Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

As we can tell Obama, it won’t be an easy task healing division

You know how the world regards Northern Ireland now. Bombs were yesterday. Paisley and the IRA have faded.

The big man mellowed and slid into retirement. The Provisionals went political. Now they help to run the place under the Crown. In other words, it is all over.

Would that it was. Certainly what there is is something different. There is a kind of open-ended truce between the rival armies. It is based on equal but separate stakes in the body politic, loosely based on what the voters say. But equal and separate: those are the words which matter. The mass of the two sides, in the gut, still behave as if they do not want to mix. The Catholics cling to their schools with tenacity so that the new generation of the young will also learn that it is their duty to be separate, if also equal. This leaves the state schools as largely — though no longer by any means exclusively — Protestant, but the Protestants tending to make them their own and mostly happy also in their separation.

It is all very unnecessary, very wasteful and highly expensive. Northern Ireland, its cities brutally cut into arbitrary cheese wedges by their ‘peace walls’, still has the most highly-segregated society in Europe. An official estimate recently put its cost at £1.5bn a year — on duplicating facilities normal communities would share but which this nest of private hates refuses to. The schools alone, because they are so largely segregated, are estimated to cost the public purse an extra £10m — every 12 months. But enough of that for the moment. I merely focus on the inaccuracy of outside perceptions, fed by the scant diet of 90-second reports on the television news.

It is a warning note to sound as we regard Barack Obama's inauguration on the steps of the Capitol today: for there are some who seem to believe that the struggle to solve America's community problem is all over too — just because a black man is going to the White House. Believe me, it would be more accurate to say that a new phase of it is now beginning. True, the United States now functions with equal facilities for the races as by law established. The fight began in earnest in May 1954. I effortlessly remember that date because I was in a Chicago radio station on the day chairing a discussion on the Supreme Court decision which, for the first time, had declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Obama's arrival as President is a further giant step forward — but Chicago today remains possibly the most racially segregated city worldwide. Even more significant, Obama and his lawyer-wife, Michelle, are the products of the South Side ghetto, she by birth, he by adopting it as his American home.

The sprawling South Side, where he was a community worker and, later, local politician, is a strange amalgam.

Few whites are to be seen there except round the precincts of the prestigious Victorian-gothic University, now isolated in the ghetto, and the upwardly-mobile enclaves of Hyde Park and Kenwood near it, which run out to the Michigan Lake shore.

To go to the university from the city centre, you take the L, the elevated train which thunders above the streets, and get off at 63rd Street.

But whites are not advised to do it after dark, though with the insouciance of the non-native I did it often. Even during the day, a white citizen is likely to find themselves the only white on the train. The others choose to travel by car, or by taxi, where the driver, long before the days of automatic locking, would twist round in his seat and flick the lock on the passenger door after they got in.

Chicago, known down the years for fabled mobsters like Johnny Torrio, Dion O'Banion, Al Capone and Sam ‘Golfbag' Hunt — he carried his Thompson submachine gun in the bag — is now sure that at last it has a better passport to international fame, as the posters suspended from the lamp standards all over town this week proclaim.

As for Obama, expectation is one thing, realisation another. Going for him is his comparative youth, politically still a stripling in his forties. He will tend to learn for himself — on Ireland, for example, and be cautious of the Irish-American folklore peddled at one time by black presidential contender, the Rev Jesse Jackson, with whose family Michelle Obama is friendly and who once preached that Ireland “remains a divided country occupied by foreign troops”. Jackson used to be great on Ireland's gift of the Kennedys to America. Heigh-ho for the Kennedys; but someone ought to tell him about Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson. Or even that rather remote Princeton professor, Woodrow Wilson. I will be very surprised if Obama is not better briefed.

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