Belfast Telegraph

Why no self-awareness bodes ill for shared future

By Malachi O’Doherty

Every year, the school ends with a political panel discussion, which I chair. This year, the guests were Baroness May Blood, Alliance MP Naomi Long and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene herself.

I wouldn't say we go easy on people at the Hewitt, but we do try to get to know them. So, while the media and other festivals were going to be hammering into the contemporary issues, like parades and the 'culture war', I was inclined to probe into the background and life experience of guests before bringing out the club.

And it was worth doing for the insight that all three had been motivated towards political action by the personal experience of intimidation.

May Blood had been driven from Roden Street during the eruption of sectarian violence and later clashed with loyalist neighbours when she refused to share their vision of Catholics as the enemy.

Naomi Long's family had been bullied by loyalists when they refused to contribute to the cost of painting kerbstones in front of their house. They ended up with a large Union flag painted in front of their house to notify other bigots that these were people who had affronted them.

And Arlene's RUC father had been shot and wounded when she was a child. Later, she was caught up in a bomb attack on her school bus.

All these women had had their lives disrupted by the Troubles.

May had to move to an area where she would be defined by those around her as a fellow Protestant, when she had no such notion of herself as such.

Naomi separated herself from the children she had grown up with when she went to grammar school after passing the 11-Plus.

Arlene had been moved off a farm for the family's safety, into a housing estate and a home which her granny called 'the box'.

The first question from the floor was from a young student, who had suffered intimidation himself, in Carrickfergus.

He cited a line from the poet Louis MacNeice about the hatred being passed down through the generations and then he asked Arlene when she would foresee her party ceasing to generate hatred and coming into the modern world.

The audience applauded this warmly, but Arlene was shocked. She doesn't see herself as someone who generates hatred and it didn't seem at all fair to her that others should.

But here was the voice of someone who wants an end to sectarianism and has a vision of a sort of 21st century secular norm, in which gay rights are recognised and Northern Ireland is a free and healthy civic polity.

Arlene's answer was to say, simply, that most people here did not want, for instance, gay marriage legalised and if the student saw that as a problem, then his difficulty was with a huge swathe of society – not with her.

But both the student and the minister had made a mistake here.

The student had failed to register that Arlene, in the generosity of her candour about her childhood experience, had earned the right not to be presumed to be a bigot. He had also failed to consider that the secular world of young intellectuals that he inhabits may be fairly small.

And, that being the case, the political representatives that the majority of people in Northern Ireland throw up are inevitably going to be religiously and socially conservative.

But Arlene had failed to register that the impression many in her party make is that they are narrow-minded and ethnically obsessed.

Some of her fellow ministers had been accusing the police of bringing Orange wrath down on their own heads. Some had been stoking up culture wars by sneering at the Parades Commission.

Some had happily endorsed the view that the real blame for mayhem on the streets over flags lay in the lap of Naomi Long.

So, while the student might have been idealistically dreaming of a secular and free Northern Ireland, he was speaking for a widely held view that the DUP, for all its talk of a shared future, is part of the problem of division.

All of this will be tested in the commitment of the parties to a shared future. In a really idealistically imagined new Northern Ireland, the DUP and Sinn Fein would be in danger of losing votes to each other.

Do either of them really want that?

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