James Thurber once observed “there are two kinds of light — the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures.” In Northern Ireland, we have become accustomed to obscuring glare more than illuminating glow.
Despite the historic achievement of the Belfast Agreement our politicians still like to amplify a folk version of history to the idea that we remain two separate people whose interests are permanently at odds with one another.
The current set of commemorations tend to reinforce that tendency by maintain the collective gaze on the material aspect of that divided past rather than exploring them anew to open new opportunities for the future.
Whether it be the Decade of Commemorations, the Hunger Strikers or “1912” UVF flags each reminds us of the signal failure of the relationships on this Island and these Islands.
It is little remembered, for instance, that the defeat of James at the Battle of the Boyne brought forth the birth of modern parliamentary democracy. For the first time a monarch was made answerable to the people.
It was this same ‘protestant’ and democratic spirit of making power amenable to a broader public interest a century later which moved the first Irish Republicans to declare for an independent and united island.
If we ignore these opportunities to learn from the essence of our past, we’re in danger of tying our collective futures to the unexamined failures and divisions of the past rather than transcending the ignorance, sectarianism and intransigence that have beset our society for longer than any of us can remember.
Do we really want anyone to starve themselves to death for Ireland or murder Catholics/ Protestants or British/Irish as a way of promoting a United Ireland or Northern Ireland remaining as part of United Kingdom respectively?
Surely what we should be teaching our young people is that the use of violence has always proved counterproductive for whatever constitutional position organisations using it were promoting.
Having recently completing a cycle across Europe in which I visited a total of 8 countries, I am left with an impression of good people let down throughout history by bad leadership. It also reminded me of the destructive power of what I would call Ultra Nationalism when combined with a forceful leader such as Napoleon, Hitler or Ceausescu.
The alternative is of course a European Union based around building a sense of interdependence and respecting constructive nationalism. Essentially removing borders even though they still remain! We tend to forget that that is exactly what the European Union membership achieved on this Island as well as in other areas of Europe.
As to the future here, nearly every issue we need to address can be resolved as there are examples of where they have been, whether it is shared education, housing, parades or inclusive concepts of identity or other areas of contention.
The issue of dealing specifically with the crimes of the past is the one aspect that will, for a variety of reasons, prove extremely difficult to deal with to the satisfaction of those who lost their loved ones or were injured by our conflict. However, the best tribute we can pay to them is to ensure that such tragedy never happens again.
So, for those who attend the Hunger Strike Commemoration in Derrylin or a parade in memory of a loyalist paramilitary, I would remind them that Northern Ireland belongs to all of us who live here and so look around at the beautiful place you live in and the genuinely good people you share it with and let go of the hatreds of the past.
With good and constructive leadership we can work out relationships in a way that benefits us all and so that we all do well.
My trip through Europe made me realise that we are lucky to live where we do. After all as Mother Teresa said, “where she came from people did not starve to death out of choice.” What would she say about Israel, Syria, Ukraine and too many others!
We should not take what we have here for granted. On my cycle I was able to see beyond the narrative glare of big politics and understand better what is relevant to the smaller stories in the lives of ordinary people.
Similarly when completing the Co-operation Ireland Maracycle it was again good people, who too often had been driven apart by big politics on this Island, but who now realise that our future is bound together on this one road that stands before us, regardless of the destination.
A version of this article was first published in the Irish News on Monday 18th August 2014