I was among hundreds at the Queen’s University organised event to watch the live broadcast of President Obama’s inaugural address, and I couldn’t help but filter his words through my world of Northern Ireland.
Of course, others have pondered whether the people Northern Ireland — or for that matter, Ireland, the UK, France, Germany or elsewhere — could elect a Barack Obama of their own, someone from an ethnic minority to the highest office of the land.
But I’m more interested whether we can take Obama’s rhetoric for inspiration, appropriately.
President Obama said, “we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord … we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for too long have strangled our politics”.
Here, I am learning of an increased frustration among ordinary people of Northern Ireland — i.e. the non-political class — at the continued blame-game and communal point scoring that takes place at our Northern Ireland Assembly, when what people want is more action that is going to improve the livelihoods of us all, regardless of which section of the community we’re proud to be from.
It is as though the politicians have forgotten “the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path”. There are so many unthanked community workers and background facilitators in the peace we enjoy in Northern Ireland today.
The question that we have yet to answer is the rest of the path. What journey are we on? “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.” Do we wish to remake Northern Ireland?
Oh, that’s too much to ask, the cynics say; we should just settle for some uneasy truce.
But that’s not what I’m hearing from regular folk, on the radio and op-ed pieces. To rephrase Obama’s query, the question we ask today is not whether our government is Orange or Green, but whether it works.
“We need to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” This unarguably applies to us here as well.
Northern Ireland has had its own “dark chapter” of segregation and sectarianism, from which we are emerging from, hopefully for the better. Indeed, much is left to do, to determine whether “old hatreds” will pass and the role we in Northern Ireland play in developing peace, both at home and abroad. Here, we could be world leaders, if we choose to be.
Thus, it is ultimately up to us to chart our own future.
Our history is our own — this ain’t the American-style melting pot of e pluribus unum.
But it is our own responsibility to shape our own destiny. It must be based on the interdependent nature of our society and those that immediately surround us. While some have accentuated difference, I emphasise what binds us — not what would make us the same, but what acknowledges, honestly, that this place just couldn’t be without all of its diverse traditions and identities.
What we do with the pieces of our societal jigsaw puzzle is up to us, only us.
I believe it is our future together.
It’s like the barber shop sign I read, long ago, “You can’t get rich in a small town because there’s too many people watching.” Likewise, there are too many of us to let any one section get its way alone; better we figure out how to make this place work better, together.
Allan Leonard is Director of the Northern Ireland Foundation.
[Published in the News Letter and Irish News (which I found took considerable editorial liberties in their amendments).]