Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Who Won the War?

Last week the BBC broadcast a documentary to mark twenty years since the IRA declared a ceasefire which led to the end of the conflict in the north of Ireland. As I watched the BBC images of cheering republicans waving tricolours  in west Belfast and celebrating the declaration on 31 August 1994 I sensed an emptiness inside me. In retrospect the hopes and optimism of that day seem somewhat naive and unfounded. We believed we were celebrating a breakthrough but I wondered what we expected it would lead to. Did we expect that two decades later there would still be ongoing political tension in the north of Ireland and that the union with Britain would remain as secure as ever?
The documentary, Who Won the War? put this very question to a number of leading Irish and British politicians and political activists. Film maker and journalist, Peter Taylor, elicited responses from all sides before he concluded by giving his own answer to the question. Taylor has followed developments in the conflict for many years in his documentaries and writings. In this latest production he spoke at times with a depth of feeling and engagement with the topic.
Standing in front of a multi-storey loyalist bonfire “decorated” with Sinn Féin election posters and tricolours, Taylor comments, “In some parts normality seems like a veneer to hide the powerful undercurrents of bitterness and resentment”. Fierce opposition to the removal of the Union flag from Belfast city council and protests by the Orange Order over the so called right to march are expressions of this bitterness and resentment. But perhaps the most visible and enduring sign that real peace has not yet come about are the four or five metre high walls dividing Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast.  
Speaking from a loyalist viewpoint, Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party argued that his community feels alienated from the state. He pointed out that working class loyalists feel they haven’t gained anything from the peace process, there is still deprivation, poverty and educational under achievement. Pressed on the issue of what loyalist violence achieved, if anything, Hutchinson replied that it had “prevented a United Ireland”. 
If Hutchinson was satisfied with this achievement, he didn’t look it. Preventing a United Ireland has not raised living standards for either community and dissatisfaction with the current political situation is also apparent among working class Catholics. Former IRA prisoner Gerard Hodgins tells Taylor “We set out to be revolutionaries and overthrow the state and ended up being caretakers of the state... 3,000 plus people is a hell of a price to pay to become part of the state you were trying to overthrow.” Hodgin’s reply to the question as to who won the war, is blunt, “the British”.
The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, is more sanguine as to the outcome of the conflict. The inequalities suffered by nationalists are in the past and “people are no longer being treated as second class citizens.” While it is true that there is equality of political representation in the Stormont government, there are still profound differences with regards to the levels of deprivation. Statistics indicate that poverty tends to be more concentrated in Catholic working class areas than Protestant.*  People living in these areas suffer doubly, religious and class discrimination.
Perhaps the most depressing image in the documentary was that of Sean McKinley. McKinley featured in a 1970s documentary as a young boy with the initials “IRA” tattooed on his knuckles. Back then he announced that when he grew up he would fight and die for his country. McKinley spent time in prison for killing  a British soldier and now, in his early fifties, looking weary under the weight of his years, he tells Peter Taylor, “I know a lot of people who thought they were fighting and dying for their country but it never worked out that way... We’ll get there ... I have faith in Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.”
Gerry Adams is a now member of Dáil Éireann and president of what is currently the largest party on the island of Ireland, Sinn Féin. The party has come a long way since the early days of the conflict and Adams clearly believes that it can go further still. When asked “Who won the war?” he replies that the struggle isn’t over.
Overall, the portrayal of nationalists in “Who Won the War” is forward looking and optimistic and at one point Peter Taylor remarks, “Coming back to Belfast, I really get the sense that Nationalists and Republicans are comfortable in their own skins” or “confident in their Irishness and republicanism,” as Martin McGuinness puts it.
In answer to his own question, who really won the war, Peter Taylor states that the winners are the British and the Unionists because the union with Britain is still safe. However, he adds a caveat, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long years ahead a United Ireland did emerge.” Listening to him, I wondered if at some level on that afternoon of August 1994, this was what we were cheering about, a long term goal of freedom from colonial status or was it something more immediate, like equality. And this, I suppose is what the documentary brings into focus, not who won the war but what the war was about. If it was about equality, then Republicans have triumphed and if it was about ensuring a united Ireland did not come about then Unionists have won. In the end, it appears to depend on which story each side wants to tell themselves.

Friday, June 6, 2014

And did you get what you wanted from this life?

