Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: A statue of Alex Higgins would only show that we have never faced up to our violent history

Has the trauma of the Troubles affected our ability to be frank about deeply flawed people, asks Fionola Meredith

Alex Higgins was hugely gifted but had a reputation for violent behaviour
Alex Higgins was hugely gifted but had a reputation for violent behaviour

Today we know that trauma can cause lasting changes to the brain. Sometimes I wonder if the terrible years of the Troubles have affected the way this traumatised society responds, or doesn't respond, to violence.

Has the horror that we went through, the awful everyday reality of bombings and shootings, warped our ability to be truly shocked by violence? Did violence become normal for us? And has that blinded us, to some extent, to its capacity to wreck people's lives?

I was asking myself these uncomfortable questions earlier this week, when I was taking part in a debate on the BBC's Nolan Show about Alex Higgins. The renowned snooker player would have turned 70 last Monday, and there have been calls for a statue to be erected in his memory.

Nobody is any doubt about Higgins' prodigious talent, and the way he was loved by people living here. His victories brought a sense of joy and pride to local hearts at a time when there was little else to be joyful and proud about in Northern Ireland.

In person, Higgins was capable of great charm, but he could also be vicious and violent.

This "smashing snooker player" smashed his girlfriend's jaw with a hairdryer.

Higgins assaulted a prostitute too. On another occasion his victim was a child: a 14-year-old boy.

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He was banned from his sport on numerous occasions for threatening and aggressive behaviour, including a notorious incident when he was fined £12,000 for head-butting a tournament director. He threatened his fellow snooker player Dennis Taylor by snarling: "I come from the Shankill. Next time you're in Northern Ireland, I'll have you shot."

It amazes me how so many people make excuses for 'Higgy', brushing aside or diminishing his atrocious behaviour. 'Oh, he was an alcoholic, he wasn't in control of himself. Oh,he could be bad but he was a brilliant sportsman. Oh, we all do things we regret, he was still a great man'.

To these people, I would say, when was the last time you broke your partner's jaw with a hairdryer? Can you imagine how hard you would have to hit somebody to do that kind of damage?

Seriously, why are we even talking about raising a statue to this man? If you put somebody on a pedestal, you're saying that this is a person who is honoured by our society. A hero, a role model, and an inspiration.

You can't just set aside the grotesque violence and pretend it doesn't exist because of Higgins' special ability to knock coloured balls into pockets.

And yes, the same applies to George Best, another man of stratospheric sporting ability and enormous personal charm who also cruelly beat his wife. What did we do? Named an airport after him. Gave him what amounted to a state funeral.

But when it comes to making excuses for really obscene, murderous violence, far beyond the likes of anything Higgins or Best did, republicans are the past masters.

They have built up a whole delusional narrative justifying the horrors that the IRA inflicted, which has been more or less accepted as fact in some parts of our society.

It was all about shooting people in the name of equality, you see.

If Stormont was sitting, unashamed apologists for political murder would be running the country. Sometimes I remember how crazy that sounds, but we've all swallowed it. We've all got used to it. And that makes us complicit with it. Republicans like to dismiss anyone who calls out their blatant, morally-bankrupt revisionism as a unionist stooge, a craven DUP-lover. Inconveniently, I am neither. Like many people, I am politically homeless, alienated from the crude sectarian carve-up that passes for politics in this place.

I'm not a unionist, nor a nationalist. I'm not a patriot, nor a traitor. I don't understand the blood fever over land. I'm just sick of this society's tolerance for violence, past or present.

It's there, too, in the attitude to so-called punishment attacks by loyalist and dissident republican paramilitaries, which are on the rise again. In any other society, kids getting shot in the legs would cause an enormous outcry - people would be on the streets, aghast, demanding action from the authorities, anything to stop the barbarous blood-letting. Not here. Here, we shake our heads and look the other way.

Any time campaigners have tried to hold rallies to raise attention about the issue, hardly anyone turns up.

The Troubles may be over, but we still have a grave problem with violence in Northern Ireland.

And we're never going to heal if we don't face up to it.

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