There’s a famous saying, of uncertain provenance: “If you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there.”
I do remember the ‘60s. I was there (although ‘there’ obviously means different things to different people). Location, in this context, is critically important.
I was born in Derry in 1960 and our experience of the sixties was very different to that of Londonders. Unlike in swinging London, the only substances most of us inhaled were the fumes which seeped day and daily from the Gasyard at Stanley’s Walk, or CS gas from the hundreds of canisters which the police pumped into the Bogside from 1969 on.
Our city was gerrymandered and controlled by a unionist political minority. Catholics were discriminated against; unemployment was endemic; and housing conditions – for many – were appalling. We still disagree over what to call the place.
Nelson Mandela observed that “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” And where you sat affects your whole outlook.
I was struck by this as I listened to Mike Nesbitt’s statement explaining why he was withdrawing his Ulster Unionist Party from the Northern Ireland Executive. In it he said, “Without trust there is nothing.”
Mike Nesbitt is only three years older than me but our worlds were obviously very different. He was born in North Belfast but grew up in the staunchly unionist East of the city. His community, like his family, suffered at the IRA’s hands. His father’s linen business was blown up by the Provisionals in 1973 – one of many obliterated in the IRA’s bombing offensive. Hundreds of Protestants and unionists died at the hands of republican paramilitaries. It would be entirely understandable if Mike Nesbitt regarded certain republicans as ogres, and only natural that he suspected their motives.
The sources of my nightmares were different though. RUC men ‘batoning’ my neighbours during civil rights protests. Palls of CS gas hanging over our homes. Going to sleep in the top bunk with gun battles raging outside. Routine harassment. Arrests and house-raids. People my age being killed by the police and army. The dread of UDR checkpoints. And, of course, Bloody Sunday – the terror of the day itself and the sense of utter betrayal in its aftermath.
This was all happening just 75 miles away from where Mike Nesbitt was living but he and I were a world apart in terms of our experience.
And now Mike talks about the need for ‘trust’.
Trust cuts two ways. I belong to a part of the community which has had ample reason to distrust political Unionism, the police, the courts and the State. But when I, and tens of thousands like me, voted for the Good Friday Agreement, we set grievance – and bitter experience – aside and chose to build a future better than the past.
It’s that better future which is now in jeopardy. The hope which resides in the Good Friday Agreement will be non-existent without the political institutions it introduced.
Mike talks about the need for ‘trust’. His party points an accusing finger at Sinn Féin over its ‘links’ to a “terrorist organisation”. How does he imagine that’s perceived by nationalists who have seen unionist politicians cosying up to loyalists for years? How does he think unionists’ professed concern for a murdered, former IRA man, is being received now?
Shortly after he became Unionist leader, Mike provoked controversy by asking to be adopted by a poor family for 24 hours, so that he could better understand their plight. It might have been a better idea to spend some time in the Bogside, or West Belfast, or on the ‘other side’ one of North Belfast’s many peace lines. Perhaps then he might have got a better insight into the complexity of our problem.
Trust isn’t something you can command. Trust is earned. If it develops at all it happens through contact and dialogue.
Martin Luther King Junior said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
If Mike Nesbitt is serious about wanting to build trust, walking away is the very worst thing he could have done.