Alex Kane, the former UU press officer who writes for just about everyone, shared the benefits of his research on both sides with Irish Times readers this morning, before McElduff’s resignation. His point about “blind spots” was simple and deadly.
It’s these blind spots which have made it so difficult to reach a stable, lasting understanding in Northern Ireland. We seem incapable of acknowledging, let alone accepting, that the “other side” may have a valid point of view or argument. We find it extraordinarily difficult to concede that “our side” may have inflicted great wrongs or great offence. The mote in our own eye is always a beauty spot compared to the monstrous, ugly beam in theirs.
First. From a session with unionists.
I can’t help it, when I hear Sinn Féin, or see Sinn Féin, or read a statement from Sinn Féin, all I hear, see and read is the IRA. I can’t separate the two. I’ll never be able to separate the two. So, when I listen to news about DUP/Sinn Féin negotiations, what I’m actually listening to is DUP/IRA and I want nothing to do with it.” Those were the words of someone who would be viewed as a “moderate” unionist; someone, moreover, who has no hang-ups at all about same-sex marriage, liberalising of abortion law and even recognising the cultural importance of the Irish language. When it comes to Sinn Féin he, like the vast majority of unionists, has a blind spot.
In another debate, with a mostly nationalist audience, the response to my view that they needed to understand unionism was a pretty similar one. They regarded unionists as insular, excluding and hostile: “You can’t reason with them. They’ve had almost 80 years and they’ve never done anything generous or welcoming. Everything nationalism has got has had to be forced out of them.”
A tiny example of mine was the corrosively dismissive reaction by a republican majority to my mildly encouraging post about Arlene Foster’s Killarney speech.
I haven’t followed today’s local media debate which no doubt obsessively anatomised the McElduff sacking. Sinn Fein still left a gap. If Michelle O’Neill believed the man’s conduct was “ indefensible “ why hasn’t she specifically rejected his qualified apology, when he insisted he intended no offence?
It was the surviving victim’s response wot done it, apparently.
Mr Black said the fall-out from the Twitter video forced him to re-live the trauma of the attack in which he was shot 18 times.
“I am going to have to take time now to heal,” he said.
“I only got involved because of the hurt and disrespect shown to my friends who died at Kingsmill but this whole thing has taken a heavy toll.”
It seems to have required a rush of mass emotion for Sinn Fein to act properly and sack McElduff. There will have been political calculation in it too. Media coverage first suggested that the wretched episode might have derailed whatever slim hopes remained for restoring the Assembly, as if a new excuse were needed. And then there’s the West Tyrone by election, the writ for which no nationalist can move because nationalists are not actively represented at Westminster for the first time in half a century. Sinn Fein will work hard to stop their vote share dropping ( see Nicholas Whyte below). I won’t be surprised if they succeed.
Two points strike me. The McElduff episode showed up the serious fragility of relationships with just a chink of decency showing. Or is this a distorted snapshot of a bad moment?
And secondly, while Alex Kane stated much that was obvious, he gets space for it because so few others take the trouble to say it.
Have we only managed to reach a permanently acceptable level of mutual loathing as a scene- set for a series of border polls which are in nobody’s current agenda but in everybody’s mind? Why am I still asking such questions after 50 years?
Living mostly in London I’m sure of one thing. Time had not improved how our squabbles are received elsewhere. The real horror and the pity are submerged beneath the low grade nonsense which we persist in dignifying as needing yet more time to dispel.
Worse, it doesn’t take delinquency as degenerate McElduff’s to blot out the sight of really serious subjects like the ongoing deadlock over the violent past, leaving Kingsmill itself or the Loughbrickland atrocity in limbo. These and literally thousands of other cases demand top level attention but are ignored and cynically kicked across to a chronically divided political body incapable of dealing with them.
Our poor affairs usually impinge on the news agenda when they relate to something recognisable like Brexit. It’s the dreary steeples once again, that can’t compete with something similar like the community tensions over Islamic culture and terrorism at home, the appalling handling of Catalonian separatism, an anniversary of the Bosnian war or gigantic phenomena like Shia versus Sunni. Dublin is better informed on the north and more involved in detail than London, no question, but not much. At home, in spite of more profound sentiments there is a strong element of melodrama among the political class that so many of them can’t shake off because they get their hits from it. In the face of their baleful attractions, the rehab regime of working for the common interest in a small shared space just isn’t cool. Nor can we comfort ourselves that the general public are any better, in spite of all those sunny public attitude surveys.
My final question is this. Are we a community whose very makeup prevents us from taking charge of our own destiny?
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