Opinion

Paul McNamee: Stay open to others. It’s the only way

At the moment great fires are being lit, not to provide torches but to destroy the maps

Northern Ireland map

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.

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  

Image: Google Maps

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
We can make the four-day working week a reality – and make it work for everyone. Here's how
Andrew Fennell

We can make the four-day working week a reality – and make it work for everyone. Here's how

We took the Home Office to task for lying on modern slavery. We still don’t have answers
car washes have been highlighted as modern slavery hotspots
MAYA ESSLEMONT

We took the Home Office to task for lying on modern slavery. We still don’t have answers

Westminsterism may think it knows best – but dismantling it can help us move forward
Affected families in Westminster after the damning report into the infected blood scandal was published
John Bird

Westminsterism may think it knows best – but dismantling it can help us move forward

How the life-affirming power of the chicken helped me understand grief and loss
Catherine Swire

How the life-affirming power of the chicken helped me understand grief and loss

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know