Wednesday 7 November 2012

We have some way to travel yet

The following is an extract taken from a speech by Uachtarán Michael D Higgins at Queen's University, Belfast on 30th October 2012. It discusses the potential of Anglo-Irish unity.

We all know in our hearts that we have some way to travel yet, some work to do, before we redeem the full promise inherent in the Peace Process.
That sense of entanglement and horrific memory is most vividly present in the lives of those who lost loved ones during the troubles, who live with terrible injuries and the legacy of violence. More than any other group, they have been asked so much more than others – and are asked daily – to make a most difficult accommodation for peace. No group has done more to bring about the benefits we have all gained from the peace process than they and I salute them.
Theirs is a huge moral gift. Already in 1984, amid rumours of a ceasefire, the poet Michael Longley reached back over three thousand years to an episode in the Iliad to imagine what would be required – to the story of Priam, King of Troy and Achilles, the Greek warrior who had killed his son Hector.
Longley’s poem, Ceasefire described the generosity, empathy and remorse that are a necessary part of true reconciliation concluding with Priam’s words:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
What is given in that moment is given with the greatest difficulty. It is not given once only. They are asked to “do what must be done” every day that they are forced to live with loss. Those who have not lost can talk more easily – even at times it must seem to the wounded, glibly – of ‘moving on’ but that is not so easily done. The challenge of reconciling with those who caused that loss is a momentous one.
But those of us who were more fortunate face a challenge also – to make sure that we do not allow new divisions to arise – between those who suffered and those who did not, between those who live every day with what happened to them and those who are intent on “moving on”.
Part of that challenge is to root out hatred from our midst. Hatred is a word that has dropped from our discourse. We have become accustomed to talking of sectarianism but is it not hatred by another name? It is bred by intolerance and indeed by a lack of the capacity or opportunity to change. It is not unique to any one group or place. It operates in two directions – one act of disregard feeding off another. Jack McConnell has described it as a secret shame. It is too rarely discussed. Yet if we fail to name it and discuss it we blind ourselves to the harm it can do, that is part of examining our stereotypes and letting go of what impedes us from the future we share.
The great benefits that flow from such open horizons are well illustrated here in Belfast’s thriving arts scene. The Belfast Festival kept open lines of communication and of inspiration across the world during some of the most difficult days of the troubles bringing here, during the 1970’s, Joseph Beuys and the Royal Swedish Ballet among many other international artists.
We know how important these horizons are at times of great stress. Dubliners still remember, for example, the day in 1973 that the England rugby team defied IRA death threats to travel to Ireland and play to a standing ovation at Lansdowne Road, all stereotypes suspended for the enjoyment of that which knew no borders, was simply human.
Those multiple points of connection that I described earlier are addressing some of the post-conflict challenges I have outlined, because ultimately these are not issues solely of politics or legislation or policing but of finding real points of human connection.
The solution lies not just with government – though Government bears a heavy responsibility – but with countless individuals who take a journey into the unknown animated by the courage of departure and a generosity of spirit, and who are willing to review the narratives they have found, are willing to listen to the narrative of the other, pause, review, forgive, allow or pardon.
In that sense, the next stage of the peace process requires us all to be pilgrims on a journey of such ethical reflection as will lead us to the light of peaceful enjoyment of the complex way our lives are intertwined.
It was the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw who first used the words made famous by John F Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘why?’. Others dream things that never were and ask ‘why not?”
For the past 20 years, as if making up for lost time, we have been asking “why not?” and the answers have brought us to unexpected places.
To quote a recent statement, the British-Irish relationship has “never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important, as it is today”. There are more things we are doing together every month. Areas where we are not disabled by any stereotype, old or new, and which might be overlooked.
As to what is formally recalled; what should be remembered, what should not be forgotten: In a decade of centenaries we are thoughtfully able to include in memories, and honour, all those Irish who died for the ideal they chose as important, those who helped create the Irish State, those who shaped the United Kingdom, and all the lives lost including those from among the 200,000 Irish who fought in The Great War with its awful human carnage.
When the children and grandchildren of migrants take pride and inspiration in their past, that can unlock new potential in society – as the United States learned to its great benefit. The growing pride felt by those of Irish ancestry in Britain and those of British ancestry in Ireland, will be a source of energy, inspiration and vigour for society.
We can certainly take pride in what Irish emigrants and their descendents have contributed to British culture – to popular music for example where the Irish influence extends from the Beatles to the Pogues, Oasis and Morrissey, and to more recent bands such as Mumford and Sons and Elbow; there are examples of not just lives entwined but a very creative entwinement, grown, once again from multiple human connections.
There are, of course, challenges we face together, in Europe, in Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland. Foremost among these is the necessity of providing jobs for a talented new generation emerging from our schools and colleges.
The notion of prosperity in public discourse is too often measured solely by Gross Domestic Product but society will not prosper on a rising GDP alone. Prosperity has but an instrument purpose aimed at a deeper societal dimension.
Our common future needs the creativity of our young people, and connected to economic questions are such societal questions – as how to avoid new division between those with good prospects of finding a job and those with poor prospects – or no prospect at all.
To conclude then; No matter how effective the political and economic solutions we find to these challenges, circular migration, will continue to be a fact of life – within and between our societies and further afield.

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