Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Look for peace in our hearts and our homes

Malachi O'Doherty looks forward to the New Year in a spirit of hope if not exactly of confidence

Internationally, it seems possible that we are on the cusp of the kind of crises that define centuries, rather than decades. The United States seems ready to follow Europe into economic stasis and potential collapse. War looms on several fronts.

The revolution in Syria still threatens to trigger a conflagration involving both Turkey and Iran, perhaps the US and Israel.

And even if that miasma settles into something less toxic, the threat remains of either an Israeli attack on Iran to delay the nuclear ambitions of the mullahs, or, alternatively and horribly too, a prolonged Middle Eastern cold war.

And now that North Korea has the bomb and a missile that can reach California, the logic by which Israel justifies an attack on Iran, if sound, would be just as applicable to an American strike against the sickest little polity in the world.

Cold war was the model for conflicts past, when the US and the Soviet Union faced each other with the threat of mutual annihilation. That confrontation ended nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Immediately, we saw the other conflicts that had been suppressed by the eyeballing of giants. Nationalist uprisings and sectarian wars erupted all over the place.

Curiously, during the Cold War, Northern Ireland had seemed out of character with the rest of the world, fighting over ethnicity defined by religion, while everybody else was siding with nuked-up global patrons. Then that phase ended and our type of squabble was exposed as universal.

Locally, politics and conflicts have both changed character, with the emergence of loyalist street politics, triggered by the offence taken at restriction on the flying of the Union flag over the City Hall.

No one knows yet what this will turn into, though it has reached the point at which it would seem nearly as problematic for it to collapse as to thrive.

A demoralised loyalist cause, which has no faith in unionist leadership, should have a voice and may be more of a burden on the wider politic if it fails to express its annoyance inside the system.

Economically, we are no better off than last year, or the year before. Those of us who make a living, for now, and keep up our mortgage payments and can afford a car, may live out our lives with a sense that not much has changed.

For us, the numbers were always theoretical.

The house bought in the 1990s that was on a trajectory that would have made it worth millions by 2020 may only then be worth double what was paid for it - with luck.

Pension plans are scuppered, or depleted, but for now, if you have a job, you can imagine that things are not much worse than they were. But the threat of unemployment touches most professionals. This coming year, academics will be anxious for their futures, for they are approaching the date at which the Government will be assessing funding for universities on the basis of research achievements.

The profile of our transport system is changing and, in Belfast, we saw the congestion that comes before drivers adapt to the reality that they are being discouraged from bringing their cars into the cities.

In the near future, we may see the critical levels of autumn's congestion resolve into more fluid movement, but the progressive squeeze on the motorist will continue.

The Government wants us to take the bus, or ride a bicycle, alternatives that, for those who are comfortable in their cars, may seem almost equally appalling.

Let's face it, a car isn't just a mode of transport; it is an extension of the home, for some the cosiest and most private space they have.

It's not primarily for getting you through town at speed, for it doesn't; but it provides a cosy den in the traffic; a window on the turmoil for people who imagine that they are not part of that turmoil themselves.

But if congestion won't drive us out of our cars, won't petrol prices?

The theory of recent years was that the threat of climate change would make us all more considerate of the planet and more willing to make sacrifices.

However, climate change here seems to be expressing itself in rain. We are not facing global warming so much as global flooding. And what do Belfast commuters do when the rain is heavy? They take the car.

But what are we to make of the fact that this past year was our wettest yet? Well, all that melted ice just north of us has to go somewhere.

We had imagined that the sea levels would simply rise and lap at the doorsteps of people on coastal areas. But, instead, it is coming down as rain, which is proving particularly unfortunate for many in England and, so far, just marginally less alarming for us.

Maybe this should be our tourism marketing pitch: Belfast - where an umbrella is usually enough to keep you dry.

The New Year is upon us. We should contemplate it with hope, if not with confidence. But if we want to be happy at the end of it, in a poorer, more conflicted and wetter world, then perhaps we should look for peace in our hearts and in our homes.

Happy New Year.

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