March 11, 2009 at 11:51 am Leave a comment

When the clock strikes one today, thousands of people across Northern Ireland are going to gather together in silence. They’re going to mark their revulsion at the murders of three men – two soldiers and a policeman, two Englishmen and an Ulsterman, one Catholic and two men whose main source of identity would never have been their religion.

They’re paying their respects to these men, of course, but they’re also marking their deep fear for the fragile Northern Irish peace process. This is mourning for nothing less than the hopes and the futures of an entire country.

There are many impromptu memorials to the self-elected heroes of the Troubles. Over here, the only people that make the news are men of violence of one description or another; they come in many guises but they’re all destructive, mostly men and successfully portray themselves as the vanguards of some revolution of the oppressed.

The impression in the London media is that you have to sign up for one group of them or another if you’re going to have anything to say on the subject. It’s a question of being clear-sighted enough to sieve through the propaganda and work out who the freedom-fighters really are. This is balls of the first order.

Northern Ireland’s true heroes are indeed freedom-fighters, but they fight on a very different front. Ordinary men and women have done incredible things in the name of preserving liberal democracy, civil society and some semblance of a shared communal future.

Some of the bravest people I’ve ever met are volunteers and community workers in Belfast’s poorer districts, but they also include local journalists and a university professor, who offered his home as a safe house for people wanted by paramilitary organisations. Even just couples who fell in love with someone from the wrong street. For their moral courage they suffered beatings, kidnappings and death threats.

These people will never be remembered or written about in the same sweeping, awe-struck way as the McGuinnesses and the Paisleys of this world. They will almost certainly have no statues dedicated to them. But today at one o’clock, I will be silent to show my respect for them. The way that ordinary people choose to live their lives is Ulster’s greatest hope, and greatest achievement.


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