Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Photocalls and peace walls

No, I'm not impervious to the tangled political process that goes on here in Northern Ireland, I just don't comment on it much because it's so predictably hidebound and static and progress towards the normal everyday politics of how to buy a house or how to get a decent job is so pitifully slow. The politicians just can't resist the engrained sectarian and nationalistic squabbling and point-scoring. Meanwhile the rest of us quietly fall asleep or start a new sudoku.

But I have to say my attention was fully engaged by the historic Ian Paisley/Gerry Adams get-together at Stormont, cautiously burying the hatchet and agreeing to share power from May 8. It's in the interests of our children, said Paisley.

The trouble is that on the ground children are still being taught by their parents to distrust the other lot*, so much so they don't even want them as friends. How can we ever have a normal society when this entrenched 'them and us' attitude is fostered in the cradle and shamelessly flaunted in such popular TV programmes as 'Give My Head Peace'?

The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education is doing a great job encouraging mixed schooling but it's still just a drop in the ocean compared with what's needed. The politicians have to take a lead and show us they themselves are willing to suspend their endless suspicion and paranoia and welcome cultural and religious diversity. Then maybe instead of higher and higher peace walls in more and more neighbourhoods, we might start dismantling some of them.

But while the politicians are edging painfully towards a new era of mutual tolerance, a quite different social trend is also promoting diversity - the rising flow of migrants into Northern Ireland from all over the world. Be they Polish, Chinese, Bangladeshi or Parisian, they have one thing in common - they all come from societies where the bizarre tribal conflicts we are plagued with simply don't exist.

So they scratch their heads and wonder if we're all completely mad - and prompt us to rethink our own prejudices. Which may be why so many Northern Irish folk see migrants as a curse rather than a blessing. Personally I say, the more the merrier - why not shake us all up a bit?

* Note for out-of-Ulster visitors: Protestants or Catholics/Loyalists or Republicans

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