Aye

She stood losing a staring contest with the new coffee machine before stepping aside for a copper. He overtook her on autopilot to resume the universal challenge of early morning indifference. Both of them united by separation anxiety from its predecessor. One that might’ve gurgled back in protest but didn’t tease regulars with fancy moves. Like dispensing hot water then pausing for a round of applause before introducing the headline act to the cup.

That’s when I invaded her peripheral vision with the offer of a lid they thought hip to hide from view, startling her in a manner usually reserved for catching my own reflection.

Ah. It’s yourself. I was away in another world there.

A world of under-eye shadows from Intensive Care Unit hours she’d been keeping; under eyes no bigger than curled up confetti from going through her revolving car-door leaving no time for make-up.

How are things?

Aye. OK. He’ll spend another week in ICU, then home. But recovery will be slow. It’s hard on Mum but there’s hardly a family we know that’s not affected by it. Is there, like?

Aye. True.

Everything else is much the same. The boys are fine. Still fighting over Power Rangers cards. You know yourself. Is your wee one not into them things yet? Lucky you. They’re a bloody torture.

Aye. She’s a big Celtic fan though, I conceded, finally settling my end of the subtle transaction of child inspired annoyance. Like her Da. So, you know yourself, kinda awkward on sports day.

[In unison] Aye!

And with that we awkwardly strung out our goodbyes until she reached the till and the poppy on the lapel of her padded coat faded to something vaguely resembling a blood donor badge on a shrunken duvet. One she could cheerfully disappear under.

Aye. That’s not the only awkward day. I wondered what would she think if she knew I pulled my wee one from Remembrance Assembly last week. The one her two boys skipped into along with every other wee one from what I could gather on Facebook, where all the best rights are violated. Shouldn’t I have sent in her in there? Isn’t this what integrated education is all about?

Aye. According to the stock imaged posters, and those misty-eyed promos featuring Liam Neeson selling us the benefits of holding hands across the playground in a non-threatening voice. There he is. All whispery, beatifically laying his hand on a shoulder as the camera pulls away to reveal me gnawing my fist. For fuck’s sake, Liam. Too many people already think integrated education is for pretentious wankers and toffs. Ham up the local brogue there like a good man.

Aye. OK. I made that last bit up.

Of course it’s for bloody toffs you stupid eejit, pointed out my friend diplomatically. You have to drive to get to it!

Aye. Right enough.

And where does your wee one go, the integrated?, enquired a colleague condemned to my front passenger seat longer than should ever be necessary.

Aye.

Aye?

Aye.

Fair play til ya. Our ones see it as a Unionist school where we’re the guests.

Aye?

Oh aye.

Wait a second. So there’s no Irish at all?, another mate re-checked, ramping up the incredulity.

Aye.

Lucky fuckers.

Aye.

 

blood

Join the army today! 

 

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Supposing…

When my words step backwards down into the page, they capsize and stubbornly attach themselves to the expanse in ways that duck my reach before drifting ashore in my hair from where I’ll embarrassingly pick them out days later, frayed and indecipherable to the untrained squinter. “Is that something in your hair?” “Ah yes”, I squint, dislodging it from its hiding place behind my ear, “it appears to be a question mark”.

That there will come a time when she won’t let me square why? with the why not? Of Rememberance Assembly attendance.  Of wearing that hooped jersey on sports day. Of being the Other of three categorically divided by Two.

I was to go one tip-toe further with a pre-emptive why not? at the why. Of the hidden fadas. Of invisible hurleys. Of being the Other of three unquestioningly divided by One.

We were keep-the-head-downers, mixed-marrieds centrists, holders of wringed hands clasped in prayer, would-be gleaming side-stepfording governors.

We’d all be Other than who We are then.

 

Postcards from the edge

One of the greatest marketing scams of the last few years is the ingenious Wild Atlantic Way. Take a coastline that’s always been there, chuck in the lyrical pipes of John Creedon, a clamped out campervan, umpteen dozen tourist signs, and wahey! the West’s your tourist cashcow.  It’s up there with non-alcoholic beer in the top bricking-it-in-the-boardroom moments. One that (presumably) culminated in the most extravagant piss-up of German men riding bare-backed on each other round the office. Forced to do three-point turns along congested photocopiers, they triumphantly, if ungallantly, rode with ties atop their foreheads.