And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
I did
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

(Raymond Carver, 1938-1988)
On a recent stay at Gaia House Buddhist Retreat Centre*, one of the teachers read out this poem, written while the author was terminally ill. The question he poses remained with me for much of the retreat, for it is one which surely touches on our deepest fear that we might be squandering this precious life. Pause now to focus on the image the first two lines evoke and the unmistakeable day of reckoning comes to mind. On that day our answer, whatever it is, will be final; there will be no second opportunity, no prospect of returning to relive a life that has come and gone. If, unlike the persona in Raymond Carver’s poem, we have not loved or been loved, what then? 
Posing a question of this magnitude retrospectively grants it a solemnity that is in accordance with the gravity of the subject. “And did you get what you wanted from this life?” goes far beyond day to day (ego) concerns of possessions and career, rather, it is about living wisely, while we still have time to do so. Could there be any more important question than that which asks whether we are spending our time on this earth wisely?To live thus is to lead a worthwhile life, and the point of departure has to be how we conduct our relations with other beings on the same arduous journey as ourselves. Integrity, honesty and compassion are some of the virtues that, to a greater or lesser extent, comprise the fabric of how we relate each other. If they are lacking, our hearts weigh heavy with their absence; the ache, the persistent niggle serving as a reminder that we have lost something fundamental to the way we could be living out our lives. 
Seeking out a role model, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, people whose lives have been built on the foundation of these virtues, may not be of much help. Such is their greatness that we often fall into despair about our own capabilities. Being realistic, perhaps we have to acknowledge that the most we can aim for is to show more kindness to ourselves and each other in our everyday lives. This is a real possibility and one that would make life less arduous for us and those we interact with. Toward the end of his life, Aldous Huxley, writer and Buddhist scholar, touched on this theme when he confessed, “It's a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”  
Ancient of Days
William Blake
Kindness draws us out of that state of self absorption which allows our life to bypass us. Opportunities arise every day to live with kindness and they enable us to step back from whatever concerns have hijacked our mind and treasure the opportunity of this moment to make a connection, to feel alive. It is not just our fellow beings, but the Earth too which is generous in affording us opportunities to remind us of this. Midnight on moon-blanched pasture land and the cry of an owl fluttering on the night breeze opens the heart to beauty and gratitude floods in. The furious chirping of an angry blackbird, roused by the sight of a cat prowling in the proximity of her nest commands our attention and we snap out of whatever thoughts were preoccupying us and connect to our surroundings.

Our lifespan on this earth elapses in a micro second. We are less than the blink of an eye in the history of this planet and yet this blink is our sole opportunity to make something worthwhile out of the years that pass between our birth and our death. A possible starting point is to pose the question Raymond Carver has formulated and set about seeking an answer which we, as individuals, find satisfying. I wish you luck.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Straight from the Heart

On the morning of Friday 14 March I experienced one of those moments that will never fade from my memory. Cup of tea in hand, I was just about to settle into the armchair next to the radio when a sudden change in tone in the Radio 4 news presenter’s voice caught my attention. She paused momentarily and then solemnly announced the death of Mr Tony Benn. A wave of blunt pain rose up through me. Putting the tea aside I breathed deeply and the pain shifted into the deadweight that is grief.

Unlike Mr Benn’s bereaved family and friends, I can’t say that the loss of this gifted politician and inspirational leader is personal, but it feels like that. It feels as if part of me has been torn away, leaving behind an emptiness that has persisted since the news of his death. It is true that we have lost a unique and historical figure, a “national treasure” as he was called in his latter days, but it is largely nostalgia which explains my reaction. His importance for me dates back to my student days, when politics and protest formed as much a part of my education as my studies did. Again and again Tony Benn gave voice, as eloquently and passionately as only he knew how*, to the socialist politics I believed in. His words brought clarity and conviction to the muddled left-wing discourse in my head, and he became central to many of the causes I supported.

That was the era of the Sandinista revolution and the spread of Euro communism, when it made sense to hitch-hike to Greenham Common and show solidarity with the women camping there in protest against the Cruise missiles base. It made sense to walk in the People’s March for Jobs, to join the campaign in favour of the miners’ strike and to have fun at the Marx with Sparks festival in London. Crucially, the music scene caught the mood of the times and brought the language of class politics right into mainstream media. Without bands like the Jam and the Clash the struggle might have been grimmer; it wasn’t. Their energy infused the potential for change with a momentum that I still recall thirty years later.

