In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Rob Fairmichael, who is a long-time peace activist and coordinator of INNATE, a non-violence network in Ireland.
I have a great grandfather buried in the (Belfast) City Cemetery, Leonard McCaughey. He was originally from Armoy and opened a vegetarian restaurant in Belfast’s Cornmarket around the turn of the 20th century. It had what could be a modern trendy name — the letters “XL”. My mother’s father was born in the building in Botanic Avenue, which has the chemist near the railway bridge. But as a young child, Northern Ireland was a strange place we visited once a year to see relations.
From a Southern Protestant background, my great-grandfather on that side was busy founding Orange lodges in County Offaly in the 1880s. Being in the north for my secondary education, it was the surrealism of a British army training film on hand-to-hand combat in 1969, when I was 16 and a member of an army cadet force at the school, which convinced me of the futility of violence and set me on a lifetime of attempting to be a peacemaker. The Troubles were just beginning.
Belfast was still a strange place for me when I came to work in 1975 for an ecumenical student group after finishing college in Dublin. There weren’t too many people coming to live here at that time with the Troubles, which are never too far away, often just up or down the street. Gradually we put down roots and it became home. It was a personal relief that the ceasefires of 1994 happened when our children were starting to hit the teenage years and be wanting to go out to by themselves.
Although it has almost never been my paid employment, I’ve been involved with many different peace initiatives over the years, and don’t consider Northern Ireland to be “at peace” for two reasons: unresolved sectarian and Troubles issues, and involvement with militarism on the arms trade, including missiles, drones, and laser weapons being made in Belfast. People were killing each other in Northern Ireland; now people are expanding their involvement in making weapons to kill people elsewhere. Incidentally, the Republic is also trying to develop its arms industry.
As to the constitutional future, well, the Good Friday Agreement says 50% plus one determines a United Kingdom or united Ireland. For me a united people is most important, but if it did come to a 50% plus one vote for a united Ireland, I feel that should be the start of a process of engagement, not a decision to be implemented the next day.
Belfast and Northern Ireland have been quite good to me, with fascinating work and voluntary involvements, and I have no regrets about coming here as a young man. However, it’s sad and undermining to see the brain drain of young people continuing to leave, and that has most to do with the continuing sectarian division, but also the undersupply of educational opportunities at third level.
If we halt climate change, a more peaceful world in a hundred years may be possible. I think part of achieving that aim is redefining democracy in a more inclusive way; the insights and mechanisms provided by the de Borda Institute provide some help here.
I also think the incoming of migrants to Ireland, both north and south, has been a great assistance in building a positive and inclusive culture, helping us to think wider. In Colum Sands’ words, “It’s time that we were learning to count higher up than two.” We still have a huge amount of work to do.
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