Which brings me to my latest get-out-of-real-life fantasy pitches: The Wilder Northern Way. You with me? Thought not *removes tie from forehead* Still, credit to those remote marketeers busy imploring their dot comrades to avail of the “stunning scenery” amid chitchat on the North since McGuinness’s death. Presumably, it remains hidden from the view of logic among the rest of the islanders.  I can hear them in the focus groups.  “Hmmm, I’m not sure. Would it be as good as the Atlantic on the Western side? Would you need a plane to get there?” Best keep your shirts on, fellas. But do help yourself to the non-alcoholic beers behind the ring-binders in the stationery cabinet. Just ignore the sell-by date.

For all the attempts at enticing reluctant tourists upwards, you’ll never hear anyone urging people to live here. The locals are too busy cursing chance, and the passers-through only get to admire the doilies in the good sitting-room. In fact, some of the locals seem to visit reality only rarely these days, too. I’d been waiting on an unsuspecting middle-classer to send us a postcard from around the corner, and Newton Emerson kindly wrote his while wearing uranium-tinted glasses this morning in – where else – The Irish Times.

Newton would tell you it was far from well-stocked stationery cabinets of broadsheets his journalism was raised. This is true. It was from the clandestine confines of his imagination his refreshing satire took its first breaths. An experimental test-tube embryo using wry eggs and the sperm from moderate Unionism willing to laugh at itself. Over the years it grew to sharp-wit its elbows  on to the pages of respectable commentary.

Emerson is also right to lament the elusive ability of commentators to adequately convey the “incongruous banality” of war zones. The monotony of daily life that trundles on against the backdrop of rioting and ruination of lives,  of livelihoods, families, and  futures. ‘Normal’ life did indeed persist amid explosive satellite images beamed abroad. Affluent neighbourhoods, in particular, came through the Troubles relatively unscathed. They were, coincidentally, a mere stone’s throw from combustible working class streets on fire every which way.

It is fair game to revisit, as he does, the incubation of resistance among working class men to the discrimination and state violence unleashed upon their neighbourhoods. To disaggregate those who emerged towards the path of violence from those who did not. Malachi O’Doherty and others have been similarly stroking their chins with wagging fingers of late.  But it is as if an entire group of people can be divided into two distinct tribes (!), homogeneous in motivation, provocation, expectation, drive, privilege, opportunity, personality, susceptibility, suggestibility, loss of agency, and all the other variables that collide on the venn diagram of civil disturbance. All that transcends binary convenience.

It is not for me to speculate on why Malachi O’Doherty or Newton Emerson succeeded in raising a pen overhead in a lecture hall while McGuinness raised a gun over his own. There are too many variables I know nothing about. Varnishing another’s violence with the gloss of respectability of their own peaceful experience provides no richer understanding. It could also be asked why many of their other peers who didn’t sign up sidestep similar mystification, even if all share condemnation.  None of these feelings are mutually exclusive. That violence was a career option for a 19 year-old was indicative of a society far from ‘normal’.

The corresponding sanctifying of McGuinness wearing thin for many serves our understanding just as little. Greater thinkers than most of us have convincingly rationalised the legitimate use of grassroots violence. But as well as being a non-apologist for same, many of us will always wonder how the efforts of the Civil Rights movement would’ve panned out had grassroots violence failed to detonate. While the surviving mothers of now middle-aged sons sent away to wherever a greater life expectancy awaited still heave a sigh of relief as intense as their first.

Meanwhile, the dreary monotony of life ticks along largely unaltered; at variance with the prevailing images of harmony in the mindset of satellite viewers near and far. Normal life continues. But normal being a normative concept, Newton has gone fully native, if not disingenuous, in his interpretation of it.

Public spaces, particularly those dedicated to the performing arts, picket-fenced estates, and higher end retails units, remain the domain of the middle-classes. Their social niceties overtaking tribal insecurities to make for the most robust of cross-community relations. In the absence of overt hostilities, communities, in the main, co-exist along state-drawn lines of poverty, education, housing and leisure. The war is still finding people, still orchestrated by aging generals kitted out in three-piece suits with ties around their heads on Friday evenings down the pub. In another time and place, some of them would have responded with physical violence.

