I found this week’s 20 year commemoration of the Agreement quite surreal. Maybe it was because I was sick at home in my pyjamas and missed out on the bling of the big events. No basking in the glow of disgraced elderly politicians for me…
Instead, I was more struck by how sad and stuck everything feels right now. It feels like we voted for peace, but all we got was this lousy culture war. By culture war, in this context, I mean this current mud fight between green and orange, ussuns and themmuns, my morality vs your morality, my symbols vs your symbols… Ad infinitum.
How exactly, I wondered, do you commemorate a peace accord on life support?
But then I realised… We’re not all actually engaged in this culture war. Only some of us are. Other stories are available. If largely unreported. I’ll return to this.
The structural reasons for our culture war are well known. Green and orange were built into the architecture of the 1998 Agreement. Designating as unionist or nationalist was incentivised by dishing out jobs and having cross-community votes and vetoes on that basis. Cultural goodies were handed out to each side, scrupulously ignoring the nothings, the neithers and the in-betweens. The green became brighter and the orange became deeper as each side shuffled towards the outer ends of the seesaw to keep the other in balance. The binary became frozen in time.
But there was probably no other way to get the ball rolling. The two-community model was probably a necessary medicine.
And violence has plummeted. A vote for the DUP or Sinn Féin does not now mean what it once did. It’s not necessarily an endorsement of the past, or even the policies of the present. Some of them even still like each other. Just like we do. Surveys consistently show that regardless of our politics, we still want to mix more, and get to know each other better.
However, here we sit, many draped defensively in our flags, middle fingers up in the polling booths. Some awkwardly voting for parties they never thought they could. Whilst others shake their heads in bewilderment, seeing no way out. Some days it feels like our stereotypes of one another are worse than they have ever been.
What the hell happened?
Or maybe a better question is – what the hell didn’t happen?
For a start, we “forgot” to integrate all the things, as promised in the Agreement. After 20 years of peace, just 7% of schools are integrated. Which is ridiculously low. There must have been some serious resistance to this on the ground.
Similarly, only a tiny handful of shared housing estates have been established. Timidly promoted, and barely protected from paramilitary threats. In contrast, 91% of housing estates in Belfast are classed as single identity. But again, that’s probably because there was no real appetite for mixing?
Nope. 77% of us would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood.
Isn’t it just as well our political leaders knew we were fibbing in surveys and didn’t want to mix after all. I dread to think what might have happened if they’d made a different call.
Or maybe our leaders just lost their courage? Or maybe the big parties simply realised that keeping people apart was a much cleverer politics. Dwindling resources could be hoarded into two big piles for two big ‘communities’. Some might say that this benefited certain people enormously.
Another thing that didn’t happen, is we didn’t deal with the past.
At some point we seem to have settled for our politicians being able to make eye contact in the same TV studio. We threw up shiny buildings, and thought we could maybe shop our way to normality, whilst ignoring the effects of the cuts in the areas most affected by violence.
And in our desire for normal life, we brushed the pain of the conflict under the carpet. We said we’d look after victims. But we didn’t. We thought we might look at narratives of the past, to explore finding empathy with people whose views exploded our brains. But we didn’t. Not you, community workers, you did. But our politicians didn’t. While Westminster whistled and looked the other way. Some might say that this benefited certain people enormously.
Do you remember the late 90s and early 00s though, when we gave it a try? That febrile moment at the start, when we tried to imaginatively get inside the shoes of people born on the other side of the wall, whose experiences differed radically from our own. Do you remember the painful honesty of BBC’s Facing the Truth in 2006? I’ll never forget sitting on my living room carpet, right up close to the TV, mouth gaping open as Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought victims together with their perpetrators, to hear each other’s stories. Can you imagine that now on mainstream TV? I can’t.
We were getting somewhere.
But it was sore. Very sore.
Too many political consequences.
So we just stopped talking about it.
And then we began to fill the silence, and the terminal neglect of our political health, with superstitions and stereotypes and yelling on twitter.
