One of the things we got talking about on this overnight conference was about how the Loyalist community has been de-storied. This is abundantly clear in inner East Belfast. The window in my office looks out over the two yellow cranes of the Harland & Wolffe shipyards, famous for being the place where the Titanic was built. From employing over 30k men a generation or two ago, it now has less than 100. Gone too is the world’s largest rope works, the mills and the other heavy industrial manufacturing that defined Belfast for over 100 years. Gone. The economic impact has been severe, but so too has the impact on the psyche of the people.
In the place of this old story are narratives defined by fear. Religious and political story-tellers now engineer fear. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that south of the border things are so different. In the last 25 years in the Republic all the traditional pillars of society have fallen. Even as recently as 30 years ago it was traditional in Ireland that the oldest son went into the priesthood, the next into the bank. But a succession of political, banking and religious scandals put paid to that. Successive women presidents, divorce referendums etc etc ensured that the country I left in 1987 is gone. “All changed, changed utterly” said Yeats.
In its place is a new story and what astonishes me is how quickly it replaced the old. It seems to me that the story is an economic one. Walk the streets of a transformed Dublin, listen to conversations in the bars and coffee houses. It won’t be long before house prices are discussed.
Anyway, the Republic has moved on, a new story is being told, but not here. One of the guys spoke about how vital the church is in re-storying the loyalist community. And what we have to offer is eschatology. The contribution we can make is future-oriented. Not sure that any other story has eschatological dimensions. Certainly not the economic story.
The challenge is that a central plank of government strategy for the transformation of NI is economic. We can’t buy this uncritically, at the risk that the change will bring forth a ‘terrible beauty’, to quote Yeats again.