Tribal affairs

Kavita Thanki (AC 08-10, Northern Ireland)

A few years ago I was at a family barbeque. Irish Catholic families are big and everyone was there: my little cousins playing in the garden, my fat uncle flipping burnt beef burgers and sausages on the grill, my grandmother sipping sherry outside in the sunshine. I sat beside her, put my arm around her and asked if she remembered anything like this when she was my age. Of course I knew her childhood had been very different from mine; she carries the weight of it around with her, something typical of the older generation of Northern Ireland. This was just one of the many occasions on which she would tell me about how oppressed ‘we’ were, about the atrocities committed against ‘us’ by the British and the Loyalist Protestants. She doesn’t even try to disguise the hate: she wears it like a second skin. 

An hour later I was being driven across town to a Protestant area to help my best friend fundraising for the renovation of her Baptist Church. I’d lied to my family, telling them that I was going to a birthday party. Feeling like a traitor to both sides by refusing to stick to one or the other, it was only afterwards that I realised how fundamentally wrong it is to demand people choose a side, to allow no alternative. Because by creating an ‘us and them’ mentality, by each side defining themselves as the victim and then hiding behind this –using it as an excuse, we polarise ourselves. We separate ourselves further.

Yes, we reached ‘peace’ with the Good Friday Agreement but it focused on the politics more than the ordinary people. It didn’t diffuse into the culture, and still today we have the ‘Peace Walls’ which divide the capital, Belfast, into different areas where even the street curbs are painted the colours of the Irish or the British flags: either green, white and orange if it’s Catholic or red, white and blue if it’s Protestant. As children we are raised to believe that politics and religion combine to create one force and we see this manifest in the physical separation of people. Separate shops, separate post-codes, but most importantly separate schools. Despite the demand (when questioned, 82% of parents wanted integrated schooling), only 5% of children actually attend schools where both Catholics and Protestants are present. Why? -Because the schools themselves are run by minorities of sectarians who favour segregation. The few integrated schools which we do have are vastly over-subscribed. This leaves the other 95% of the population to fear and hate ‘the other side’. If you only live within your own closed community, if some of your best friends aren’t of the other religion, if you don’t see them every day in class and copy homework off them or swap jewellery or flirt or fight or interact with them as individuals then of course you can get sucked in by your grandmothers horror stories from the past. Of course you see everything in black and white.

The recent killing of two British Army soldiers stationed in Co. Armagh and a Catholic police officer by the Continuity Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Real IRA respectively, have been met with shock by most. The Peace Process in N.I. is hailed as one of the best success stories of conflict resolution. However without educating the young, how can we ever hope for reconciliation? The politicians might sit together in government, the population remains divided. But I do not believe all is lost, or that we will slide back into the Troubles: even my grandmother agrees that peace is what’s best. These attacks have been condemned by both sides, politically and publically (as seen in the mass Vigils that were held for the dead). It is the younger generation who are now starting to put the old hatred into action again. Those who remember the Troubles don’t want to go back to that. Only if we start to bring in measures such as integrated schools, only if we bring down the Peace Walls, only if we stop spending £1.5billion on keeping the two communities segregated, only then shall Northern Ireland truly know peace.

– United World College Student Magazine –

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