Belfast Telegraph

How Bobbie can show us all what respect really is

By Gail Walker

You do wonder if it's possible to live the type of life in Northern Ireland that is commonplace elsewhere. One not soaked in old resentments and enmities at worst or, at best, mutely, teeth-grittingly accommodating.

A life open, frank, direct and actively anti-sectarian, rather than just wallowing in the sick familiar of class, 'culture' and creed like the rest of us.

Of course, 'we' are all of us 'tolerant', or like to think we are. When the proposal was recently announced by the International Fund for Ireland to spend £2m bringing down the Belfast 'peace walls', I'm sure many thousands tut-tutted in agreement with the well-meaning liberal gentlemen diagnosing how backward the people are who live on either side of those walls, how intolerant they are, how low grade, how locked up in those old ways of thinking which the well-meaning, the well-thinking and the well-heeled - like us - have long discarded.

What doesn't get as much attention, though, is the secret sectarianism which governs our lives here, however attractive and prosperous they are, and however easily we can manage to get through a lifetime without being bothered by our own bias.

We go out of our way to make sure our prejudices don't bother us. That's why whole towns and sections of towns are partitioned off, estates from estates, social and private housing alike, right up and right across the social spectrum. That hard core of division on religious lines which sustains suspicion and feeds a sense of difference so easily kindled into antagonism.

Just examine your own personal contact phone numbers and friends and see the truth. Of course there are astonishing individuals who have suffered in the Troubles and come through with eyes opened or who have travelled journeys from hate into compassion, becoming symbols of new thinking and behaving.

But most of us are too old or exhausted or lazy or ignorant to attempt that kind of transformation.

Well, I don't know if it's a transformation or if they just grow them like this in Brookeborough, but I recently had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Bobbie Hanvey, the renowned photographer. He has an exhibition in Downpatrick's impressively-refurbished Arts Centre and, while the show itself is packed with iconic images of the famous, the notorious, the arresting and the arrested, and 'common' people of simple charm and anonymous dignity, this is as nothing to the brusque democracy of the photographer himself.

Equally well-known as Downtown Radio's 'Ramblin' Man', Hanvey has led an eventful life. As a nurse in the Downshire Hospital in Downpatrick, caring for those with mental illness as well as those just unfortunate enough to have been consigned there for whatever reason, he began his long engagement with the wide variety of personality and opinion here. That initial calling is still visible in his photos, many of which are owned by the John J Burns Library in Boston College - in the news recently as the repository of inflammatory recorded interviews with protagonists of our Troubles which the PSNI and others would love to get their hands on.

His memorable decades-long series of portraits of the famous and eminent, like Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel, are dwarfed by a vast collection of studies of ordinary people and of those who have become known by their political or violent deeds.

The aftermath of bombs, murders and marches are also recorded in acute detail. But what is remarkable is the equality Hanvey brings to his subjects. He is a raucous personality, but his work is charged with respect for the lives people lead, the choices they make, paramilitary, clergy, politicians, roadsweepers, Travellers, RUC and PSNI, nuns, bricklayers and lighthouse keepers. It's a characteristic which runs through his broadcasting too. Interviews with the most unlikely and sometimes scary people being asked the most unexpectedly direct questions and answering them.

Asked with risk, heard and photographed with respect. Is that what we're missing when we talk about a new society here? Is it simply respect - risked and received with common sense?

Among the several hundred present at the opening of the show were Rev Martin Smyth, republican Ricky O'Rawe, Canon Rogan (the local PP), Maurice Hayes, Assistant Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie, Rev Steers (the local Non-Subscribing minister), Margaret Ritchie MP, Sinn Fein councillors, Workers' Party veterans, the poet Gerald Dawe, the painter Neil Shawcross, the loyalist Jackie McDonald, and many more less well known and even more unlikely friends and enemies from across our many divides. Respect. Maybe, unlikely as it sounds, we should all come from Brookeborough.

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