I moved to Belfast from the south of England a little more than a year ago. In conversations about politics I’m a well-meaning dunce, teetering on the line between not quite grasping the complexities of the situation and misunderstanding it so flagrantly that everyone’s embarrassed. I need to have things explained to me slowly and carefully.
I think I’ve got my head round some of it: the way that the legacy of sectarian conflict is a dysfunctional politics in which elected representatives often hold views that are significantly more extreme – and more simplistic – than those of the majority of the population. Most people in Northern Ireland want equal marriage and abortion law reform, but there has been no progress on these issues; schools are still largely segregated; Arlene Foster was able to brazen out the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, shrugging off evidence of incompetence and corruption that would have destroyed a political leader anywhere else in these islands.
But I’ve tested the patience of friends and neighbours by repeatedly asking what it is that I’m failing to understand. Why, I ask, does the British government sound so breezy about the Irish land border after Brexit, which seems to be a problem with no plausible solution? Why doesn’t the prime minister seem concerned that calling a snap election is bound to sabotage attempts to restore power-sharing when Northern Ireland has been without a government for three months? And how can the Conservatives contemplate depending on the DUP when to do so must compromise the British government’s formal neutrality in the peace process?
I talk about this last question at the school drop-off, and at work, and stuck in traffic on the Ormeau Road, and at a friend’s dinner table. The answer I get is the same as for the other questions: because they don’t care. May doesn’t care, the Tories don’t care, Westminster doesn’t care about Northern Ireland. This isn’t news to those who’ve spent their lives here, but I’m learning to be outraged in a more visceral way than I ever managed when living in Oxford. In the conversations I hear, I keep catching a note of bitter satisfaction that, at least in this political moment, London politicians have no choice but to care.
In the thick of the Troubles, the Belfast playwright Stewart Parker pointed out that one of the evils of the conflict – one of its effects, and one of its causes – was the way in which it sealed off the Northern Ireland from the world beyond:
[The] desperate confusion and bewilderment felt by most ordinary Ulster people is only one truth among many which the media have failed to communicate to the outside world. In fact, eight years’ continual bombardment of the British public with information about Northern Ireland seems to have communicated very little of substance.
People I talk to in London are still extraordinarily hazy and confused and fed up about it all. They confuse Belfast with Dublin. They confuse the IRA and the UDA. Which suggests to me that 'News' in itself is largely meaningless and that an overgrowth of this commodity finally defeats its own purpose; it muddles, frustrates and in the end anaesthetises the understanding.
Understanding is crucial. Certainly, sooner or later – I fear lately – all of us in Northern Ireland will have to wake up to our common identity (a new identity for most) and create some kind of political structure to accommodate it. But seven centuries of bloody history can’t and won’t be resolved overnight. It needs all the understanding, all the fortitude, all the imagination that the combined people of these islands can bring to bear on it.
Parker wrote that in 1976. It's a measure of progress that the political structure he called for now exists, or did until last January. But progress can be lost through carelessness.