Integrated education remains a fledging enterprise politely coercing young people into an undefined shared entity.  Learning zones where subtle games of tug-o’-wars are played with the history curricula and Remembrance Assemblies.  Retail service provision continues parallel to the traditional ‘two communities’ with each served by their own chippers, post offices, supermarkets, pubs, even estate agents.  It is not ‘normal’ life. The stultifying inescapable fug of coexistence pervades the everyday, eluding the most articulate of voices and pens. All the mainstream weapons wielded around struggling to get the banality of a transitional war-zone in their line of fire.  And failing, mostly. Great coastline though.

doilies

A hotel-eyed view of the North 

All Or

Originally posted in 2014

Tucked away in the main recruitment webpage for the community and voluntary sector today is an invitation to suitably qualified parties to tender for a feasibility study on the development of a storytelling project. The initiative aims to reflect “the cooperation and interaction between former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and former members of An Garda Siochána in the border region from the establishment of both Police Forces in 1922 to 2001.” Among the anticipated outcomes is that different experiences, memories, and legacies of the past will have been acknowledged. It all sounds very ambitious and must surely be the fruits of some high-minded collective think-in from a much feted Anglo-Irish entity charged with rescuing those irrational wee Northerners from themselves, and each other. Except it’s not. It’s just business as usual from a sector quietly getting on with creative efforts to address the diversity of experiences among victims and survivors.

In the flurry of public commentary on foot of Gerry Adams’s arrest last week, it fast became a chin-stroking exercise over the new Burning Question: All or Nothing?  Particular credit was given to Fintan O’Toole for exhibiting a balance in his response generally uncharacteristic of commentators south of the border. I know it is antagonistic to speak in terms of ‘Southern’ understanding, but that is how it has seemed to me for many years now. The gulf between reality and understanding has always felt wider there than in many other places. Relying on a mainstream discourse played out through a predictably narrow media, including the Sunday Independent revisionists, hasn’t helped. Yet, everyone has responsibility to dig deeper. To step back from the temptation of case-shut analysis and reach for a few question marks instead. Adams’s arrest upended one sector’s fondness for all or nothing, and enabled the camera to pan away and broaden perspective. O’Toole’s article succeeded in showing that the arrogance of certainty is receding. That can only be a good thing.

Perhaps when future historians show up, sufficient perspective will have been gained to enable the ordinary communities of the North to finally sharp-elbow their way onto those pages reserved for the peace-brokers. And the conveniently myopic interpretation of the Conflict as a petty religious fall-out between neighbours, by neighbours, might get a laugh similar to that directed at the flat-earth theorists of yesteryear. It would be churlish to dismiss the efforts of some politicians in the process, but peace was essentially a demand from the people. The ordinary people, no longer able to stomach the increasingly brutal and futile tactics of paramilitaries, or the intransigence of successive governments North, South, and Westminster. It took the threat of political expediency and the oceanic roar of ‘no more’ for the ballot seekers to catch up. Peace was essentially a grassroots driven outcome.

Communities remain unstinting in their efforts to acknowledge “different experiences, memories, and legacies of the past”.  Relatives For Justice, and The Pat Finucane Centre, among others, labour beneath the political ransom they’re being held under to beat a path towards truth and justice for victims and survivors. Elsewhere, a plethora of grassroots projects provide therapeutic supports and safe meeting places for others to access help to heal and deal with the past.  In accounting for the rights and needs of victims and survivors, the one-size of all or nothing does not fit neatly. Victims and survivors occupy a broad spectrum; they are as diverse as their memories. Many desire forgiveness, acceptance, and hold tight to a determination not to re-live the origins of their pain in a courtroom. Yet they don’t wish to undermine the legitimacy or entitlement of others to do otherwise. For some, acknowledgement will suffice. For others, surrendering their game of tug o’ war with the right way forward is out of the question.

Any proposed framework will have to account for that reality. The traditional binary shorthand of all or nothing, green or orange, taig or prod, won’t withstand a traditional Norn Iron kicking. Achieving it is not an impossibility, but it necessitates the centrality of victims and survivors in its design, and their inclusion in corresponding commentary and mainstream narrative(s). Communities are ready. Families of victims are ready. Survivors are ready. All are, for the All or. They’re just waiting for the peace-brokers to catch up. For the leaders to take the lead. Story of their lives, and their dead.

