The Trouble With Troubles

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.

Giant's Causeway

Northern Ireland is beautiful. Let’s keep it that way.

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.

Lough Erne

Northern Ireland is still beautiful.

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.

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18 comments on “The Trouble With Troubles

  1. My roots are in Ireland, the South, and I have bled for this island since I was very young. Eventually, I discovered that my mother’s folks were all from Ireland, and, though my father thought he was Welsh (!) it seems as likely he too was Irish. But what has happened in the Troubles would make us all Irish in our hearts, even if not our genes. I know people think the Queen was the one making the big gesture, but when you know history, and I do, of Ireland especially, you know who laid the most on the line. Sigh…Still, I take your positive message to heart – (Northern, especially) Ireland and its forward-looking people are an example to us all!

    • Actually, I don’t think that the Queen was more noble than McGuinness. Broadly speaking, I think it was him that took the biggest step – but I do think that it was huge for both of them.

      [Long paragraph snipped here, crapping needlessly on about the historical stuff I’d originally written, this rehearsing what I’d sought to omit! Forward not back, and all that jazz.]

      It genuinely heartened me to hear that you consider the country an example – I hope that’s a view widely shared 🙂 I know we’re not the only transitional state in the world – far from it – but I’d like to think that if we can put our differences aside in the pursuit of a peaceful tomorrow (and today, of course), others can do so also.

      If you ever come to visit the land of your roots, give me a shout. I’ll buy you a nice pint of the black stuff! 😀

      Thanks so much for commenting Carol, and take care 🙂

      My best

      Karen

    • Aww, thank you Phil 🙂 I just wish those (relatively few, it’s worth re-emphasising) little monsters meeting at interface areas to throw stones at each other would also agree!

      Anyhow, I’m touched by your comment (as I often am around your hugely supportive self.) Thank you again!

      (((hugs))) and love

      K xxxooo

      • Aw, shucks *blushes and hides under sofa*

        *peeps out to say* … as you say re. the remaining hatemongers: understandable that those who lived through the Troubles find it difficult to set their grievances — entirely legitimate grievances in many if not most cases — aside; but for those born since … words fail…

        As for the Queen: I stand in awe of her determination and willpower to do what’s right and seek the good of her people; a most remarkable woman.

        Love & *hugs* right back 🙂

        • I’m not a monarchist as such – and in all honesty, I probably hold more nationalist than unionist views these days, at least ideologically (the Irish economy is quite buggered at the minute, so I think we’ll stay with the UK thanks ;-)) but that’s a story for another day (I was born a Protestant unionist, so it’s something of a turnaround).

          But all that said, I do think the Queen is a woman of great personal integrity. I understand, and share in, her wide popularity. I think she actually cares about the country; in this case, she knew it was important to acknowledge Mr McGuinness in the way she did, for the advancement of Anglo-Irish relations, and as a gesture to promote peace. In the same vein, last year she laid a wreath in Dublin for the men that lost their lives fighting for Irish independence. That, however noble the principle, must have been weird for a reigning British monarch. She does a lot for the UK, and should be applauded for it.

          It’s her pathetic government that don’t extend their people the same courtesies and progressive agendas. But that’s a rant for a whole other day, as well you know, Phil 😉

          Take care, dear friend

          Karen xox

  2. Soooo well put my fellow country person;) I personally thought it was a moment in history that as a child or even a teen could never have envisioned occurring.
    I like you am saddened by the generations growing up as you have said in peace yet harbouring such deep rooted and bitter convictions. I work in a community entrenched in these views and I often despair when I see the potential in the children I teach , yet they have no dreams or aspirations, no positive role models, apathy and a bitter attitude towards ‘people’ who had no choice about what side of the divide they were born into. I came from such a community but was able to break the cycle with my parents’ help. And that is what makes me strive to make a difference everyday in the lives of the little people in my care.
    There was one of those riots you spoke of on my 1st day in my present post but that was 16 years ago and these are happier times in our very beautiful land.
    x Ash

    • Thank you Ash 🙂 I totally agree – I never even dreamed as a child or even young woman that something like this (and the Queen’s Dublin trip last year) could even be accomplished. It simply didn’t occur to me, because it simply wasn’t done!

      I’m saddened to hear that you’re in the midst of a polarised environment at work. You’re a primary teacher, am I right in thinking? Things were fairly easy going in the one I attended; it was predominately Protestant, but had a few Catholic pupils, and we were part of an ‘EMU’ project (Education for Mutual Understanding, if memory serves me), so from that angle there was never any hostility amongst us kids.

      Secondary school was a totally different matter. I went to a grammar school that thinks a lot more of itself that it justifiably should, but unaware of its faults at the time, I simply assumed I’d be amongst intelligent, rational human beings. Not so. It was full of sectarian hoods who cared more about writing ‘KAT’ on their homework diaries than writing their fucking homework deadlines in their homework diaries 😦 That still fills me with sadness and anger.

