Who we are, and where we’re going

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The springtime honeymoon period is over, the cherry-blossom and confetti has blown away, and we are now living in the day-to-day reality of post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Fionola Meredith
13 December 2012

We expected too much. Our hopes for the transformative power of devolution, and a decisive end to the conflict, were too high. Oh, we said we were realistic, that we knew the new settlement in Northern Ireland was bound to be imperfect. The bitter old tensions would not – could not – simply evaporate into thin air. There would still be a sense of pain and loss and wasted lives. There would still be pockets of hatred, moments of despair, when the whole fragile enterprise might collapse in a welter of confusion, blame and counter-blame. I said as much myself, in my contribution to the 2008 volume of Lives Entwined, ‘Springtime in Belfast’.

But what strikes me most of all, looking back at the words I wrote then, is the sense of barely-contained optimism, an irrepressible, breathless conviction that at last – and despite the twisted legacy of the Troubles – we had a future. I spoke of the feeling of ‘possibility and purpose’ in the air. The lines from poet Derek Mahon seemed apposite:

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

I was naïve. The springtime honeymoon period is over, the cherry-blossom and confetti has blown away, and we are now living in the day-to-day reality of post-conflict Northern Ireland. Of course, we are all delighted that the shootings and bombings have (largely) come to an end, and that the dark, dirty, ignoble war is over. For that, we are grateful, we really are. Despite the activities of dissident republicans, the constant threat – by me anyway experienced as a thrum of internal dread, the ever-present fear of what might happen next – has long since dissipated. 

But it never entirely goes away. 

Recently, I watched a new Troubles thriller, Shadow Dancer, set in 1990s Belfast, and it proved a powerful reminder of those mean-minded, impoverished days. For some, the memories are deeply visceral. I saw the film with a friend whose father was a senior member of the security forces when she was a child. She remembers the inch-thick protective glass in their windows (designed to withstand shots at point-blank range), the panic button under the stairs, the morning checks under the family car, in case an explosive device had been attached in the night. In the film, when a car bomb suddenly went off, killing the vehicle’s driver, she leapt in her seat, hands flying out to her sides.

Such fear is involuntary, hardwired into the nervous system, lying dormant until a trigger – a sight, a sound, a smell – releases it once more into the vivid present. The Belfast-based clinical psychologist, Michael Paterson – a former RUC man who lost both his arms in an IRA rocket attack in 1981 – specialises in helping people with trauma, and has worked extensively with police officers who were disturbed by their experiences during the Troubles. He told me about one former policewoman, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after attending to the dead and dying at bomb scenes, who panicked when she caught the Christmassy scent of marzipan – because it reminded her so strongly of the strange, almond-like smell of explosives.

For many of us, the Troubles are more than a defining part of our history: they have become part of our bodies, part of our minds. You can’t simply cast that off like a winter coat when the weather gets warmer and brighter.

The hoped-for era of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding has, so far, failed to materialise. For that to happen, the new situation needed to be mulched with vast quantities of confidence and generosity (both personal and political), and those are two important resources that we collectively lack in Northern Ireland. More money would have helped too – it always does – to sweeten tempers, and to pad sharp, awkward corners. But the effects of the global economic crisis have been felt particularly acutely here, as house prices nosedive and unemployment soars. Now that we are not actively engaged in killing each other, and have graduated to the responsibility of a devolved administration, the British and Irish governments’ intensive focus has been diverted onto new, more pressing priorities, closer to home. We are on our own: uncertain, querulous and adrift. All in all, it is a challenging time to build a new society. 

Here is what we do have: a rickety, legislatively-constipated Assembly dominated by two political extremes: the DUP and Sinn Féin. The old enemies have discovered that they have a great deal in common, including a ruthless grip on power, and together they operate a fearsome carve-up which leaves the other parties in disarray, squeaking with impotent fury. It is as though the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, in particular, have been drained of energy by the so-called ‘Big Two’, desperately searching for meaning and purpose while their vote continues to dwindle away. And, as Naomi Long – the Alliance MP who knocked Peter Robinson off his comfortable Westminster perch in East Belfast – has observed, it’s all ‘predicated on the continuing existence and maintenance of two communities - separate but equal’. Far from dissolving the old divisions, the situation at Stormont effectively maintains them, in a strained, artificial embrace. This is better, of course, than the violent chaos of the past, and there are some encouraging signs of real change. But it is much, much less than we had hoped.


