Monday, 15 July 2013

Tense Times

Tense Times

The Holy Grail of “a shared future” has been invoked frequently, in recent days, as rioting and violence have spilled onto the streets of Belfast. Exasperated loyalist spokesmen have asked plaintively where their culture is meant to fit in, in the supposed new dispensation.

The reality is, of course, that the “shared future” hasn’t happened yet (the clue is in the name). It is a goal, an aspiration, a destination, something we should be aiming for.

This confusion may be a result of declining standards in our education system; it may even have something to do with the growing popularity of ‘texting’; but the result is anything but ‘gr8’.
We have developed a worrying tendency to get our tenses mixed up. The past already dominates the present; now – to further complicate matters – we’re mistaking the future for the present, too.

Last Friday, in Derry, I met a home help whose routine was badly disrupted by the Twelfth Parade. She found herself trapped behind marchers in the Waterside and, as a result, was considerably delayed as she travelled to help the old and the infirm on the Cityside.
In the event – her ‘traditional’ route being blocked – she had to find an alternative, circuitous route to her destinations (and, I’m sure, her clients are grateful that she did).

What happened in Derry was interesting. The Orange Order’s flagship parade passed off without incident in an overwhelmingly nationalist city. It didn’t happen by accident, it happened by design. The peaceful outcome was a tribute to those – on all sides – who worked long and hard to make it happen.

It was revealing to hear one of the local brethren telling a TV reporter that he and his colleagues had done ‘the talk’ and were doing ‘the walk’. Local Orange leaders are to be commended for the measured tone of their public utterances at such a sensitive time, and for recommending early dialogue where and when a parade is likely to be contentious.

Surely there is a lesson in this for people in all communities – and from all institutions. Dialogue can pay off; negotiation can pay off. It may not produce everything that the different parties in a given situation want, but it can arrive at an accommodation (and an accommodation is surely better than a determination).

The very act of coming together, face-to-face, and hearing the other person’s point of view, can bring light instead of heat to a problem. It is a process which may lead eventually to the development of ‘respect’, although I suspect that this would be a long-term objective; for now it would be more realistic to aim for nothing more than ‘tolerance’.   

In coming together, protagonists can learn for themselves – and then help educate others – as to the nuances and subtleties of our peculiar cultural dichotomy: how one person’s cultural expression can be inferred by another as a calculated insult. As relationships develop, and respect is built, it could lead to more enlightened and more imaginative thinking, rather than the dogmatism which has frustrated any attempt to resolve the issue of contentious parades. It would be helpful if commonsense was to prevail.

As they contemplate the Holy Grail of a shared future, people need to be careful what they ask for. Such a journey will take people into places and situations that they might not foresee. They might have to sit down with their ‘enemies’. They might have to sacrifice certain ‘principles’. They certainly will have to compromise. Hopefully, though, the prize would make the pain worthwhile.     

Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Therein lies the challenge. Ours might not be a future perfect, but hopefully it’ll be better than the past – or the present.

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