Here’s why ‘bomb scare’ scares me


This was the scene last week when a bomb scare in Belfast caused the evacuation of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops on a busy Friday night.  Some of my friends are in that picture.

This and other bomb scares in the run up to Christmas have reminded me of an incident I witnessed growing up.

When I was 11 I saw a bomb explode in Belfast.  I never want to see another one. 

It was so utterly normal in those days that it didn’t really scare me at the time.  It does now.

I was standing inside the train station at York Road – now Yorkgate – with my school pals, waiting for a train to take us home.  They used to keep all us schoolkids in a big waiting area before letting us on the platform.  We would visit the shop for ice-pops and frozen drinks while we waited.  I remember it was always a scramble to see who could get the best flavours of ice pops before they were all gone.

york road

And that’s where we were that day, dozens of kids waiting for a train to get home, when there was an announcement to get out of the station: ‘bomb scare’.

In those days it happened all the time.  I remember thinking it was no big deal.  In my childhood innocence I thought it was more of an inconvenience than a threat.  We were taken up the road and stood a few hundred yards from the train station, laughing and joking and wondering how long it would be until we could get back into the station and home.

It wasn’t long – maybe ten minutes – before the bomb went off.  I still remember the explosion.  It seemed to go on forever.  Bits of buildings flew up in the air and took an age to come down.  I remember being shocked at how far the debris traveled towards where we were.  There was the rumble of concrete walls and roofs collapsing, and a big dust cloud where it went off.

It turned out the target of the bomb was not the train station but the hotel next to it.  The bomb destroyed the hotel.  I don’t remember how we got home that day but it wasn’t by train.  The train station was so badly damaged it had to be completely rebuilt.

In those days there was supposed to be an early warning system to protect civilians.  In our case it worked.  We were the lucky ones, many others weren’t so fortunate.

That’s why ‘bomb scare’ scares me.  Bomb scares remind me how incredibly lucky I was.  They remind me that life is precious and short, and that we only get one go at it.  They remind me of my moral obligation to help contribute something positive to the place where I grew up to make it a better place to live.  I’ve always believed doing nothing is not an option.  If you live here you are part of the mess.  It is up to all of us to sort it out.

Jager b

It’s also why I find it distasteful that in the last week some bars are offering ‘bomb scare special’ promotions (see picture on right).  While perhaps not as bad as the more reprehensible ‘Irish car bomb’ shots that are sold in some bars in the U.S.,  I refuse to believe that this is the best Belfast can come up with.  We can do better than this.

I am thankful that I am yet to see another bomb go off in Belfast.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to all those who helped build the peace we now enjoy, as well as those who continue to do so.  The peace process may not be perfect but we owe it to them, and all those who were not so lucky, to keep it going.


Where do we go from here: chaos or community?


No matter who you talk to in the political landscape of Northern Ireland there’s a good chance they’ll tell you Martin Luther King, Jr. would be on their side.  Nationalists have long associated themselves with King because of the civil rights movement.  In Republican areas murals of King can be found on walls alongside other iconic figures.  Interestingly, King’s name has also started to be mentioned by Unionists and Loyalists as an example of someone who used civil disobedience to protest against laws he believed were unjust, albeit in different circumstances.  Perhaps they are also aware King was a Protestant minister, and King’s father (known as Martin Luther King, Sr. or ‘Daddy King’) changed both his own name and his son’s name as a tribute to the father of the Protestant reformation.  If so, this will add to the appeal.

In 1967, towards the end of his life, King published the last of his three books about the civil rights movement in the U.S.A., entitled, Where do we go from here: chaos or community?  In it King writes:

‘We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.  This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.’

The first point to make is that we can safely assume that were King alive today he would have used gender inclusive language.

Secondly, it seems to me that after the violence seen on the streets of Belfast in the past week we could do with asking ourselves the same question as King: Where do we go from here: chaos or community?

Chaos is easy.  In fact, if all we want is chaos then we don’t really have to do much at all.  We can just keep doing what we’re doing year after year after year.  My friend Francis Teeney likes to remind me that Einstein once said: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

If we want community we are going to have to take a different path.  Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes ‘community’ like this:

‘In here, in the community, we can relax – we are safe, there are no dangers looming in dark corners (to be sure hardly any ‘corner’ here is dark).  In a community, we all understand each other well, we may trust what we hear, we are safe most of the time and hardly ever puzzled or taken aback.  We are never strangers to each other.’  (2001: 1-2)

If we want to ‘understand each other well’ and be ‘never strangers to each other’, then things are going to have to change.  It’s not impossible, but it will take a lot of work.  Listen to the testimony of this political ex-prisoner to see what is possible through hard work:

‘We went, I went to a seminar, conference…. you’re talking about maybe three hundred, four hundred people, at a conference for the weekend.  INLA, UDA, IRA, UVF, I mean, sitting doing work, classes for the weekend.  I mean, first night, after you got your dinner, went into the bar, that was your free night, and to see people from the IRA, UVF, UDA sitting in the bar drinking, talking and telling jokes.  It proves to me that things are changing.  You know what I mean?  People can get on, you know what I mean?  And to me that was a big big thing.’