One of the most telling indicators of an evolved, confident, even-handed democracy is its attitude to the free flow of public information. Enlightened administrations understand that openness, transparency and accountability keep government healthy. The opposite is also true. A key marker of political immaturity is the restriction of information. This type of governance – sadly all too common in Northern Ireland – is characterised by paranoia and a narrow-minded, acquisitive relationship with power. 

Much of this impulse towards secrecy, and the crude desire to control, is motivated by fear and suspicion of the press. It’s well known that Stormont is absurdly over- endowed with press officers (161 at the last count), dedicated to making our ramshackle Assembly look functional, pro-active and purposeful. Special advisers, unsackable and accountable only to the minister that appoints them, hover like hawks: ready to pounce with sharp talons on any sensitive freedom of information requests, and kill them off, if possible, in the manner of troublesome vermin. 

We are not even allowed to know who funds our political parties. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where all identities of donors to political parties are kept secret, supposedly because of the possible threat of paramilitary intimidation.
That’s rather convenient for the parties themselves, allowing them to claim that they would absolutely love to be fully transparent about their finances, but the security situation just doesn’t allow it – even though there is no evidence of a specific terrorist threat to politicians at this time. 

Earlier this year, we saw government paranoia perfectly illustrated when Sinn Féin Sports and Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín sent out a diktat – she called it a ‘media protocol’ – to arms length bodies (ALBs) such as the Arts Council and National Museums Northern Ireland. It required them to consult with her department, Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), about any approach from the media. Any hint of ‘negative publicity’ and they were to get on the phone to Fortress DCAL instantly, or face the consequences. The ALBs were told that there would be ‘an early warning system’ in place – an air-raid siren? Titanic-style distress flares? – ‘to ensure there are no surprises’. This would be hilarious, if it were not symptomatic of a disturbing culture of control-freakery. 

Responsibility, collegiality, independence and neutrality – the four essential lessons of the administration of devolved power – have yet to be learned by the members of the Northern Ireland Executive.

This troubling lack has been brought into especially sharp focus when the religious convictions of ministers – and I am speaking specifically about DUP ministers here – are brought to bear on political decisions. Of course, Northern Ireland has long been notorious for its intense, politically- motivated religious conservatism. In January of this year, I stood among the Free Presbyterian faithful, who had gathered from all over the country to bid farewell to Rev Ian Paisley, marking the conclusion of his 65-year ministry on the Ravenhill Road. Yet less than 24 hours after the strains of Rev Willie McCrea’s soulful tribute, Take the World but Give Me Jesus, had died away at Martyrs Memorial Church, Paisley’s former protégé, Peter Robinson, stepped out to a warm welcome at Armagh Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) ground, just seconds after the final bars of Amhrán na bhFiann. He took his seat with a smile alongside a cardinal and a former IRA man to watch the Dr McKenna cup final. 

The strangest thing is that Robinson wouldn’t have been sitting in that stand if it wasn’t for Ian Paisley. His late-flowering and unexpectedly friendly relationship with Martin McGuinness was the biggest unthinkable of all. This pair of die-hard ideologues had more in common than we realised, and the comical warmth of their connection forged a link that Robinson, although much stiffer and chillier than his predecessor, has nonetheless maintained to their mutual advantage.