The dog’s derrière

Less than a fortnight ago, a bunch of us stood on the same spot a Sunday-coated Bryan Dobson has been broadcasting from all day. A Tommie Gorman of sorts to the right of me, an Adams prototype to the left. One as earnest as the other is capable of talking in ever increasing circles. Both praying to fuck I’d quit my best Bryan routine and immediately desist from asking awkward questions (“How’s the head?” etc.).

Having dodged the residential debriefing in the bar, my relative freshness was beginning to produce a sound similar to the early morning vacuum cleaner outside their hotel door. The one they were rudely dragged away from to join the guided walk of the Walls. A bonding exercise some genius had thought to line up for the morning after. It seemed like a good idea at the time. One we all fell for since it didn’t involve any more turning to our neighbour in the group to discuss What It All Means, or the dreaded C word (‘comfort break’).

derry

Hangover Cam

When the morning showed up however, constitutions and concentration were as wobbly and out-of-focus as the photo above. This view being the actual pixel quality of Gerry and Tommie’s respective vision till they reached the bar at lunch for a much-needed comfort break (comfort being a broad term). Their delicacy tested by the fatal combination of joviality and pride found in our recommended 5 star tour-guide. A Derry man, in short.

For a Donegal woman to be taken in hand for a walk around her neighbour’s garden, there had to be an incentive otherwise what was the point? Once the stabilisers came off my family shopping trips, and the annual Christmas Eve excursions, I had mastered these streets with no hands. But I hold my hands up to having adopted the swagger of the local. For of course, I am not, and never was, a local. Our territories share a hinterland but we have always been the culchie cousins to our edgier brethren over the border. What with their unmistakable pretentious-stripping vowels and punk histories as steep and deep as the streets they live on. And like all things lying on the doorstep, I stepped over it without looking down after a while.

To the top right of the photo (behind Bryan, if you’re watching RTE), you’ll see the green area where an Undertones album cover was taken.  Higher up adjacent on the left, a multi-coloured strip of second floor windows includes the house Martin McGuinness is being waked in tonight; while directly across the main road to the left, John Hume’s home is just out of view, just like John Hume. Somewhere close by, someone is vehemently denying they are related to Phil Coulter.

The girl, immaculate in her school uniform, dominating the photo on the gable wall, was the first child killed in the Conflict. Her name was Annette McGavigan, and her father sat by that wall talking to his daughter every day until grief came for him, too. Elsewhere, the door of Sandinos swings open with a crumpled up Eamonn McCann sauntering towards whatever pew hosts his pint. Women push prams up the vertiginous path of life. And together they all converge in a place we Donegal folk subtly understand as indomitable Derry. The ragged, proud, aging, but always cooler cousin.

Rise

She laughingly flexes her arm muscles as a sign of the shape of progress to come. It’s less than a week since she stretched her worrying thoughts alongside those of two of her compatriots on the shapelessness of their security and status. One child born in Northern Ireland, another in Poland. What will become of them? What if my parents are ill? Will I be able to visit them and return here to my own family? We are afraid. Everyone is afraid. We feel we will never be good enough. But what can we do?

Well, she can triumphantly flex her arm muscles in celebration of summoning fifty other women with the same question marks bearing down on them. To a two-bedroom terraced house on the fringes of affluence they gathered after bearing down hard on the like button to an invitation from one on behalf of three. They shine like the lighter versions of themselves they’ve been missing and smile at me. I trot home to miss my friends in ways that nothing will ease but a dose of sleep and sleeplessness.

Ask not what your elected reps can do for you…

Ten sleeps till election day in Norn Iron and I’m losing little over my decision to sit this one out. The only backlash I feared was my Mother’s threat of a clip round the ear for refusing to exercise a privilege for which many fought hard. She didn’t disappoint. So indelible are the stains of struggle on the ballot box that any attempt to ignore them is construed as casually ducking out of the generational relay race of responsibility. Point taken. As a woman (allegedly), the perceived betrayal induces an uncompromising wrath.

Clipped tones and appendages aside, I welcomed an opportunity for my decision to be given a good kicking. It’s still standing, if slightly hunched over with a black eye. Kneecaps intact though.

“A penalty for not participating in politics is to be governed by your inferiors.” 

