Friday, December 2, 2011

Coping with diversity

Christmas is not exactly turning out to be the season of goodwill at Belfast City Council. This week, we had the Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile refusing to present a Duke of Edinburgh’s award to a young Army cadet. Although I know Sinn Féin always have an agenda and like to push the envelope, I wonder if there may be more to this story as it does seem particularly inept.

Then we have the Irish Language row. A donated sign saying Nollaig Shona Duit will be hung outside City Hall this year - as well as the usual one in English, in case you wondered. A democratic decision of the Council. And of course some people object.

So what do these episodes tell us about the best way to acknowledge and live with diversity?

There are three options for societies to deal with strongly held issues of identity, in circumstances when one person’s self-expression is another person’s taking of offence. The first is to ban everything. This leads to situations where people don’t feel able to talk about a wide range of topics in case someone in the room, from a particular identity, is upset – or worse, thinks the speaker is racist, sexist, homophobic and so on. Or in our case, sectarian. It might be unfair, but I think of Canadians as being rather like that.

The second option is careful balance, usually imposed by the state. This is us here in Norn Iron. I gather that when Belfast City Hall reopened, a committee made decisions to balance the placing of the building’s historic artefacts in order to reflect the histories of both communities, and if I remember rightly also to include other identities. Although I value the Larkin window (that’s my culture, thank you BCC), I do think this approach is historically incorrect. City Hall has been a unionist environment for most of its history and now it is not. To be reminded of that makes the achievement of the present day more significant, not less.

The third choice is to let it rip. I always think of this as the United States approach. You express your identity, I’ll express mine, and the price of being able to do so is to tolerate the other. You wear your Celtic top, I wear my Rangers top, and no-one gets hurt. Or in my case, I’ll enjoy bilingual Christmas greetings and still appreciate the Covenant Table where my relatives signed the thing in 1912. I know, we’re not quite there yet, but in my opinion it’s far better than either pretending difference doesn’t exist, or trying to control it.

So what about the two incidents in the news? If we want to move towards a genuinely tolerant society, the Mayor would have presented all the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, but perhaps with the odd comhghairdeas leat or maith thu thrown in. And the people of Belfast would be wished a Merry Christmas not only in English and Irish, but in many other languages as well.