If Paisley left the political scene in winsome cuddly-grandad incarnation, his rabble-rousing Calvinist street-preacher side all but forgotten, that wasn’t the case at Martyrs Memorial. The tenor of the farewell service itself was joyful, celebratory and affectionate. Fellow-travellers queued up to pay tribute and reminisce about the old days of protest and dissent, swapping stories about being bombarded with rotten tomatoes and flour bombs, or jetting over to Rome to rattle the shackles of apostasy. ‘We knew God wanted us to do these sorts of things’, said Free Presbyterian Minister Dr Brian Green, with customary evangelical confidence. Meanwhile, all the ladies seemed to be vying to outdo each other with ever more elaborate hats: with all the colourful ribbons, lace and bobbing ostrich feathers, it was more like Ladies’ Day at Ascot than a fundamentalist religious gathering, though admittedly with longer skirts and less fake tan and cleavage on show. Children giggled as they scampered along the aisles, the electric grand piano was set to jazzy gospel mode, and tinfoil-covered trays held piles of sumptuous sandwiches, all ready to be devoured once the service was over.

Yet when Paisley got to his feet to acknowledge the praise, the party mood changed. The ancient preacher looked stooped and frail at first. His voice was hesitant and it cracked as he spoke. But a transformation came over him when he stood for one last time in his beloved pulpit. His voice gathered strength, his shoulders straightened, and soon he was booming away like a man half his age. Under the watchful ghosts of John Calvin and John Knox, he warned that anyone who was not saved had better take prompt action to rescue their soul, otherwise they faced eternity in the blackness and terror of hell. 

It was visceral stuff, and a powerful swansong. But it felt like a voice speaking from another century, from a time and a place when people dealt in spiritual certainties, when politics and religion held each other in a death-grip, and when the prospect of burning forever in hell seemed like a definite and urgent threat.

At the time, this really did seem like the end of an era. Now I’m not so sure. 

Peter Robinson has sought to represent the DUP as a pragmatic, progressive, modern political force that has moved beyond the hoary, Bible-bashing days of ‘save Ulster from sodomy’. But while Paisley may have departed from the political and religious scene, I am increasingly convinced that the party has retained its theocratic heart. 

In recent years, this has been most clearly illustrated by the promotion of Young Earth creationism – the belief that the world is only 6,000 years old – by leading members of the DUP. Creationists insist that every word of the Bible is the literal truth. They have developed a wobbly pseudo-scientific framework to justify their beliefs, borrowing selectively from mainstream research, misrepresenting legitimate findings and filling the gaps in between with theories of their own making. All this would be a matter of harmless curiosity were it not for the fact that creationists want their religious beliefs taught as scientific fact in schools, museums and galleries. 

In 2010, the then culture minister Nelson McCausland – who also believes that Ulster Protestants are descended from the lost tribes of Israel – asked the Ulster Museum to include Young Earth creationist accounts of the world’s origins alongside its displays on evolution. Later, Mervyn Storey, the DUP chair of the Stormont education committee, called for the teaching of creationism in school science classes, insisting that ‘creationism is not for the RE class, because I believe that it can stand scientific scrutiny’. Storey is also vice-chair of an evangelical Christian lobby group called the Caleb Foundation, dedicated to ‘promoting the Fundamentals of the Historic Evangelical Protestant Faith’.

And this summer, these highly-motivated lobbyists scored their first small but significant victory. It seems unlikely it will be their last. When the National Trust opened its long-awaited state-of-the-art visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim, it included a reference to Young Earth creationism. Reaction was swift, sharp and scandalised. Richard Dawkins led the charge, insisting that the Trust should never have given in to pressure from ‘intellectual baboons’. He said it was regrettable that the Trust had ‘paid lip service to the ignorant bigotry’ of fundamentalists. But Wallace Thompson, chair of the Caleb Foundation, hailed it as, ‘a precedent for others to follow’. He said it was important that the centre, having been ‘largely funded out of the public purse’, should be ‘inclusive and representative of the whole community’. 

The seventeenth century Irish bishop, James Ussher, famously calculated the date of creation by adding the ages of the 21 generations of people from the Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve. He came up with an astonishingly precise answer: creation occurred, said Ussher, ‘at the beginning of the night which preceded the 23rd of October in the year 710 of the Julian period’, or 4004 BC. Today’s Young Earth creationists are Ussher’s true inheritors: pre-Darwinist in spirit, yet equipped with the modern language of equal rights.