The campaigns and the music were all very well, but without credible and articulate leaders with access to power the Left risked losing focus. For many of us Tony Benn provided that focus. Of course, as the “figurehead of the Lunatic Left,” as he was labelled by the tabloid press, Mr Benn was repeatedly ridiculed and vilified. This was a man who was elected to the UK parliament no less than 15 times, who formed part of the Labour cabinet and very narrowly missed being elected leader of the party in 1981.** His voters, constituents and a significant section of the Labour Party certainly didn’t share the tabloid view; they had sufficient trust in the man to elect him into positions of power. By a tiny percentage, Tony Benn failed to become Labour leader in 1981 and possibly prime minister thereafter. The opportunity came and was lost.

Tony Benn2.jpgThose years, when socialist politics were alive and vibrant, have been eclipsed by the rise of Thatcherism, the demise of trade union influence and the growth of a society in which greed is exalted and encouraged. This is the UK today. It wasn’t always like this and for those of us who recall a time when politics and policies were different, our memories, and our lives too, are that little bit lonelier now that Tony Benn has gone.

TONY BENN 1925 – 2014

*  David Dimbleby describes Tony Benn’s oratory style as “mesmerising.” (BBC Radio 4 5.00 news, Friday 14 March)

** Denis Healey won the contest by 1 vote (Healey 50.4 / Benn 49.6)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Kwai Chang Caine: Where Are you Now?

