Belfast Telegraph

Don't bury our future in the darkness of past

By Liam Clarke

This year we need to start making history and putting past struggles to bed - not reliving them as we commemorate their centenaries.

Life here a hundred years ago was pretty eventful. In fact, it was known as the 'Ulster crisis'. It was the beginning of a decade in which both Irish states were born amid bloodshed, anger and division.

The whole thing was kicking off just about now as the Home Rule Bill wended its way through the Commons.

On April 9, 1912 - Easter Tuesday - the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society in south Belfast was the scene of the huge Balmoral Review, when 70 British MPs gathered in the showgrounds to review 100,000 loyalist demonstrators.

"You are a besieged city," Andrew Bonar Law told the approving crowd. As Rudyard Kipling saw it in his poem Ulster 1912. 'rebellion, rapine, hate / oppression, wrong and greed / are loosed to rule our fate'.

Not this year, please. In 2012, we want to bask in the glare of publicity which will attend the London Olympics, next month's Titanic centenary, the continuing success of Rory McIlroy and the Queen's jubilee visit in May.

Collectively, they present us with a once-in-a-generation challenge. It could be an opportunity to promote Northern Ireland as a great place to visit, or invest in, which can deal with its differences peacefully. Or we could mess it up and project the image of a political and economic basket-case to a world audience.

Last June, we had a taste of what getting it wrong looks like after Rory McIlroy won the US Open. Journalists from across the world descended on the province to cover his triumphant return home and admire the golf courses that produced champions like Rory and Graeme McDowell. Golfing is big business in tourism terms and US executives with money to invest in Europe like having good courses and top players near to where they live.

The bubble of feelgood publicity is easily burst and last year the golden opportunity was transformed into a PR disaster.

Whatever their original intentions, the camera crews were forced onto a more familiar Belfast story - the rioting in east Belfast. As a result, our dirty linen was washed in front of worldwide TV audiences.

It is no wonder Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are determined to get it right this year. McGuinness looks set to meet the Queen and, although he may at some point make it plain that it doesn't change his political aspirations, we can expect him to do so with dignity and self-confidence.

That is showing leadership, just as he and Robinson have set an example by visiting cross-community sporting events in recent weeks. The rest of us need to take that lead.

There is nothing wrong with remembering the sacrifice of previous generations who fought for Irish unity, or the Union with Britain, a hundred years ago. We have to learn from history not repeat it.

The best memorial we can create for those who struggled is the secure future which they all wanted for their descendants.


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