Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Nothing will improve here until our walk away from the troubled past breaks into run

Attack on the memorial at Narrow Water just one more example of the lack of progress, writes Gail Walker

Desecrated wreaths at the memorial
Desecrated wreaths at the memorial
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Last week the Chief Constable revealed an assessment about the level of violence here which alarmed many people. Mostly, though, the remarks were taken as a warning about the potential impact of Brexit on security, that is, the idea that a renewed focus on 'the border', let alone a 'hardened' frontier, would only inflame dormant dissident opinion.

In fact, his remarks carried a charge which is frightening right now - we don't need to wait for some vague future provocation. "There's a feeling that as regards the Troubles and the conflict, Northern Ireland is sorted and we don't need to worry about it," George Hamilton said. As a matter of fact, he went on, "we're working flat out 24/7 to keep a lid on it".

We are all aware of the rising tide of bitterness - from effigies and names of murdered police and prison officers left on bonfires, to attacks on churches, Orange halls and football pitches, shots fired at police, to the surfacing of unresolved griefs for which there seem to be no common ground for consideration, right down to such miserable, depressing, low-grade desecrations by low-grade individuals as we saw at the weekend, with the attack on the memorial to the 18 soldiers killed in the 1979 Narrow Water bombing.

It is true that such acts also bring out the decent people. People like independent councillor Jarleth Tinnelly who, witnessing the incident, called it out for what it was - a hate crime. And people like Richard McKee, who helped in reinstating the wreaths. "I think this year alone there's been maybe six to eight incidents of vandalism (at the memorial)," he said. "This is the first time that I'm aware that this has happened in broad daylight. It just shows the audacity too…. what is going through the heads of these people?"

But we shouldn't draw false comfort from the likes of those. We have always generated good souls here, many more than the goblins. Whatever about people's political, cultural or religious differences in recent years, there have always been methods and strategies for avoiding the kind of visceral eruption of hate which is once again characterising the behaviour of some. Most of us do choose to follow those new routes. But, increasingly, others are following the old ways: of tribalism, demonisation of the other, easy sectarian pigeon-holing, simple irrational hatred.

As Mr McKee noted, this isn't a one-off. And you can bet it isn't the same people every time.

As I have said repeatedly here, so many people still marry, work, socialise and choose their friends within the tribe. When challenged, it's easy to reach for the tired old excuses of the sectarian from time immemorial, to justify why that is so and needs to be so.

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It is easy to blame 'the education system'. But that doesn't account for why so many - in their liberal nirvana - choose to hang out throughout their lives with co-religionists, who think and talk like them, who they feel 'comfortable with'.

The people who kick poppy wreaths, pour petrol into rural halls, smash headstones, burn flags, intimidate, abuse and barrack, are a perfect extension of the politics we all subscribe to. Indeed, they are the logical and inevitable outcome.

Yes, we are all walking away from cultures which endorsed killing. The Troubles did that to us - they made all of us spectators, some of us participants, more of us victims, of a violent culture.

I doubt if anyone can be said to have 'chosen' the 30-year nightmare we all endured - decades of imprisonment, friends and family killed or mutilated, towns obliterated, whole generations of bereaved families, thousands lost, and for what no one in my hearing has ever said was for a single tangible advance that may not have been gained in any case.

That's some story to tell your children.

So it's not told. Instead, we still get the old intransigent positions parroted at every turn.

But the fact is, until our walk away from the past breaks into a run, we will continue to peddle false narratives, set up bogus heroes, pollute the young, encourage intransigence as a virtue, sterilise unpalatable actions, promote notions of superiority, avoid challenge and stay within our comfort zones.

The new tale of peace and progress and MPs and consent doesn't quite have the kick and glamour of the old tale of Brits Out, armalites and comrades betrayed.

Just as the new UVF of Edward Carson and the Somme and the Blitz doesn't quite have the pull of estate brigadiers, drug barons and the myth of God and Ulster.

Just as it is depressing that Mary Lou McDonald walked away from her progressive statement about how unhelpful a border poll would be, just as Arlene Foster walked away from the Pope's visit to Ireland.

Depressing failures of leadership. Opportunities nearly taken. New positions almost adopted, but not quite.

Never, never quite. Meanwhile, the goblins run the show on the streets and that is where they are testing the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement right now.

Not by Brexit or the risks of a 'border poll' or even by the failures to embrace social change, or any other red herring, Aunt Sally or straw man issue you choose to cite.

No. It is being tested by the new generations for whom a political agreement never actually existed. The people who are now burning effigies, shooting at police and wrecking halls and memorials, are the very people - the children of the future - about whom the Agreement boasted, back in the day.

In actual fact, rather than securing the future of those not yet born - the future generations - the Agreement actually only protected those who had engaged in the Troubles in the first place, those who had actively participated in violence. As we see, it seems to have protected everyone, on all sides.

Everyone, that is, except its victims. The failure to tackle the actual complexities of the Troubles has left us with a legacy which we now watch increasing in volume daily.

The thugs of Narrow Water will have seen their act as a continuation of the justifiable war by other means. Just like the people who burn names and effigies on bonfires, the hall destroyers, the intimidators, the shouters.

They won't be proved wrong until there is a stratagem for reconciling the very many dead with the rest of us.

Who did what and to whom? It's not rocket science.

How long will we wait for the answer?

Belfast Telegraph


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