The Belfast I live in today is almost unrecognisable from the city I grew up with in the 1970s and 1980s. The old, grey, strife-ridden Belfast, during the years of the Troubles, is instantly brought back by travel writer Paul Theroux’s 1983 description: “I knew at once that Belfast was an awful city. It had a bad face – mouldering buildings, tough-looking people, a visible smell, too many fences”. That is the Belfast of my childhood: patiently queuing at shop entrances for our bags to be searched for incendiary devices; the butt of a British soldier’s rifle protruding from the corner of a building as he stood on duty; the nervous glances at a car left unattended with its hazard warning lights flashing (a car-bomb? or had someone just nipped out to buy a paper? you were never certain); the horrific litany of death and misery that each day’s radio news bulletins would bring.
But today’s post-conflict Belfast has been buffed, scrubbed and polished out of all recognition. The dour, raddled dame has reinvented herself as dancefloor diva; in fact,
the latest edition of a well-known travel guide hails Belfast’s transformation “from bombs and bullet pariah to hip hotels and hedonism party town”. Glamorous hotels and opulent bars are springing up all over. Yet despite being thoroughly deodorised, there’s still a whiff of cordite in the air, giving visitors a deliciously edgy thrill from the safety of the ‘Troubles Tour’ bus.
On the surface, Belfast – and Northern Ireland as a whole - is a confident, re-invigorated and forward-looking place. Ever since die-hard Free Presbyterian fundamentalist Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness took up office as First and Deputy First Minister in the new Stormont Executive in May 2007, people have been pinching themselves to make sure they are not dreaming. There is indeed a newly awakening spirit of hope, and a fresh willingness to play a role on the world stage, not as a place apart but as a vibrant, colourful community that has learnt about tolerance, respect and mutual understanding the long, slow, painful way.
Yet alongside that optimism and engagement, Northern Ireland remains encumbered with darker, deeply-entrenched characteristics. No one can deny that the insidious virus of sectarianism is far from eradicated. But I am thinking of other, maybe less obvious ways of perceiving and behaving. For instance, perhaps in part because of the sheer hateful intensity of the Troubles, Northern Ireland is still one of the most inward-looking societies in Europe. In fact, I often think that, as a community, we bear a close resemblance to the archetypal adolescent: intensely self-obsessed and wilfully self-indulgent. Just like a teenager, at times we are endearingly enthusiastic, at others gauche, sullen and self-loathing. The poet John Hewitt captured the worst of that Northern Irish petulant intransigence in ‘An Irishman in Coventry’, describing ‘a people endlessly betrayed by our own weakness, by the wrong we suffered … by faith which had no charity to offer, by poisoned memory, and by ready wit, with poverty corroded into malice, to hit and run and howl when it is hit.’
What’s more, our historic role as the noisy, violent and demanding problem youngster of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, kept under close scrutiny by the paternal eye of the United States, has only served to reinforce that traditional sense of immature, obstreperous self-importance. The three ‘adult’ countries have coerced, cajoled and manoeuvred us into the new accommodation that we enjoy today. For the United States, especially under the aegis of pragmatic power-broker Bill Clinton, Northern Ireland became a test-case for the success of benign, morally neutral American involvement.
Yet in Northern Ireland there has always been a distinct reluctance to engage with the views of the ‘outsider’ or the ‘blow-in’ (a term applied to anyone whose family has lived in an area for less than ten generations!), and a wary suspicion of their motives. In part, this is not unreasonable; especially during the years of the Troubles, it was galling to read smug or glib diagnostics of our problems from people living in Cheltenham or Chicago. “Try living here; you’ll soon see it’s not so easy” was the customary response.
The questions we need to ask now are - how does Northern Ireland build a new, more mature relationship with its sponsors, both its near neighbours and those across the Atlantic?; how does it move beyond the socio-economic, political and psychological legacy of thirty years’ strife, carving out a position characterised by self-reliance, dignified dialogue, collaboration and reciprocity, as opposed to one defined by dependence and querulous demands?
It is early days in that process. After all, as Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the peace talks in Northern Ireland wisely noted, the continuing implementation of historic agreements is “as difficult and as important as reaching them”. What’s more, the process of building up the creaky and moribund Northern Irish economy is heavily reliant on soliciting American and European investment, with the Northern Ireland Executive milking the international goodwill following the restoration of devolution in 2007 for all it is worth. So, at least to some extent, it seems that we will occupy the role of dependent child for the foreseeable future.
But - at last - we are on the right road to creating an economically and culturally dynamic society. The recent history of my own family is punctuated by milestones in the Northern Irish democratic process. My son was born in August 1994, just over 3 weeks before the IRA declared its first complete ceasefire, and my daughter was born in April 1998, 2 weeks after the Good Friday Agreement, which brought lasting, if imperfect, peace to our death-haunted country. My hopes for the future of Northern Ireland are intimately bound up with my hopes for my children’s future.
Seamus Heaney once described the Troubles as a quarter-century of “life-waste and spirit-waste, of hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities”. In grasping today’s blossoming possibilities for Northern Ireland, we still need the political and economic support of our North American and European neighbours. But we are taking the first tentative, tottering steps towards true independence. We are growing up.