“Internationalism is the highest form of patriotism,” Christopher Hitchens.
I never liked school. No girls and lots of priests. An abundance of rules, limitations and dreary grey uniforms. The focus was on conforming to Catholic doctrine, memorising poems and theorems, while revering the supreme deity of all - the rugby team. In my penultimate year before release we were offered the chance to participate in an exchange program with a Protestant school in Belfast called RBAI (Royal Belfast Academical Institution). It was 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement, the armistice that ended the ‘Troubles’ that had plagued Northern Ireland for 30 years. The warring factions of the Protestant British and Catholic Irish were putting their tribal differences behind them and ending the war. I signed up out of a genuine interest and curiosity, as well as a desire to break the tedium of school life. It was the best thing I did in my 12 years in school.
I stayed with a lovely family. I forget all their names but Tom was my counterpart. A very tall lad with a shock of bright red hair. After all meeting at the RBAI grounds I headed off with my host family for the weekend. We weren’t in the car long when Tom’s dad pointed to a fish and chip shop and said, “you see that shop there? That’s where the Shankill bombing was.” Only five years earlier the IRA had set off a bomb there killing 10 and wounding over 50 others. I felt a surge of mixed emotions; shock, sickness and guilt. My tribe had inflicted this devastating attack on theirs. I had no idea who the perpetrators were and had never asked anyone to kill anyone else, but I was guilty by association because of where I was born. “The accident of birth” as John Hume described it.
To my horror we pulled up around the corner from the Shankill road in a place called Ballysillan Drive. This is where they lived. The pavement was painted red, white and blue, as were the lamp posts, and pretty much everything that was immobile. I’d never seen as many people wearing Rangers jerseys or drinking cans of Pepsi. I dared not speak until we reached the safety of the house. I was chastened with guilt and conscious my southern accent would stick out like a sore thumb. The intimidation of the symbolism was powerful. All this in times of peace. I shuddered to think what it was like when detente was but a dream.
Much like Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas past, I was being offered a glimpse into a different time. It was one much like the time when Dickens was writing ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the middle of the nineteenth century. A potent and toxic blend of nationalism and religion ruled the minds of men, each believing theirs was superior to the next. In America white people kept black people as slaves. In Ireland and the UK Catholics weren’t allowed in public life or buy property. Pogroms against Jewish people were common throughout Russia and parts of Europe. Fear and suspicion of ‘the other’ or ‘what was different’ prevailed. This is what I was witnessing in an atavistic Northern Ireland.
Exactly 20 years later a lingering resentment remains but the terrorism has been contained. This is not to say it is gone but a relative peace has persevered. The key brokers of the peace agreement, apart from politicians on the island of Ireland, were Washington and Westminster. Instead of learning from Northern Ireland these two countries have reverted to a nativism of their own, retreating from the international stage. Nationalism is ugly, anachronistic and a hangover from Victorian times. It has been replaced by humanism, individualism and globalisation. These forces present their own challenges but throwing stones or petrol bombs at each other is not one of them. The battles now take place in football stadiums and we can all have a pint together after.