Symmetry of history offers a NI warning

All around the world, there are countries that once glowed imperial red on the pages of an atlas.

Many of them, including this one, hold a sense of anger at how they were mistreated by conquerors.

That anger has largely faded into the background but to pretend it does not endure silently, that it is covered by anything more than a veneer, is as dishonest as it is foolish.

Those roots, lifetimes in the making, run deep and wide. It might be comforting to pretend they don’t exist but that would be to deny the reality of humanity and history.

The passage of time also allows for a challenging question: If we, or Kenya’s indigenous peoples or, say, Palestine’s Arabs, had held the whip hand, would history have been much different other than the probability that Britain, or a Britain, would be subjugated rather than be the subjugator?

Unfettered power, the capacity to crush a weaker nation, seems a far more potent catalyst than race in man’s ability to inflict horrors.

Albion may have been perfidious, and may be again, but only because it had the power to be so. Would we, had we stood in their shoes, have been much different?

This weekend, as we mark the half-century anniversary of the North’s civil rights movement, we do so from a hard-won but joyous perspective of an extended peace.

That peace stands in contrast to the conditions that made a civil rights revolution inevitable.

There is no other way to say it: Northern Ireland was a hateful, toxic fiefdom where apartheid prevailed.

Before the founding conference in Belfast in 1967 of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, to be a Catholic nationalist in the North was to live the life of a second-class citizen subjected to the brutalities of a sectarian and uncontrolled regime.

That British governments tolerated this segregationist violence is one of the great modern legacy crimes of empire.

Just as Margaret Thatcher’s intransigence ensured a long line of angry recruits for the Provos, the free hand afforded to unionism by London was an appalling hear-no-evil, see-no-evil betrayal of democracy, basic decency and a significant number of vulnerable citizens.

That charge is as undeniable today as it was when it was first made, but it cannot be denied that British politicians, in particular John Major and Tony Blair, played pivotal roles in creating today’s peace.

Neither can it be denied that the primary source of violence — despite today’s revisionism — was Republican.

How lucky those revisionists are that time has silenced John Hume, the great, singular moral force behind the movement they now try to claim as their own.

Sadly, the symmetry of history intrudes.

Brexit talks have revealed the deep Tory ignorance and indifference that allowed B Specials’ pogroms. Northern Irish Secretary Karen Bradley’s admission that she knew little about the region is just one example.

The DUP suggestion that the Good Friday peace deal might be modified adds to those concerns, as does the DUP zealotry on Brexit despite the North’s vote to stay in the EU.

Festering stasis in Stormont cannot be ignored.

Despite that, the civil rights anniversary must be celebrated and used to remind ourselves how very delicately balanced today’s peace remains.


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