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.