Northern Ireland in the Headlines (Again)
On the positive side, Rory McIlroy united people right across Northern Ireland, and the world, in his victory in the US Open. Even I, who am happy to agree with Samuel Johnston or Mark Twain or whoever it was who described golf as a good walk spoiled, was really frustrated not to be able to watch it on TV (being too tight to give Rupert Murdoch money for Sky Sports) and had to make do with regular internet updates and good old BBC Radio 5 Live. I was right behind the lad from Holywood, Co. Down, and while the fact that he went to my old school gave me a soft spot for him, the combination of what happened in the US Masters a couple of months ago and his refreshing demeanour endeared him to everyone... And I think that has increased in the wake of his record-breaking victory.
Watching the Monday evening news my eldest son suggested that the entire western economy could have collapsed and we wouldn't have heard about it in Northern Ireland, such was the adulation about "our Rory..."
However, a matter of hours later the emphasis of the news changed as sectarian violence broke out again on the Short Strand interface, a few miles from here and from Rory McIlroy's home in Holywood... It wasn't the first violence of the weekend... indeed the previous morning I had been contrasting the emerging Rory McIlroy story with violence in North Belfast in the wake of the "Tour of the North" parade, where golf balls had been used differently from the way Rory uses them. But that fracas was as nothing compared with the two nights of rioting that occurred in East Belfast at the weekend. I'm reliably informed by one friend who is a reporter that golf balls have been in evidence there too... along with petrol bombs, blast bombs, fireworks, bricks, bullets, baton rounds and water cannon.
In the immediate wake of Rory McIlroy's victory there was much discussion of the possible impact there might be on Northern Ireland from Rory-related "golf tourism" and there has been a lot of debate over encouraging inward business investment here by dropping the corporation tax and finding a way of offsetting the taxes paid on the Continental flights between New York and Belfast. But the events of this week may well make all that a waste of time and effort, because what sensible international business would want to come within a thousand miles of us in the light of all that… and even though there aren't too many golf courses on interfaces, I think that even the Rory-factor may not attract too many tourists to a Belfast that seems intent on going backwards rather than forward.
However, these sorts of incidents will continue to flare into life, so long as any economic benefits of "peace" and the limited prosperity that there can be in a worldwide recession do not significantly impact on areas such as these. Report after report has highlighted the low educational achievement in such areas, yet instead of actively tackling such things, the politicians are happier to be involved in a stand-off on the issue of the transfer test, which will never impact on the kids of that area because most never take it. Meanwhile, whilst the rest of the province basks in the illusion of peace, it is interfaces like this where low levels of sectarian violence (from both sides) continues unabated, unacknowledged and unaddressed. I'll leave it to others to point the finger at who caused what on Monday night, and who fired what at who, but whoever was to blame then, it has been coming for a long time, and with the marching season reaching its climax it was almost inevitable. And then another "them and us" situation develops between those who would never dream of rioting and those who are in the middle of it, either by choice or circumstance...
Once the trouble like that kicks off it is really difficult to stop it... to hear the media talking you would think that the paramilitaries could turn it on and off like a tap... It's more like knocking the head off a water hydrant... and attracts a similar number of young people! The amount of work by local politicians, community leaders and ministers that went into largely stopping the rioting by Wednesday must have been considerable... However, if the issues that lie behind these riots and the other complex problems that face our province are to be addressed we need that work to continue. AND we need a fundamental shift in our mindset... Because part of our problem here in Northern Ireland is that we approach all political and social issues as a game where there are winners and losers... So if the other side wants something then our side will be be against it... But if we really believe in the idea and not just the rhetoric of a shared future, then we need to find ways of helping both "sides" to "win". (I've recently written on this emphasis on "sides" in our political mindset elsewhere).
Last Sunday afternoon I took friends down the Newtownards Road to see the interface and the murals there, and was standing there where the congregation came out from installing the new Restor into St. Patrick's Church of Ireland Church further up the Road. Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday and according to legend Saint Patrick used the shamrock as a symbol of the trinity when he came to Ireland. If truth be told, however, there is no record of him doing so and, anyway the shamrock is a fairly poor representation of the trinity, as all the leaves are the same, whilst central to the doctrine of the trinity is that there is both unity and diversity within God, and yet, if passages like Philippians 2: 10-11 are to be believed, there is no jealousy within the Godhead... whatever brings glory to the Son brings glory to the Father. Now perhaps there is not only a theological issue at play there but an important social one...
Last Sunday evening the whole of Northern Ireland exulted in the glory one of our younger sporting sons... We need to bring the determination that he showed to the pursuit of a shared, prosperous future for all... all sides and social classes in this society.
In the meantime, we look beyond the marching season to the British Open in the hope of more reasons to celebrate...
This is a highly adapted version in the light of the East Belfast rioting of a review of the week on last Sunday's "Dawn Reflections" on Downtown Radio