Strength is only part of fixing our busted relationships. We need good leadership too.

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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

  • Michael Henry

    I am more than happy with the Sinn Fein Leadership-they have helped us through the past and are showing us a way forward in Peace-

    I hope Mr Ringland is not also opposed to the World War One commemorations like he is about the Hunger – Strike one- nobody is forcing anyone who does not want to attend to go and march -or watch it-

  • Turgon

    Once again Trevor Ringland makes points he did not intend. He is welcome to his political opinions but his selective reading of history demonstrates maybe rather better than he intended how history divides us.

    “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.”

    That is a reading of history popular with some but is far from the only reading. One could argue that Magna Carta was also making the monarch answerable to the barons. The Boyne sort of made kings answerable by William (who had accepted limited monarchy) defeating James. However, the Boyne did assuredly not make the king answerable to most people. Actually it was only to the very rich (mainly landed aristocracy and a few emergent wealthy others). Also of course the king was assuredly unanswerable to half the population whatever their social standing. Women had no say for undress of years.

    Going back from James and William and the Boyne one could argue that James’s father was much more answerable to the people before long before James’s defeat at the Boyne. Initially Charles I was made answerable to the parliament and nobility after the First English Civil war and in the Second (some split the two) he became answerable essentially to the army which was more representative than the of James ‘s time (again no women of course).

    The reality is that Ringland’s assertion is so simplistic as to be laughable. It is the standard conservative analysis of British political history but is so simplistically argued as to be Grade C or worse in A level history. It is part of an attempt to appeal to all and be letsgetalongerist. That is fine: we all use history for our own advantage and there are many readings of history. However, we need to understand just how self serving Ringland’s analysis of history really is.

    Moving on Ringland proclaims “use of violence has always proved counterproductive for whatever constitutional position organisations using it were promoting”

    Well Sinn Fein’s use of violence in 1916 was pretty effective in creating an Ireland outside the union and able to sever what few ties it had to Britain thereafter: more effective for the 26 counties than Redmond’s ideas. Furthermore recent IRA violence has gained for its perpetrators seats at the heart of power. Is Ringland really suggesting that without the IRA Sinn fein would have eclipsed the SDLP. It is possible but again is Ringland’s view propounded for his own ends.

    Also the use of violence by the state (almost entirely legitimate in my and Ringland’s analysis) was far from counterproductive in my (and many others’ – including I suspect Ringland’s) reading of history. The use of violence at Loughgall as just one example was highly effective in stopping a violent, effective gang of terrorists intent on a specific constitutional position. As such it was an effective(and in my view legitimate) use of violence to promote a constitutional position. One does not even have to agree with the position advanced to understand that violence can work. Martin McGuinness I believe admitted that Roy Mason’s use of force including violence (within I believe the rule of law) knocked the IRA back massively.

    We then have a few mindless or mind numbing soundbites of the “never again” variety.

    We also have a bit of the European Union preventing war which would be laughable were it not so historically inept. No mention of the fact that it took the total destruction of French and then German militarism to stop wide scale war in Europe. Nor that NATO which has kept the overwhelming military power of the USA in Europe since the Second World War has been the main guarantor of peace. Nor even that the peace Ringland lauds included the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the Balkan Wars.

    Once again this reading of history is to justify a typical European Union supporting line with a nod to Euroscepticism of “respecting constructive nationalism”. Not something everyone will recognise with the “Ever Closer Union” of the EU.

    Then we have a bit about Mother Theresa in order to bring in random completely irrelevant international member of the good and great (thankfully dead so cannot say the wrong thing now) and about to become a saint showing how unbigoted our Ringland is.

    This is essentially a sixth form level discussion justifying one’s own political positions whilst referencing and showing off about what one did for one’s summer holidays.

    Next we will have how my sitting beside a pool in Spain has made me understand Ulster better.

  • mickfealty

    A lot of riffing poetically far off the point and the content of the actual article there Turgon

    One could argue in this way (and in fact that’s one of the big projects Cameron is pushing just now), but you’d be fetching a C going on a D there yourself. [No A level history for you me boy!! ;-)]

    Magna Carta talks largely about theoretical freedoms for Barons rather than commoners, and it came with very few enforceable rights.

    The Bill of Rights is a bedrock for the much solid democratic developments (including separation of powers) that came afterwards, that eventually (via the Cromwellian revolution) close in the ‘anglican’ settlement of Elizabeth.

    Now, can we get back to the text?

  • Turgon

    Mick,
    The point seems to be that Ringland uses an selective analysis of history to justify his political views. That is fair enough but in this case it is more starting with the end and cherry picking bits of history to make his point. Again fair enough but perfectly reasonable to point that out.

    Referencing Mother Teresa and a cycle across Europe is simply bizarre.

    All of those were in the text I think you will find.

  • mickfealty

    All I’m saying is that his grasp of British constitutional history is much sounder than yours… ;-)

  • Turgon

    More accurately you are saying you agree with his analysis more than mine.

  • mickfealty

    Fight you 15 rounds, and well let others be the judge? :-)

  • mickfealty

    Not sure how I can valuably add here, but it seems to me there’s too few listening to this part in particular…

    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.

    The question I always come to at this point is: is it possible to imagine a politics that embraces all of these which can remain competitive and attractive to mainstream voters on either side.

    Competitiveness is vitally important to any politician, as is being able to operate far beyond the moderate, media friendly middle middle ground of politics. Without a mandate you have nothing.

    It seems to me that the problem here is the lack of a pluralist vision from either unionism or nationalism. And it’s not our problem alone. There are massive uprisings against the multicultural projects and even whole society across the world.

    There’s so much turmoil in the middle east we learn that the long term informal pluralism of Arab society is being upended in all manner of cruel and unpredictable ways. And here, despite our long peace, there seems to be a residual reliance on demography as the only meaningful common bond.

    Given the presence of peace, that’s not necessarily a negative per se. Lots of good things can happen in discrete and/or separated societies. But it’s the replication of old toxic stories that refuse the forging of new but meaningful material bonds.

    For me that’s not about forcing grand projets on an unwilling populace, but looking for smallest possible changes to serve a common good. My suspicion is that that can be done in service of either cementing the union or greater and more meaningful connection with the rest of the island.

    Otherwise we face a further hollowing out of institutions we said we believed in when we as an island north and south solemnly committed to 16 years ago.

  • kensei

    What if those “smallest possible changes to serve a common good” which “can be done in the service of either cementing the union or greater and more meaningful connection with the rest of Ireland” involve, I dunno, completely random think air example. 5-10 million opportunities in a market of 1.5 billion? That’s pretty small.

    You might take flack for it being useless then…

  • mickfealty

    Getting a bridge built over narrow water?

  • Roy Walsh

    I’ve had differences with Trevor at conferences in the past, but he should remember he never played for northern Ireland, just Ulster and Ireland. He always did brilliantly and he should recall that, equally he could remember mother Teresa came from Belgium not India, something she clearly did not.
    Equally, Trevor does make some good points.We do need learn that, as Ulstermen, we have more in common than in difference, if we can build our future as Ulstermen living in our own country then hope may just spring but if we keep talking at, rather than with each other things will continue to disintegrate and ordinary people will continue to feel left out of a process they seem excluded from.

  • tmitch57

    Actually Mother Teresa was Albanian Catholic.