In matters of sexuality and reproductive rights, the DUP also shows its true theocratic colours. Current Health Minister Edwin Poots (himself a Young Earth creationist) has struggled to find a medical rationale for his continuing ban on blood donations from gay men, leaving many to conclude that this ministerial ruling is motivated by little more than prejudice and moral opprobrium.

Meanwhile, Jim Wells, who is set to become the next health minister, declares his opposition to abortion in all circumstances, even in the case of rape or extreme foetal abnormality. With breathtaking complacency, he suggests that rape victims continue the pregnancy to term and then hand over the infant to one of the ‘hundreds of married couples in Northern Ireland who would love to adopt children’. What’s more, the DUP plans to reinforce the already draconian abortion laws here, with tougher procedures which will require GPs to provide detailed explanations for each termination carried out.

Sometimes I wonder whether I am living in Alabama or Northern Ireland. 

But this is what happens when personal religious convictions drive political action, and it kills true democracy. The price of devolution has been far higher than we had realised. Our relief at an agreed settlement blinded us to the inevitable consequences: that once local politicians seized power they would shamelessly manipulate it to their own ends, continually trading on our gratitude that the Troubles were over.

The same is true of the DUP’s partners in government, Sinn Féin. They may not have the same fanatical moral impetus, but they are often equally brazen in pursuit of their own ideological goals, such as the ending of post-primary educational selection. Successive Sinn Féin education ministers have tried various tactics to undermine the ongoing selection process. In the most recent instance, the current minister, John O’Dowd, appointed IRA bomber Paul Kavanagh to the board of governors of Lumen Christi College in Derry. Lumen Christi is one of the North’s highest performing grammar schools, and it has remained steadfastly pro-selection. Obviously, it would be highly advantageous for O’Dowd to have an anti-selection place-man on the board: Kavanagh was evidently a ministerially-placed political appointee in the furtherance of a party agenda.

There was further disquiet because of Kavanagh’s own background. He was convicted of killing three people, including an 18 year old boy. These are the things that tear at you, reawakening old feelings of revulsion, which we had forcibly buried for the sake of a new future. 

It was similar when Martin McGuinness ran for the Irish presidency. Those of us who want to see power-sharing work – and of course, I still do: what other choice do we have? – effectively agreed to say nothing about the past, not to ask too many hard questions, because we know that the whole shaky set-up at Stormont is built on the principle of don’t ask, don’t tell: just be glad that things are moving forward democratically now, and don’t ever look back too far. Peace is precious, and when you have been exposed to the opposite, you won’t do anything to jeopardise that hard-won, fragile state. Yet McGuinness’s entry into the Irish presidential race, as a former paramilitary chief, shone a light on the strange and anomalous set-up we have here. It showed us once again what we’ve been willing to swallow for the sake of an end to violence.

I believe that McGuinness’s quest for lasting peace is authentic. But it’s one thing to take a leadership role in the governance of Northern Ireland, in a specific political accommodation that was enacted to resolve the particular difficulties of this place.
In that context, his dubious past could be accommodated, if not forgotten. McGuinness and the republican movement were part of the problem, so they had to be part of the solution. It is quite another matter to embody the collective values of an entire country, in seeking to become the figurehead of the Irish Republic.

Returning to the Kavanagh appointment, where else but Northern Ireland would a killer on a school board even be mooted as a possibility, let alone the reality? It begged the question: if convicted murderers can pass the test, exactly what kind of criminal record would actually result in debarment from a school board? This is not the same as having former republican terrorists in government. These politicians have a clear and unassailable democratic mandate. There is no similar requirement for the likes of Kavanagh to become a school governor. 

The appointment also set a dangerous precedent. DUP members may have held up their hands in horror, but there is no reason to think that they would act any differently if they got the chance. For instance, a DUP education minister might consider it perfectly acceptable to infiltrate schools with Young Earth creationist governors. Before long, our children would be taught bogus science as fact, coming home convinced that dinosaurs and human beings existed at the same time, and that childbirth hurts because women are still atoning for wicked Eve’s original sin.

