The obvious title for this piece was “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, but this needs something beyond cliché. Last Saturday, I watched a meeting taking place that has changed a nation’s history and future. And this time, it’s not a war, a disaster, a killing; it’s actually the opposite. These days, it is increasingly difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, because everywhere you look it seems that things are becoming darker, more bleak and threatening. I know I’ve written too many articles in this newspaper that reflect that point of view.
But now, after my lifetime of hoping and wondering and fearing for the worst, I’ve seen traditional enemies, bitter, bitter, enemies, finally join together to make things better. In a large and impressive building called Stormont, just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland, the representatives of the people, elected two years ago, formed a government. That may seem like a normal and common occurance, and it might be anywhere else. But this is the North, as we always called it, a place that was established a hundred years ago to guarantee that one side of the community would always have the upper hand over the other. The very building itself was a symbol of oppression, with in-built systemic discrimination and violence.
I grew up as a young man and adult watching news reports of bombs, murder and mayhem. I spent time in Belfast in the 1970’s and saw firsthand the effects of car bombs, having armed soldiers using me as a shield at night for fear of an ambush. I remember the hatred and truly evil words and deeds of people who saw others as existential threats. In thirty years, more than 3,000 people died violent deaths by bullet, bomb and starvation.
It was always portrayed as Catholic versus Protestant, but that was misleading. No-one was fighting over dogma, doctrine was not the issue: politics and identity was. Of all the sectors of the community, the two really bitter and violent were the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The British Army was not far behind in maintaining the fear and the death rate. Then, The Good Friday Agreement changed things, and elections began to take the place of gunfire, slowly at first, and not without considerable soul-searching.
Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, entered the political arena, and the most extreme Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, campaigned against… well everything: the Agreement, later Brexit, and any cooperation with Sinn Féin. To make matters more worrying, those two parties gradually became the biggest on either side. It is hard to describe the incredible potential, for good and bad, that existed in Northern Ireland since 1998.
But last Saturday, Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, was sworn in as First Minister in the Stormont Assembly, and Emma Little‑Pengelly, a Democratic Unionist, was nominated deputy First Minister, a post with equal power but less prestige. Michelle O’Neill is the first Nationalist to be First Minister in the history of Northern Ireland, a Republican with the aim of seeing a United Ireland. Emma Little‑Pengelly is a Unionist taking second place, with the aim of maintaining the united Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This is astonishing, historic, symbolic, impossible to grasp for anyone who has known the Troubles and the history of Ireland. It is not the end of the story, and no guarantee that things will only get better from now on. But these two women now symbolise hope, and not just for their own country. In a world where division and conflict, hatred and violence sometimes seem overwhelming, irresistible, there is an example of deeply rooted historic grievances being faced in a democratic assembly. Listening to the speeches made by these two women, the hope for a positive future grows. Honestly, if it can happen in Northern Ireland, it really can happen anywhere. It is worth dreaming, and working hard and long to make the dream come true. Maith sibh, agus go raibh maith agat don bheirt bhan.