Belfast Telegraph

Old prejudices have no place in new society

By Gail Walker

Some people just can't keep out of the news. Take Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile. There he was, busily planning to host a reception for the brave bus drivers who kept us all on the move through the Dark Days of the Troubles.

A quick way to get back into public favour after the Duke of Edinburgh Award/teenage girl cadet fiasco had left the public seething.

Then Cllr Jim Rodgers recalls that O Donnghaile Senior was one of several men convicted of burning a bus at gunpoint in 1972. Worse still, the driver had been shot dead a few days later at his own home.

Ghastly. Distressing. Grim.

If we didn't know it before, we do now. The dead are not going away. And it's every single one, it seems, and not just those killed by the dozen in what used to be known as 'spectaculars', who are going to have his and her day in the middle of our breathless drive to Move On And Move Forward.

Yes, it might seem like grandstanding on the part of Cllr Rodgers, like the Unionist Party 'getting its own back' for the cadet affair. And one might think that O Donnghaile (or someone in the slick SF team) could have anticipated the matter and taken evasive action. One might even think that O Donnghaile has been ambushed for making an honestly reparative gesture.

No matter, though, we have no choice now but to say 'welcome back' to Sydney Agnew, father of three. A man whose apparently small-scale and seemingly forgotten life ended 40 years ago just a month from now, on January 18 1972, when his six-year-old son opened the door to two 16-year-old gunmen who shot Mr Agnew several times. Mr Agnew's name would, most likely not have been remembered publicly on the anniversary of his death. More likely than not, his character would have been recalled only by a few former colleagues and by members of his surviving family, privately and sadly. Perhaps that is the way they would have wished to remember him.

But now Sydney Agnew is back.

It's very risky throwing a few weird ideological shapes, to prove that one is more loyal or more republican than the 'hardliners' on either side, when one's own community's atrocities are lined up hundreds deep. And yes, while there is something peculiar that someone touted as the voice of young Sinn Fein should so frequently sound like someone from the 1920s, it's hardly unique.

Recently, we had Orangemen trying to get UUP leader Tom Elliott and UUP colleague Danny Kennedy expelled for attending the funeral of Catholic PSNI man Ronan Kerr.

The madness of political certainties are with us still. But that doesn't mean we should be in thrall to them any longer.

Niall (and his soul mates from the other side) would do better to abandon their cumanns and smoke-filled lodges and get out more and meet the people they claim to represent. The true and much younger voice of contemporary Belfast doesn't recognise the ghosts we stashed away over the last 45 years.

The true voice was heard at the MTV awards with Catholics and Protestants (sorry, those from the nationalist persuasion and those from the unionist persuasion) trying to get a gander at Justin Bieber and Beyonce.

Most of us in Northern Ireland are yearning for the freedom to get on with our lives. And a condition of that getting on with our lives is freedom from being provoked by nutcases.

We expect our Lord Mayors (if they are unionist) to receive successful GAA teams, winners of Irish dance competitions; we expect our Lord Mayors (if they are nationalists) to welcome successful football teams and to award Duke of Edinburgh certificates without giving offence. Just do it and shut up. That's the real world that most of us live in.

If a relative of a friend or colleague dies, we go to their services regardless of their religion (or none).

When we know that there's somebody in the room who is not of our persuasion, we don't antagonise, hurt or belittle them. We have the common decency, the good grace, to keep our lip buttoned and not be an ignorant yahoo. It isn't too much to ask - even in Northern Ireland.

Still, even if we fret about the damage done to our collective peace of mind, there are two crumbs of comfort to be drawn even from this sorry episode. First, Mr Sydney Agnew has been remembered as a man, a dad and a bus driver who gave his life for others as surely as any decorated hero. Second, no one's listening to grandstanding ideologues anymore... At least no one who you want to hang out with.

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