Avoiding the mistakes of the past

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Lyra McKee’s last tweet on the night of Holy Thursday contained a photograph of journalists and onlookers standing feet away from a PSNI vehicle during a riot in Derry. It became her last report on the “madness” as she described it, that tragically cut her life short.

It is easy to get caught up in the adrenaline of the conflict, and for a journalist, or anyone else, to get too close to danger. It was 1996 when I remember seeing another journalist get hit by a rubber bullet during the Garvaghy Road riots, although the bullet had ricocheted and had lost most of its power. He happily displayed the bruise afterwards, and I think still proudly displays the yellow cylinder of rubber that struck him.

Much further back down the road, in a flak jacket but still in the line of police fire, was CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, looking like something out of a movie set. It is worth repeating, because the marching season lies ahead, that the only safe place to be at a riot is not behind the rioters, nor behind the police, but as far away as possible.

Probably the safest place is actually inside the reinforced, bullet-proof, bomb-proof can of thick steel that is a police vehicle in the north of Ireland, immune to attack and which petrol bombs just wash over like a light show. The PSNI know that they are safe inside, but they also know that the most dangerous place is to stand in the immediate vicinity of one.

Many young people here want to understand the ‘Northern Ireland’ that they have inherited, and why the violence continues. None more so than Lyra, an insightful young journalist, which is probably why she was out on Fanad Drive that night, pushing up into the heart of the riot. her thirst for understanding has not been remotely matched by our politicians.

The world has moved swiftly on since the failed negotiations of two years ago, and there is a common understanding that our politics has not kept pace. For example, few now see the benefit to be gained for Sinn Féin by rehashing old arguments with the DUP over the dodgy RHI green energy scheme, or the rest of the Stormont pantomime.

It would be better to retune to those mourners who stood and cheered Fr Magill at the funeral of their friend. They want a lasting and enduring peace, that they were promised as children.

One way to end the cycle of asymmetric conflict in Ireland is by ending the asymmetric nature of the peace settlements that have come out of it. A smoke and mirrors agreement, in which one side must settle for crumbs from the table, inevitably stores conflict further down the line. That is once gain the situation we face, and that is the situation a further generation might have to endure, without a new approach.

The first part of the solution must surely come from lifting the marginalised communities out of the pit into which they have been consigned by others who have successfully moved into the establishment. In this regard Eamonn McCann is right. Some of those involved in the moneyed side of Good Friday Agreement have ended up with six figure salaries and seven figure pensions. At the other end of the deal are those for whom no effort was made, and who are dealing with poverty and exclusion, paying the bedroom tax or coping on universal credit.

This is the scenario for many of the yoing people in Derry’s Bogside. But the injustice they feel isn’t just a socialist rage at the bourgeoisie, it is republican. On the literal fringe of British and Irish jurisdiction, they understand the root source of the problem is that the crumbs from the British table were just that. They know, because they live beside it, that the injustice of partition is still with us, and that the Good Friday Agreement, in reality, delivered nothing tangible for them.

If the current debate over Brexit features in all of this, it is that it has shone a further light onto the tatters of the GFA. The ceasefire children have their backs permanently to the wall, and they are throwing the crumbs back.

Peace will surely only come for republican communities when there is a meaningful and believable path towards reunification, or at least when there is real hope for reunification. This is far from an impossible demand.

Many republicans will dismiss a border poll as something fundamentally flawed as partitionist, and they have a point. But if an electoral manouerve, even a partitionist one, were to have a chance of delivering a united Ireland at a stroke of just so many pencils, who would realistically argue for armed actions to continue? Any armed campaign would have to cease while a reunification referendum campaign is ongoing, and efforts are being made to secure a Six County majority for Irish unity.

The way to do that is by taking the last remaining crumb of the Good Friday Agreement for nationalists and make it meaningful for everyone - by setting an actual date for the poll to take place. After all, it is part of the agreement that was forged in 1998. Its time has come, and we must know exactly when.

Meanwhile, the recent ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protests show that there is a way for a small number of courageous young people to challenge governments in a manner which doesn’t require bloodshed. No one should die for the sake of an armed struggle that is symbolic or tokenistic.

Of course, the actions of the sectarian PSNI is a critical issue. It is long past time for them to lift the jackboot, end their brutal raids and searches and withdraw permanently from republican communities.

The angry response to the events in Derry is understandable, and the family and friends of Lyra have the right to be most angry. But somehow I don’t think Lyra, as an LGBT activist, would endorse those recent attempts to marginalise, criminalise and censor the young people who chose to riot that night. Nor, do I think, would she want to mock republicans for their beliefs, or remove their right to parade, or mock their appearance while doing so.

It would be much better that something positive comes from Lyra’s death. There is a space for a major shift in thinking right now. What better approach than to try to bridge the gap across that riot?

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