First, the best Belfast joke in years, courtesy of my old mate David McKittrick, who in 1972 worked on The Irish Times in Northern Ireland when I was the London Times man there and whose dad once worked in Harland and Wolff, the shipyard that built the Titanic. "You've got to hand it to Harland and Wolff," David said. "If it wasn't for them, the Titanic wouldn't be where it is today."
Maybe it was the skittles and beer of the Malmaison Hotel with its funereal decorations, but David's joke somehow represented a new Belfast. Northern Irelanders have always made fun of themselves but it was usually a little self-conscious during the years of violence, even before. When the first major Titanic movie was made in 1957 - the one with Kenneth More playing Second Officer Lightoller - Harland and Wolff, a Protestant fortress, was still ashamed of its most famous ship and refused the film-makers any assistance, even declining to permit access to the construction plans of the vessel.
Today, Belfast advertises Titanic to tourists and Harland and Wolff proudly claims recognition of its extraordinary if doomed achievement. Belfast is Titanic Town and the original monument to the dead, freshly cleaned, stands outside City Hall and opposite the headquarters of the Ulster Bank (where my account must sometimes cause as much concern as the approaching iceberg in 1912).
Lecturing in Belfast last week, I was especially struck by the enormous knowledge that Northern Irelanders possess of the Middle East. Divided societies sometimes attract each other. The Bloody Sunday committee in Derry, commemorating the 14 Catholics killed by British paratroopers in 1972, wanted to "twin" with the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2003 after 14 Iraqi civilians were killed there by the US 82nd Airborne, the incident which provoked the insurgency that turned all of Iraq into a giant version of the original Bogside's "no go" area.
It was back in 2000 that John Hume wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post in which he said that the Good Friday Agreement might be applied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I disagreed. Other people's peace treaties don't travel well. The West Bank with its massive Jewish settlements is more like 17th-century Ireland after the Catholic dispossession, a point I made to an audience beside the river Lagan.
Audience questions. Could Israel be forced to abide by UN Security Council resolution 242? Answer: No. Is Lebanon in greater danger now than before the latest war? Answer: Yes. Is Blair really the lapdog of Bush on the Middle East? Answer: Yes. How can "faith" help to bring peace between the peoples of the Middle East and of the "seed of Abraham" (John Paul II's initiative)? And, of course, what was the real effect of Pope Benedict's quotation from a medieval Constantinople emperor? Answer: Benedict - not my favourite Pope - is far too intelligent not to realise the effect of this unpleasant and, in today's terms, provocative statement about violence and the Prophet Mohamed.
All this, I should add, came just a couple of days before Benedict decided to evacuate Limbo and send its occupants to more spacious accommodation in Heaven because - I suspect - the slow collapse of the Christian church in the West means that it must itself move into Limbo.
The "faith" question came up at a large meeting - mainly of young people - in the Clonard monastery in the Falls, a Redemptorist institution whose magnificent church has the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall - it must have been built around the same time - and whose obvious religiosity should have intimidated a "secularist" like me. I had been sounding forth on the evils of war and the immorality of "armed humanitarian intervention" and the question came from Father Gerry Reynolds, himself a Belfast institution.
I was tempted to recall that my father, close to death, told me he did not fear "going", but that I did "because you have no faith"; but I told the audience that we as westerners (except for Father Reynolds) had largely lost our faith, whereas the Muslim world had not.
I recalled a conversation between my Lebanese driver Abed, a Sunni Muslim, and my classical Arabic translator Imad, a Shia Muslim, as we were driving home to Beirut across the Lebanese mountains. Is there a life after death, I asked them. Abed said he believed in God but there was no afterlife. "The world just goes on without us," he said. Imad did not know.
I said that here, amid the snows of Mount Sannine, watching the autumn leaves as we sat in our car, speaking in the language of angels, I could not believe that all this came about because two vast gas clouds bumped into each other billions of years ago. But that, I said, is "the end of Fisk belief".
At this Father Reynolds - who will on the day, I am sure, go directly to Heaven - patted me on the arm. Hope for Fisk yet among the Redemptorists?
The most frequent question in Belfast was: How can we force our leaders to stop their wars? I don't know the answer, but I like the remark of that highly original Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in Moral Disorder, her latest novel. "You can't lead," she wrote, "if no one will follow." Is that the way to deal with Lord of Kut al-Amara and his chums?
Indeed, if only Jack Straw had said a little earlier in the week that he would like Muslim women to remove their veils in his parliamentary "surgery", I could have put the knife of faith into him in the monastery. Heaven knows what he will next demand in his "surgery". The removal of the headpiece of all Catholic nuns? Or the wigs of Jewish Orthodox women?
I can't escape the thought, though, that if it wasn't for Jack Straw, Islamophobia wouldn't be where it is today.Reuse content