Northern Ireland's quiet revolution
But there was nothing forced about the way he chatted to Mickey Harte and John McAreavey and to local GAA officials. He even took time to shake hands and banter with Gerry Adams and the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.
Indeed, sport – so important to people’s sense of themselves – plays an increasingly important role in helping society negotiate issues of identity. When the Ireland Olympic boxing medallists Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon returned to their native city of Belfast, most people were proud of their achievements. It was the same for the three local Team GB Olympic rowing medallists, brothers Richard and Peter Chambers and Alan Campbell, when they were paraded through the mainly Protestant town of Coleraine, in Co Derry.
I was in Coleraine observing from the edge of the huge crowd greeting them when two women went by. “The lads did well,” I said. “They were great, wonderful,” the women agreed. “But didn’t our boxers do well as well,” one was quick to add. Their attention to parity of congratulation told they were from the green side of the fence, but it was equally obvious they were happy for both sides. And that was the general view.
The soccer terraces can be raw places, but just at the end of last month the GAA and the Irish Football Association organised a joint “good relations forum” in Belfast to explore the impact of sport in building community links. All this is incremental, with much work to do, but throughout society important acts of leadership and reconciliation are taking place.
There is also evidence of people not only learning from history, but taking care that they don’t repeat it. At the end of August, for example, the Sinn Féin West Belfast MP, Paul Maskey, urged the Orange Order to reroute part of the contentious Ulster Covenant parade away from St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in central Belfast.
“Reroute” is a loaded word in Northern Ireland, to be used only with the greatest caution, if at all. It leads to places from which it can be difficult to retreat. Think of Drumcree. But barely had Maskey uttered the word than the nationalist residents of Carrick Hill, beside the church, made clear that they weren’t seeking a rerouting of any parades; they were simply seeking “respect”.
The Ulster Covenant parade passed off peacefully. That largely unremarked-on decision by the Carrick Hill people was a significant moment in ensuring there was no trouble; ordinary people knew what was at stake and realised unnecessarily upping the ante could have serious and unpredictable consequences.
It hardly signals that Northern Ireland has crossed the line into some brave new harmonious world – there are still running tensions over parades past the church – but it indicates good sense and a willingness to take a view from the other’s perspective and acknowledge the other’s identity. It deserves Orange Order reciprocation, and there are slow signs of that happening.
In troubled economic times Northern Ireland has a lot going for it. Soon David Cameron must decide whether and under what conditions the North can reduce its corporation-tax rate to something in line with that of the Republic. It would be a game changer in terms of inward investment, according to Peter Robinson, and economists and commentators agree with him. With its link to a stronger sterling, this could also leave Northern Ireland in a better position than the Republic to begin economic recovery. As part of that economic and investment drive Robinson and McGuinness are on a trade mission to China.
There’s a lot happening otherwise, as well: people are streaming into the Belfast Titanic centre in their tens of thousands; each year there are great festivals, such as the recent 50th Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and the Happy Days Samuel Beckett festival in Enniskillen. Next year Derry will be the UK City of Culture.
Dissidents, who are strong in the city, will try to wreck or disrupt it, but let’s see if Derry people manage to resist that challenge.
Belfast looks great; it’s an architecturally refashioned city, the River Lagan getting the attention it has always deserved. Parts of the city centre that used to be dangerous and now teem with people on weekend nights.There is a new vibrancy about parts of the North. A cafe culture as well as a lively pub scene is developing. All of this makes people feel just that little bit better about themselves. People have a shared pride in place.
Could it all be blown apart? Possibly. From their point of view, the dissidents scored a success by gunning down the prison officer David Black on his way to work. Their satisfaction would have been greater had loyalists responded in like manner. It could have set in train an old pattern of tit-for-tat violence.
Thankfully, that has not happened. And that is also down to leadership, although there are also some incendiary social factors in loyalism that could be a cause of worry if not addressed.
Maintaining peaceful, positive evolution against purist republican violent revolution is down to security vigilance, to politicians thinking and acting in terms of the common good, and to the community asserting itself more vocally against the dissident threat. It’s down to people accepting that history can’t be gainsaid.
And accepting that there are two main identities in Northern Ireland but being comfortable with the occasions when they mingle in some form of Northern Irishness.
One must mention the usual caveat that at the back of people’s mind there is still a lingering concern about revisiting the past. But most people in Northern Ireland are moving away from misery. There is a new confidence and a growing openness, and a humanity that trumps the inhumanity the dissidents offer, a sign of positive transformation.
Which slowly but surely is what is happening in Northern Ireland.
'We are seeing political maturity'
Gavin Robinson DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast
There’s definitely a collective willingness to work for Northern Ireland’s true interest. Less and less you see people approaching issues from a parochial point of view, formed from a particular view of the past. There’s an emphasis on positive progression, both at Stormont and at council level.
Of course, there are still fault lines that people naturally fall into. But, particularly around sensitive discussions, such as those around the recent Ulster Covenant centenary, we are seeing political maturity.
I am still British, but I can see the benefit of talking up our part of the UK. It can be easier for people if they are able to talk about being Northern Irish rather than British or Irish; it can be a point of unity.