Northern Ireland is not yet a fully-evolved democratic state, and it is vital that these highly questionable political machinations are curbed now, before they lead to even more serious abuses of power. 

One of the biggest challenges of a post-conflict society is developing a collective sense of identity. That’s not something that you can buy flat-packed from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, suitable for instant assembly. It can’t be imposed or dictated.
It has to evolve over time, as old enmities start to crumble and disintegrate, and new shared priorities grow.

Unfortunately, the only form of civic pride currently available to us is the glossy, sanitised official variety. 2012 has been billed as ‘Our Time, Our Place’, a year of mega-events – including the Titanic centenary and the Irish Open at Portrush – which was to be ‘the tipping point for Northern Ireland and a real chance to change perceptions’. There was no room for dissent: the public was told that, ‘we need everyone to pull together to really make the most of this’.

The aims of the 2012 campaign itself were reasonable: driving visitor numbers, generating economic impact and so on. It’s just that many of us don’t recognise this one-dimensional image of Northern Ireland, painted in primary colours, that we’re all supposed to be selling. It is the PR-generated version of our country, full of froth and sparkle. It is not the unique reality, which is actually far more fascinating. Why should the bureaucrats be the ones to write the stories of our times? Why should we buy into this slick marketeer’s version of local identity?

There are signs, though, that Northern Ireland may be changing for the better. They do exist, despite my disappointment and frustration with the deeply flawed political situation. They may be sporadic, disconnected and imperfect, but they are encouraging to those of us who care about this place. 

For instance, this summer, amid the usual bitter rows over the marching season, I saw a surprisingly different flag fluttering from the top window of a terraced house in loyalist East Belfast. It was a giant rainbow flag, flown in support of that day’s Pride parade. You would not have seen that happen ten years ago. The fact that it was there at all, and that it wasn’t ripped down and immediately burned on an impromptu bonfire, was a small victory for love, freedom and tolerance. 

Sometimes even the politicians surprise you. Recently, it emerged that veteran Sinn Féin MP, Pat Doherty, lobbied for Arts Council funding for a ‘blood and thunder’ loyalist marching band whose website includes deeply offensive sectarian songs. Doherty said that the band had made a ‘huge contribution in helping to resolve community tensions’ in their home town of Castlederg, Co Tyrone, and that he supported their application to buy new instruments. 

Doherty’s quiet intervention is welcome, regardless of whether the band deserves the money or not. If we are to flourish and grow, we need to find points of connection, different ways of doing things. We need more of these simple acts of unexpected generosity.

Such acts might come more easily to the next generation, unburdened by direct contact with the Troubles. A new political identity – not Irish, not British, but Northern Irish – is gaining momentum, particularly among the young. Champion golfer Rory McIlroy, from County Down, is a notable example. Although he has recently admitted that he ‘feels more British than Irish’, he prefers to describe himself as Northern Irish. Perhaps for the first time, that is a term that is beginning to accrue real meaning, finally becoming something more than an empty signifier, a way to duck the old nationalist/ unionist assignation of identity.

We are slowly shaking off the dry dust of the past. Yet at this point in the history of the new Northern Ireland, we are still not quite sure who we are, or where we are going. 

Last weekend, a group of young artists living in and around the Ormeau Road in south Belfast organised a small contemporary art festival in which they opened up their homes for performances and exhibitions. It all culminated in an outdoor disco, open to everyone, at the grand Victorian gates of Ormeau Park. I went along with my Dalmatian dog, Rudi, and we spent a happy night dancing in the moonlight and talking to complete strangers. It felt joyous, unexpected and pleasantly transgressive. Once more, that elusive sense of possibility and purpose was in the air.

If the future is to be a good one, this is how it will be. Not in a dramatic political accommodation, as we had thought, but in neighbours standing in the street talking to each other.

You never know. There could be hope for this place yet. Perhaps everything really is going to be all right.


This article was first published in October 2012, in the fourth volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler.  She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series.


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