Belfast Telegraph

Picture of Celtic fan Jay Beattie and loyal order shows there's hope for our future if we want it

Photos of young Celtic fan receiving a cheque from a loyal order remind us what is possible in our divided Northern Ireland, writes Gail Walker

Take a look at these pictures. Look at them carefully. And if you are any sort of a person, draw some hope from it. There's Jay Beattie, a young teenager who is living life with flair, dignity and renown, campaigning energetically for charity. He is well-known for his love of Celtic football club, often going to Celtic Park to cheer on his heroes and raise awareness of the charity Downs & Proud.

Now, cast your eye to the left of the young Celtic fanatic (and to the left of his mother, Aine). That chap is (deep breath) Sir Knight Richard Dunlop, Worshipful Master of Portadown's Royal Black Preceptory (RBP) Chapter No 5. To the right is (deep breath) Sir Knight Leslie Geary, Deputy Master of the Chapter. They are presenting a cheque for £450 to the Downs & Proud charity, raised through that most Northern Irish of things, a church and carol service. Look at their smiles. It is a scene at once ordinary and yet extraordinary, profoundly moving for more than one reason.

There are four people at ease with each other and with themselves. Animated, happy, enjoying each other's company. All united in doing the simple, decent thing. The pictures were shared on the Downs & Proud Twitter feed and also on the Portadown RBP Facebook page, where members enthused about Jay and the fundraising "co-operation".

Of course, in our great big book of stereotypes, this does not compute. After all, Lurgan and Portadown, like so many other places, were a cockpit of our nasty civil war, a byword for bitterness, unyielding cultural certainties and, well, naked sectarianism.

It also defies the expectations and cliches of our post-ceasefire 'peace'. This was not a moment of 'gesture' politics or an officially-sanctioned 'hand across the divide' PR event.

That is the wonder of this photograph. It is exactly what it is. No spin, no side, no posing - the Celtic-mad boy and the members of the Royal Black. Cynics can dismiss it as some kind of weird blip, a strange one-off, the exception that proves the sectarian rule.

And yet, for many, it is a poignant reminder that, even in the dark days, there were always unlikely webs of decency, tying us all together.

Yes, it would be foolish to mis-remember the past, to pretend that the murders, the hatred, the longing to hurt, weren't somehow real, that they had no reflection upon us. It was all real and it all still does reflect on us. Badly.

But that wasn't the whole story. In terrible circumstances, most of us did our best, showing politeness to those of the other side, trying not to provoke. Most of us didn't cackle with delight when our side killed their side. Most of us had the humanity, the decency to realise that there are no sectarian headcounts in ambulances, morgues and graveyards. Maybe it wasn't enough. Maybe it was inadequate. Maybe there were elements of self-serving cowardice. But it was there.

And maybe 20 years of relative peace have seen that humanity given a chance to become the 'norm'.

True, Jay is - as always - the star of the show with his easy charm. One is struck, too, by how easily Jay conducts these events, be it receiving a cheque or scoring from the penalty spot at Celtic Park, he is always himself. And people respond to this honesty, this openness. At airports, he exchanges scarves with Rangers fans. He is what he is, but without fear and without malice. And we accept him for that.

One thinks of our politicians. Could they move with such ease? Could they find that facility for losing nothing of themselves while reaching out and helping themselves and their 'community' to come to terms with the simple reality that we either accept each other or slowly drift back to our trenches and accept the past as our future?

Unionist fears over an Irish Language Act are completely understandable but there must be a way forward based on mutual respect. Constantly standing isolated may thrill the Ulster Protestant psyche but that is not the politics upon which to build a future.

Equally, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar needs to reach out to northern unionists. True, six years ago as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport he met members of the Orange Order on the Twelfth but as Taoiseach has he invited members of the loyal orders to meet him in Dublin? Has he set up a think-tank with northern unionists so that he can listen to their concerns? Has he visited roadside memorials to bus drivers gunned down going about their daily business?

The Taoiseach, with "cross-community support", has the ambition to represent the whole 'nation', including the recalcitrant Ulster Protestant. There is no Ireland without that element at work in the body politic. So having tanaistes speaking about wanting to see a United Ireland in their political lifetimes doesn't help much …

Of course, it is all too easy to blame politicians. We all need scapegoats. True, often our leaders are anything but that - leaders. Too frequently the mantra is 'I am their leader. I must follow them.' Routinely our politics are dictated by the slowest moving supporters of each camp.

But that doesn't mean that we are blameless. On the contrary, if our leaders are timid, so are we. We hate the world thinking of us as petty-minded bigots, clutching to old worn out certainties. "No, we're not" we cry indignantly. "Look, there's a trendy cafe, there's an arts festival, there's another blue plaque going up for a local legend, there's another shopping centre, there's a women's rights march, there's a Pride march. We're normal - it's the politicians who are crazy."

And yet, 20 years since 'the peace', we still fear our backs are against the wall, scent treachery and double dealing at the drop of the proverbial hat and throw 'you looking at my pint' glances at the other community.

Two decades into a peace process we exported around the world and, with the blackest of ironies, we seem to be locked into our respective positions now, with 'compromise' a dirty word. Yet we're also locked into this together. Somehow we are going to have to strike out for our common ground, rise above it all and make this work.

So take another look at those photographs of Jay and Aine Beattie, of Richard Dunlop and Leslie Geary. Consider it, if you will, as a kind of psychological test. When we look at it, do we think it normal or abnormal? And which one do we want it to be? The choice is ours.

Belfast Telegraph

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