This didn’t happen overnight.  It started by people talking to each other.  We need leadership from everyone in positions of influence, it’s no good relying on politicians.  On last weeks Sunday Sequence William Crawley rightly rebuked religious leaders on both sides for not leading the way in talking to each other.  After we start talking we might have to have more talks.  And after those talks, we may need more talks.  And so on and so on.  And if this sounds like too much effort, then there is an alternative: chaos – we can just keep doing what we’ve always done.

Those who think the situation is hopeless are ignoring the many examples where dialogue has happened, and accommodation and compromise has been reached.  It’s possible but it won’t be done without hard work.  Both the Orange Order in North Belfast and the local residents groups that oppose them need to ask themselves how the Orange Order manages to have marches in the Republic of Ireland every year with no trouble, as well as in Derry/Londonderry and other areas of the North.  This does not happen by accident.  It is only achieved through dialogue, hard work, and understanding by all involved.  This is the side Martin Luther King would be on.

Book Launch/Discussion – ‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism’ by Tony Novosel

An event this Friday that I plan to attend that may be of interest to others is the book launch of Tony Novosel’s new book entitled ”Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism’.  Not having read the book yet, I am unable to comment on it but it is one that students and commentators on Loyalism have been looking forward to.

As interesting as the book launch itself is the discussion panel that will accompany it.

The panel will chaired by Harry Donaghy (The Fellowship of Messines Association) and will be made up of Tony Novosel himself (University of Pittsburg), Billy Hutchinson (PUP leader), Mark Williamson (Rathcoole People’s Group), and Gareth Mulvenna (Queen’s University, Belfast).

The book launch and discussion will take place at 1pm on Friday 8th March at the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, 45-47 Donegall Street, Belfast.

peace and the language of domination

Some of my academic friends thought the peace gathering was smug, self congratulatory, and anti-intellectual.   Some of my flag protesting friends thought it was an exercise in embracing trees.  I didn’t.  I knew quite a few people who would attend and I know they are great people, so I tried to write a piece that was balanced and looked at the good aspects of such gatherings as well as offering a critique.  I was well aware that for many of the people involved I was preaching to the converted.  However, I was also pointing out to others, both on the left and right, that it was not all liberal nonsense.

I was surprised by the reaction I got from some of those involved.  At first I laughed at it but then the more I thought about it I felt I needed to write some sort of response.  I have copied the conversation between them below.  This was a conversation that took place on one of their facebook pages.  I post it here because it was not a private conversation or just available to their friends but was available to the public.  I assume it was probably read by hundreds of people.  You can click on each photo to read it.  In my comments underneath I have used some quotes from their conversation but I haven’t matched them up with names.  This is because I don’t want to particularly single out anybody or attack them personally.  If you want to know who said what you can read it yourself.


Admittedly, some of their feedback was not that bad.  ‘He means well’, ‘he has some good points‘, and ‘I think his conclusions are valid. He just goes off the rails for the middle part of the piece I reckon.’  However, some of the other stuff was beyond what I would consider reasonable criticism.

My main problem with many of the responses is that they are informed by the values of domination.  They seem to want to dominate the conversation about what being committed to peace looks like.  If someone doesn’t want to be part of a peace gathering for whatever reason, that should be fine.  If someone wants to offer a critique, that should be fine too.

If we want to resist the politics of domination we have to reject the language of domination in our own discourse.  We must not let the longing for affirmation drown out our willingness to be critiqued.  To show that I am willing to be critiqued I left their criticism on my blog unchallenged for anyone to read.  It’s still there.  If someone disagrees with me then they are free to post on here and say so.  That’s fair enough.

What’s not fair enough is when you are unwilling to accept criticism and your first reaction to someone challenging you is to say they are ‘yet another dick talking from behind a computer and doing nothing or making no proactive movement’.  I did actually outline what it is that I do at the beginning of the article so whoever wrote this clearly didn’t read very far in before deciding I was yet another dick who does nothing.  Later on when someone else did read it and realised that actually I am not ‘doing nothing‘, they posted: ‘Portraying himself as Mother Teresa while noone else does anything? Piffle. The rest is just window dressing.’  The unwillingness to initially even read what I wrote and the need to dismiss my voice is interesting.  It seems that if one put-down doesn’t apply then they just substitute it for another.  This is the language of domination.

The terms ‘patronising’, ‘arrogant’, ‘idiotic’, ‘niavity’,  ‘stupidity’, and ‘superior’ were also used, as was ‘Up his own arse’.  This type of mud slinging is easy to dish out in the heat of the moment but less easy to take back in the cold light of day.  For example, ‘Mere opinion dressed up as insight’, is a fair comment, if that’s what you think.  But the other stuff, this is the language of domination.

