In the damp of Irish weather you might not always recognise relatively warm weather outside of summer, but the autumn has been just that. In the garden, leaves and foliage have been very slow to die back and perennial plants to take on their winter garb (or lack of it). ‘Our’ lilac – actually in a neighbour’s garden – still has quite a few leaves on it and the new growth which came after it got chopped back in the summer looks perfectly green and healthy. Marigolds and rudbeckia are still flowering away. The gorse/furze/whins/aiteann outside the city looks like it is coming into nearly full bloom. A few decades ago you could have expected a hard frost before the end of October – I define a hard frost as probably something below -2° although in practice I see it as when all the nasturtiums turn to mush. Last winter there was no ‘hard frost’ at all. It’s global warming at work, and in the Irish context that can mean more rain and wind. And you may want to issue a religious or secular prayer that the Gulf Stream doesn’t stop or Newfoundland here we come…..
Reconciliation is an interesting word and concept, conciliation is too but what does it mean and especially in the context of the North? Rev Norman Hamilton, a former Presbyterian Church in Ireland moderator, recently accused the various governments and politicians of not having a clear definition https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/politics/ex-presbyterian-moderator-asks-london-dublin-washington-and-ni-politicial-parties-for-their-definition-of-reconciliation-3906790
There are technical definitions of reconciliation in relation to accounting and legislative processes but relevant definitions in this context include “The act of reconciling parties at variance; renewal of friendship after disagreement or enmity” and “the process of two people or groups in a conflict agreeing to make amends or come to a truce” – obviously in the context of the North, however, we are talking about group processes, so “the process of making two people or groups of people friendly again after they have argued seriously or fought and kept apart from each other, or a situation in which this happens” is a bit more apposite (as opposed to opposite). We probably all need to work on our own definitions of reconciliation, and indeed our understanding of forgiveness (another difficult one to be clear about).
I am reminded of the old cartoon about a character expressing thanks for advice they were given about dealing with interpersonal conflict rather than letting it fester. Asked how they resolved the matter they stated, “I killed the bastard”. No, not funny except just possibly in a fictional circumstance of someone doing the unexpected. And doing something positive and unexpected is an excellent way to promote reconciliation. A positive gesture or undertaking can be a great way to assist travelling to reconciliation. Actually listening to each other in the North, as opposed to talking at each other, could be such a gesture.
The U?S of A
There are bodies which proclaim themselves unreformed and unreformable. However realities change over time even if systems do not and the US political system seems singularly inappropriate for the 21st century, likewise the idea that you need a billion dollars, or thereabouts, to even enter the presidential race, and before that there is a long race to enter the bigger long race.
I have been following events there with some interest especially in the Trump era and afterwards, including Republican moves to get into key election posts where they can call the shots (sic). I know US democracy, such as it is, is teetering on the brink. But I was astounded to read an article in the Guardian where all three writers took quite pessimistic views on the topic of how close the USA is to civil war https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/nov/06/how-close-is-the-us-to-civil-war-barbara-f-walter-stephen-march-christopher-parker?CMP=share_btn_link
Of course definitions of ‘civil war’ do not need to move to images of Gettysburg, it can be assassinations, turmoil of various kinds, political violence. The ‘U’SA is certainly already very divided and did have what amounted to some sort of coup attempt within the last couple of years in the Capitol invasion of 6th January 2021. Where the legitimacy of the decision making process in the political system is already hotly contested then there are certainly Big Problems.
Will mob rule trump or can the USA move to a more democratic system? I am not sure of the answer to that one. There are strong labor, civil rights, peace and other movements within the US which are often not recognised. But whether they and those on the left and centre of the political class can avoid meltdown is an unfortunate question to have to ask.
The extent to which the USA is being overtaken as an economic superpower is also relevant. People may go with the ‘bigger pie’ argument of economic development, unsustainable as that is, and many people have gone with Trumpism, it would seem, because of hits they have taken economically. However the Donald is not as much flavour of the decade in US Republican circles since the US mid-term elections didn’t show he was delivering the goods (in terms of people he was backing doing well) but it would be a brave person to write off Trump. To mix metaphors, you can’t keep a rotten apple down.
