The future of Northern Ireland is impossible to predict. After decades of war and economic hardship, are we any closer to the creation of a meaningful future for the next generation? Crippling ignorance has been visible on our screens for too long, the same old story. Over and over again. What hope can there be for the next generation if such reckless hate continues to endure. There have been occasions since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement when it seemed that a shared future was possible, maybe even probable. However, the last eighteen months have shown how far away we are from northern society becoming entirely functional in a progressive sense. Tragically, for those who have lived through it all is the fact that there are so few from outside the North who actually care about what happens there. With each passing year that list continues to shorten. Histories problems are becoming even less relevant in a century which has so many new ones. The Unionist and Republican communities of the North have forever been left down by those who have their allegiance. To the current Westminster government Northern Ireland is little more than a nuisance. There is no kinship between Tory MP’s and Ulster Unionists and their policies and words display that ill-feeling with absolute clarity. On the other side of the fence Dublin has never done near enough to advance the cause of Irish unity. Government after Government have passed the buck without ever achieving something tangible for those living north of the border. So where does that leave the people of the North? It leaves them in a great chasm between two immovable rocks.
The only way out of that chasm is through progressive thinking, compromise and economic prosperity. It would be pointless to rehash the details of what happened during the Troubles in this article. It has been done a thousand times and everybody knows about the atrocities that occurred on all sides. The past has happened, and we will share the pain of it for an eternity, but we need to put it to rest and now share the future. There will forever be differences in beliefs and traditions but show me a country anywhere in the world that doesn’t face those same challenges. History is full of mistakes and hindsight is always 20/20 but that won’t solve our current problems.
In the creation of the Irish Free State, we allowed the partition of the country to take place. That was a democratic decision taken by the people of Ireland and its ramifications are now visible for all to see. It has been a hundred years since partition and reunifying the country will require the support of all communities on the island. There are many people living in the North who are British, that fact will never change. That is their right. Likewise, there are many who are Irish, just like people from Cork and Kerry. That is their right. To build a shared future for both people, we need to compromise and create a space where both can live in peace and harmony with the freedom to express themselves in a positive manner. A positive manner being the key phrase in that sentence. As long as communities continue to dredge up the past in such provocative public displays, it will remain difficult for a sense of togetherness to develop. This change has to come from within, only the communities themselves can make those changes.
How can that process be accelerated? Economic prosperity and improved educational opportunities will breathe tolerance amongst communities. When people have the means to support their families in a dignified way, and the knowledge to share with their children, change will happen. The areas of Belfast where national identity is the most important facet of people’s lives are amongst some of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in Europe. When a person has nothing meaningful to fill their lives they can become entrenched in a negative thought process. Blaming the other side for the situation they find themselves in becomes common. Poverty is a dangerous weapon in a contested society. The only way to change people’s thoughts and actions are through providing them with the tools to enrich their lives. Those tools are education and jobs. If opportunities for both were stronger within these communities, then there is a chance of building forward and creating a positive future for the next generation. Whether Catholic or Protestant, all children will be equally crippled by ignorance if they are not guided onto a new path.
What will Northern Ireland look like ten years from now? Will it be a progressive society with a shared vision, or will it still be stumbling around in the dark squabbling about the past. With the realities of Brexit setting in anything is now possible. The population of the North is diversifying with many people now refusing to identify by the old rules. It is within this community where leaders could emerge to change the course of the next fifty years. A leader is someone who can show empathy to those who oppose and inspire those who follow. Progressive leadership is required on all sides to move the society forward into the 21st century. Whether that will include a united Ireland or not remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, we’re not there yet. We need to focus on expanding the definition of us and shrinking the definition of them…