Belfast Telegraph

A picture perfect illustration of just what peace means

By Gail Walker

I want you to take a close look at the photograph below. Study its every detail. Amid the thousands of photos of NI troubles and politics, there may not seem much here to detain the casual observer. But I think anyone who dismissed this as just another in the image-making PR of Stormont would be mistaken.

Because this only 'looks like' a promo photograph for First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. It only 'looks like' a record of the official opening of the new Mencap centre for disabled kids. Yes, both are sitting on beanbags and colourful mats. Foster is reading a book to a little boy. McGuinness is sitting with a little girl in pigtails. The kids charming, the politicians smiling natural smiles.

As the man said, wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?

Of course Foster and McGuinness look like politicians delighted at the photo op and the good publicity. Delighted to be engaging in the ordinary business of politics - opening the centre, helping constituents, kicking things on a bit along to the election, making little bits of easily ignored history.

Yet, for me, while this image hasn't any of the famous Chuckle Brothers' outrageously unexpected energy, in many ways it represents a much more complete image of achievement.

Foster is sitting beside the man who gave the funeral oration at the graveside of the man she believes tried to kill her father. There was certainly a time she wouldn't even have been in the same room as him, let alone sharing a PR op with him. It is equally certain McGuinness won't have imagined himself in the Office of First Minister in Northern Ireland urging people to co-operate with the police - 'inform' - in their fight against the dissidents.

That's the context. Now, take a look at the children. Eventually, all politics of whatever colour is confronted with the most vulnerable and trusting in society. This image represents the reality of our politics here and now - we understand in a different way, perhaps, what it is to be literally 'disarmed'. No flag or slogan or garage load of guns and explosives can make the lives of the vulnerable less complicated, less troublesome, fuller or more satisfying. Only the politics of compassion made effective by sound and fair policy-making can make that difference.

What we see in this picture isn't empty posturing. This is what the fruit of real politics looks like. This is what the future actually looks like - the future we talked of 22 years ago when we began the process of this 'peace' we still think of as somehow 'imperfect'. This is what the future we talked about then - but had no idea how to get to or how to achieve or how not to stumble back into mayhem and confusion - looks like.

No longer the heated rhetoric of conflict, or paranoia, or worried about being perceived to be selling out 'the cause'. And this in the year of centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

Of course, there are still goblins out there, dreaming yesterday's dreams which are nightmares for the rest of us. The attempted murder of a prison warder in east Belfast may have been a reminder of what we have left behind, but the fact is things are getting better.

We are getting better as a society. Whatever about personal grievance and grief and the legacies of the past, the community reacted as one to the dissidents' attempt to drag us back. There was no ground given to the knuckle-draggers; none of that 'there's something to what they say, you know' nonsense.

In this thing we call an 'imperfect peace', yes there have been murders, paramilitaries haven't gone away, gangsterism and tribal hatred are still near the surface. But it's still peace. Take a look at that photograph again. Nearly a quarter-of-a-century of not looking over our shoulder, not reading about the latest murder, not fighting and dying for the cause, of no martyrs and self-declared heroes.

That's our fourth First Minister on the beanbag - even if she's worried the fifth might be beside her in the photo.

If we'd been shown a picture of the future 22 years ago, are these grown-ups and these children not what it would have looked like? Is this not what we would have wanted to see?

I think it is. A picture worth a fortune to us all.

Belfast Telegraph


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