This Sunday, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire, celebrations must by tempered by the fact that, three decades after that great, bitterly-won opportunity, the past still holds a crippling grip on the future.
Even if Northern society is not as divided or violent as it was, much of it is still in thrall to the old injustices, the old hatreds, and betrayals. And far too often, the old, poisonous bigotry. The guns may be silent, but so too are the political leaders of all hues who are fighting old battles unable to imagine that there might be a different, better way to move beyond history’s atrocities. The calibre of Stormont’s leadership is so very middle-brow, so uninspiring, it is easy to understand why it took forceful interventions from London, Washington, and Dublin to secure the peace. Energies that should be focussed on building what Bill Clinton described as “commercial diplomacy” — giving young people the opportunity to choose between work or terrorism — are devoted to almost endless fights over flags and intimidatory marches.
Energies that should be devoted to building all-inclusive schools or community-wide prosperity are squandered on hate-sustaining events like the recent Ardoyne Fleadh where guns-and-bullets balladeers sang songs that in a society confident of its pluralism and its place in the civilised world would be regarded as hate crimes and prosecuted as such. or from insecure and confrontational Orange Order fife-and-drum band masters. It would be easy to dismiss this cultural and historical boorishness if it was as inconsequential as it ought to be, but it is not.
This problem is not confined to the North. Some of our cultural and sporting organisations might consider if their world view, the legacy we offer our children, might colour their perceptions and shape their ambitions in a way that is not as conducive to the kind of future that might move away from the hateful divisions of the past. That kind of deep self-appraisal is never easy, but we can hardly criticise the North’s public figures for their negativity and intransigence if we are not prepared to review our own attitudes and learnt-in-the-cradle beliefs. Writing in the Irish Times yesterday, Nancy Soderberg, one-time Clinton aide and facilitator or the 1994 peace, described the North’s political leadership as “abysmal” and suggested that we have come to take the prevailing peace far too much for granted. She criticised all sides for wallowing in their — our— unshakeable sense of victimhood at the expense of the future.
Nearly all peace processes, successful ones at least, follow a pattern. Moderates — in this instance John Hume and David Trimble — take the first tentative steps but are later replaced by more extreme leaders — Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson, both of whom are 65. In time, they are replaced by more moderate, pragmatic people who are more interested in the future than the past. The stasis and parity of victimhood so obvious in the North suggests that it is now time for that transition, one that might be game-changing.
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