We must stop blaming ourselves for all the negative things that have happened in the past…

Cllr Brian Pope is Party Group Leader of the Alliance party on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

No fishing. Do not slam the gate. No visiting vessels beyond this point!

Sometimes it feels like we are being blamed for something we haven’t done or for something we have yet to do wrong.

This was my experience on a recent family trip to the North Coast. Don’t get me wrong; we had a wonderful time and the scenery was spectacular, but the signage made me feel guilty because it was so negative.

So, what has this got to do with Northern Ireland? And what relevance does it have to our lives right now?

I would argue that so much has happened in our recent history that it is nearly impossible to disassociate ourselves from some feelings of guilt, regardless whether these feelings are based on any fact or just imagined.

There is rarely any attempt to try and unburden ourselves from these feelings of guilt which may relate to a section of the community we belong, the part of a town or city we live or, more generally, what has happened over the years in the north of this island.

This is not to say there shouldn’t be truth and justice for our recent past. There is a pressing need for this and for more understanding and listening to more voices and views. But we also need to forgive ourselves and forgive others for the non-specific guilt or blame that many of us have simply for being born in or for living in this place.

In our society there are also feelings of deep-seated discontent, mistrust and unfairness. And these are often exacerbated by the belief that whole sections of our community have been unfairly condemned, blamed or side-lined at various times throughout our history.

This complicated mix of emotions has not been helped by generalisations portrayed in public debate or where difficult issues have been distilled into easily digestible sound bites for our news channels or outlets. A good example of this was how the opposing sides of the Brexit argument were depicted.

Is it any wonder that we either feel aggrieved at being blamed through some sort of undefined association, or feel guilty because there is a perception about where we come from, or our community, culture or religion?

Everyone wants to belong to something – there is an inherent desire to belong to something greater than ourselves – whether this is a sporting club, a local community, a church or a nationality.

A greater effort is therefore required to dispel the myths and stereotypes that focus on our personal beliefs or allegiances. We are all so much more than how someone else might choose to define us.

Our potential for achievement and attainment should never be diminished by negative views of others. There is so much talent and skills in our society, some of which needs just a little encouragement to flourish and succeed.

Neither should we feel guilty about the negative news headlines that have often emanated around the world. We may have an urge to feel connected to these stories, but we need to disassociate ourselves from the more negative elements as we are often powerless to provide a more balanced point of view.

Please remember that many of these difficult issues have manifested themselves over many generations and it will take time and a huge amount of effort to overcome them completely.

Finally, in this centenary year we should not blame ourselves for everything that has happened in Northern Ireland. Whether we disagree with its very existence, cherish its place in the union, or accept it as it is without necessarily accepting responsibility for every single action taken in its name, we need to remove some of our emotional burden.

Put simply, we must stop blaming ourselves for all the negative things that have happened in the past, most of which had nothing directly to do with us.