Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Troubled ghosts of Christmases past in province

Malachi O'Doherty reflects on when there really was little festive cheer, and decides flag protests won't stop him enjoying this one

I'm not going to let these protests spoil my Christmas. We have been through much worse than the disruption caused by current protests over the City Hall flag and through it all, we managed, didn't we?

It is not so long since the bomb-scares of Christmas were a familiar part of the annual routine and you would come out of work to find the entire city gridlocked; the dark early evening, the icy rain, people struggling to walk with their shopping, or waiting in doorways for lifts that wouldn't be coming for hours.

We survived that; in fact, we did better than survive it; we cursed the predictability of the louts who inflicted that on us and then got on with Christmas.

And the worst of the paramilitaries soon learnt that they would have to have Christmas ceasefires and spare us their grave focus on flags and national myths for a few days, at least.

There will be younger people wondering how we kept up our spirits then, when the gloom of grief and horror hung over the city like a cloud.

But the cold fact of it is that the main part of the population, when the horror had not come right into their homes, resigned themselves to the pettiness and the power of the troublemakers and lived out their lives cheered by the confidence that they were better than that themselves.

I remember the times when I was in a crowd of people being evacuated from an office block down a cold, grim fire escape, waiting for a bomb to go off.

Sometimes it did and sometimes there was no bomb there; but the prevailing memory is of the mood of the people and it was always stoical, often cheerful and when mixed with exasperation almost never despairing, because you always knew that the people you worked with and socialised with had more sense than the disrupters.

That spirit, I believe, is what ended the Troubles, for it got through to the bombers and their political escorts that they could never be taken seriously for their proclaimed concern for human rights and national liberation while they insisted on being such a burden on us.

So, this Christmas may be different from last, but I am reminded that it is in character with maybe 20 Christmases past.

For, during the Troubles, this was always a time for the Provos, in particular, to try to remind us that their vision of national worth and manifest destiny trumped the mass folly about loving your neighbour and buying presents.

It was as if they sensed that there was a rival message in Christmas, a massive potential for people to be distracted from political goals.

And they were right. There was.

When you walked home from the office party, glowing a little from the imbibed spirit as much as from the spirit of Christmas, and the snowflakes were coming out of the darkness to chill on your rosy cheeks, and carol singers on a corner were singing Silent Night, no such narrowing of vision would work on you.

The most obvious thing about anyone intruding with a clamour round a flag, or a call to arms, was that they had missed the point. They had no idea what life was all about.

Yes, they are a nuisance. Yes, there are struggling businesspeople, who are losing money because of them.

There are nights planned for sociable dinners and drinking, for late-night shopping and a tipple that have been ruined by the road-blockers and the flag-wavers. They do make it harder, as if it wasn't hard enough when money is tighter and employment in jeopardy.

And the very familiarity of it, for those of us who remember, is dispiriting: it is our ghost of Christmas Past.

And it augurs ill for Christmases yet to come that those toxic passions still swirl among us and are so badly managed by politicians who do remember and who seemed to have learnt more than they now show.

But we got through it; not yet in the sense of having put it behind us - obviously - but by stoicism and good humour and a sense of being united by the difficulty, with each other rather than with the troublemakers.

When truculent minorities pledge themselves to disrupting our lives, they define themselves against the society they imagine they are trying to win over.

They holler at us from their picket-lines that they refuse to surrender, when the fact is we wouldn't care to receive a surrender from them.

And if they want a lesson in not surrendering, or in how to endure the most, let them look back on the Christmases they sullied in Belfast and reflect on how little success they had and how still most of us are pledged to the ordinary decencies and a festive spirit undistracted by chauvinism and symbols and their pointless rages.

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