It’s been a powerful week in Northern Ireland. Nothing, I hasten to add, much to do with politicians. Two incidents that bookended a terrible week just before the close of what we now euphemistically call the Troubles were remembered with candour and open but controlled emotion.
The West Kirk in the Shankill assumed a centrality as the Shankill Road came to a standstill during a service to mark the 25th anniversary. People, including the former SDLP MP for West Belfast Joe Hendron and Cllr Mairia Cahill, came to express solidarity with the people of the Shankill.
The Irish News carried the sermon from Rev David Clawson who referenced one of the Psalms (116) to illustrate the importance (and even the mere possibility) moving forward without drawing the bitterness into the potentially liberating experience of survival.
Whatever you think of what spiritual belief, in purely secular terms Rev Clawson is pushing for an important switch in perspective. One line stands out from the Psalm (and is only heightened in the modern Catholic translation): “In my terror I said, ‘No human being can be relied on.’”
To stick with the religious line of thought a little longer this tunes in with a theme explored by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recently on Radio Four’s Thought for the Day…
In it, he references the controversial Robber’s Cave Experiment conducted by the social psychologist, Muzafer Sherif back in 1954. Sherif premise was that intergroup conflict (i.e. conflict between groups) occurs when two groups are in competition for limited resources.
The experiment had two distinct stages. First, competition was (artificially) increased by ensuring gains for one group only came at the expense of the other, following by a period in which they were confronted by a problem that affected all of them: ie, the cutting off of a common water supply.
Key to the success of the experiment was the fact that there was no mixing at the beginning. Both groups were strangers to each other so there was no possibility of cross-group bonding or trust growing before the intense competitive stage began.
But as they faced a common problem, according to a recent account by Gina Perry:
“Slowly, with the sun beating down and their water canteens emptying, the boundaries between the groups began to blur.” First, she says, they “took turns lifting and carrying the rocks away. But, realising there was a better and faster way of getting the job done, they soon formed a chain, passing the rocks down the line and working as a single team.”
In a recent paper on Brexit, Brigid Laffan notes that the situation in Northern Ireland has “morphed into a non‐violent conflict, an uneasy peace rather than deep reconciliation.” In the absence of an external crisis to unite us, we have crumpled into the invidious fatalism of our past.
The events of this week, where the sharing of grief on the Shankill was met by an equally powerful moment in Greysteel, where the children of the village tonight celebrate Halloween for the first time in 25 years, are exceptional Too much of our focus is still on what has divided us.
This month, as the faces of those innocent people lost to the mayhem peer up from our newspapers, as those they left behind speak once more of their crushing, ceaseless and timeless heartache, we must remember why it is so important to keep moving forward.
The Shankill bomb and Greysteel were horrors of such magnitude that they changed Northern Ireland, they shifted attitudes and made people fight more fiercely for peace than against each other.
We can’t let our differences today become a cavern that we cannot find our way out of. Our politicians must take courage from those who led us out of the dark days of 1993 and get back to talking and working on making things better.
Turns out that’s proven harder than anyone thought at the time of the ceasefires in 1994. Stopping the war was easier than starting the peace. The opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization, as someone once said. As Jonathan Sacks notes, that requires a fundamental shift in thinking:
Truth is we are enlarged by our differences. We need strong, inclusive national identity. We need to become a bigger us.
Yes, we have more than one national identity. Yet the means for reducing hatred are the same, whether you have one or two. The alternative is to go along with the false pretence that “the conflict is perpetual”, and promote the fearful and isolating notion that ‘no human being can be relied on.’.
We know only too well where that road leads…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty