Shame is personal. We are usually, as individuals, embarrassed by our shame. It is a way for us to define what we find morally acceptable or unacceptable. Indeed, so personal an emotion is shame, that we rarely publicly admit to feeling ashamed.
Societal shame is an even stranger phenomenon. A new film, “Aftermath”, by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, seeks to tell a version of the tale of how, during the Second World War, a group of Polish villagers in Jedwabne rounded up 300 of the village’s Jewish residents and burnt them alive in a barn. It is, for many Poles, an emerging trend of examining their collective past. Some people naturally find it uncomfortable. One present-day Jedwabne resident is quoted in a Financial Times article as saying “The whole thing is really unfair. A lot of other towns also killed their Jews… Now the whole world thinks that the people of Jedwabne are devils.”
Few people think that everyone in Jedwabne is, or was, a devil. The actions of evil and nefarious people often cast a shadow on an entire community.
Few people, despite the history of violence that has been all too publicly identified with Northern Ireland, believe that everyone who lives there is a devil. But they must question the sanity of its residents.
The background to yet more violence is now well known. In short, under the guise of parity of esteem, Nationalist parties sought to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Council properties. Unionists reacted angrily, and the centrist Alliance Party countered with a motion to fly the flag on the 17 nationally designated days, thereby matching the position at the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Approval of the new policy was met with violence. MPs received death threats, the homes and offices of elected representatives were attacked and ransacked, and dozens of police officers were injured in clashes with Loyalist protesters. One attack, when a petrol bomb was thrown into a police car, from which its occupants managed to escape, is being treated as attempted murder. An ongoing campaign of rolling protests continues to disrupt traffic across Northern Ireland. One would imagine that the societal shame in Northern Ireland should be significant. It is not.
Instead, the protests continue. One protestor’s shriek has been parodied to the point where she is now known simply as the ‘Belfast Bigot.’ The equivications of politicians, some of whom have attended protests, means that the protestors have continued to set the agenda. Families attending a Christmas pantomime have been intimidated.
To feel shame requires acknowledging responsibility. It is difficult to find anyone who will accept responsibility for recent events. Instead, the region’s largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, called for more flying of the flag at Stormont. It took a week of violence to prompt Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, to call for the protests to stop.
Unionist parties refuse to acknowledge their role in heightening tensions. They argue that a leaflet published by them, in Alliance’s trade mark yellow colouring, which stated that the party wanted to “tear down the Union Flag”, also called for any protests to be peaceful.
Meanwhile, Nationalists and Republicans are coy in their triumphalism. Having reproached Unionists for generations on their attitudes towards Catholics and Nationalists, the tables have turned. Sinn Fein, the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has been supported on the flags issue in Belfast by the smaller and more moderate SDLP, and, more pointedly, in the naming of a childrens’ play area elsewhere after an IRA hunger striker. Unionists claim that the developments are part of a campaign to “chip away” at their Britishness. Replacing one triumphalism with another does not make it a positive.
There has been talk of compromise. In Northern Ireland this means repeating the same position louder than the other lot repeat theirs, waiting for them to give in because they’re wrong. Rather, compromise means accepting and understanding other view points, reflecting on your own position, and agreeing to meet on the path between the two. It should, ideally, mean no side being happy.
Northern Ireland’s residents are fond of the absolute. Its politicians encourage an understanding of politics as a zero sum game. Political leadership consists of leading only one’s own tribe, with no recognition of a changing world. Arguments are reduced to Unionist or Nationalist points of view. ‘Normal’ politics is not possible. Those politicians who do recognise a changing world and a need for compromise get disciplined by their party leadership.
The past dominates Northern Ireland’s future. Tribal politics is institutionalised. With a tiny population, an over-reliance on the public sector, and a lack of talent based immigration, there is nothing to break the dynamic. Recent economic difficulties, and the fact that many people feel no tangible benefit from the ‘peace dividend’, have helped fuel the current situation. And for all that, the political system is stuck in a Unionist vs Nationalist time warp.
Plenty of people want to “move on”. Many of them are genuine. Many more say they want to move on, “but…”
Moving on means not living in the past. It means accepting elements of a democracy you wouldn’t choose for a utopian world. It means allowing every part of our culture to express itself legitimately and appropriately. It means accepting that the truth is whatever individuals believe it to be, not what an inquiry says it to be. It means everyone, irrespective of political persuasion, uniting to condemn violence. Northern Ireland should collectively hang its head in shame for permitting the last two weeks of violence.
A bomb scare at one of Belfast’s major shopping centres, ten days before Christmas, turned the past into the present. But there was no shame at how an argument over a flag had brought the past back. It begs the question of why any young, educated person would choose to stay in Northern Ireland? For the reality is that our past haunts our future.