we will build a flower decked residence in the wilderness

That wonderful image I’ve used as the title comes from the first talk at the John Hewitt International Summer School, by Lord Diljit Rana. He spoke of being a refugee when India was partitioned, becoming an immigrant to the UK, and coming to Belfast. Where he restarted and restarted and started again- his businesses having been bombed nearly 40 times, he just kept on going, working with people, making his home.

Baroness Williams spoke wonderfully about the history of the 20th century. Shirley wears her erudition and experience lightly, and I could have listened to her for hours. In 1940 she and her brother were sent to the USA for safety (occupation seemed likely and both her parents were on Gestapo death lists) and the process led her to see the people amongst whom she was placed ‘not as strangers, but as fellow citizens’. She discussed differing views of war- Edwardian Arthurian gallantry, depersonalisation- and Gorbachev winking at her. Williams’ argument is that answers to disputes lie in negotiation, community activities and specifically, joint institutions such as the United Nations.

Andy Pollak discussed the loaded term ‘collaboration’. The ‘Good Friday’ Agreement of 1998– the basis in which NI politics currently operates- includes North/South (NI & the Republic) and East/West (UK & Republic) political activities as well as political development within NI. In part because of the financial crisis, these strands haven’t seen much activity since 2007/8. There is a gap where collaboration, cooperation, mutual trust and support could be built, where history could be tended.

Giving more detail on the current situation in NI, Paul Nolan discussed the 2011 census results in some detail. In 1921, the establishment of the NI state was predicated on a significant Protestant/ Unionist majority: the 1926 census of the 6 counties showed 66% Protestant, 34% Catholic. In 2011, those figures were 48% Protestant, 45% Catholic, 7% other. “We are all minorities now.” There continue to be huge economic and social inequalities, but how these are portrayed by politicians depends on their overall narrative- that of ‘loss’ or ‘inevitable rise’. This was a fascinating, entertaining talk; one which underlined the storytelling nature of politics.

On the final day, Professor Lord Paul Bew talked about the interplay between churches and society and their declining influence, in particular on political society. He argued that the ongoing sporadic violence and protests in NI were partly due to the nature of the negotiation of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement. That was essentially a top down process, negotiated with parties who have subsequently lost power and influence. Our current ‘leaders’ still have to sell the Agreement to all of their constituents.

These talks could have been heavy or dull or overly worthy. ( Apologies if this note of my understanding of what was said- all errors and misrepresentations are mine- has made them seem so.) Instead, they were inspirational.

We have to do the talking thing. We have to recognise, all of us, that we are fellow citizens. We need to grant each other respect and recognise equality. We need to keep working at living together.

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die. 

WH Auden, extract from September 1, 1939

These are things we know in our hearts, but it’s good to make the space, and let others remind us from time to time.


8 thoughts on “we will build a flower decked residence in the wilderness

  1. Political narratives are always written to tell one side of the story more clearly than the other, to highlight differences, to divide and rule, not remind us we have more in common with each other than not. This article in Saturday’s Guardian ( where else?) was thought provoking, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/10/history-students-no-grand-narratives
    One of the things I find depressing in NI is the number of copies of the Daily Mail that are bought. Self righteous indignation and finger pointing at everyone else seems a bad place for finding common ground. Yet despite those sales, I saw precious little finger pointing – actually did I see any? – at real people. We do not know what the future holds in any of these islands, but if we bear Auden’s words in mind and try to live by them, the future is a hopeful one.
    Thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks for that link, Isobel- Tóbin always raises interesting points. I know that when I started secondary school history was a list of what happened; no variations, debate or wondering why. Girl1’s text book has examples of different source materials and she has to consider, compare, comment. Children are being encouraged to think at school- whatever next? 🙂

      Were you still here on Friday, when we had both the end of a fun filled week of the World Police and Fire Games, and a riot in the city centre. Republican commemoration, loyalist protests and the ‘friendliest games’…

      1. Alas, whatever next is probably Michael Gove… However.
        I am home again and back at work, and sad to say i missed all the games, though I should love to have seen the volleyball at Portrush. I’ll give the riots, commemorations and marching a miss though. Just goes to show how silly it is to talk about places as though they are homgeneous.
        At the rsik of linking all Saturday’s Guardian articles to blogs, I found this one interesting too. http://www.midulstermail.co.uk/lifestyle/entertainment/springhill-s-own-titanic-story-1-3783863 As we wait to see the outcome of the Scottish vote on independence people in england are wondering about their identity too. I hope this sparks a considered debate about our diversity and multiculturalness, rather than becoming a nationalists’ narrow view of a land that has never existed.

    1. Exactly! Shirley Williams referenced it, and it’s so apt. Her talk went over time (speaking without notes) and I think the audience would have been happy to listen for many more hours, only she had a plane to catch to prepare for a House of Lords debate on banking laws. She’s still working hard.

  2. We have a segregated schooling system; polarization of two communities and an abundance of inaccuracies in historical literature on Ireland. Children are raised within divided communities believing what they are told. All damaging to the development of mutual respect.

  3. Thankyou for all of this, the Auden extract and summaries. The generalisations and de-personalisations of the Daily Mail are an avoidance of the ‘talking thing’ the wrok of really looking and listening and telling “how it is”. [straight road to simplistic lack of respect]
    Keep talking Speccy. Always worth listening to.

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