christmas by waiting outside airport terminals. The moment when your kith and kin arrive is extra special as is the sadness of the day after Christmas when they depart.
If you don’t believe me, just stand outside Aldergrove or the City airport in the next 48 hours and watch the warmth, the tears, the joy of welcoming home the sons and daughters of Northern Ireland. It is a sight which underpins the values and ties of family bonding.
I have an extra special reason this Christmas week to dwell on this because among the passengers on the flights to Belfast was a four month old girl, called Sophie, who happens to be my granddaughter. This is her first Christmas on Earth but one that she will not remember.
So I’m recording here for her to read and understand later, a few thoughts about the atmosphere of life as Christmas Day 2008 approaches in Northern Ireland.
Four months and 17 days old on Christmas Day, Sophie, you will add your own unique dimension to the festive season. Although you will not remember the joy you bring, those around you most certainly will.
Thankfully you do not understand the headlines of this year of your birth. Two little words have dominated the news. Credit crunch. A year ago, we might have been forgiven for believing this was some new variety of cornflakes. Now we know to all our costs that the credit crunch is the great pandemic plague of 2008.
The pain of the economic downturn is etched on rich and poor alike this Christmas. Worse still, none of us know if and when it will end. We head into the New Year without a map or a compass. When we watched the fall of the Berlin Wall, we witnessed the collapse of communism. Now, as even the United States reels on the ropes, who can say the concept of capitalism is not tottering on the brink also?
Time will tell. The bankers duck and weave. Political leaders like Gordon Brown deliver regular doses of smelling salts. Yet, there is no certainty that this fight will not end with everyone exhausted or counted out.
The world is in a state of economic chaos. The old rules apply no longer. Many people’s jobs are in jeopardy. Pensions and investments diminish. Borrowings are unsustainable.
This year’s Christmas carol is not Hark the Herald Angels Sing but ‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’.
There’s 50% off, two for the price of one, most places you go. The Archbishop of Canterbury suggests in his seasonal message that we are all living beyond our means. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are down on the commodities market. And there is plenty of room at the inn because hardly anyone can afford to stay there.
The peculiar thing is that the world is full of economic experts yet few of them, saw it coming. If it hadn’t been for the BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston, we might still have been blissfully unaware of how awful these experts were — like racing pundits who failed to predict any winners or even losers.
Now a man and a woman they are all discredited, having turned the blindest of eyes to the impending doom we faced. They have lost credibility. Their predictions for the future appear worthless given their failure in the past.
We, who know nothing about finance, can now recognise with the benefit of hindsight, the obvious truth. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, we have been living beyond our means. Buying to let. Mortgaging ourselves to the hilt. Borrowing billions to make more billions.
Not so long ago home owners were making more money annually from the increasing value of their homes than from working. Those were the days my friend ... we thought they’d never end. But those days have ended. And this Christmas, the wreckage from the great economic tsunami is strewn on the floors of banks and building societies everywhere. The casualties are washed up on the shores of every land.
We have all had a wake-up call. Now we know that nothing in life is for free.
Nothing should be taken for granted.
We have lulled ourselves into a false comfort zone and suddenly the ground under our feet has shaken and given way.
Christmas 2008 may prove to be a watershed for our capitalist world. There are casualties everywhere. Homes, cars, jobs. Iconic household names — Woolworths, Ford, Chrysler, Goldman Sachs and a host of others — are disappearing, or recording huge losses and dispensing with their armies of employees.
No one is safe and no one knows where the Sword of Damocles will fall next.
That is life this Christmas, a sad tale of over indulgence and extravagance. As of now, we owe the future generation a big apology. I hope we will all learn from our collective mistakes and by the time our grandchildren fully comprehend what is going on, the world will have put itself right.