Northern Irish people are weird. As one of them, I’m allowed to say this. If you say it, I’ll take against you. We’re odd that way.
Those of us who were born in the Seventies and lived the entire formative parts of our lives during the Troubles are even odder. It’s not our fault. It was a REALLY weird time. I’m downplaying it. If you downplay it, I’ll take against you.
We were brought up in an environment of suspicion and resentment. We just didn’t think it weird at the time.
We could tell by the way you pronounce the letter H if you’re one of us or one of them. We could tell by your surname, by your first name. We went around making a multitude of tiny calculations on who you were, against who we were, about where the cultural borders lay, about whether it was going to be OK to say things, to admit things, to challenge things. When to run.
Are you a remainer or a leaver? Can you be trusted if you are the other?
I got my front teeth punched out on the street one night because I was one of us and not one of them. I was 17. That’s small, small beer compared to what many went through. But it stays with you. It’s a tiny stone trapped in a shoe. Most of the time you don’t feel it, but every now and again it nips and there is little to shift it.
I left many years ago and never really went back. Still, it was my home.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
I mention all this, not as some desperate quest for sympathy, but as a warning. It’s 50 years since the Troubles started (the Troubles! Makes it sound like an upset stomach!) and there is a growing familiar sense, an ugly bubbling around in the rest of the UK.
People are beginning to make calculations about whether others are one of them or one of the other. Are you a remainer or a leaver? Can you be trusted if you are the other? Is there more to flock to with a stranger who is on your side than a neighbour who isn’t?
This is clearly, hugely, dangerous. And it’s hardening. Social media and all that it brings really doesn’t help. But even without diving into social media, it’s a dangerous worldview to allow to grip. This stops pluralism and an openness to the other. This breeds nothing but distrust. The only way to stop it is to pause, and accept that the other has a view that is legitimate and necessary to hear.
This sounds, I know, like platitudinous cant. But you’ve got to do something and do it quickly before the unpleasantness and idolatry of empty rhetoric windbags becomes something darker. At the moment great fires are being lit, not to provide torches but to destroy the maps. When you get into the cesspit for real, it’s a bleak place. It will take presidents and peacemakers, months of talks and a generational shift to sort it out. And that is no guarantee of a solid, fixed future.
I haven’t even mentioned the Irish border.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue