Striking images from Northern Ireland are something we’ve all grown used to over the years. But to have two positive ones in quick succession is anything but the norm.
Although the footage of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sitting together was unfortgettable and symbolic, the end of the British army’s operation after 38 years was perhaps the most powerful reminder that this time it’s for real.
The peace process has been long and tortuous, but for the people of Northern Ireland the journey is only just beginning. It’s difficult for most of us to imagine living in such a divided society.
My own family moved from Belfast to England in the mid-1970s, mainly due to the worsening conflict and lack of prospects. As a child travelling back to Northern Ireland during school holidays, it was all about having an Ulster fry, struggling to understand what uncles, aunties and grandparents were saying and being transfixed by the sight of soldiers on the streets. The gravity of the situation was slightly lost on me. So for those who stayed put, particularly communities in some of Northern Ireland’s most deprived areas, the future must hold excitement and apprehension.
Listening to the many Northern Irish delegates at last week’s national regeneration convention, the message that came through loud and clear was it will take many years to mend this damaged country. Things are already changing quickly. Indeed, as one person commented: ‘The pace of change is so fast that there are lots of people being left behind’. It was a theme that came up a number of times during the convention, and not only from those based in Northern Ireland. Raymond Young, chair of Architecture and Design Scotland, talked about the need to realise that communities and developers move at different paces. We generally only ever talk about resources in terms of money and skills – what about time?
There are many aspects of Northern Ireland’s regeneration that are unique. For example, public art is an important part of the process. Yet where else would you need to teach the artists responsible for its many political murals to draw faces because they’ve only ever painted people wearing balaclavas? But the need to appreciate the different paces at which people cope with change is universal. One speaker suggested we apply the slow food ethos to regeneration; do things slower and you get a better result by ensuring everyone is included on the journey.
Austin Macauley, editor, New Start Online magazine