To be told that I’m a ‘would be Nolan‘ and a ‘shit-stirer‘ by someone who in the same thread says he is checking out media photos of himself is deeply ironic.  On the issue of being a ‘would be Nolan’, I have been working on peace related grassroots projects for a decade and not been on tv once, nor do I want to be.  These guys organise one gathering and seem preoccupied with how much media coverage they will get.  It’s clear we have different values when it comes to the media.

Towards the end of the thread they posted this video from youtube, saying ‘whose side are you on?’  I suppose they were accusing me of being disloyal to the cause of peace because I was offering a critique and wasn’t lining up to give them the proverbial slap on the back they wanted.  This too is the language of domination.

Another post said that people like me who critiqued the peace gathering were ‘not-helping’.  Not-helping with what exactly?  Perhaps the person who said this did not read the part in my last post where I made the point that the peace gathering was ‘not helping’ those who were actively involved in trying to keep the flag protests nonviolent.  Like I said in the first post, perhaps we could ask them what we could do to help?

It then became clear why they wouldn’t.  ‘I disagree with the fella entirely. The whole ‘not everyone flag-protesting is bad’ thing is bollocks.‘  This is simply not true.  Talk to anyone involved working on the ground to try to make things better and they will tell you there are many good people working very hard to keep the peace.  When you demonise everybody like this you do them a great disservice.  This is the language of domination.

They seem also to have taken the term ‘sanctimonious irrelevance’ out of context and turned it into a direct insult.  ‘putting down any kind of positive movement as “sanctimonious irrelevance” is inflammatory language and demeans the efforts of everyone involve [sic] imo…’  This was a news to me.  Instead of criticising me for something I did say, here they are criticising me for something I didn’t say.  Just to be clear, this is what I actually said, ‘I would go so far as to say that if peace rallies are not coupled with a deep commitment to social transformation then they are nothing more than sanctimonious irrelevancies.’   I would have hoped that if they are involved in as many social transformation initiatives as they say they are then they would agree with this statement and not try to twist it to mean something I did not say.

If we are to be involved in peacemaking it means both our actions and our language must be informed by different values than the powers of domination.  These values mean that peacemaking is not a new terrain to be colonised.  No one owns the conversation about how best to make peace.  Those same values mean we do not put ourselves outside of the world of critical feedback.  They mean if we do find ourselves critiqued we should read what people actually say about us before responding with insults, and they mean we should not distort what people say to mean something they never intended.

Some thoughts on the new Ulster People’s Forum

Various news outlets have reported the formation of the Ulster People’s Forum on 3rd January. Initial reports in the media about who was involved in the leadership were inaccurate (for example see here). In this post I want to tie in the formation of this Forum with what I have previously written about who is involved in the protests and why.

Internet forums have been quick to profile the leaders of the forum and, in some cases, ridicule and belittle them.  If we want to have a mature response to the protests it seems to me this is unhelpful for two reasons.  Firstly, the people who seem to be doing the profiling do not know the individuals themselves, nor have they spoke to them, and appear to be basing a lot of their assumptions on internet research and hearsay.  Secondly, there is no doubt this new Forum does represent a certain minority within the Unionist/Loyalist population.  Further demonising and ostracizing protesters will achieve nothing. Creating spaces for dialogue between everybody involved in the protests is the way forward.

What is interesting about the Ulster People’s Forum is that it was formed so soon after First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announced the formation of their own Unionist Forum.  The establishment of an alternative forum shows that those behind it are not willing to be part of a mainstream Unionist/Loyalist agenda in what they perceive to be a move to pacify the protesters. This alone tells us something about how they position themselves in relation to mainstream Unionism.  My guess is that their initial intention is to bring together those with similar views and to provide themselves with a stronger negotiating position should dialogue with other groups develop.

A closer look at the aims they announced for the forum also confirm that they are reluctant to engage with Stormont and would prefer the end of power sharing and the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Among their aims are the following:

1) A return to direct rule because of the failing of our political representatives

2) The Union Flag to be flown from every Council building across Northern Ireland

Anyone who is old enough to remember life in Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement will know that this is not a radically new viewpoint but is simply one that has not shifted since the Troubles (I would call this traditional Unionism/Loyalism).  How much support the Ulster People’s Forum have for this viewpoint is uncertain.  What is certain is that they do not represent everybody involved in the flag protests.  The PUP and the UPRG, the traditional political voices of Loyalism, who are,  generally speaking, supportive of power sharing and the peace process, have not joined the Ulster People’s Forum. While the Ulster People’s Forum will appeal to old school Unionists and Loyalists who oppose power sharing with Republicans and Nationalists, mainstream Loyalism appears to have remained committed to their role in the peace process.  The Ulster People’s Forum no doubt reflects the views of some of the protesters (see here for a breakdown of the various groups involved) but is not representative of them all.  Its formation may well result in a split among the protesters themselves.