Can Northern Ireland Change?

‘You have to have hope,’ my friend always tells me.

Usually this is after I’ve been outlining the likely facts of my children’s future, on account of our great leaders trashing the planet and laughing all the way to the bank.

‘You can’t live like that though, you have to have hope,’ she says.

I like Frankie Boyle‘s take on hope. If you see a leopard, hope is not a good evolutionary strategy.

There’s no point in saying, ‘Is that a leopard over there? Maybe it’s not a leopard. Let’s all just really hope that it isn’t, eh? Those people were eaten by leopards.’

Instead, you yell, ‘Leopard!’ And run for your life.

Hope is not a feeling, it is an action.

And so it follows that hope is a choice.

These are the four words used by William Crawley to finish Talkback on 24th April 2019, the day that Lyra McKee was buried. The programme focused on whether Lyra’s murder would be a turning point in this chapter of our story, or if Northern Ireland is unable to change.

Brian Feeney and Alex Kane started off. Based on their experiences living through and reporting the Troubles, they felt that they’d seen it all before. Nothing would change. A view which is not to be dismissed lightly.

I thought of Alex Kane’s beautiful baby, whose photos he often posts on twitter, which always unite the mob in a moment of joy. And my heart felt sore.

Then a vanguard of women entered the fray. Fionola Meredith more or less agreed with the men. Bronagh Hinds, Goretti Horgan and Clare Rice disagreed. They reminded us how much Northern Ireland has already changed. Often catalysed by people who find themselves at the margins. Tina Calder and Susan McKay spoke about Lyra’s life, about how she was the embodiment of freedom in a new Northern Ireland. You can’t say it’s impossible, they held, because she – and we – exist. Existed. Exist. (The past tense still hasn’t sunk in – does it ever?).

Everyone agreed that we have huge potential in Northern Ireland. But, as Alex pointed out, it will only be realised if we do something different. And keep doing it, over and over. Hope has to be deliberately chosen.

A few weeks ago, I went for a drink with an old unionist friend. She had seen the Future Ireland series on here, and wanted to tell me why Irish unity would not work. I disagreed, hopefully amicably. She described how working with republicans makes her feel. I listened. I told her about my B Special relatives, who told stories of their violence in the other direction, and asked her how working with some unionists might make nationalists and republicans feel. And so we ploughed these sad little ruts. Getting stuck in the past and on the present.

But every time we got stuck we circled back to our children. Our kids cannot grow up with the same shit as we did, we agreed a hundred thousand times over.

Because this is the perspective that unlocks everything. That softens point and counter-point. That makes our hard politics yield.

It’s something that we heard throughout this week of mourning. Members of an older Troubles generation reflecting on how they did not want to pass this toxic politics on to future humans. Members of the younger generation reacting in horror to Lyra’s murder. This was never supposed to happen to the ceasefire babies.

So should we have hope? Can anything change?

Well, yes, we should, and of course it can.

But only if we look the leopard straight in the eye. And choose to go in the other direction.

Keep certain things to the front of our minds. Politicians, people, whoever cares about this place.

Appreciate the searing truth of the cliché – there is more than unites us than divides us. Take a deep breath and give thanks for Lyra’s brave friends, who showed us how to stand up to the hard-men with grit and heart. Give thanks for Ian Ogle’s family and community, who are showing us the same thing. For the people who have been dissenting from norms for all of these years. Whose furrows we walk in. The shoulders of giants and giantesses. Try to be brave.

Listen to the children of the ceasefire. Note their flexibility on the constitutional question. Read their words. They’re asking will they have homes, will there be jobs, what of the planet, our mental health? This generation will change politics anyway. Why make the rest of us wait?

Please go and vote, and think about your own children, your nieces and nephews, your neighbours and your friends’ kids, while you’re making your choice. I don’t care if you vote for the big parties or small. There are good people in most. Some more than others. Vote in a way that you can look these kids in the eye – whether they are Irish or British or both or gay or straight or brown or white – and know that you have voted for someone with a vision of a better future than this.

Do not spend precious time on this earth othering people. Remove unconscious phrases such as: all nationalists, all unionists, Shinnerbots, neanderthals, all Muslims, all Christians, they do this, they’re always like that. There is no ‘they’; no ‘all the same’. There are only complex humans. We need to erase these from our discourse in real life, and particularly online, and start treating people like we mean it.

Wake up. For God’s sake wake up. To the economic devastation all around us, even if you feel personally comfortable. Wake up to the fact that half of Belfast will be under the sea in our lifetime, and what will we do? That Derry is sinking now, just not under water. Realise that unless we’re trying to get a head start on the future, even on our puny shaky legs, there is indeed no hope.

Give way. Yield. Soften. Not on equality or human dignity. People are not bargaining chips. Grasp the nettle of the outstanding issues. Face the leopard. But surrender preconceptions of who is the enemy. There is no ‘enemy’. Only complex humans who have a different story than you.

I do not want us to just letsgetalong. I want our political leaders to dig down into their marrow and find more courage. To make painful changes to old patterns. Refuse to take no for an answer from anyone with a gun or a sash or any kind of extra-political hierarchy.

We are all tired. Our hearts are all heavy. I am 41. Lyra was 29. My daughter is 8. My friend’s next child is not yet born. There’s hard work to do.

We must not expect to wake up in a different world right away. These are daily lamentations and affirmations.

We do not need any wringing of hands. Hope is a future-facing series of actions. Hope is a choice. Please choose it.


Mural ‘Linenopolis’ in Tower Street, Belfast, by Nomad Clan. Photo © Rossographer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

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