Violence in Belfast - Why can’t we all learn from history?

Some societies and communities seem unable to suppress the instincts, the atavistic gene, that will, if not checked, lead to their own destruction.

For nearly all of its history, government in the North used democracy as a fig leaf to facilitate the majority loyalist population behaving as it wished. They used the undeniable arithmetic to dress their actions as democracy in action rather than its corruption.

For decades, and unfettered by any intrusion from London, they ignored the spirit of real, inclusive democracy and presided over institutionalised human rights abuses. Those administrations seemed so unable to change their ways that London eventually had to re-impose direct rule.

The North was a bigoted, sectarian place — as was this state, let’s not pretend — where the minority were denied the most basic rights or even respect.

Eventually the cauldron boiled over and thousands of lives were needlessly lost in ensuing decades of terror all because the majority population could not tolerate the aspirations of neighbours born into a different tradition.

The decades of murder, mayhem and renewed hatred that closed the last century on this island were not the first, second or third episode of internecine madness but just the last in a long line of dehumanising atrocities. You would think that after all that we, all of us who share this island on the eastern fringes of the Atlantic, had been shown the lesson often enough to learn it. Yet the violence in Belfast in recent days warns that we have not.

So too does the awful spectre of new republican terror organisations. The only difference this time around is that the roles are reversed.

The nationalist majority on Belfast city council voted to remove the British flag from city hall seemingly indifferent to the inevitable offence that would cause amongst the loyalist community.

Of course it is depressingly predictable that some DUP and UUP politicians used the opportunity — again — to beat the ancient drum and call the mob onto Belfast’s streets but they could not have done so without the opportunity provided by the majority’s determination to assert its authority.

Nationalists had the authority — the democratic mandate — needed to bring Belfast city hall and other council buildings into line with an agreement on flags at Stormont and could not resist the temptation to assert it. They behaved like any of the bigots whose certainties have fuelled this divide for centuries irrespective of how their actions would again divide the society they are supposed to serve. And for what? Empty symbolism? Revenge served cold?

Just as Israel imagines it can forever ignore the criticisms of the civilised world on the ethnic cleansing it describes as “settlements” the two communities in the North will eventually have to tolerate each other’s beliefs or destroy each other.

Why is that obvious lesson so very hard to learn and assimilate? Why do the actions of those involved fly in the face of every hard lesson our history teaches us? How long more will the hatred overpower the possible? How many more generations will be poisoned by this now utterly redundant division? Will we ever achieve the grace, secular and spiritual, needed to guarantee the peace the majority on this island want and demand?


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