Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Skin-deep peace process at mercy of age-old hatred

Until Peter Robinson stepped back up to the role of First Minister in this paper yesterday, all we had experienced for six weeks was disturbance and a political class embarrassed into awkward silence.

The hotspots in this crisis are exactly those of 1969 - the working-class flashpoints of Ardoyne and Short Strand. Forty-four years later, the sectarian geography of our city has changed very little - a result of failure to end the Balkan-like isolation and outright hostility of whole communities.

Complete districts have been let fester, out of step with the modern world, clinging desperately to old certainties.

Swathes of our population go home to "their" warrens of streets, socialise in "their" bars and go to "their" churches and meet friends at "their" social functions. If at all, the "other" is only met online. If you can stand it, read the online bulletin boards and see the depths of the fear, hatred, bitterness, the vile sectarian sterotypes. Hatred beyond reason.

It is not exclusive to the working class, either. How our sophisticated middle classes, for all their cocktail culture, relish their freedom to, er, still mate with their own sort. And just check who befriends who on their glossy Facebook pages.

Because, after all, what else is there?

In 20 years of peace, we failed to create new identities, new imaginative belongings. In times of plenty, we tried to create an identity based on convenience and consumption.

What do we do now the money has run out?

It is easy to sneer at the near- illiteracy of the protesters, to look upon it as the final roar of the dinosaurs of history. Confused by the sudden eruption from our forgotten streets, we hear how protesters (and their feuding opponents) should "go out and get a job" or have their dole cut. If such vitriol were directed towards an ethnic minority, we would be horrified at the stereotyping.

For the middle class, the question is: why can't they be like us?

Well, because they are poor. Because they have little or no hope. Because we have failed to give them any more satisfying idiom than the black-and-white of "us" and "them". Because, even in peace, we still played the zero-sum game where "the war" was continued through less bloody ways.

We only wanted a skin-deep peace process and what we've got is a skin-deep peace and a few hundred angry protesters can have it teetering on the brink.

The middle classes may sneer that those blocking the roads can barely express themselves. But, except only in very few cases and then only in extremis, neither can our ruling politicians. Peter and Michael struggled to cope. The SDLP took a Zen-like vow of silence. Gerry and Caral and Niall stumbled late in the day into Short Strand and tweeted about their arrival like they were three astronauts on the Moon. As if, for all their Left-wing jibber-jabber, what was happening on the streets wasn't also supposed to be involving "their" people, the people of no property regardless of religion. Instead, the tribal lines were reinforced with glee, to audible sighs of relief all round that there was no need, for a while, to spout all that "shared future" rhetoric no one really believes in.

Cut it how you like, the violence we have seen in the east of the city is just an uncouth, vulgar expression of our usual higher politics. If "they" gain something, "we" must be losing.

In other words, let's just keep counting heads and never tackle the hatreds festering within them.

The only reality our peace process has had rests in the joint persons of Robinson and McGuinness. Sadly, it's only when the whole structure is threatened, by the gun or the bomb or the mob, that our politics rises above name-calling and lethal game-playing.

If they could act in concert in small things as bravely and as stubbornly as they do in great crisis, the eruptions which challenge the very basis of the peace might be more easily avoided.

So much depends on those two individuals who have come from among the very people so many among our civilised middle classes despise.

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