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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 12 December, 2018
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Column: I hope my son never lives through the kind of violent history I did

Recent violence on the streets of Belfast filled me with despair; we need to teach our children respect for each other’s identity and traditions to avoid passing on the failures of the past, writes Peter Osborne.

Peter Osborne

WATCHING THE RECENT violent scenes unfold on the streets of Belfast, like many others I despaired, not just because of the violence and the appalling attacks on the police, but for the images that our children would witness on TV screens that night and Saturday morning.

As a parent you have hopes and aspirations for your children. You hope that they will be healthy; you hope that they will be safe; you hope that they are respectful of themselves and others and you hope that they will find fulfilment, happiness and opportunity.

I am a parent with these hopes. I also hope that my son will never live through the history I lived through. On Friday past I watched those hopes flicker.

We live a largely separate but equal existence

During the past four hundred years the people who populate this island have created and developed their own narratives. The narratives are not shared and unsurprisingly neither is the parchment of land on which we carve out our lives.

Today in Northern Ireland we live a largely separate but equal existence. It allows us to go to the same workplaces, the same canteens, the same shops, the same cinemas, the same restaurants and the same bars.

It is ‘norn iron’ normal.

And when visitors come we can put our best foot forward. It’s no small irony that the president of the World Police and Fire Games, which were finishing as the violence was kicking off against our own police service, described Belfast as the friendliest games ever. Yes we can show the kindness of the stranger to visitors but in reality our day faces can be about as real as Venetian masques.

Passing on the failures of the past

The recent violence shows that we are more than capable of passing on to another generation the failures of the past. In some ways, despite being the generation who created a gap for peace, our innate sectarianism, like a strain of malaria, remains dormant not dead.

We simply have not yet sufficiently created the structures that have inherent in them a priority on relationship-building within and between communities, and with public bodies that will prevent the recreation of conditions that caused conflict in the first place.

But we cannot let the peace narrative suffer because a small section of society sets their faces against it. To do so would be to take the less difficult path in decision-making and would fail future generations.

No-one’s identity or culture is being threatened

Regarding parades, we need to ensure they are not used to suggest that deepening the peace is somehow out of tune or out of step with fairness and equity for all.

Some people talk about cultural wars and the eroding of identity. In the Parades Commission we ensure that no-one’s identity or culture is threatened.

Of the 4,500 parades annually, 2,500 are from the Loyal Orders Loyalist bands or the unionist community; a 3 per cent increase on last year.  Just 170-odd of these 4,500 parades are considered “contentious”, leaving aside the 51 weekly parades at Drumcree. Nearly a quarter of those 170-odd have no restrictions put on at all, and fewer than half of the 170-odd have a route restriction imposed. Those statistics do not reflect a culture under threat or unfairly treated.

If only people would sit down and talk they would build relationships, build trust and by doing so may reach agreement on at least some of those still contentious parades. It works. We see that time and again.

Will our grandchildren demonstrate respect for each other?

With the Haass initiative on flags, parades and the past starting soon, Brian Rowan, a highly respected journalist and author, argues that part of the challenge is “for all to think outside their own boxes… to do and give something for peace and for those younger people who are being poisoned by the experiences of the conflict generation”.

In years to come, whether our grandchildren demonstrate respect for each other’s identity and traditions will depend on their relationship with each other; and that will depend on what we, in this generation, do now. If this generation, as leaders and parents, doesn’t start showing more respect, tolerance and sensitivity toward others from a different tradition, why should we expect our children to teach that to their children?

And if we don’t, and our children don’t, what happens next?

Peter Osborne is chair of the Parades Commission and is a Northern Ireland Committee member of the BIG Lottery Fund. He been involved in good relations, cohesion, community enablement and development work for over 20 years, and is currently a non-executive Director of Extern Ireland, the charity that provides social care and support services to children, families, adults and communities.

Read: PSNI release photos of people wanted over Belfast riots and disorder
Read: Children as young as 9 handle an unexploded bomb in Belfast
Read: Call for six-month ban on ‘contentious’ parades in Northern Ireland

[Main photo: A petrol bomb hits riot police after it was thrown by loyalist rioters in the Woodvale area of north Belfast, Northern Ireland, Saturday, July 13, 2013. AP Photo/Peter Morrison]

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