Monday, 26 February 2007

If ifs and ands

Published February 1998

The North is on the move, there is no going back

I live in the heart of "ambush country", by the site of the Kilmichael Ambush, near Béal na mBláth. Every other corner and fork in the intricate network of local roads boasts a monument marking feats of heroism and death. Many record the military feats of West Cork's Flying Columns, who developed new and effective methods of guerilla warfare to strike at the British Army during the Irish War of Independence.

But other monuments mark the sites of later battles and skirmishes, between brother and brother, neighbour and neighbour, for West Cork was also a fierce battleground in the Irish Civil War which followed partition and independence. Civil War is not pretty and the scars run deep and long.

In my childhood, I was cushioned from this legacy. Annual commemorations in Ambush Country drew dwindling numbers of veterans, just a bunch of shuffling old men with their heads full of the past, yawn! This was the 60s and the young Irish nation wanted rock 'n' roll and mini-skirts and James Bond. TV arrived, with news of Kennedy, Viet Nam, Martin Luther King and the moon.

When the news came to be dominated by events in Northern Ireland I had greater sympathy and understanding for black america, for anti-Nam demonstrators, than for my own neighbours. Then Bloody Sunday came into the living room and I, like many in the South, was shocked out of my lethargy and ignorance. But we lacked a sense of confidence in our nationhood perhaps, finding it easier to swallow British denials than to challenge the venerable authority of Westminster.

For 20 years our media was stifled, delivering sanitised coverage of events and demonising participants, particularly the IRA. The notorious Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act banned interviews with, or photographs of, members of proscribed organisations. We could hear their words but they were disembodied, lacking in texture and context - issued by shadowy, sinister, faceless people. We saw plenty of loyalists whose organisations seemed to enjoy greater tolerance by the authorities. We learned to grin and bear Ian Paisley's posturings.

Our political growth was stunted by the "troubles", but Ireland was coming of age in many ways. In the last 20 years we have learnt confidence and tolerance. We have also lost faith in our institutions. Our priests and politicians are being dragged through the courts, accused of every imaginable abuse of power and privilege. We are trying to deal with our personal complicity, when our silences and winks and nods aided and abetted these heinous criminals. New generations of Irish people began to question our complicity in perpetuating the Northern problem.

In war-torn Northern Ireland, there emerged the sort of stalwart vision that characterises the legendary Men of Ulster. Forced to grow their own solutions while their neighbours dithered, Northerners found a certain unity in their political isolation and their desire for peace.

Down South, Section 31 was revoked and the "monsters" were given faces, and surprise, surprise, they were only human like the rest of us, "a bit off the wall, maybe, but so might you be if you grew up in a war zone". When the Cease Fire was announced, only three and a half years ago, I must admit to sharing the sense of disbelief that greeted the announcement. But disbelief gave way to a milder distrust and this turned to admiration for the voices of moderation.

Since then the peace process has had its ups and downs, on one minute, off the next. Die-hards at both extremes of the political divide threaten the fragile equilibrium, encouraged by frequent prevarication by the parties to the Peace Talks. Doom and gloom mediosos focus on renewed atrocities and talk down the Peace. But they have re-opened Bloody Sunday, and the DUP and Sinn Féin have talked.

The North is on the move, there is no going back. Britain is cutting the loyalists adrift and the South has been no great friend to the nationalists. Northerners are thrown back upon themselves and many are rising to the challenge, forcing the pace, moving on. The war of attrition on the streets of Belfast has, for the most part, become a tactical war of words in the media. This can only be a good thing. When I hear the interminable speculation - "is it on, is it off" I'm reminded of Helen Toner, a proud Ulster woman, who shared with me some typical northern wit:
If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there'd be no need for tinkers.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - February 8, 1998.

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