In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Malachi O’Doherty, who is a writer and commentator.
I think in some ways there’s a wave pattern in history in Northern Ireland, and the wave pattern being one between trouble and peace. A lot depends on where you were born on that wave. I was born in a peaceful wave, in a dip, if you like in 1951 — the state was 30 years old then. Obviously as a child, I had very little consciousness of politics. I had some consciousness very early on of sectarian division, but not of sectarian violence. And then I saw the crest rise and it peaked, I suppose when I was 20, 21, so I came into the Troubles phase with an awareness of what proceeded it.
The most powerful motivation to travel was the violence here in 1972. I went to England and from there travelled on a few years later, to India, and came back in ’79. I mean, people talk about the ’80s and the ’90s as the height of the Troubles. I mean, it’s complete nonsense, because by ’79, we’re already going back down into the trough, you know? Certainly there was a lot of violence — the hunger strikes had yet to happen. But there was a way of life that you could live in 1980 that you could not live in ’72.
I am not committed to the unification of Ireland and I am not adamantly opposed to it ever happening. I do think Northern Ireland deserves some credit for having evolved. I mean, if you’re looking at the origins of Australia or the origins of North America, you’re looking back at criminal genocide, right? And still in all people can adapt to celebrating that the emergence of a modern democracy in the United States and in Australia are good things worth marking. So I think it’s churlish to acknowledge that and to say that you can never celebrate the fact Northern Ireland. There aren’t many places in the world that are a lot better than this, you know? I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh, Northern Ireland’s a third world country, it’s post-colonial, it’s a victim of oppression, it’s suffering apartheid.” I’d say, “Would you ever go and catch yourselves on? Would you ever go and look at what apartheid was? Would you ever go and look at what life is like in a third world country?”
There is a problem of deep sectarian division in the state. The potential for political players to irritate the fault line is still there. And the potential for people to respond to that irritation and seek opportunity to create mayhem through violence is still there. My generation born into the trough didn’t stop that happening in 1970 and the gorgeous, affable, well-intentioned young people of today might not hold it back the next time either.
Maybe what we’re looking at is something like, if you look at the wave pattern of a boing, you know, as the frequency dies down, the wee troughs, the wee waves get shorter and shorter. So we’re maybe looking at something like that. And certainly we’ve got a political middle ground now which we didn’t have. There were moderate unionists and moderate nationalists in the past, but now there’s a very large section of society which refuses both those labels. The scale of that is new.
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.
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Images © Allan LEONARD