Joyce McMillan: The simple act of listening is our starting point

Martin McGuinness was a divisive figure, but his role in the Northern Ireland peace process provides a lesson for us all. Picture: Getty
Martin McGuinness was a divisive figure, but his role in the Northern Ireland peace process provides a lesson for us all. Picture: Getty
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Northern Ireland has shown we understand each other better if we stop to hear the other side writes Joyce McMillan

On my laptop screen, courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph, there is an image of a handsome-looking sandstone church in Derry/Londonderry, a chapel named for that most Irish and Scottish of saints, St Columba; and on the soundtrack, streamed from inside the building, I can hear the voice of former President Bill Clinton, giving the final address at the funeral of Northern Ireland’s late Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

Bill Clinton speaks with his usual grace, cracking a brief joke about his and Martin McGuinness’s shared childhood experience of living in a house with no inside toilet - an over-rated one, says Clinton; and then goes on to encourage the assembled mourners to complete the work Martin McGuinness began in the second half of his adult life, when he set aside violence, and became one of the architects of the present peace in Northern Ireland. Behind the chapel, the sky is blue, bathed in pale spring sunshine; and although McGuinness was an IRA Commander, with much blood on his hands in the years between 1968 and 1994, today there is no military funeral, as his coffin - draped in an Irish flag, and heaped with spring flowers - is driven to the City Cemetery, through Bogside streets packed with mourners.

That Martin McGuinness was a divisive figure goes without saying; many of his victims will never forgive him, and that is their right. Yet in a week when terrorism has once again been in the headlines, it is perhaps worth remembering the essentials of the peace process that began to transform Northern Ireland in the 1990s. We in Scotland, after all, are now coming to know through our own recent experience just how bitter and entrenched disputes over national identity can become; yet here was a division much deeper, older and bloodier, gradually beginning to change and heal, in front of our eyes.

And the first element of that process I remember noticing was the simple act of listening. It must have been in 1992 that I travelled to Belfast to spend a remarkable two days sitting in on hearings of the Opsahl Commission, put together by various civil society bodies in Northern Ireland, and chaired by a distinguished Norwegian judge who specialised in international human rights; and in the Falls Road and the Shankill, what I saw were working class communities desperate to be heard, frightened of a loss both of economic dignity and of cultural identity, yet beginning to dare to speak about the fears that lay closest to their hearts.

Then, gradually, there came a first slight softening of divisions, and the growth of a faint sense of empathy; a recognition that if it mattered to one community to be allowed to be Irish, then it also mattered to the other to be allowed to be British - and that both formed an essential part of Northern Ireland’s story. And then finally, there was the leap of imagination that enabled people to envisage a plural and relaxed Northern Ireland, at peace with itself, and open to Britain, Ireland and the world. Yesterday, quoting an image from the poet Seamus Heaney, Bill Clinton called this a moment of “deciding to walk on air”; and no politicians made a more spectacular leap into that unknown space than Martin McGuinness and Northern Ireland’s first post-agreement First Minister, the Reverend Ian Paisley, once a byword for Protestant intransigence in the province, but in the end a doughty advocate for peace, and for the new friendly relationship with McGuinness that won them the nickname of “the Chuckle Brothers.”

Now, though, the story of these islands faces another turning point, and perhaps a dangerous corner. In truth, there is nothing about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the reclaiming of a relatively old-fashioned and rigid form of national identity by the Westminster government, that makes life easier for any part of the United Kingdom, as we deal with the multiple layers of belonging that make up a dynamic 21st century society. And although the impact of that decision is particularly stark in Ireland - where the entire framework of the peace process has been put at risk - it also highlights tensions in England between those who are happy with the modern multicultural nation and those who are not, and confronts Scotland with an exceptionally harsh and divisive question about the future path it wants to take.

Yet if we want to avoid a drift towards ever more bitter political division and conflict, we can still learn from that Northern Irish achievement of 20 years ago. We can make more effort to listen to one another; and if necessary, we can invite professional listeners from beyond our own shores to help us do it better. We can try to empathise; those of us who felt robbed of a vital part of our identity by last year’s Brexit vote, for example, should recognise that for many in Scotland, their feeling about the loss of the political union with England would be the same, or worse.

And we can strive, finally, to sustain our vision of a democratic, diverse, open and peaceful society. Many fine words have been spoken about those values, in the hours since the attack on Westminster; and many of those statements will doubtless soon be betrayed in practice.

Yet still, this week’s enforced pause for reflection - in Northern Ireland, in London, and elsewhere - has given us a chance to think again about how we defend those principles, in our personal and public lives. We have watched the Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster walk into a Catholic chapel in the Bogside to join those mourning Martin McGuinness; we have watched London put its best foot forward, as the great, diverse and tolerant city it is, in response to Wednesday’s attack. And in the aftermath, we should find our resolve strengthened, whatever the outcome of our current tempestuous political debates; to listen, to feel the pain of others as well as our own, to resolve our disputes without violence, and to keep imagining those better worlds in which we want our children and grandchildren to live - even if we sometimes have to walk on air, straight towards them.