      Still, that was many, many years ago. Those few people with whom I remain in touch are at worst ambivalent about (Northern) Irish tribalism, at best very much accepting of all communities now here – it just doesn’t occur to them that there is any reason for their religion/race/gender/sexuality/background etc to matter. That’s the kind of future I hope for us all.

      And Ash, you are doing great work. I think it’s amazing that you are striving to educate those kids, not only in academics, but in social issues like these. They are our future, and you’re helping mould a better one though what you’re doing. So much kudos and respect for you, my friend 🙂

      So I’ll joining you in raising a glass to the future of Our Wee Country!

      Take care hun

      Karen ❤ xox

      • “The man and I live in a relatively respectable area – but just over the railway out our back is a little loyalist enclave. As I type this, hoods from said area are at the top of our street preparing for their little 11th July bonfire. Union flags and Red Hands of Ulster are everywhere in their immediate vicinity.”
        Don’t get me started. The man, the boy and I also live in a relatively respectable area having bettered ourselves and got out of the ghetto from whence we came:-)but we’ve been overtaken by the flagflyers and some quite threatening notices about their removal! But sure another week and it will all be over for another year. I’m heading up the coast again now the golfers have gone to enjoy the Giants Causeway and no internet:(
        Thanks for your lovely comments hun ❤ xxx

        • You’ll not see this for the meantime Ash, but just wanted to say you’ve got the right idea getting away over this whole nonsense! We’re staying put and taking advantage of the man’s days off by having his family round for a few drinks, but beyond that we’ll be hibernating until it all blows over for another year. And we’ll be hitting the pub as soon as it does 😉

          Hope you all had a lovely time up the coast hun!

          Karen ❤ xxx

  3. I have no experience of Norn Irn except having lived with a lass from Claudy for a year and I’ve never been there. What I do know is the poison that has seeped to the west coast of Scotland (my wee world). Last year I went to visit my auntie’s grave in a wee village on the west coast of Scotland and was shocked at the Orange related flags that hung out of every single window of every single house. Should have checked the date first! And the guy I used to know who used to paint his grass blue.

    For someone who’s family is deeply routed in the west coast of Scotland, my journey from Protestantism to Catholicism has been interesting. There seems to be very little understanding that my decision was a religious one, not a tribal one. They can’t get their heads round that one.

    But then people should really grow the fuck up.

    Take care of yourself my love xxxxxxxxxx

    • I knew that things in Scotland (well, particularly the West) had a strong Orange contingent, but I had no idea it’s as bad as it actually sounds. You can imagine parts of this place at this time of year. The man and I live in a relatively respectable area – but just over the railway out our back is a little loyalist enclave. As I type this, hoods from said area are at the top of our street preparing for their little 11th July bonfire. Union flags and Red Hands of Ulster are everywhere in their immediate vicinity.

      I’m very ambivalent about the whole Twelfth thing. I don’t object to it – if that’s people’s culture, let them get on with it – but what I don’t get is why they insist on following old routes when it (understandably) winds the nationalist community up. It smacks of “we’re doing this to simply piss you off,” to me. And I don’t feel comfortable seeing any flags about – union ones, tricolours, whatever. It’s just…well, it displays some form of nationalism – either to ‘the crown’ or to ‘the free state’. Nationalism (small ‘n’ nationalism) is an inherently strange thing to me, but maybe I’m just weird.

      Anyway, I think Robert put in best (see below) – I can only hope that the people who were idiotic enough to think that your conversion to Catholicism was something to do with some sort of totemic nonsense will be able to ultimately accept that it was merely a decision based on what religion was best for you. My suspicion is, though, knowing that your family at least are Free Presbyterians, that this may not be likely 😦 But I’ll hope that at least some will see it 🙂

      Lots of love to you babes

      Karen ❤ xxxooo

      EDIT: Get you arse over here for meetings of joy!

    • Thank you so much Sarah, I really appreciate that 🙂 Do come over some time if you can, it’s a genuinely nice place to be these days.

      Thanks again and take care

      Karen x

  4. I don’t know how many times I have tried to write this comment Karen, I’m on an ancient computer and keep messing it up!! Anyway I loved this post and Ash’s comment, it shows how far NI has come and is going- well done to you all. Its such a shame some people want to ruin it but i’m glad they;re in a minority- they deserve to be!!

    Not really familiar with N. Ireland either but it sounds like a great place, I hope to visit one of these days. Your pics are beautiful as you say- am I right in thinking the Giants Causeway is the only place like it in the world? (I did geology at school but have forgotten so much!!)

