Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

We need brave leaders who place truth above tribalism

Leaders needed: trouble over the Union flag shows the need for decisive actions such as those shown by Jim Wilson

It's normal to feel embarrassed when you come from Northern Ireland. You get used to the sensation of lingering shame.

As we know, it only takes a few hyped-up hardliners setting fire to cars to attract the rest of the world's attention and leave all of us looking bad.

These bizarre acts of violent self-sabotage render us strange, scary and deeply mystifying to outsiders.

They don't understand the bitter, twisted logic that inexorably leads us back to this pit of despair. They don't know and they don't care. Who could blame them?

Sometimes the embarrassment takes a different form. Last Thursday afternoon, at Stormont, I was mortified by the behaviour of the justice committee towards three representatives of Marie Stopes International (MSI).

Two senior London-based executives — MSI vice-president and director Tracey McNeill and Dr Paula Franklin, its medical director — joined Dawn Purvis, who heads up the new Belfast clinic, to answer questions about how the charity is complying with the criminal law on abortion in Northern Ireland.

Let's be clear: the MSI women were under no legal, or political, compunction to be there. They are not public servants and they appeared before the committee entirely voluntarily.

They have broken no law and they were certainly not on trial. Yet, from the start, they were confronted with suspicion and barely-veiled hostility from members of the almost exclusively male committee.

What with all the hectoring, the moralising and the finger-pointing, it seemed as though this was Stormont's answer to the Salem witch-trials. I half-expected someone to stand up and shout, “I saw Goody Hawkins with the Devil!”

Let's be clear: this is not about the rights, or wrongs, of abortion. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on that issue.

No, this is about the inability of many of our politicians to rise above their own beliefs and comport themselves with courtesy and professionalism, especially to people who are visitors in this country.

What must those London women have made of such a display? At least Dawn Purvis, as a former MLA, already knew exactly what they were in for.

The truth is that Northern Ireland is cursed with a culture of political machismo. It sets the tone for public discourse and debate well beyond the marble corridors of Stormont, where such testosterone-fuelled behaviour is expected, if not actively encouraged.

This defining culture celebrates point-scoring, baiting, rigid thinking, declamatory rhetoric and a stubborn, not-an-inch mentality (and, of course, you don't have to be a man to join in). It is tribal. It doesn't listen. It likes to be dominant and in control — whether of Government institutions, or of women's bodies. It is suspicious of compromise and consensus.

Where compromise is achieved, it is carried out furtively and covered up with braggadocio, as though it was some kind of dangerously illicit act.

That is because, underneath the posturing, there is weakness, insecurity and fear. Our politicians don't want you to know it, but, for many of them, their biggest anxiety is not losing their seats, but losing face.

And that is why Peter Robinson, himself a prime product of this combative, locker-room climate, has struggled to take charge of the flag row. A provocateur by training, his default instinct was to side with the tribe: as DUP leader, not as leader of the people of Northern Ireland.

He did not have the courage to tell loyalists that, far from their Britishness being eroded, the opposite is true. The Union is secure, a united Ireland is nothing more than a wistful glint in Gerry Adams’s eye and all republicans can do is pursue small, symbolic half-victories, like taking the flag down over City Hall. (And agreeing to put it up again a few weeks later for Princess Kate's birthday.)

Machismo is not about real strength. It is an empty performance of strength. And, right now, in these dark and frightening times, we need the genuine variety: we need men and women who have the guts to place truth above tribalism.

When senior east Belfast loyalist Jim Wilson spoke out against the youths from his own community who attacked homes in the nationalist Short Strand on Monday night, he was doing just that.

It is in small, but decisive actions like these that the longed-for future lies.

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