In mid-September 2019 Northern Ireland will reach a significant milestone in its history. It’s one that seems highly unlikely to attract any of the attention of our decade of centenaries, the 100th anniversaries of the Home Rule crisis and Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising, the Somme, and the establishment of the state itself.
The dates, I’m going to argue, could admittedly be debated but I’m talking about the tipping point when our post-Troubles period becomes longer than the Troubles itself; our local equivalent of 6 February 2018 when the Berlin Wall had been down longer than it was up.
In setting out these dates I’m taking as my starting point 14th and 15th August 1969 when British troops were deployed on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry, and a number of people were killed as major clashes occurred in North and West Belfast. For my end point I’m taking 31 August 1994 when the IRA announced a complete cessation of its military campaign.
I’ll readily admit there’s a level of subjectivity to these bookends. The events in mid-August 1969 weren’t a civic jack-in-the-box that popped up from nowhere and nor did violence disappear from our society at the end of August 1994. Many innocent people have suffered cruelly since then, not least the victims of the Omagh bomb and their families in August 1998. The precise date of my suggested line in the sand can be debated, but not, I believe, the core issues it raises.
So, if these events are further in the past than the days the Troubles actually occurred, how have we failed so materially to move on? Why do these shadows still fall so bleakly over our civic life and communities? Why does Northern Ireland remain so depressingly gummed up in mistrust, tribalism and ”whataboutery”?
Most of us haven’t yet worked out what good truth telling and reconciliation looks like, and we remain grievously damaged by competing narratives and the lack of any shared version of our history to gather round. Then there are all the events that have punctured trust along the way, from the parades disputes of the late nineties to two years and counting of a collapsed Stormont in the late noughties, with Brexit, RHI, an Irish language act, abortion and same-sex marriage all contributing to entrenchment. The centre ground is hollowed out and the extremes don’t even look close to wanting to do a deal.
After 20 years and counting of violence, things couldn’t go on as they were. The early 1990s had a momentum about it, an energy of ‘enough is enough’, an echoing of the ancient Hebrew cry of ‘How long, Lord?’ Our society was drained by violence, tens of thousands of families scarred, hundreds of thousands worn out and fearful. Some in the church stepped up and played their part, with bold clerics rolling up their sleeves and having hard conversations with men of violence, and initiatives such as ECONI articulating the theological imperative for reconciliation and forgiveness.
And now, after 25 years of non-violence, are we not at a place again where there should be a groundswell of frustration demanding that we can’t go on as we are? Many of us who are middle class are better off financially but we need to look around and see that the post-Troubles financial dividends have not been equally shared, with too many feeling left behind.
It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that prosperity has left too many of us with little banked but complacency, given our willingness to take for granted a level of division that ought to be intolerable.
And anyhow, are the Cathedral Quarter and Titanic Quarter and Victoria Square the best we can be and what we all longed for? Did we pine for a choice of Belfast eateries and new cars and mobile phones on three-year leases or did we not want something more?
When we talk about legacy issues in Northern Ireland we automatically see that in terms of 1969 to 1994, and enormous academic and spiritual thinking has been brought to bear on that era. But when mid-September 2019 rolls round there’ll be a longer post-Troubles era than there was a Troubles-era. And so, in order to move forward, do we need to lay aspects of those 25 years aside now, and see a new generation of peacemakers and emerge to wrestle with what has left us so wrung out, with hope and light fighting a losing battle against cynicism and darkness?
1994 to 2019 has its own legacy too, so where’s the church and where is the new theology for these times we live in going to come from? When the bombs and bullets have gone, what understanding will we seek from God for how we got to drift and deadlock, how we deal not with men in balaclavas with weapons but rather with the sapping dogmatism of a politician behind a microphone saying all the same old things, with blank faced nodding dogs from their party gathered around them.
Where’s the groundswell where good people rise up and say ‘How long, Lord?’
Colin Neill is a Board Member of Contemporary Christianity