    Thanks again for this post Karen

    Best wishes
    Kate

    • You did Geology at school? So did I! Though I spent most of the class, taught by the single most hideous teacher in all of creation, speaking back to the twat and laughing at words like ‘biotite’ (Biotite, biotite, bio-motherfucking-tite – if anyone can work out the identify of that rhythm, I’ll be mightily impressed ;-)) So as you might imagine, I don’t exactly do wonderfully 😉

      Anyway, to answer your question…sadly, no, the Causeway is not unique. I’ve just learnt that this minute and am mightily pissed off; I thought we had something all of our own there!

      Here’s a few others:

      http://www.nvcc.edu/home/cbentley/columnar_jointing_columbia_plateau.jpg (The Columbia Plateau)
      http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/02/62/c5/3c/prismas-basalticos.jpg (Prismas Basálticos da Costa Sul de Santa María)
      http://www.planetware.com/i/photo/devils-tower-national-monument-wydt1.jpg (Devil’s Tower National Monument)

      More at this Wikipedia sub-menu.

      Anyway, to get to your first point (finally!), thank you. Things have changed, and despite the few haters, they continue to change. As Ash and I were saying above, it would literally not be something we ever thought about maybe 20, 25 years ago, because the reality of the time was that you accepted having your bag scanned for bombs, of meeting bouncers at every pub, of having your car stopped and searched by the cops every time you left the bloody house. Not only was it accepted, it was simply normal to us. And it’s only in looking back that we can see how normal that wasn’t; that we didn’t have any true sense of freedom.

      Now we do, and it’s wonderful 😀

      Do come sometime. Genuinely – I’m not saying this because I’m biased, it is actually true – it’s a beautiful place. The Causeway Coast, the Glens of Antrim, The Mournes, a run into Donegal (just over the border) – they’re all stunning. And as we locals might say, get a night in Derry or Belfast and you’ll find that the craic’s mighty!

      Thanks again and take care

      Karen ❤ x

  5. Karen:

    While I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on the Irish Question, I did use to be part of a political forum that would occasionally discuss it. Admittedly, this was some years ago, but most Brits and Irish members did seem to have quite a polarized view of the situation. Though of course I have heard on the news about the positive developments there, what I have not heard much of since is the ordinary person’s *opinion* on how things are.

    As such, it was really interesting to read your views–especially since you display your typical magnanimity. I commend both you and Ash for your progressive positions–acceptance like that can only add to a bright future in Ireland, both North and South.

    I had no idea that Loyalist ideology had spread to Scotland–thank you for sharing that, bourach. I can understand why that makes you feel uncomfortable, particularly when you have chosen to convert to what these people see as an “opposing” religion. It is a great shame that your personal decision is taken as “evidence” of tribalism. I hope that one day people can understand that: 1. any religious prejudice is wrong: and 2. that you made a decision about *you*, and not anyone or anything else.

    I look forward to hearing of more good times for your country, Karen.

    Sincerely,
    Robert =]

    • Thanks Robert, I appreciate it. I remember being a member of a similar forum in maybe 2005ish; there were only three from Northern Ireland on the board at the time, and two of those (me included) were very moderate in our take on everything; the other one was less so, but certainly not a sectarian person.

      The people from the Republic want the island united, yes – but in principle. In the Celtic Tiger years, they wanted us to get lost, because Northern Ireland has an absurdly high rate of governmental employment (though this is changing) and comparatively little of its own businesses (resulting, some said, in an economic blackspot).

      Unfortunately for the Republic, a few years later and they were screwed economically, so now even republicans up here have decided it’s prudent to bide their time before even considering a referendum on unification.

      But that was a tangent. I suppose I’m getting at the point that gradually both British and Irish people (or many of them), for whatever reasons initially, have formed less divisive views that perhaps they once held; it’s based on pragmatism now in many ways, rather than, “this is what I think, so there.”

      Interestingly, though, and this is going back perhaps 15 years, my partner was an obsessive member of this email group that discussed Irish politics. Although my partner expressed a unionist preference, he – being someone that holds a doctorate in the causes of the Troubles – was able to genuinely sympathise with a lot of nationalists’ views and concerns. There was this particularly bitter republican from the US that kept trying to ‘catch him out’, to get him to say something sectarian (my partner is not sectarian in the least) or anti-Irish (he’s not anti-Ireland either; he considers himself British-Irish by identity). When he obviously didn’t take any of this bait he was accused – and this is hilarious of being a ‘plant’ by the security services, send to spy on (the nationalists of?) the group. I laughed my tits off each time he tells that story.

      Anyway, Robert, you need to get your arse (ass :razz:) over here one of these days too! In the meantime, thanks as ever for your comment and good wishes.

      Take care

      Karen 🙂

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