And because we don’t have mechanisms to talk about the past, many of us reverted to familiar stories, handed-down truths, the ones we know are true because we experienced it ourselves. But we’re not hearing from the other side of the wall. From people whose experiences are radically different. Opposite things that they know are true because they experienced it themselves. Both stories are real and true to the people telling them. But without process or catharsis, they are, at this current political moment, irreconcilable.
But, as previously stated, other stories are available.
Paddy Kielty told a different story last week in his incredible documentary ‘My Dad, the Peace Deal, and Me’. His dad was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 1988. But there wasn’t a whiff of culture war in that film. Instead Paddy instigated difficult conversations. Everyone’s pain was laid bare. Narratives clashed and were challenged. But people looked each other in the eyes as human beings and tried to push through their pain to get to somewhere deeper.
I hadn’t heard anything like this in a long time.
My friend Gail McConnell told a different story this week too. Gail watched as her prison governor dad was shot dead by the IRA when she was three. She talked about it in a Belfast Telegraph interview last week. And then she read her staggering poem ‘Type Face’ on Thursday night, at an Agreement-related arts event Just For One Day. You must read it in full, if you dare. Here’s a fragment, pulled unforgivably out of context –
Who did what to whom and why’s not for us to ask.
Act normal. Act as though the forty death masks
spelling HOPE at Short Strand/Albertbridge
are incidental. History’s tectonic drift, a moving ridge.
The word I’ve tried hard not to use is murdered
(it puts people on edge and sounds absurd
in my own mouth). Verbs downplaying agency
are best – died, was killed and, most recently,
lost. All those Lost Lives. To lose one’s a misfortune,
two looks like carelessness. It may be a distortion
of Wildean proportions to say I lost my father
cos we’re all, you know, like part to blame and too far
into the future now, post-’98, to turn (again),
to see, in this decade of centenaries (dot com)
the terrible state of chassis still unmourned.
‘The whelming flood’. I was forewarned.
How is it that our political parties refuse to deal with each other, but that Paddy and Gail and Alan Black are the ones making us stop in our tracks? Forcing us to engage as human beings instead of peddling cultural certainties.
We need to pull our weight a little more. To push back against this lousy culture war. To realise if it’s politically constructed, it can therefore be politically de-constructed. To realise that if we want to hear different stories, we’re going to have to tell them ourselves. Loudly. Often.
But it’s not all on us…
The best thing the Agreement gave us, was permission to overlap. We agreed that we would try to live well together in a contested space. That Irishness and Britishness would be of equal value. We could even be both if we wanted. We agreed that all constitutional preferences were legitimate, and either constitutional outcome is possible. We agreed that the Irish language should be supported and represented. And that this should be in the context of respect for all cultural traditions, including Britishness and Ulster-Scots. All of these remain the right call.
But between refusing to integrate any of the things, making no institutional space for neithers, failing to look after victims or to have any catharsis, not following through on the Agreement’s promises, abusing community vetoes, it’s all gone quite wrong. It’s turned into a nasty fight. With many unionists fighting a psychological battle against Irish culture as a proxy for Sinn Féin and their own past pain. When I’m not so sure it’s really about Irishness at all. And many nationalists despairing that unionists will ever be able to grasp their perspective, because the DUP have so rarely had ears to hear the pain of nationalists or republicans, and seem in no hurry to enact the equality that was voted for.
As a result we’d vote for polarisation again tomorrow. Understandable. But the real mistake we’re making is to think that the most insensitive versions of the DUP and Sinn Féin are representative of all the people in those parties, never mind the people who vote for them. When they’re really not. They’re just ordinary people backed into the same shitty corner as you.
All that said, I’m actually not depressed about the future of this place. Not about us, the people. As far as I can see we’re lashing on with life. Most of us are getting on with each other pretty well. We’re making lemonade. There is no will to go back to violence. Most of us were biting back tears during that Madonna song in Derry Girls – remembering, galvanised, resolute. When a new dissident republican group launched this week, rather than freaking out, we collapsed in laughter at their choice of lilac gloves.
So this is not really a note to you, long-suffering people of the north. It’s a message for the top table. Integrate the things. Let the neithers in. Tell the truth. Have ears to hear different truths. Stop broadcasting division on a feedback loop. Stop stirring shit for votes. Rediscover your spines. We’re waiting.