There are many questions about the economic development model in the Republic and its reliance on multinationals but there is no denying that It Has Worked to a considerable extent in helping to bring wealth. And why did it work? Relatively low taxation, a largely English speaking environment, membership of the EU, and an educated population attracted the, mainly US, multinationals. And where did the population get educated? Partly from (what were) the regional technical colleges, now technological universities, established from the start of the 1970s, but also because of an emphasis on education within many families.
However the relative lack of investment in education in the Republic is a danger for the future, as quality may decline in some instances. But in the North under the current British government regime, and no Stormont, there are going to be actual cuts as opposed to inflation eating away at educational spending power. This is so short sighted as to be dangerously myopic.
A recent survey by the ESRI https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-63779243 showed economic productivity in the Republic to be 40% higher per head than in the North – there are some uncertainties about the role of multinational profits in this but the study tried to take this into account. “An additional economic modelling exercise undertaken by the authors suggests that almost all of the productivity gap can be explained by lower levels of investment and skilled workers in Northern Ireland. Low investment and relatively low levels of skills are chronic problems in the Northern Ireland economy, although there has been some improvement in skills in recent years. The authors suggest that if firms in Ireland were faced with the same labour market as exists in Northern Ireland productivity levels would fall by an average of 30% and as much as 60% in some sectors.”
Cutting spending on education, at any level, is simply crazy. Skilled workers have to be paid for and their skills built up from the first day of kindergarten and primary school, not in a rat-race way but in terms of allowing the potential of the child or young adult to develop. For the North to have to cut back on education at any level, and in the economic context most directly post-secondary education, is totally crazy. But that is where things are at, and it is sadistic as well as sad for those whose life chances will be stymied by such cuts.
Celebrations of gunmen who have killed others in the Troubles are common in Northern Ireland, in numerous different formats including especially murals and ‘wayside shrines’. However the writing is certainly not on the wall for violent murals like the new UVF one on the Shankill Road, Belfast which celebrates two arms-toting men and a red poppy wreath (on the latter my comment is ‘no comment’). Naturally the daughter of someone murdered by one of the gunmen is distraught; having the killer of your father openly celebrated must be painful beyond the imagination.
However the law, as interpreted, says this mural is legal. It is certainly not a moral mural but it is judged legal by the police who have said that while it is abhorrent it does “not constitute the offence of Encouragement of Terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2006, or other offences.“ If that is the case then the law is a wal-ly and needs to change. How paramilitarism is remembered and celebrated in the North is deeply problematic and paramilitary memorialisation is a key way in which territories are defined and marked, something which has to be overcome if divisions and hatreds are ever to be transcended.
Maybe in time in Northern Ireland we can come to celebrate togetherness in a vibrant and meaningful way which overcomes and leaves far behind the divisions which exist but marks our common humanity. Last time I looked, Catholics and Protestants in the North, or however you describe those two cultural-political grupings, were both human beings and members of homo not-too-sapiens.
Leprechauns and leps forward
It would be remiss of me, given the news item about The Steel Shutter film and 50th anniversary conference in the news section of this issue, not to mention a little saying by one of the participants involved in the original event. Belfast community worker Sean Cooney, who was in the 1972 encounter group, used to talk approvingly, in the community context, about “the leprechauns – the people close to the ground”! My only surprise in mentioning this is that he is the only person I have heard using this expression or joke.
Well, the year is drawing towards a close, not a year to look back on with any fondness in relation to building peace and progress at home or abroad. In fact with the ecological crisis closing in on us there is a more than a sense of trepidation. But I wish you a peaceful and pleasant Christmas/New Year and, well, a peaceful world in 2023…..and if I wish you a Preposterous New Year then what I wish for is some people stepping outside of their constraints to do the radically positive actions which are needed to transform the dire circumstances we face. Imagination and not procrastination is what is needed in many areas of life and the world. I hope you have a great break over Christmas and New Year, and c u in 2023…. Billy