It's tough being an optimist

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The Independent Culture
PESSIMISTS ABOUND in Northern Ireland, especially at times such as these when negotiations hang in the balance, when failure seems more likely than not, when all that pre-negotiating tough talk has eroded expectations.

Ask anybody in Belfast if they think it will all work and the chances are they will give answers like: "Can't see it," or "They'll never work together," or "It'd be great, but I just don't think it'll happen."

The fact is, however, that a lot of these people are not really telling the truth: many of them are deceiving the questioner or sometimes they are deceiving themselves. After all the batterings and setbacks, all the stalemate and the deadlock, hope is still very much alive out there.

The characteristic lack of candour and denial of optimism is partly due to the old Belfast fear of sounding foolish and naive, and partly because hope is still a relatively new phenomenon. This is not a city which wears its heart on its sleeve - it is a closed rather than an open city.

Belfast is much more like Glasgow than Dublin: slow to celebrate, unaccustomed to displaying its true feelings, gritty, Northern, post-industrial, a city where many things are considered better left unsaid. Seamus Heaney caught something of this when he wrote: "Whatever you say, say nothing."

Lurking furtively beneath this tough exterior, however, is hope, an emotion which only appeared in the last six years or so of three decades of troubles. The late Sixties had a brief flickering of optimism, though, as usual, it arose from different sources for the two different parts of the community.

Unionists glimpsed a better future based on the attraction of new industries and a modernised economy. Nationalists thought, momentarily at least, that the Civil Rights movement would improve their lot. But the descent into violence was swift: a common saying in the early Seventies was: "It'll get worse, before it gets better." This was all too accurate.

The worst year of the troubles was 1972, when almost 500 people were killed. That low point was never equalled again in terms of deaths, but in the years that followed the idea of an agreed settlement was almost extinguished. Political initiatives became increasingly desultory affairs: hardly anybody thought they would work and, with expectations low, politicians who walked away from the table suffered no electoral penalties. Disillusion set in and politics got a bad name.

The death rate fell but a kind of destructive stability was established, involving the IRA and other Republicans, the various Republican groups, and the security forces. Each inflicted telling blows on each other, and indeed on the civilian population. However, none of them ever really looked like defeating any of the others.

The years were punctuated by particularly de-stabilising incidents such as big bomb attacks or episodes such as Loyalist general strikes, IRA hunger strikes and the Loyalist uproar following the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. Each faction had its ups and downs, but as the years went by it gradually became plain enough that nobody had the strength, politically or militarily or in combination, to actually defeat their foes.

All of this went on for so long that it took on the aspect almost of normality: it was certainly all that younger people had ever known. As the decades passed young men and women grew up and had families - many of them tuning out the troubles as much as they could - most of them trying their best to shield their youngsters from those self-same troubles.

But for many in the hardline ghettos this was impossible: children grew up accustomed to squaddies crouching in their gardens; to big army vehicles trundling down the streets; to paramilitary groups which were powerful forces in their district. Many grew up with fathers or brothers in prison.

This was the way things were: it also seemed to be the way they would always be. The paramilitarism, the heavy security, the bombs, the damaged economy and the lack of political agreement appeared to be permanent fixtures, and so too did the lack of hope.

When the peace process first emerged into the public gaze in 1993, the reactions it provoked included incredulity, fear, and most of all outrage. It had long been an article of faith that mainstream politicians should have nothing to do with the men of violence or their supporters. The inclusive philosophy of the process was just about the most controversial, and perhaps the most subversive, ever to affect politics. It produced shock waves but it also created something else: hope.

The idea that the process might produce first ceasefires and then real dialogue seemed at first utterly far-fetched. But the thought that it might stand even the smallest chance of working changed the whole psychology, for suddenly it seemed conceivable that the troubles might not be endless. The smallest chance was very different from no chance at all.

It is that sense which has propelled the process forward and enabled it to overcome so many hurdles before the present crisis. The emotion generated by the idea has caught the imagination of a great many, producing a momentum which has so far overcome seemingly impassable obstacles.

But it does not have universal appeal. Outside Northern Ireland almost the whole world supports the peace process. Within it almost every Catholic and Nationalist supports it; but Protestants are divided. Roughly half of them do not approve of the process or the attempts to form a new cross- community coalition. Some object not to Republicans, but to Catholics in general; some are cynics who think Northern Ireland will never know peace, that this is about as good as it is ever going to get, and that it is futile to strive for the impossible.

The injection of hope has apparently not affected them: they remain victims of the troubles, their pessimism deep and unshaken, cemented into scepticism. Some conceive of themselves as a garrison community, fated forever to hold the line against terrorists and their sympathisers. Some have been injured or bereaved or otherwise hurt by the violence; some are simply victims of their own bigotry.

A lack of trust also exists on the Catholic and Nationalist side, where there are a great many people content to live their lives well away from Protestants. But it is the Protestants and Unionists who look like the people who have most problems.

There are many who are torn: hoping against hope that a brighter future is possible, but finding it too much of a challenge to abandon the old certainties of the sectarian trenches for an exercise which they believe is full of peril.

Yet even here the peace process has had a subliminal effect. Those who believe in the process have had to acknowledge that it is not going to deliver perfect peace, that the scourge of paramilitarism will probably take decades to eradicate. But even those who oppose it, do not believe that its collapse would bring a return to the worst days.

The fact is that hardly anyone, on either side of the argument, believes Tony Blair when he warns that the failure to achieve a breakthrough would lead to the abyss. The prevailing view is that things might deteriorate somewhat, but that a return to full-scale warfare would not happen.

The pessimists, in other words, are not as pessimistic as they used to be: they continue to think it won't get much better, but they now also believe that it is unlikely to get drastically worse.

They too think that the really bad old days have gone.

Meanwhile it is tough going, at times like this, to be an optimist: no- one can be confident of success at Stormont today. However, there is a huge amount of largely unexpressed desire for progress out there, fervently willing the politicians on to cut a historic deal, urging them to transform Belfast from a city of pessimism to a city of hope.