Never having been one to body-swerve touchy issues, it is nonetheless with some trepidation that this blog is dedicated to questioning the usefulness to anyone of high-profile public display of whatever your religious beliefs happens to be. While they are hardly a model of enlightened restraint when it comes to religion, I have always believed that the clear separation of church and state that the Americans wrote into their Constitution is something the Old World would do well to consider emulating.
Let me be clear that I single out no religion for criticism and certainly in no way question anyone’s religious beliefs insofar as they do not dictate how others who don’t share those beliefs must live. And while there are many examples in the past of religions causing wars and havoc, I also believe that those who follow almost any religion believe in peace, co-existence, the sanctity of life and the rights of their fellows.
Religion requires much faith and cannot be judged on scientific substantiation. Whether the wine becomes the blood of Christ or the Queen is the supreme spiritual head of a church because of Henry VIII’s combination of human frailties, greed and ego is not for outsiders like myself to quibble with, not least because there is no perceptible harm to others from either.
But in today’s news (July 12th), both Israeli strikes on Gaza and the limits imposed on an Orange Order march in North Belfast are items that I, for one, am thoroughly sick of hearing. I have watched such depressingly repetitive items all my adult life with no sign of humanity—let alone sheepish acceptance of how daft it appears to those outside—breaking out. I have now come to regard those and similar such entrenched bigotry (Sunni/Shia, Serb/Moslem, Dinka/Nuer, India/Pakistan, etc) as net detractors from human progress.
Such distinctiveness not all bad; personal identity, community spirit and national awareness derive from similar distinctions and, indeed, sometimes from those traits against which this blog is otherwise railing. As with individuals, we should celebrate our differences but that does not mean absence of spirited differences. This year’s World Cup in Brazil was perhaps the most splendid example to date of the world having a go at one another in an atmosphere of frantic but friendly competition, just as Brazil itself provides a vibrant example of how races and origins can get so mixed up that their international reputation beyond football is of a place to party and make friends.
Not to imply that the Irish are unique in unproductive self-harm, nor am I without sympathy for both the sash and the shamrock, given they’ve been living with dissent ever since Richard II overreached himself beyond the pale and brought the War of the Roses down on himself as a result. Half a millennium of undeclared civil war cannot but leave scars and Britain’s imperial/colonial approach to what it tried to pretend was part of the homeland 1801 to 1922 will take more than a royal visit and apology (however sincere) to consign to history.
But, just as Lt Hiroo Onoda finally accepted WW2 was over and emerged from the Phillipine jungle, so at some point one of the factions involved in Ireland will win and the other will need to get used to that fact. Now, while it is possible that Ulster unionists and their supporters may broaden their appeal and convince the rest of humanity that sashes, bowler hats and fife bands are somehow symbolic of the future, they will also have to deal with the statistical fact that catholics generally have more children and that some day within the next century, that will mean a unionist voting minority.
However distasteful and however much that flies in the face of tradition and victories won three hundred years in the past, there is scant hope for the world’s other trouble spots, some on their second millennia of strife if an island with so much culture in common and a racially indistinguishable 5m inhabitants can’t find some way of burying the memories of Black & Tans and IRA hit squads equally deep to find an emotional, as well as political accommodation of one another’s existence on the same piece of real estate.
Israel’s unilateral decisions as to where boundaries lie and then delineating them with community-fragmenting walls are operations worthy of Canute. A much mightier empire than theirs once divided what is now Germany’s capital with a similar idea; it is now dust and souvenir fragments. Just as the 12th and 13th © Crusades ended in failure when the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, so the Turkish-Greek animosity that erupted in war in 1920 is cooling to quasi-normal relations.
Forbidding Ulster unionists their provocative-in-all-but-name marches is no more sensible then the old Ulster Constabulary’s foot-on-the-neck approach to policing catholic communities. But with the passage of time and some easing of tensions already, both communities now include a majority of pragmatic and reasonable people who, in their heart, want the best for their community. When pressed, they accept such will require an accommodation with the ‘other side’.
Every marching season pushes actualisation of that accommodation into the future and adds a little more despair and frustration to fans of the Irish people in general like this writer with no axe to grind for either faction. Because, ready though Britain may be to have royal visits and make apologies for errors in the past, that will cut little ice as long as two factions of Irish stand like petulant children, glaring and poking each other in the ribs to elicit any response but with the tacit understanding that anger will do.