To say that Northern Ireland has come a long way since its sectarian civil war is a cliche but it’s worth saying: we’ve come a long way. The soldiers no longer patrol the streets. The curfews no longer empty the streets at night. The bombs no longer tear through shopping centres and flesh. The Northern Ireland of my childhood has rebranded as the land of the Titanic and Game of Thrones, Liam Neeson and Snow Patrol. But a look at headlines coming out of the country today gives good reason to doubt things really did change for good.
Would you trust a Muslim to do your shopping for you? That’s a genuine source of debate right now as the First Minister Peter Robinson publicly defends comments by an evangelical pastor who said that Islam was “the spawn of the devil” and “satanic” and that when it came to Muslims, “I don’t trust them”. Fine, let the Good Reverend say that. We’ve heard this bigotry echo in holy walls before only it was about Catholics, or it was Jews, or still today, homosexuals. If you don’t like his recycled message of hate, don’t attend his services. A very different problem is the First Minister’s defence of the pastor. Unlike the church, I can’t just up and leave the country; I’m stuck here and I’m stuck here represented by this man whether I like it or not. A politician can never represent every one of his constituents’ political views but he must surely give them equal moral value as human beings. When our First Minister vilifies an already vilified minority as untrustworthy, we all do.
As she spoke out in defence of Northern Ireland’s Muslims on local TV, Anna Lo, an Alliance Party politician, choked back tears. Lo, the first East-Asia-born politician ever elected in the UK, had just announced that morning that she would not seek reelection because of the racist abuse she had suffered in the past year. The abuse came about because she supported Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Flag only on royal occasions and not everyday at the City Hall. The decision provoked mass protest and rioting and Lo, one of many politicians to support the flag decision, was singled out for vicious racial abuse on social media and her party’s offices were petrol bombed. She was, she said, scared to walk in the streets for fear of racial taunting or worse.
Perhaps the only strange thing in all of this is that we bother to act surprised. In a country built on petty division between Catholic and Protestant, is more division really that unexpected? We are sending a message to our children from birth that what really matters in this world is your tribe and those who share your tribe. We do more than send them this message; we scream it at them. We scream it at them in their tribal schools that tell them “it’s best to keep away from those Others”. We scream it at them from the violent murals and tattered flags on their streets that tell them “from here to there is ours but go no further”. We scream it at them with their very names that mark them as “ours” or as “theirs”, that brand Podraig and William like cattle from rival farms. We scream it at them until we are blue in the face and then we act surprised that they actually listened. We scream it at them until their hearts turn deaf.
Behind the racial abuse of Lo, behind the mistrust of Muslims, lies the ugly truth that while the civil war may have ended, the divisions and mutual suspicions that fuelled it live toxically on. We must ask ourselves; did we stop the killing because it wasn’t getting us anywhere or did we stop the killing because we learnt to value the lives of others as we do our own? Is peace, if that’s what we have, simply more convenient than war or is it a precious gem to be treasured and fought for daily? To look at many of our leaders today is to see a class who think that reverting to the rhetoric of the past is a useful tactic to have to hand, not a moral regression.
Following #IStandWithAnna on social media is to see the countless many who do understand peace. The many who understand that peace is not merely the absence of war but the constant rejection of tribal devision and the building of friendships across divides. It is they who must scream back even louder at the sirens of division and wage peace. It is they who know that to fail to stand for Anna or for our Muslim friends is to pave a path to the past. The real line-in-the-sand in Northern Ireland is not between Catholic and Protestant or Nationalist and Unionist but between those who see tribes and those who see shared humanity. It’s time we got louder.