One Sunday afternoon many years ago, a friend drove me over to south Belfast, where there is a supermarket specialising in Asian produce. He was confident that the trip would be an antidote to my disgruntlement with the uninspiring choice and mediocre quality of fresh fruit and vegetables in my area. As we were searching for a parking space in the terraced street closest to the supermarket I noticed scores of Chinese couples and families wheeling heavily burdened trolleys through the mizzle in the direction of their cars. Until that afternoon I’d only been vaguely aware that Chinese people lived in Belfast. Apparently, there were over 7,000* living in Northern Ireland at that time, which made them the largest non-European ethnic group within the wider population. My friend and I wondered where they all lived, what jobs they did and why they had come to Belfast, a city from which so many of the local population had fled during “The Troubles”. Where did the Chinese fit in here; were they anomalies in a terrain demarcated into orange and green, or red, white and blue? Were they “invisible people” I wondered, a shadow community in a population of nationalists and unionists?
More recently I’ve come to re-examine these questions. My friendship with a young Chinese couple, who have come to Belfast since the demise of the conflict, has given me an insight into how they perceive the challenges of building a life for themselves here. Far from being “shadows”, their forthrightness and resilience has a freshness that contrasts with the general weariness that seems to have fallen upon much of the population, defeated by a war and straitjacketed by an economic recession.
Steven arrived in Belfast ten years ago from the north of China and his wife, Judy, finally joined him three years later. By that time Steven had acquired a partnership in a city centre restaurant, a business which has become stable and prosperous. Management of the business takes up much of his time, but Steven is also very much “hands on” in the kitchen. He is a master chef and twice he has won first prize in competitions at the Chinese New Year Festival.
For her part, Judy has made it a priority to learn English. She spent three years enrolled on a full-time course for international students at Queen’s University and is now working toward a degree in art and design. She is a gifted artist and wishes she could devote more time to developing her creativity. But time has been at a premium since two-year-old Michael was born and assignments are often completed after midnight. Still, she knows there will be more opportunities to study when Michael starts play school.
Judy has mixed feelings about her son’s future on this side of the world, “I worry about him, about what his life will be like here. He’s a kind and gentle child and it may not be easy to find kindness out on the street.” Last year, a bus driver refused to let Judy board with the pram. She was surprised and hurt when this happened because she could see there were only about half a dozen passengers and a sole pram on the bus, so there was plenty of room. That evening, a friend (also Chinese and also a mother) explained this was not uncommon and advised her not take it too personally, “and I can’t afford to, can I?” she adds with a shrug.
That incident occurred while Michael was still a baby. A few weeks ago, during lunch in one of the more exclusive stores in Belfast, Steven took his son over to look at the toys so that Judy and I could chat. Five minutes later he returned, saying that he had been “scolded” for allowing Michael to run up and down the aisle. I caught Judy’s eye and she murmured, “I think it’s only Chinese children who are not allowed to run here”. At this point Michael dropped his toy car, so I picked it up and told him to be careful. “Be careful;” he mimicked my pronunciation perfectly with a heart-melting smile, mirrored by his mother, delighted that another new word has been added to her son’s lexicon of English.
From the outset has Steven impressed upon Judy how important it is to integrate here, to follow norms. He felt uncomfortable when she wandered around the city taking photos for her art and design course, perhaps drawing attention to herself; not keeping a low profile. Developing talent often involves taking risks with new endeavours. Whereas most Chinese students study management or business, Judy points out that in choosing art and design, “I was already way off the beaten track as far as Chinese immigrants are concerned.”
The couple have achieved much in the years that have passed since Steven’s arrival in Belfast with some savings and just a few words of English; the point of disembarkation for a new life. Now they live in a detached house, outside of which their respective cars are parked, a testament to the double shifts and frequent seven-day weeks Steven works. Back in China he’d heard that this is a country where hard work and effort equals results. It is precisely this, the opportunity to make a success of life which Steven most values about this society.
         He denies it is work which is causing him to look so weary. In his own words he tells me about an incident that occurred a few days ago in the restaurant. Two drunks entered and said some “dirty sentences” to the young Chinese waitress. One of them punched Steven’s brother when he intervened on her behalf. CCTV captured the scene and a local taxi driver followed the pair when they left; it was thanks to his help the police were able to initiate a criminal investigation. Neither Steven nor Judy is hopeful of a prosecution. Judy adds that they already spend too much time in their solicitor’s office and the outcomes are usually very disappointing because the cases are rarely taken seriously.
Drunks demanding free food or menacing staff are a persistent late-night hazard in the restaurant. On one occasion a couple of youths, high on drugs or alcohol, were behaving aggressively and Steven was endeavouring to persuade them to leave; just then a customer took a stand, a tall stand, for when he rose from his seat, he was about 6’7’’. He lifted the pair by the collar, one with each hand, and threw them into the street. “Chinese can’t do this because we would either be battered senseless or find ourselves in front of a court.”
Just recently Steven was stopped and questioned at the same police road block for five consecutive days. On the fifth day, he challenged the officer, pointing out that as a Chinese man he was being repeatedly singled out while other drivers were being waved on. Steven asked for the officer’s name and number and told him he would be taking the matter further. “But I can’t, can I? I’ve got a business to run. It’s like Judy says, we already spend too much time with our solicitor”.
Last year Steven went to the City airport to collect Judy, who was arriving from China. He’d barely walked into the foyer when he was “pounced” on by a pair of plain clothes border officials. They demanded to see his passport, and when Steven pointed out that he no reason to carry it because he’d only come to collect his wife the pair went on the offensive. At this point Steven turned the tables on the officials and insisted on seeing their ID. In the end it was only with great reluctance that they accepted his driving licence as valid ID. The irony is that Steven is a UK citizen with a UK passport. That his oriental features and faltering English make him an easy target is not an unfamiliar scenario for him.
Whereas the police are more likely to be “polite” now in their dealings with Chinese, this was not always the case. Steven recalled an occasion when six people left the restaurant after a lavish meal without paying. Staff called the police and Steven managed to catch up with one of the group in a nearby street. When the officer arrived on the scene she asked him if “all this fuss” was about “a tip”. The same police woman witnessed Steven being punched and responded by giving his assailant a private “talking to” and allowing him to run off.
Judy was quick to add that, in general, most people are friendly. “We really appreciate that because when discrimination happens, we remind ourselves that the majority accept and welcome us. Last year our neighbours spent two hours helping Steven dig his car out of the snow. That is something we will never forget.”
Before leaving Steven and Judy’s home, I asked if they were familiar with the 1970’s series Kung Fu. We watched a scene in which the “Chinaman” Kwai Chang Caine literally turns the tables on his aggressors. My friends laughed but added “That is not Belfast.” They are right, the setting isn’t Belfast but the attitudes Caine battles against perhaps resonate with many Chinese here.

  *According to the Chinese Welfare Association, the figure has grown to 12,000 - 15,000.

In 2007 Hong-Kong-born Anna Lo was elected an Alliance Party representative in Belfast. She is the first ethnic Chinese person to be elected to a legislative parliament in Europe.