Saturday, 19 June 2010

Visit the neighbours

    Making the news this week here in the UK was the Saville Enquiry, otherwise referred to as the Bloody Sunday Enquiry, publishing its report. In short as I understand it, the report concluded that a breakdown in discipline among a small number of British soldiers resulted in the shooting dead of thirteen innocent and unarmed civilians at a civil rights march in Londonderry on the 30th of January 1972. Uncomfortable reading for some, vindication after decades waiting for others. It was sadly the not the atrocity of the Troubles claiming the highest death toll but it was arguably one of those that did most to prolong them. I am reminded of an interview I once heard with Cardinal Cahal Daly, then Roman Catholic Primate of all Ireland, in which he insisted that to achieve peace all involved must put aside what he called "whataboutism", the tendency to respond to a mention of one atrocity with another greater atrocity from the other side. Wise words that made an impression on me. You haven't had to look far to find whataboutism this week in the more vocal sections of the press, thankfully David Cameron resisted the temptation.
    I mention the enquiry as background to what's on my mind. As I am sure you will agree it is a subject that still attracts intense controversy and it is a foolish blogger that wades in to such a quagmire.
    I've never been to Ireland. The North or the Republic. My wife was surprised by this when I met her, after all as close neighbours sharing political union in the North, a language and substantially similar culture you'd think a holiday on the other side of the Irish Sea would be somewhat of a no-brainer for a mainland Brit. That I haven't done so as an adult, and in particular the reasons behind it are I find a cause for slight guilt and even shame.
    Growing up in the UK of the 1970s meant that the terrorism of the Troubles was never far from the news. By terrorists I am not referring to the sense of the word as used by some politicians in the last decade meaning something closer to "people we don't agree with or who don't look like us" and usually accompanied by security theatre and assaults on civil liberties, instead I mean real terrorists as in the people who set widespread explosives with the aim of maximum civilian casualties for most of the first half of my life. In my part of the world all that meant was a blown-up railway bridge, a hidden arms cache discovered near a main road and a few small firebombs in High Street stores, but some of our larger cities saw significant casualties from terrorist attacks. The experience of travelling on the almost empty Tube in London with my parents as a terrified five-year-old during the 1976 IRA Tube bombings demonstrates perfectly the effect of such terror campaigns, despite near-nil chance of danger the fear of attack had caused an entire city to abandon its mass transit system. I've always loved the Tube, particularly the Victorian and Edwardian deep tubes, but I remember having nightmares about being caught in a tube train with a bomb afterwards. Scary stuff for a kid that age.
     So like most people of my generation growing up on the British Mainland I will never be able to completely remove the mental association of "Northern Ireland" with "Bombs and terrorists". My 1980s self would have been astounded to hear me say this, but I can only respect those key players in the Troubles from both sides who have laid down their arms and joined the political process. I'm afraid this is not universal among my compatriots, find a Daily Mail reader and the chances are you won't have to scratch very far to find some rather regrettable utterances on the subject. Another lasting scar from those days has been a lingering distrust of Americans in some quarters stemming from the fundraising activities of NORAID among the Irish diaspora in the USA during the Troubles. Depending on whose side you sat on they were either a front for IRA funding or a humanitarian organisation, nearly twenty years later their legacy muted the response to the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath from some sections of the UK population who don't fully appreciate the meaning of the phrase melting pot.
      It's against the backdrop I've just described that my wife's innocent question about travel caused me some guilt. She doesn't hail from these isles so she didn't grow up with all that. And since those events are now decades old and an entire generation has grown up knowing nothing about them, the realisation that they still unconsciously influenced me came as a bit of a shock.
      I think I owe her a holiday  on the other side of the Irish Sea some time, don't you?


  1. You know that the neighbours have been waiting for you to call?
    You'll discover that you're very welcome- Cead mile failte!

  2. A wonderful post, Jenny, and I say that in all seriousness.

    But, even callous Calie, from Cali...a blond who routinely eats bean sprouts and lives under the hideous rule of Arnold Schwarzenegger...has been to that wonderful isle of green and gentle souls. I did, btw, enjoy my Mexican food with a pint of Guinness. Great place in Dublin.

    Calie xxx

  3. Thanks both, it was one of those navelgazing posts that escapes from time to time.

    One of those things I've come to realise is this: nothing is self-evident and that everything should be questioned to examine whether it stands up to the evidence in the light of changing times.