There is no good news for the families of the soldiers and police man murdered here last week in the course of their workaday lives. While some of us have the luxury of analyzing the stories and trying to interpret events, for those families life has been shattered and will never be the same. For them, it’s all bad news. But there is a further potential casualty that I don’t think anyone has thoroughly mentioned as yet. That is the sense of security and safety that we have come to take for granted in our everyday lives here in Northern Ireland, and the risk to that sense of peace is very unsettling. I’ve lived here for 17 years now, and perhaps the journey that I have come to see the people taking is different because it is seen from the perspective of an outsider.
About 15 years ago, when I worked in Social Services, I had a crisis over a Christmas weekend when a client did not get his dinner served by one of the local organizations who had volunteered to do it. As I had already taken some drink, as had my husband we could not deliver a meal to him. There were no taxis available, and the unlamented ex suggested that we phone the RUC. It seemed daft, but I did it and explained the circumstances. It was still in the bad old days when it took 3 squad cars and a helicopter to make sure that the turkey in Rostrevor wasn’t an ambush, but the officers duly collected the dinner, pudding and crackers. They then not only brought the meal to the retired priest, but sat with him while he ate and made sure he had some company for a brief while on a lonely Christmas day. I wanted to write a letter of thanks to the local paper and the Irish News following this, but that idea was firmly vetoed in the workplace. It was explained in no uncertain terms that ‘we’ just didn’t do that. We might use the services of the RUC when and where we had to, but we didn’t acknowledge it and there was a firm sense that we certainly wouldn’t offer praise for any of their actions.
Several years later, when I helped out in a local festival, the police came by the office one day. No-one seemed to mind that they were there, and I offered them a cup of tea. Once again, I had to be taken aside and it was explained to me that while it was now OK to acknowledge the police and co-operate with them to a limited extent, ‘we’ most certainly would not offer them a cup of tea. That was out of bounds, and completely unacceptable.
A couple of weeks ago, I did an interview with Linda MacAuley for Radio Ulster’s On Your Behalf. In the course of the interview, she mentioned that as well as the organisation I worked for there were other groups out there like the Army Benevolent Fund, among others. I panicked for a few moments but I thought it was possibly OK for me to get a mention in the same sentence as the Army. I checked it out with some friends, and we felt everything had moved on significantly and it was probably fine.
To me, this represents the slow but inexorable progress that had been made. A section of society that had rejected the representatives of law and order were now cooperating with them and there was a genuine sense that freedom of a very essential kind had returned to Northern Ireland. The freedom to choose your workplace, your friends, your neighbours and your hobbies. The idea of collective thought was fading from memory and the future really did seem bright. That had been the good news.
The reality is that we just don’t know what is going to happen to our sense of freedom and our sense of being able to choose. The actions of those who committed the murders last week not only extinguished the lives of three fine men, it also put into doubt the very core of normal existence here. Within the week, civilians who worked in areas of security were once again being asked to look over their shoulders and adopt precautions that had long lain forgotten.
That was probably the sense that struck me most at the rally during the week. The sense that going backwards isn’t an option, that the lives we have built for ourselves, our children and grand children cannot be returned to the men of violence. My only sense of hope lies in the fact that so many more of us are in this together now, and the minority is truly a minority. At the beginning of the week I thought of trying to draw parallels with the Irish Civil War, but those similarities don’t hold up. The overwhelming majority of people are content to share this land and find accommodation with those whose perspective on nationality is different. As Kate Carroll said, in the end it all really doesn’t matter. They can fight and kill and maim, but in the end we all end up in a 6 by 6 plot of ground.