Despite bonfire furore, we have come a long way from dark days
I have often wondered would we have ever reached a peace agreement if there had been social media in 1998.
Would the people who took those brave steps in reaching out to former enemies, at first in private and later in a very public process, been deterred by the inevitable social media backlash?
There are so many positives to be taken from the age of instant communication that we now live in.
During the pandemic those who were isolated or cut off from relatives used social media as a communication lifeline.
As a journalist I genuinely enjoy the instant interaction with readers. I also — whether online or in real life — love a good robust debate.
And I have had many challenging and yet respectful debates with people I disagree with politically on Twitter.
But it has a downside that sometimes makes me wonder what life would be like if we could reset and delete permanently the nasty and at times criminally-threatening social media world.
There are times when the debate is anything but respectful and this time of the year tends to bring out the worst in some people.
The imagery of sectarian and misogynistic effigies on bonfires, the calls for people to be murdered, shows the armed patriarchy remains in good health.
Threatened by successful women who have different political views than them and unable to articulate their argument, they resort to slurs and threats.
But — and I want to make this point in as strongest terms as possible — if you think this has been the worst year for such acts then I envy your naivety.
I spent many years working, covering the volatile summer months with days, sometimes weeks, of violence.
The 2001 Holy Cross blockade did not just centre around the primary school but spread into the surrounding interfaces and it was a baptism of fire fora fairly new reporter. These things stick with you.
In 2005, the Whiterock Orange Order parade in west Belfast was rerouted resulting in fierce violence, police came under attack, live rounds were fired, and blast bombs thrown.
I was often the only member of my family left in Belfast over the Twelfth, my children packed off to the safety of Donegal with their grandparents while I dodged plastic bullets and bricks along with the rest of the media pack.
I wasn’t always successful and in 2010 when I positioned myself at the wrong spot at Ardoyne shops I ended up with a fairly nasty cut to my face during an intense riot.
While in the Royal Victoria Hospital having it stitched up, I got a call to say shots were being fired in the area.
And for many years this was the normality of life in Northern Ireland each summer, and as difficult as that job could be I was always very much aware that I could pack up and go home. For the people who lived at the interfaces there was no escape and little in the way of respite.
The 2011 flag protests brought with it a different challenge, it was the winter for a start, covering protests with frozen feet was new, we would joke that until that point riots had been a summer pursuit in Northern Ireland.
I’d two near-death experiences during that time, I’ll not trouble you with them now.
Speak to any politician, journalist, cop, ambulance worker who was around at that time and they’ll tell you similar stories.
And remember this was post-peace process, what came before that was even worse.
So, when I see people on social media, who were either too young or too privileged to have ever experienced any of this, spreading division it really angers me.
When people say that sectarianism is worse now than it has ever been, I roll my eyes at the ridiculousness of that claim.
Back then an effigy on a bonfire wouldn’t even have made it to the front section of the newspapers.
Social media makes it appear like the problem is far more widespread than it is.
I am convinced there are people with 20 accounts each who spent all day every day spreading hate and fake news.
Demonising and threatening people who they wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to in the street.
Bonfires are an issue but there are less now than there have ever been. The sectarian element around a portion of the fires is roundly condemned every July 13 and then nothing is done for a year until it happens all over again.
There are solutions to these issues if there is real will to find them. But I often wonder is there?
People too afraid of falling foul of the Twitter mob shy away from saying what needs to be said or doing what those political giants did in the late 1990s and speaking to people.
Because in failing to act now ahead of next year’s bonfires they are failing the young people of those areas, the children who watched three hanging effigies set on fire, the children who deserve better.
I have visited bonfires every year since I became a journalist, sometimes I have been able to speak to the men involved — and it is an exclusively male pursuit — other times the welcome has been less than friendly.
But I’ll keep on doing it and I will make no apologies for at least trying to speak to those involved and to write from a position of knowledge.
I have said dozens of times over the years one of the reasons I became a journalist was because of how the media portrayed my community. Back in the 1970/80s I would have often seen journalists on the streets of west Belfast, they were mainly men, mainly English and always very posh.
The way they wrote and spoke about my community did not accurately reflect the place I lived and the people I loved. The media has changed since then, no longer mainly male and definitely not as posh.
This year, my annual visit to a bonfire resulted in a backlash online, which is fine, but I can see how that might put some people off engaging.
Looking at social media it is easy to lose hope and think all is lost, but we are in a very different place than we were, and it really is better.