WHAT does a shared future look like?
Does it look like a future where Irish citizens continue to have second class status, second class flags, a second class language? Does it look like a future where our roads continue to be bedecked with union flags and flags depicting various pro-British armed groups – legal and illegal? Does a shared future mean that we have to acquiesce to a version of Britishness and only express our Irish identity through acts of protest or compromise? Is a shared future one where we accept that culture is merely something that people have done for a long time and its expression is legitimate no matter how insulting, diminishing, provocative or hate-filled it might be?
Because that’s how it feels. Every single day, and especially every July. And because this week I see absolutely no change whatsoever in the streets I walk through, drive through or visit from 1994 when I first moved north to now. These streets are not truly shared. When flags are erected, that serves not to promote culture, but to diminish those who feel no allegiance to that flag. When a bonfire is burned in memory of the slaughter of Catholics, that is a repeated message to Catholics that they are less.
When those bonfires include hate-filled imagery and effigies of politicians or public figures it tells us that the depiction of the murder of said public figures is fair enough. Many people noticed a particular difference between the correct and immediate outrage to a bonfire sign saying Foreigners Out to the benign shrugging of shoulders to effigies of local politicians on bonfires. That is instructive about how we really define a shared future. Whose interests might be sacrificed?
Take Downpatrick, a city that boasts a massive celebration of St Patrick in March. No tricolours allowed lest they offend. In July the road it passes through is filled with British flags. Anyone talking up a Shared Future without speaking honestly about the hate, poison, bigotry and utter sectarianism of July on our streets, and their insidious effect, is living in cloud cuckoo land. Or maybe it is a land of spin. Pretending that we have a society that is way more advanced than it actually is.
Is everyone who marches on the Twelfth across the north a bigot? Of course not. The work of the Ladies Orange Order, raising money and volunteering in their local, mainly rural areas is a valuable hidden story. But as long as this OrangeFest is not challenged on how it contributes to ongoing sectarianism and division, it’s very difficult to believe in something we can genuinely share.
Watch out for how the handful of illegal bonfires and flags erected in August will be played off against July as though that creates a balance of hate that means no one needs feel uncomfortable. It becomes another issue of “contested spaces”, only serving to deliberately hide the issue.
I could talk about the Good Friday Agreement and how it is meant to be so different now. But I don’t even know if that is helpful. Every July we witness the physical manifestation of not only sectarian division, but the sidelining of our hard-won peace agreement. And that should be quite a motivation for change.