Not that anyone need have noticed, but I’ve been away for a while in Italy and in rural France where on the day after the horror, fellow oldies like me checked out their adult kids in Paris before turning back to Sunday lunch and the weighty tax burden as the favourite topic of choice. With only just a touch of embarrassment, this version of normality has been elevated to the status of brave and almost heroic response to the terrorist threat. Remind you of somewhere? Perhaps Professor Liam Kennedy would disagree. Or perhaps not.
Professor Liam Kennedy from the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast said there is a “degree of acceptance to dehumanisation over half a century” at the Paramilitary Intimidation Within Communities event held in conjunction with the Children of the Troubles group.
Prof Kennedy called on politician, police and wider society to do more.
He said the 6,000 recorded instances of paramilitary “punishments”, including shootings and beatings, from 1973-2013 is an underestimate and spoke of the ongoing “astonishing toll of human suffering, directed particularly at young, working class males, from loyalist and republican areas”.
“Inevitably there is a degree of dehumanisation and acceptance of horrific forms of punishment which in the 1960s would have been regarded as absolutely beyond the pale but now have become accepted in some areas…In effect forms of torture and on a vast scale,” he said.
What we ought to have learned over thirty years is that for most people, the shock or guilty thrill of a response to a new level of horror subsides as quickly as orgasm. But in quite a few it feeds an appetite for more which can persist long after the cause that inspired it has faded.
So more or less normal life goes on in Northern Ireland. Would outsiders who can be bothered to look in on us regard it as normal? Looking at Fresh Start from the continent, I was struck by two things. One was the rosy responses of FM and DFM.
The departing Peter Robinson has said “Northern Ireland is a place transformed” in his final leader’s speech to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) annual conference.
He told his party devolution had brought “peace and prosperity” and added that he looked back “with pride at all that we together have achieved”.
He said after three years of problems at Stormont, the latest ‘Fresh Start’ deal means “politics can work again”.
And the ever continuing Martin McGuinness.
I have worked closely with Peter Robinson in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister since June 2008.
“During that time we have had a close and professional working relationship and, despite media perception it has always been courteous and amicable.
“We have faced many challenges together and over the last number of months have worked very closely together to bring about the Stormont House ‘A Fresh Start’ deal.
So what was all the fuss about then? It may be that we’ve become as desensitised to political failure as to violence. Not a good thing.
The other noticeable factor was that failure to agree an approach on the Past was treated with equanimity. Martin said it had been “parked”, Peter, that it wasn’t my fault, guv, read the transcripts of the talks. (where are they, by the way?)
Here is an admission at last that the principle that the future depends on sorting the past has been abandoned. This just might be a good thing. It lifts a burden from both and raises hopes that past, present and future may be addressed with less drag and greater realism.
If you’re looking for a mission for the future, pause and consider a Report that although very focused on England, amazingly, took in Belfast.
The report also points to “negative practical consequences of selection by religion” in faith schools. One-third of schools in England are publicly funded faith schools, the vast majority of which are Christian. In Northern Ireland, more than 90% of children attend schools that are either Protestant or Catholic.
“It is in our view not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not been socially divisive, leading to greater misunderstanding and tension,” the report says. “Selection by religion segregates children not only according to different religious heritage but also, frequently and in effect, by ethnicity and socio-economic background. This undermines equality of opportunity and incentivises parents to be insincere about their religious affiliation and practice.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London