That punch thrown by Plato, delivered through those given power of attorney on Earth – Twitter users.

It’s doubtful Plato had a pre-determined Assembly structure designed to safeguard the Green/Orange configuration in mind when he uttered that assertion. Were he around now, he might be tempted to add: “unless you live in Northern Ireland, where an out-dated parliamentary configuration ensures inferior governance for all”.  For we are not dealing with a regular democracy, if such a system ever existed in the first place.

But you already knew that. And that is precisely why it is imperative that my fellow citizens and I in this septic statelet must ensure peace is protected at all costs! By casting our vote! Peace must hold! Or we’ll bring it down! That would be the same peace brokered twenty years ago when the IRA graciously laid down their arms following  periods of intransigence and indifference from politicians North, South and Westminster. The same peace under mythical threat if the precious ‘centre’ is pulled out from under it.

“Ok-so how did the people effect the ushering in of peace? Surely influence on the IRA & 2 governments = politics. Democracy means voting.”

I wouldn’t like to underestimate the commitment and sacrifices made by politicians, nor can I indulge in the mawkish glorification of them in recent years. No-one is better at congratulating Sinn Fein than Sinn Fein. It conveniently obscures the people’s demands for ‘no more’, which triggered the threat of political expediency that eventually backed all shades into a corner with no option but to negotiate a way out. Ordinary people’s movements don’t make into official history books, nor into revisonist views of it.

“They brought us here well esp John Hume in 1998. Early problems aside-Trimble dancing re Drumcree the 2017”

“They” being the nationalist SDLP and Ulster Unionist parties, respectively. The current pact both are pushing the electorate to support as a ‘radical’ alternative to the deteriorating marriage of Sinn Fein and DUP. The latter workable only because one side’s constituency was not under threat by vote-hunters from the other; and ultimately unworkable because the Party First Mentality resulted in treating the livelihood of the broad electorate with wilful contempt.

The whatboutery of the SF/DUP breakdown is for other hair-splitters to rant about. In some ways, it has everything and nothing to do with my opting out. Blind a fresh Troubles-free young generation with a dam-burst of bitterness about the past, then force them to referee their petulant elders. Arrogantly lean on an increasingly diverse collection of greying heads to lead by example. Force them to compromise their personal  and moral convictions to prop up those incapable of doing the same. Ideals inconsistent with two church-deferring anti-choice parties with a lethargic attitude to integrated education. The balance of responsibilities has tipped further back onto the lap of an electorate expected to do most of the heavy lifting.

Others have attracted consternation for canvassing on “single issues” with some commentators deeming it “selfish”. As if issues of poverty, education, welfare reform, equality, the environment, health, reproductive rights and so on bear no relationship to each other, they are dismissed by the compulsion to protect the ragbag of Orange and Green ‘cultural’ sensitivities. Hasn’t that been the problem? A faulty formula meant for a short-term period of political transition, which, 20 years on, is an instrument for the abuse and suffocation of integration.  The pressure to balance the needs of all (with no consensus on what that is) with personal integrity is unrealistic. It would not be unlike asking pro-choice activists to vote Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to prevent them from huffing with each other. An ostensibly mellower Assembly might appear reachable from here, but it won’t usher any radical challenge to the status quo. The structure is set-up to safeguard it.

If you believe the ballot box is as sacred as it always was, your irritation with those leaving it to the pall-bearing few to carry is understandable.

“Nobody counts “didn’t vote” or “spoiled vote”. The notion that non/spoiled votes are effective protest is wrong.”

But I don’t claim my not-arsedness as a protest move, not in the respectable definition of the term. All things considered and chin-stroked over, I couldn’t vote for any of the candidates on offer in my area. Moreover, the ballot box is not the sacred, exclusive means of engaging in political action it once was. As an apparatus of democracy it is at best constrained, and at worst illusionary. Pissed on. Neither is it the only method to register dissent or participate in politics. You probably noticed that, too.

So, rightly or wrongly, I’m bowing out of the ballot box on this occasion. Not as an act of protest, or civil ‘disobedience’, but as a right. Politics is a broad term. Day-to-day community life is where it’s at for me. The ordinary people in Norn Iron have always been ahead of state politics, anyway. When it mattered most.

march

A legitimate protest, hi