Friday 22 November 2019

Why Go Somewhere You're Not Wanted?

One of the best things about escorting 80 people to Ireland every year is that you are forced to see the country through their eyes rather than mooning about what used to be.

Many people are on their first trip, while others are seasoned visitors well read in Irish history and politics.

Still the US system of democracy can seem very different from the Irish and UK models, although both the US and UK are now led by white nationalists with unconventional hairdos.

The complexities of Brexit can be difficult to explain to Americans especially when out on the town in Belfast where Boris Johnson’s brave new border in the Irish Sea has thrown a real spanner in the works of partition.

As we traveled over the current invisible border to the Republic I was struck by the change in Irish attitude to the US. No one seems to care much any more.

It’s as if a veil has fallen between our two countries and we Americans have floated off to Tír na nÓg or somewhere equally incomprehensible.

Though there is a mass bewilderment as to why we’ve elected President Donald Trump there was no hostility shown to my fellow travelers – nothing like the days of Reagan or Bush when you might be forced to disavow such ogres before you’d be served a decent pint of porter.

I believe this change has to do with emigration or the lack thereof. Back in my own emigrant days we were invested in the very idea of the US, and during the 70’s through the 90’s there was a mass exodus from Ireland to the shores of Amerikay.  

We populated The Bronx, Broward Country, Geary Street, Tipperary Hill and the many South sides of cities across this vast country.

On Saturday nights there were so many people jiving in the pubs around 204th Street and Bainbridge Avenue minor earthquake tremors were regularly reported.

That day is gone and with it the dynamic Irish-America we knew. Paddy and Mary are as rare as a decently pulled pint on Bainbridge now.

The talk back home is about saloons in Sydney, Christmas spent surfing on Bondi Beach and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s about brunching in Toronto, snowmobiling in Banff, and roping in steers in Calgary.

For Irish people are welcome in Australia and Canada while the doors have been slammed shut in our shining city on the hill. To top it all, as citizens of the EU Irish people can come and go as they please in a legion of countries across Europe.

The UK now wishing to make Britain great (or white) again is prepared to downgrade its economy for the privilege of keeping the great unwashed out.

Many young Irish are skipping this once desired destination – why go somewhere you’re not really wanted? 

The same story, alas, is true in relation to the US. We’ve been keeping people out for so long, the general feeling is – why bother? 

Who wants to sneak in, work illegally, and perhaps get collared by ICE when you can make good money in Melbourne or Vancouver in democracies that more mirror the values you grew up under back home.

Our immigration laws make no economic or practical sense. A country is as strong as its people and right now there are many Rust Belt cities and rural towns that are hemorrhaging their populations and could do with an influx of foreign-born strivers.

It makes you wonder about nationalists and wall builders in general. The EU may have its problems but there have been no wars among its members since it was first conceived as the EEC back in 1957.

Look at the history of Europe before that – a litany of conflict, hatred, and ethnic extermination much of it fueled by nationalism. 

Britain will inevitably learn a hard lesson from its Brexit delusions. Our modern interconnected world is not very well suited to solitary island states with a nationalist bent.  

As for ourselves - roll on 2020 and the opportunity to once again crack open the doors of our shining city on the hill.

To hell with nationalism! I miss the jiving on Bainbridge Avenue and the fast disappearing, dynamic Irish-America we once treasured.

Friday 1 November 2019

Belfast October 2019

Every year I accompany a couple of busloads of Americans and Canadians to Ireland to explore the history, politics, and music of the island.

At least every second year I make sure we visit Belfast, Ireland’s most interesting city. The changes have been remarkable since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in particular over the last 10 years.

It’s as if a cloud has lifted and the sun is now revealing the city’s promise and possibilities.

And yet you can never forget that awful things happened and that deep wounds lie just below the surface.

Part of my purpose in visiting Belfast is to introduce North Americans to the Protestant/Unionist parts of the city and to the various points of view found there.

Music has always provided a great bridge between communities and the obvious place to begin is the East Belfast of Van Morrison. 

Any lover of Van’s music knows that there is a treasure trove of local references to be found in his early lyrics from the leafy lawns of Cyprus Avenue to the less salubrious environs “down the Hollow” in Brown Eyed Girl.

The Union Jacks flowing in the breeze can be worrisome to those who experienced the Troubles; but on the whole people are going about their business and happy to show off new projects like the Connswater Community Greenway or CS Lewis Square where the local author’s Narnia is celebrated.

Still, it’s hard not to notice an underlying unease over Brexit and what it might portend.

This came to the fore during a tour of the Shankill and Falls Road where we were guided by Loyalist and Republican ex-combatants.

Both sides have traveled great distances in the last 20 years, yet there’s an unmistakable fear that insensitive British politicians could help resurrect the conflict.

Concern is more pointed on the Loyalist side. Republicans are well used to “British perfidy” – it’s been a constant theme in nationalist history.

Loyalists have little faith in Boris Johnson and his lip service to the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland; they fear, and rightly so given the British Prime Minister’s recent agreement with the Republic and the EU, that they’ve become a disposable pawn in a game played out on the chessboards of London, Dublin, and Brussels.

Will there be a renewal of conflict - definitely not on the scale witnessed during the Troubles. A new outward looking generation has emerged – they were bred on the internet, they travel and are familiar with the ways and doings of the world’s capitals.

They’re invested in the bustling prosperous Belfast that struts around downtown at night. They have no interest in returning to the tragic thirty or more years of insurrection and sectarian killings.

But then you visit the Peace Wall and realize that it’s been standing now for half a century, and that many on both sides prefer that it remain, at least in the short term.

In some ways Ireland is already united. The steady stream of trucks and traffic flowing both ways between Belfast and Dublin shows how impossible it would have been to reinstate a hard border. Those days are long gone.

But in Belfast you can almost touch the psychological and social walls that still separate the communities.

And yet people of good will are reaching out on both sides. Take Turas – the word means journey or pilgrimage in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It’s a flourishing cross-community project in East Belfast formed by Linda Ervine, wife of Brian Ervine the PUP leader.

One of the goals of Turas is to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language – Catholics, of course, are welcome.

Let’s face it – Brexit has always contained seeds of disaster. From the start it has been fueled by lies and exaggerations – some spun by Boris Johnson himself.

Unfortunately, Brexit chickens are more likely to come home to roost in Belfast, not in London where they belong.

As we head into a winter of discontent let’s wish Belfast the very best, and that any problems raised by Mr. Johnson and his Brexit conundrum can be worked out across the negotiating table rather than in the brooding shadow of the Peace Wall.