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Imagine what is achievable if more of us left trenches

By Gail Walker

Published 07/07/2015

Jarlath Burns at the official opening of the new Museum of Orange Heritage in Sloan’s House, Loughgall
Jarlath Burns at the official opening of the new Museum of Orange Heritage in Sloan’s House, Loughgall

We need more practical idealists like Jarlath Burns, the former Armagh GAA star and headmaster of St Paul's High School in Bessbrook. After taking pupils from his school to visit two refurbished Orange Order museums, at Sloan's House in Loughgall and Schomberg House in Belfast, he gave one of the most inspiring, eloquent and stirring interviews about who we all are and what we all need to do.

He defended Schomberg House from criticisms that it wasn't flying the Irish tricolour: "Why would we ever expect to see an Irish tricolour outside the headquarters of the Orange Order? We wouldn't expect to see a Union flag at a GAA match. Those things would be very difficult for people to accept."

But, as he pointed out, this is by no means a one-way street: "I would like unionists to come to a deeper understanding of the GAA, the organisation to which I belong, and recognise what is important to us."

Mr Burns' decency and of tolerance cuts through the arid certainties of the ideologues from both sides - straining to take offence, to refight a lower-key civil war which left all of us trapped in tribal positions.

We need more men like Jarlath Burns and the Orange Order's David Scott, who is leading this outreach, men for whom the eddies of history do not represent a dilution of their heritage, but rather its fullest realisation.

Bigots will dismiss Mr Burns' visit to Schomberg House with his young charges as yet another photo op for our ever-expanding peace industry. After all, the Queen has shaken hands with Martin McGuinness and Prince Charles with Gerry Adams, so a sporting figure being shown around a new interpretive centre by an Orange Order official is no great shakes.

But great shakes it certainly is.

If institutions like the Orange Order and the GAA step out of their trenches, who knows what can be achieved?

It may not sit easy with the professional sneerers and the commentariat, but we shouldn't forget that both organisations play an often ignored and easily derided role in small rural towns, villages and townlands. They are part of the glue holding a community together.

The basic units - the club, the lodge - exist as social, communal and educational agencies as well as political and cultural ones. And ones that do raffles.

While it would be madness to overlook their roles, among many others, in reinforcing division and suspicion during the Troubles, it must be understood that these organisations on the ground are not the stereotypical blustering Orange bigot or thin lipped Green-eyed fanatic.

Instead, many were and are communal leaders who provided the Saturday night dance, opened the doors to the local flower arranging class, or hosted the bric-a-brac sale during annual town (to stretch a term to breaking point) festival.

Speaking after his visits, Mr Burns pointed out: "This year, the Twelfth celebrations in Armagh are being held in Bessbrook and I want any of my pupils in the town to know that the people taking part in those celebrations are not bad people."

Not bad people - the realisation that our enemies are much like ourselves.

We'd all do well to look beyond the stereotypes. Though they love to point the finger at the working classes, sadly it is actually many of our influential people in the middle class who reinforce stereotypes because it's easy to do so. Never cross the divide, have few or no friends of "the other sort" - not really. Marry in the tribe, socialise with the tribe, feel "comfortable" in the tribe - and, consequently, pander to the easy bigotry of stereotype and caricature.

But the fact is that everyone here, in every sense, needs to seek out what they are most uncomfortable with, visit it, learn about it and learn to live with it.

That's not being a hypocrite. But it is the opposite of being a bigot. Bigotry doesn't stop being bigotry because all your friends reassuringly think the same way.

Forty years of certainties, idealogical simplicities and ludicrous stereotypes led to barbarism and, yes, hatred masquerading as politics. That is why we need the voices of pragmatic, but questioning, men and women. People rooted, but not immovable. "We cannot change the past, but we can rethink how we can share the future," added Mr Burns. "We have to become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. We have to reach out. This should not be shock territory for anyone."

This is a challenge to every single person and it begins by asking ourselves "what are we actually doing with 'the other side' to overcome bigotry?" It's not clause-by-clause peace agreements reached by politicians that beds peace in, but our own conscious discovery that "the other sort" are not bad people. They are our neighbours.

We all know only too well where we need to go to make that discovery.

Follow me on Twitter, @GWalker9

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