Time to end our unforgivable ignorance of the North


ELAINE BYRNE:Ten years after Omagh, have we in the South made any effort to understand our Northern neighbours?

'I KNOW ALMOST nothing about it. I'm not at ease there. I've always felt a flush of relief recrossing the Border . . . North and South are worlds still largely unknown to each other." So wrote the late Nuala O'Faolain in her January 1998 Irish Timescolumn when she announced that she was moving to Northern Ireland to write her column. An Irish Timesletter writer, not particularly encouraging of her decision, chastised Nuala for her "near total ignorance of all things Northern . . . the information gap Ms O'Faolain is off to investigate doesn't exist."

"Is Nuala O'Faolain really somebody to write about the North?" he asked.

Over the next eight months, Nuala proceeded to write about King William's Orange Preserve Jam, a trip to the cinema to see Titanic and the personal ads in the Belfast Newsletter. She wrote about ordinary, everyday things. Nuala advocated a "new kind of journalism" for a new Ireland, which would get behind the "many facades of Northerners".

Her final column for The Irish Timeswas written in the raw immediacy of the Omagh bomb. "What can we do to help?" she asked. "Well, we can approach the subject of Northern Ireland with more care and more humility. We can make a better effort to understand the place."

In the 10 years since these words, what do Southerners really know about Northerners and vice versa? Have we in the South made any effort to understand our Northern neighbours or are we content in indifference? Do we really care about "up there"?

The 2006 Central Statistics Office figures show that 585,000 people from Northern Ireland visited the Republic. In the same period, just 277,000 people from the South visited the North. Twice as many Northerners visited the South even though the population of the North is less than half that of the South.

Almost as many people from the rest of Europe visited the North as did from the South. Why are people from the Republic reluctant to visit the North? What do we really know about each other?

This year, I participated in two reconciliation retreats with teenagers and twentysomethings directly affected by the Troubles from across the community.People were at different stages of forgiveness. Eoin believed that "if someone says 'sorry' then we can move on". Rachel was not so sure: "Does forgiveness come from within? If I'm to find a way to be able to forgive, it's not one act of forgiveness, it's many acts. There are days when you're able to forgive, days you're not."

Joe thought that "people are keeping themselves in the past and people are being kept in the past". Others asked why Ireland always sought to commemorate those who died for Ireland rather than those who lived for Ireland. Joan was weary of hearing how young people were the North's future: "The future hasn't been born yet, we're the present."

For those caught up in the horrific violence wrought by the Omagh bomb 10 years ago today, when they were just barely teenagers, there was a sense of something greater than themselves. Their life choices in the last decade were determined by that one day.

Eleanor was just 15 when her two schoolfriends were killed in the Omagh bomb. Subsequently, she exhibited some of her artwork in the Omagh Gallery, where the bomb exploded. "I had not set foot in there before, nor wanted to, but it was my way of saying sorry for what had happened to them."

For Eleanor, the context, language and structure of remembrance tend to be formal, reflecting that something had happened without acknowledging the individual, private sense of grief.

She described her last 10 years as a journey which she expressed through her art.

"I hope people see the softness and detail in my art. The colours are deliberately muted. It's not raw grief, but trying to process grief, trying to start again in a different place."

The confidence, self-awareness and willingness to talk openly of those at the retreats was striking. But in these groups you will only find Northerners talking to each other. In the South, maybe, we believe we have done our bit. Fifty six per cent of us turned out to vote 94 per cent in favour of the Good Friday agreement. We consider that the conflict is not our problem but an internal one to the North.

Suzanne was straight up: "You don't see yourselves in the South as part of the problem. You don't engage with us."

Nuala O'Faolain ended her last Irish Times column with these words: "Yet the fact is that Northern Ireland has been the most important thing about Ireland in my lifetime."

Yesterday, on the front page of the local newspaper, the Tyrone Constitution, was the picture of the Omagh courthouse clock which was stopped at 3.10.