Linda Ervine is a community worker in loyalist east Belfast, who is also an Irish language activist. Her classes have attracted literally hundreds of people to study Irish at the Skainos Centre on Newtownards Road – proof that Northern Ireland must not be seen merely as a narrow concept of two communities.
“We’ve got to reach across the divide,” says Linda in the latest of the ‘Forward Together’ podcast interviews. “Sadly 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement we are still very much a divided community.” Interviewed before the Lyra McKee killing she says: “There’s been a change in narrative. We have become less sectarian in words about religion and become more sectarian… in politics.” The challenge now, she argues is “to educate young people to realize that because somebody disagrees with you it doesn’t make them a monster”. People are entitled to have different points of view and expressing those should not undo the peace process.
An important focus of politics and civil society in Northern Ireland should be on why so many people do not vote, argues Linda. “There’s a massive amount of people out there who are not voting, so they don’t feel engaged with the politics. They don’t feel they have a voice. How do we change that?”
Linda is an advocate for a strong civic society. “What we need to do is create opportunities for people to come together with shared interests. And the main focus is not on the difference. The main focus is on what we share.”
She adds: “I think we have to have to have graciousness, generosity. And recognize that there are certain differences, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the fact that we share this place. And we have to acknowledge that somebody might have a different political aspiration to us, but it doesn’t make them the enemy.”
Linda continues: “I believe the majority of people want to share Northern Ireland, the majority of people want peace. People don’t want to go back and the majority of people do not want stalemate politics.”
Even on the separate side of interface walls, communities have more in common than divide them, she suggests. The major problem is not sectarianism. Rather, on both sides of the walls “there was poverty, there was addiction, there was poor health, there was a lack of education, there was lack of opportunity. And unfortunately I know the area that I come from became a bit of a dumping ground as well.”
The focus now must be more on solving these problems than blaming each other for the past. “I don’t want to disrespect victims. It’s easy for me. You know I don’t have a relative who was killed in one of these atrocities. It’s easier for me to move on. But if we want to have a better future, then we do need to let go.” She suggests a day of remembrance on which we remember all victims, equally. “I suppose some way of respectfully remembering what happened, and mourn that and recognize that what we did was wrong. And that’s all sides and that includes the government, the security forces – and that includes loyalist paramilitaries and that includes republican paramilitaries. And that includes us as members of the public who cheered for our side.”
Linda recognises the Brexit referendum has challenged the constitutional status quo. “Things are changing in the UK. We’ve seen movement in Scotland where there was a referendum which didn’t end up in an independent Scotland, but that is a change that might come. If I could personally wave my magic wand I would like to see a federation of islands. The identity issue in an all-Ireland is not an issue for me.” One of her main concerns for the future is to retain the NHS and “the British way of life”. “For me, if a constitutional change has to come, I want to keep very close links with the rest of the UK and I wonder is there some way that a new discussion could be opened up because at the minute the only discussion we seem to have is the UK or all-Ireland. Could we not have an all-Ireland within a close knit British isles? Is that not a possibility?”
The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
- Holywell Trust receives support for the The Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.