Let’s get drunk on life and at last escape our bad old ways
Here in Northern Ireland, we excel in lying low, hoping that, if we avert our eyes from a problem for long enough, it will eventually go away.
“Keeping our heads down is the standard northern way,” a friend of mine observed. “That was how we got through the Troubles and we're still doing it today.”
But sometimes it pays to stop and have a good look around you. Not at the petty political squabbles that make up everyday life here, but at the entire lay of the land, the broad sweep, the whole damn shebang.
How is the jigsaw geography of post-conflict Northern Ireland resolving itself? What strange new alignments are emerging? And where are the missing pieces?
These are the big, slippery questions I've been grappling with in recent months, since I was asked to contribute an essay to the Lives Entwined project, a series of books examining the relationship between Britain and Ireland, curated by the British Council.
The latest edition was launched last night at Queen's University, as the president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, gave the British Council annual lecture.
The president spoke eloquently and inspiringly on the theme of re-imagining the past and creating the future. But, when I try to imagine the future of Northern Ireland, I come up with a kind of hazy, fuzzy blank.
Perhaps it's not surprising: to have any real idea of what kind of society will emerge, you need a well-established sense of stability and continuity; shared identity, shared values. And we don't have that yet. We're on our own: uncertain, querulous and adrift, increasingly isolated from the protective interference of Dublin and London. Left to our own devices, there are any number of ways this place could go.
This is the second time I've written an essay for the Lives Entwined series. Looking back at my first effort, from 2008, I was struck by the naivety of my own words: the sense of barely-contained optimism, an irrepressible conviction that at last — in spite of the twisted legacy of the Troubles — we had a real future.
But that hoped-for era of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding has — so far — failed to fully materialise. Things are better, yes, but as the writer Glenn Patterson remarked to me recently, they are far from best.
Now that the sectarian violence has receded, a fresh struggle is emerging.
It may not involve guns and bombs, it may not grab headlines every day, but it is real and it represent a growing battle for the heart and soul of Northern Ireland. I see a chasm opening up between an insular, intensely retrograde, yet politically-powerful fundamentalism and a more relaxed, open-minded and tolerant world view, particularly characteristic of the post-Troubles generation.
One is old and fearful; the other is confident and young in spirit.
One wants to pickle Northern Ireland in holy aspic, keep it preserved in another, less-enlightened era: banning gay couples from adopting children, outlawing abortion in all circumstances, teaching medieval theology as |scientific fact. It is repressive, anti-intellectual, discriminatory and joyless. Motivated by a fanatical impetus, this disproportionately vocal minority clings to moral absolutes: good or bad, with us or against us, sound or unsound.
The other — which contains a wider diversity of viewpoints along the political spectrum — knows that the 21st century is a lot more complicated than that.
This is the place where most of the rest of us live, whether we're Protestant or Catholic, gay or straight, pro-choice or anti-abortion, conservative or liberal, or any combination of the above.
Of course, we don't always agree with each other, but we share a mutual respect and an acknowledgement that an intolerant theocracy is not the best way forward for our homeland.
At this point, we stand on the cusp of a new Northern Ireland. What it looks and sounds like, how it feels to live in, is yet to be decided.
There should be a place there for all of us, yes, even for the Bible-bashers. But I hope we make a choice in favour of life, in all its glorious, contradictory and uncontainable complexity: or, as Louis MacNeice timelessly put it, in favour of “the drunkenness of things being various”.