World events. Too many of them. Their images blur, racing past much too fast to process. Then a pause for thought midst the stalemate of home. And I’m trawling through YouTube clips of John Hume and David Trimble, in a Big Yellow Taxi moment – of not really knowing what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Lingering over those late nineties snapshots of possibility personified by our Nobel laureates felt like bathing in the warm glow of slightly fading family photographs. Our own, our very own awkward couple – centre stage. And Bono. There to pronounce the blessing.
Then you remember that our ‘big two’ were, in effect, children of The Beveridge Report, the first in their respective families to attend university through a scholarship for one and civil service sponsorship for the other.
You see John emerging from academe, motivated by a desire to help others, investing his skills in growing the Credit Union’s reach whilst serving another apprenticeship in public speaking before his second graduation onto a wider arena. While David, shy and academic, began his slow turn away from a laager mindset and blinking, he methodically constructs a template for the common good that, as has been said, surprised perhaps even himself.
Of course, besides their different sense of national identity, additional variables of socio-economic preferences were layered in. Social democratic and conservative.
For John, Social Democracy becomes his guiding star, his eyes already attracted east to the success of those parties within the framework of the European Economic Community. Almost as if he could sense that his place, his future, would lie there, midst a 1970s rebalancing of relationships that raised the status and self-confidence of the Irish state. No more the junior of the archipelago but one amongst many. With a direct line to Brussels without diversion through an exchange in London. Eventually, John’s head and heart both found a second home. In Strasbourg, the place of parity of esteem.
David’s gaze, however, remained firmly fixed southeast to Westminster, the metropolitan mother of parliaments, his multinational state’s centre of gravity. Another clip showed him being asked if he had always been interested in politics. He nodded a precise yes, and then his eyes lit up to recall, almost in wonder, at the moment of its genesis, when, as a fifteen-year-old, he had a sense of intense excitement about Conservative leader Harold Macmillan’s victory in the 1959 election.
But these moments of epiphany were sown everywhere. Mine, four years later, but with another Harold, a Wilson, whose coming to power created a sudden surge of elation for my nine-year-old self. Only later would the words come that might describe it as utter delight at seeing the sclerotic system of privilege overthrown by a forward-facing modernising project, an egalitarian moment of promise.
Often that part of our identity is instinctual. Whilst other aspects, national and cultural, are rotely learned, perhaps only too well – becoming core to our being.
One thing leads to another when you pull on the connecting cords of memory. In this case, snatches of a radio programme from the 2000s with Gerry Anderson interviewing Fitzroy Presbyterian minister Ken Newell and his crosstown colleague, Clonard Monastery’s Fr Gerry Reynolds. When asked where he was on the identity spectrum, Ken said he felt a mixture of British, Irish and Ulster-ness. There was a rustle in the background, and then Ken laughed, saying, ‘Of course, Gerry wants to know the order of importance I put them in.’
To his credit, Gerry Reynolds also laughed. Then his response to the same question was less ambiguous.
But in 1998, during the high water mark of an Anglo-Irish co-operation that carved out our flawed but progressive political architecture, complexity was the new kid in town. With ambiguity licensed and elevated to a principle that interrogated our received national or communal narratives. Something fitting for our circumstances, as I often felt there were ‘two wars’ going on in this place: one at times obviously Anglo-Irish in nature and the other inter-communal, each overlapping and tenaciously complex. The latter remained durable even as Anglo-Irish tensions receded. Each community’s perception of the ‘other’ continued to be doggedly defined by its worst-behaving individuals whilst evolving into competing versions of (mostly) totally unarmed struggle.
Of course, one Good Friday couldn’t solve everything. ‘It was about peace,’ Paul Bew recently mused, ‘not reconciliation, nor even good government.’ And few, he thought, saw it coming. ‘It took people by surprise.’ This top-down consociational initiative ‘was not a bottom-up cry for community reconciliation.’
In the early hours of that Friday morning, he recalled warm embraces between the agreement’s architects. ‘The UUP and SDLP thought they would be electorally rewarded over the long term, not punished.’
But the reality that enough of the two communities who voted for it remained unreconciled was evidenced by the migration of significant numbers of their constituencies towards those who’d deal with the ‘other side’ more harshly.
