Upon establishing that I was a “Protestant”, a German student once asked me why I hated Catholics. It was a quintessentially abrupt and of course nonsensical question. There are exceptions but in Northern Ireland we do not, by and large, hate each other.
Nor do we care about each other very much, however. I am increasingly of the view this is our fundamental problem.
To give another German reference from my past, I had a friend who was an interpreter for a group from Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany on a trip to meet MLAs at Stormont some years ago. “What was striking was that not a single MLA asked them about where they came from”, she said. It strikes me to be a trait of Northern Irish politicians more than most that they show no interest in anywhere or really anyone else.
Even internally. The pages of the Newsletter have been a particular disappointment in recent weeks. Even supposedly “moderate” unionists have lined up opposed to the great bogeyman of an “Irish Language Act”. None has bothered to ask the question why the idea is so important to so many of their fellow citizens. Not once was it suggested that perhaps, if this issue meant so much to a large number of fellow citizens, some effort should be made to enable it (even the few Unionists arguing for an ILA did so fundamentally on Unionist terms). They just don’t care.
Of course, this works both ways. Not meeting royalty, not ever using the official name of this place, or indeed not even shaking hands with Duke of Edinburgh students are all examples of a callous disregard for fellow citizens. So what if they’re offended? We really don’t care.
Arguably we are even seeing a third strand to this, with predominantly young social liberals emerging not as an anti-sectarian voice but actually as a third communal bloc, ranting angrily at anyone who shows any hint of, say, national pride or religious faith.
This the crux of the breakdown. We are right and they – well, to be honest, we really don’t care about them. Their interests and their priorities are secondary to ours and can only be dealt with in that order.
This is how we come to this remarkable position where people who access the same Health Service, use the same transport, go to schools financed from the same budget and even share the same workplaces fundamentally do not care about each other enough even to think (far less advocate) that it may just be a good idea to show interest, demonstrate respect and work to enable things which are important to them to happen.
As a result we end up in two, nay three separate polities. We have Unionists who want Unionist politicians to stick up for them, Nationalists who want Nationalist politicians to stick up for them, and Progressives who are long past caring about the whole thing. As a result the absence of government over health and education is met not with mass demonstrations in the streets, but rather with a collective yawn.
20 years on from the Agreement, is it not time we began to care about each other?