The wearying cycle of recrimination on our airwaves recently – over parades, commemoration and alleged ‘cultural warfare’ – can’t be doing anyone much good, except, perhaps, shareholders in the company which makes Prozac. They did a roaring trade in the North, when the Troubles were at their height. An elderly friend, who survived the worst of that period in her West Belfast home, remarked sadly, after the assault on the Lord Mayor of her city, that “Nothing’s changed.”
She’s wrong, I hope. Things have changed – seismically – but we need to be reminded how much.
A flick through the pages of ‘Lost Lives’, to the section dealing with 1972, provides a sobering insight into how bad things used to be here. Almost 500 people died that year – 95 of them in July alone – making it the bloodiest single month of the conflict.
Among the victims that month were two 14 year old schoolboys whose deaths, in separate incidents, illustrate the depths of depravity to which we had sunk. One – a Catholic, with special needs – was shot dead by a loyalist gunman, whose gang had broken into the boy’s home, sexually abused his mother and then opened fire on the child as his terrified mother lay beside him. The other young victim – the son of a Protestant minister – was killed as he tried to warn shoppers about one of the many IRA car-bombs which exploded on Bloody Friday.
Almost 500 corpses in a single year: the memory of 1972 should haunt all of us who lived through it. It stands as a harrowing reminder of how far we have moved forward, but as a timely warning, too, of how far we are capable of falling.
So don’t tell me, “Nothing has changed.”
The peace process has largely, though not completely, staunched the blood-flow. That counts as progress, even if the wounds haven’t healed properly. Every so often we pick at the scabs, and are surprised to discover that the bleeding starts all over again. If we keep picking, there’s a real danger that the wounds will become infected, suppurating, poisoning the whole body.
Sores like flags, parades, commemoration and – ironically – “culture” cause the greatest problems.
There are rash young people in our communities now, picking at these scabs, clamouring for victory over ‘the other side’ in their ‘cultural war’. It is hard to believe that alongside them are people who were around in the early 70s, who witnessed the carnage and felt the hatred, and yet would blithely lead us back to the killing fields. The former, at least, have the defence of ignorance; the latter ought to know better.
What these individuals actually seek is annihilation of the other side. Military strategists will tell you that that kind of victory is unachievable here. Who in their right mind would even want it?
There is a curious law of physics – pertaining to Northern Ireland – which ordains that neither side can win at the other’s expense, but that both can lose simultaneously. I would contend though that, under the right conditions, the two sides can also win at the same time. Unfortunately, those ideal conditions have never existed, and the theory remains untested.
As our society convulses over commemoration, and flags, and parades – with the two communities sliding further apart, and closer to the abyss – surely the most fitting tribute to the dead on all sides would be to bury our differences and at least try to construct a better future. Like it or not, we’re stuck with one another. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson pointed out to his audience, in the mid 80s, “You’ve got a choice; you’ve got a chance.” We need to be generous, not selfish. We need to choose between factionalism and the common good. We need a peace process, not a piece process.