I initially started writing this as a full historical post, explaining the development and the nuances of my current political views – but what’s the point of any of that? I’m trying to comment on something current and my feelings on that; the past does not require re-hashing. So let me get to the point.
Last week something nice happened. Not to me specifically, but some things transcend the realms of the personal. Every now and again, I feel proud of my little country, and last Wednesday was one such time.
People will argue, and with some justification, that the handshake between Martin McGuinness,
alleged former IRA Chief of Staff, former Irish Presidential nominee, outgoing (non-sitting-)MP for for Mid Ulster and current Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith etc current Queen of the UK, was nothing more than a symbol. As a rule, I don’t take much notice of symbolic gestures – they’re often empty, or PR-driven, or otherwise pointless.
The thing is that, in Ireland, symbols – and by extension symbolic gestures – have acted as representatives of some of the most divisive politics and bitter hatred that the Western world has known, at least in a pre-9/11 world.
To that end, it seems apt that gestures reflecting opposite attitudes – those of unity, tolerance, peace and hope – are afforded the same importance. I thought the above handshake was both historic (generally an overused word, but this is one rare case in which it is just) and desirable. It was pretty much the quintessential gesture of progress in Northern Ireland/the North/Ulster/the six counties/call it what you like as long as it’s not ‘shithole’/etc*, and as such for me this ‘mere’ symbol felt enormously important.
I so much want to continue by writing that things are beautiful and wonderful and delightfully harmonious in Northern Ireland these days. For the most part, they are. Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists, even loyalists and republicans†, mostly co-exist happily together. We work together, we socialise together, we use the same transport, we frequent the same shops (this was not the case, by and large, until roughly the 1990s). Like I said, simple things on this island, and in the North in particular, take on great meaning, so our current climate is one of great progress.
But, like anything I suppose, it is not perfect. Some people’s minds are stuck on a setting of ‘hate’, and there isn’t a way to flick that switch to ‘off’. Our peace is simultaneously durable and fragile. Most of us are resolute in our enthusiasm for a peaceful present, and a peaceful future. Yet people have died since the ceasefires, and you’ll still hear of cross-community riots from time to time. Fortunately, that kind of violence is relatively rare nowadays – but with or without it, there is still a hostility amongst a minority of people from both factions. It makes me sad. It makes me angry.
I can reluctantly bear with the fact that people of a certain age who have always fostered views based on bitterness will not always be willing – or perhaps even able – to revise their entrenched prejudices. I don’t like it, but (unless that person commits a sectarian crime) it’s something we have to accept and live with. But pragmatism aside, what I don’t get – what I will never get – is how the generation that has come subsequent to mine can carry on this tradition of hate, even if it is espoused (either actively or passively) by their parents. Fortunately, they are by no means in the majority, but there’s a not insignificant number of such folks. Most of these kids (young adults, whatever) weren’t even born when the Troubles ended. They have grown up in peacetime, where most people, rightly, care more about the economy or education or bin collections or social development much more than they do about your religion or whether you’re Irish or British. I can tell you, as someone who had the misfortune to live through part of the Troubles – we do not want to go back there, ever. It is not worth it, and it never will be.
What is the rationality of hatred for hatred’s sake?
If Martin McGuinness can amiably shake the hand of a woman that he once saw as the head of an illegitimately invasive force, and if Queen Elizabeth can smilingly shake the hand of a man that was once an active member of an organisation that blew up her brother-in-law – can’t we all extend a little clemency for the sins of the past? Can’t we all look forward, instead of back?
* Nomenclature is important when discussing the North-Easterly part of Ireland, currently legally part of the United Kingdom. Some loyalists and unionists† call those six counties ‘Ulster’, but this is technically inaccurate. Ulster, a province of Ireland as an entire island, includes Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, which belong to the Irish Republic. Still, it’s often used synonymously with ‘Northern Ireland’. ‘Northern Ireland’ itself – in the context of natives rather than outsiders – is often, though by no means always, a term used by unionists. ‘The Province’ – also technically inaccurate (for the same reasons as ‘Ulster’) – is a term mostly used by unionists. Nationalists often use the title of ‘the North’, as do many people in the Republic of Ireland. Republicans† will often say ‘the (occupied) six counties’. Especially in the case of the latter, it is uncommon to hear these among unionists or loyalists. (My personal view is that this is all semantic bullshit, but again, it’s about symbolism. Most people would not agree with me.)
† Again, nomenclature. ‘Nationalism’ and ‘unionism’ tend to reflect more moderate stances of the respective positions. ‘Republicanism’ and ‘loyalism’ usually denote strong attitudes. Sometimes, though not always, ‘republicans’ and ‘loyalists’ refer to paramilitary organisations of these persuasions. Incidentally, note that ‘republican’ in this instance is specifically an Irish thing. By way of comparison, I honestly can’t imagine that any Irish republicans would support the Republican Party of the USA!
PS. Happy Independence Day, American readers 🙂 Have a good one!
Picture credits: see outgoing links.