Gail Walker: Those who left a car bomb in busy city street will not drag us back to bad old days... we have changed
True, the peace that we enjoy today is imperfect, but it is infinitely better than what went before, writes Gail Walker
The strange thing about the Londonderry car bomb is the sense of being revisited by the past. No cliche was left unturned. The vehicle billowing with flames. The images of the debris resulting from the explosion in Bishop Street. And, of course, the ritual condemnations. We even had the predictable sight of an MLA putting his foot so firmly in his mouth he was in danger of kicking his own behind.
The awful deja vu brought with it a sense of despair, nausea and, at base, infinite sorrow. All the old images (and the associated feelings) from the dark old days came flooding back: the civilian searches; the No-Unattended-Vehicles signs in town centres; the milling around in groups at police ticker tape after some bomb alert phoned through to the police; shops checking for incendiary devices.
But, of course, those were nothing to the real horrors. The dead and the maimed. The families devastated, torn apart by callous men (and women). The packed churches with makeshift speakers hastily erected outside for the overspill of mourners as a community buried yet another neighbour. The coffins winding their way down our city and town streets, our country roads and lanes, to cemetery and country churchyard. And always the bereaved, heroically stoical, or raw and unsettling in their open unvarnished grief.
We will never forget those images, those feelings. And even on the days when the violence was in temporary abeyance, it was always there, permeating ever deeper into our souls.
For those of you too young to remember the bad old days, here they are in a nutshell: a grey, mizzly Tuesday afternoon about 4.30pm and already the streets are deserted as people scurry home, not from the weather but from the town, the streets where anything could happen. Home to watch ashen-faced news anchors tell you the day’s murder and mayhem. And the late-night bulletin like some sad orison for the 24 hours just gone by.
It wasn’t living. It was a half-life — dreary, bleak, colourless. Always that knot of tension.
And they want us to go back to this? Because ... ? Who knows? Perhaps because a few sad cases yearn for the old days when they were masters of life and death, where they controlled our lives, where they could give themselves grand titles like Commandant and Quarter Master and Brigadier and issue prepared statements to the media.
But while the Derry van bomb brought back that jumble of images and feelings, it was also striking just how odd it all seemed. The Bishop Street blast was like some kind of weird loop in time. It was literally inexplicable.
Because the fact is we are changed, changed utterly, as the man said. We are not the same as we were 20 or 30 years ago. It may sound a pathetically inadequate analogy, but the bomb was like Rollermania, parallel trousers, Zapata moustaches, mullets, VCRs, Mike Yarwood — something from another time we can barely make sense of, trying like archaeologists to come up with a narrative to explain away the strangeness of the thing before us.
We are not like that. Not anymore. Twenty years of relative peace has changed us. Largely for the better.
True, our “peace” is deeply flawed. We can’t erase the pain of those who have lost loved ones since the ceasefires or of Troubles’ victims still seeking justice. But what we have is infinitely better than what we had before, than what we ever had. We may sneer about our cappuccino culture, but that’s because we’re rather cynical people.
Yet when you get right down to it, what do you prefer? Eating out at a trendy restaurant in the Cathedral Quarter, or staying at home, doors well-snibbed, watching a “News Special”? A ridiculously-titled coffee — or the plain integrity of our old quarrel?
The tourists piling off the cruise ships and traipsing around Belfast, newly-bought postcards featuring Titanic or Van Morrison in their hot little hand — or our old empty streets, grim-faced civilian searchers and the unofficial nightly curfew?
A musical in the Grand Opera House — or listening to the lifeless “plain-speaking oratory” of idealogues and “men of principle”? What we think of when we think of contemporary Belfast, modern-day Northern Ireland, is tourism, new buildings, street theatre, shopping, “gin palaces”, craft shops, high street chain stores, houses costing the earth, chi-chi restaurants.
It may not be perfect. We know not everyone in our society enjoys the basics of a prosperous life. But that’s a challenge for societies everywhere. It isn’t a motive for murder.
And everyone can recognise what the basics of a decent life are and know they don’t include creeping around in the dark devising ways to kill people in the street.
When we do think of a full, contented society, we think of colour and fun, pleasures of a charmingly hedonistic kind. We think of the future.
In other words, we think about life — in all its remarkable banality and ordinariness. Forget about the rigidities of black and white. We’d much rather have the vibrancy of colour. The difference between then and now — between us then and us now — is the difference between the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz — grey black and white — and the Land of Oz itself, when the genius film-makers switch to full Technicolor.
So, let’s not please have any more talk of a “return to the bad old days”, of a resurgence of violence, of a new generation of terror-crazed ideologues.
Give us a break from the sombre warnings of people who, for whatever political reasons, want to clamber on the back of these few sad gangsters to make their points.
No more, please, if we don’t do “this”, then “that” will happen. No, it won’t. “That” will happen only if it suits a few throwbacks to have it happen.
Let’s bring these individuals to justice. But let’s not accord them greater importance than they merit. Let’s focus instead on the reality.
And the reality is exactly what we saw on CCTV. A goon driving a car, abandoning it in great haste, in case it goes up with him in it, and then legging it to phone his warning in.
That’s one way of spending your Saturday night in Derry, but it’s by far and away not the most popular. These people will not run or ruin the lives of people here. Their ideology (such as it is) will not stop us. Those times are over.
The Derry bombers and others of their ilk, of whatever political colour or stripe, have already lost. They are so far in the past they probably went looking for a red phone box to call in their warning.
We are not those people anymore. And we do know something else now.
It’s called the way we want to live. It’s called our families. It’s called laughter. Work. Schools. Health. Community.
Those things. That future. This peace.