Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Despite flare-ups, this place is getting better all the time

A car on fire in North Street as loyalists counter protest against republicans taking part in the anti-internment march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre
A car on fire in North Street as loyalists counter protest against republicans taking part in the anti-internment march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre

Anyone looking in on Northern Ireland recently would be forgiven for thinking there was some kind of communal psychosis under way. The news – with its online commentators and pundits – has swung from crazed levels of "positivity" about everything ordinary that happens to equally crazed levels of apocalyptic doom-mongering about everything unpleasant, however small.

The World Police and Fire Games became a zany frenzy of "brilliant Belfast" puffery – food, nightlife, friendliness, venues.

Then there's the "downside" stuff – parades, marches, commemorations, with the accompanying low-grade violence and heightened anxiety. The downside was greeted with the kind of response from Upbeat Belfast that amounted to apologising to our visitors for being so crude as to have political differences so profound as to provoke riotous behaviour among young drunk men. The Royal Avenue confrontations last weekend made the national news in the south and GB, while the WPFG2013 passed without comment.

The point is there is no psychosis. This is what we are. Many nice people who live here may have detached themselves from our sordid political beliefs far enough to think anyone who has "legitimate aspirations" or "loyal orders" is somehow backward and Neanderthal. But for many others of us these remain vexing and live issues. Indeed, after so many decades of conflict, how could they not be?

But here's the thing. We're never going to live in a "normal" society here, which takes no account of the deep political divisions that exist. They're not going to go away. They didn't go away under the old Stormont or Direct Rule; they haven't gone away under the new Stormont settlement; there's no reason to think they'd go away in an "all-Ireland" context – one of the reasons, apart from cost, which makes the Republic less than enthusiastic about the prospect of unity.

Unlike anywhere else in these islands, our society experiences two opposing world-views cheek-by-jowl. The Republic, for all its Euro-centric fantasies, has no population within it in any way comparable to the "northern Protestant". Just as the UK had no population – not in Wales or Scotland – as unmanageable as the "northern Catholic".

And here we are. Staring at each other across a few hundred yards of roadway or a handful of fields up the country in townlands most of us have never visited and have no desire to. Call it what you like – 'Ulster', 'Norn Iron', 'the Six Counties', 'the North' – it doesn't change the blunt reality. None of us are going anywhere. We are going to be exactly what we are for at least as long as we have been already, regardless of whose borders we squat inside.

One part of our job is to agree visibly and noisily and often on things we can agree on. Another part is to disagree as infrequently as possible and with as little violence as possible. If we can do those two things, we will achieve much. And we have achieved much, far more than in anyone's wildest dreams even 10 years ago. Our agreement – call it Belfast or Good Friday – still works. No-one should confuse what difficulties we face now with what we faced 10 and certainly 20 years ago. This is not that world. These are not those Troubles. This is not that war.

I say this partly because the annoyance over flag disputes, and parade re-routings seems so easily to spill over into a hysteria which allows the young to think wrongly this is what the Troubles were like and the old(er), or those among them so inclined, to think they might "give it all another rattle".

Not a chance.

The attack on Belfast's Lord Mayor is a case in point. Within minutes, he was back in the saddle, declaring himself open to invitations from anywhere in the city.

He refused to retreat into the old comfort zones. It's heartening to register the welcome his attitude received from all sections of our community.

It's a mistake also to think that while it's been loyalists in the frontline of protest recently that those Protestants who are leading the line against violence are all watery liberals and Lundys, that they're not also "loyalist". Many of them are, ex-prisoners among them.

The world has changed. These summer disputes – even winter ones – will be weathered. But the deep convictions which fuel them, on all sides, will not go away. Nor should they. They are what we are. Or what most of us are. Some of the time.

The third part of our job as citizens is to root out the killers. They live in a different zone even from the protesters and rioters and they are rooted out by the rest of us diligently keeping on with the Agreement no matter what the provocation.

That's the thing.

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