Back then, we didn’t fully realise just how much the compromise of conditional membership of a British multinational state was both anchored by and cradled within a broader community of European nations. Our lived experience added, for many of us, another valued identity component, that of ‘European’, to Ken and Gerry’s listings, alongside the more personal ones – familial, occupational.
All of this was a happy circumstance, as we know that when states pool sovereignty, there is greater protection of minority rights.
Until … the Brexit boats upped anchor and sailed away from the European mainland, travelling backwards in a fever dream of English Nationalism to an imaginary land of post-truth, funded by dark money and chaperoned by Putin bots. Bequeathing us a reductionist return to another anger-igniting, identity-threatening issue. Back to a Never-land, one now facing an invigorated Irish Nationalism no longer willing to play the long game.
However, we’ve come through worse. And an imperfect advantage remains. Protocoled in the only part of the UK demonstrating a functioning model of ‘cakeism’, with significant economic opportunities through fifty shades of tech, Belfast as the best performing city economy outside the London region, and £15 Billion earned last year through exports to Ireland and Europe.
Of course, we would still like to ask the EU, when they have a moment to draw breath – between dealing with a colonial, genocidal war on its borders and a seismic energy crisis – to finesse the protocol a little. To help restore constructive ambiguity to a region now semi-detached from both GB and EU. And assist with the early release of a place taken hostage by a clique high on mainstreamed Farageism.
The willingness of an European Research Group elite to risk the loss of our trade advantages is tantamount to being threatened with the withdrawal of a compensation package for the victims of a major Road Traffic Accident caused by their wilfully negligent driving.
But beyond this crisis, Paul Bew’s assessment of the Good Friday Agreement’s deficits may not tell the whole story, as it has been quietly and steadily at work. Its normalisation of peace has enabled a slow informal reconciliation process independent of the political structures. Sectarian crime has continued to fall (by 60% since 2005) as inter-community projects surge alongside increased social mixing, especially amongst our young people. 80% of us enjoy cross-community friendships, with almost 25% of people now in adult relationships that cross the sectarian divide. The evidence seems to refute the perception of a growing crisis between our communal groups.
If only we were guided by objective evidence, not subjective, emotive perceptions, as Pete Shirlow and others contend – in an upgrade of the sociologist’s Quantitative v’s Qualitative debate regarding the value placed on statistics or ‘rich’ data. I’d go with a 60/40 weighting at the minute.
Even though the inability of the Agreement to deliver good government lies again cruelly exposed, a head of steam is building for structural reform. Moreover, the presence of and contributions from two non-aligned parties, Green and Alliance, have helped to widen the terms of debate. But this leaves some still longing for a cross-community ‘Labour’ alternative, a perspective wary that though any ‘national’ identity might seem like a flaming torch lighting the way ahead for a people group, grasped too tightly
As has been said by a certain Mr Marx, ‘Men and women make their own history, not as they please, but under circumstances given and transmitted from the past.’ Not on the grounds of our own choosing, then.
But what is almost upon us will, to put it politely, reduce the salience of our current concerns. A social emergency unseen for decades, an ‘Indoor Relief’ moment when flags won’t feed, clothe or heat the most vulnerable. Something that will require the magnitude of a ‘New Deal’ response.
And yet we’ve been bequeathed much by those gone before us: the gift of their courage, resilience, their belief in possibility. So it’s not merely nostalgic to gaze back to where we were before one Belfast Good Friday and realise how far we’ve travelled. Instead, it helps gather the strength needed to face the future.
It’s also a reminder of the risks some politicians take in being willing to critique their own bloc, which inevitably leads to their toppling by shocked supporters, consignment to the wilderness, and the delayed conferral of the label Statesmen or Stateswomen. But even then, their acts were not in vain. Along with the untold thousands who, in unrecorded actions, reached out across our divide. Reminding me of the closing lines of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and of its heroine Dorothea, as to how ‘… the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’.
Leaving me hoping it is possible to have strong opinions lightly held or that if I’m dreaming, I may not be the only one.
Roy Uprichard is a retired teacher who has published three ‘Camino type’ memoirs:
- On (and off) The Portuguese Way. Celtic Connections – Galicia, Ireland and Everywhere.(2021)
- Stone and Water – Walking the Variante route of the Camino Portugues.(2018)
- Restless Hearts – Walking the Camino de Santiago. (2016)
You can view his profile on Amazon.