is the time-honoured tradition in short opinion
pieces, it is best to either introduce yourself
or provide some context with which to proceed. And
as all is context in Northern Ireland, that might
be best. Just so you can prejudge anything that
is going to be said with your own flavourings. I
am writing this from Not Northern Ireland. Which,
actually, is the point of the piece.
the second time in my life, I have left Northern
Ireland for the mainland. (Oh, I know, using two
provocative terms for two places in the second paragraph.
For sake of argument, and me having to continually
use long terms for the same places, I shall use
Northern Ireland for where I was born, bred, and
until very recently, lived. And I shall use mainland
for mainland UK. If you were looking for some context
about me, I guess those two things tell you all
you need to know to dismiss everything else I have
some more pre-history. The first time I left the
place of my birth, it was to study (and consequently
work) in England. Growing up in the 70s (not much
of which I remember) and the 80s (which I do) was
a depressing affair. Not that I had a depressing
time, just that the whole place seemed so insular.
Watching 'Scene Around Six' merely showed up the
parochialness of the province when compared to what
was going on in the rest of the world. While 'The
Troubles' rarely intruded on me, it was like a low-level
headache, always there, never going away (you know)
and drenching you in the unremitting realisation
that you were stuck. Though I saw a way out, and,
like the good middleclass boy I was aiming to be,
I took it.
Not only that, English university education. Not
for me the stay-at-home intelligensia, for that
wouldn't change the situation, merely bring it more
to the front. No, a clean break. Away. Go. Having
the benefit of a Protestant grammar school (which
is a misnomer, really, as the only sectarian and
devisive schooling is the Catholic Maintained system.
While the State schools would take anyone (and did),
there would be no way of me ever attending the Christian
Brothers.) And, duly, in 1990, I upped and left.
say I was glad would be an understatement. The new
freedom (coupled with the freedom that being away
from home anywhere on your own brings) was
exhilirating. Now the everyday realities of the
sectarian divide where receeding to a memory. New
life, new country, new me. And I didn't look back.
It was ironic, probably, that the first person I
met in England was another ex-pat Ulsterman. And
he gave me one piece of advice, which I would readily
pass on to anyone who has left Northern Ireland.
Don't ever, ever go back As if you do, you will
realise not only is it not too bad, but it is one
of the best places to have a family and a good life.
Prophetic words, which also happen to be true. As
when I did come back, I didn't want to leave again.
Of course, it might have been me maturing, settling
down, turning really middleclass, but true the words
were. By that time, I could ignore most of what
was going on, tut-tutting at those involved in their
own war, but I had better things to be doing, like
providing for my family.
is all a rather long preamble, and more of a glimpse
of my past than I really wanted to give. The point
of it all being that again, fourteen years after
I first did it, I have left again. And it is with
the ex-pat eyeglasses on, I wish to expound further.
One of my hates is the whole vocal ex-pat community.
They shout, cajole, jeer and sneer, the whole time
telling us whole live here (sorry, you who
live there) what is wrong and how it should be fixed.
used to think it great that the closest the American
(Irish) republicans got to Ireland was Staten Island,
that way they could say what they wanted without
doing too much irritation. After all, as long as
they stayed in their country, it had little
to no bearing on me. I am sorry, claiming your great-great-great
grandfather once kissed a girl whose second cousin
once think she knew a guy from Youghal does not
make you Irish. I mean, haven't you enough problems
of your own over there, without bothering us? I
know, come the revolution the wall already has my
name under one of the 'reserved' signs. Still, best
they stayed out of our lives. For years I
believed that the world should leave us alone to
sort out our own problems. (Which leads to the only
funny line from the dire 'Heh, taigs, heh prods'
that passes for all comedy in Northern Ireland,
'Give My Head Peace': "You know what I wish
they would do? Gather them'ums all up, with all
their guns, and drop them on an island to fight
it out. Oh, hang on...") Those not here
should butt out. However, now I am going to butt
in, with the Irish Sea as a safe distance between
you and me.
know the main problem with Northern Ireland? (OK,
not the main one, but a problem.) You don't listen
to those with the benefit of distance. To reuse
a phrase, the whole place is so very insular. The
terrorists (now crimelords, I suppose) prey on their
own, the politicians talk to their own, and the
bitterness of the previous generation has seeped
through to the current. From where I sit, you have
everything you need. A small country, with everything
in reach, spolit only by the people. Failing to
talk to each other, failing to even recognise each
other, failing to realise what you could have, just
reinforces what the world thinks of you. When they
do think of you. As don't kid yourself, some small
local squabble that has been dragging on since prehistory
is only a footnote to the rest of the world's lives.
Why should so much time, effort and money be expended
on a place you can drive the length of in a few
hours, and whose population would make only a minor
suburb of almost any American city? You lot have
such a high opinion of yourselves. To quote the
daytime prophets, Get over yourself, girlfriend!
the mainland is more aware of us now (I don't have
to wait until the assistant goes to get the manager
to verify that I can spend my Ulster Bank notes,
though those plastic fivers still get queried) they
aren't quite as in awe of us. Aren't all our problems
solved? Didn't the IRA decide to pretend it was
doing us a favour by not shooting, maiming and bombing?
(Of course, all brands of paramilitary have added
to the expat community, though not generally seen
as the best we could offer the world.) Viewed by
ourselves, ours was the most important conflict
in the world, our problems the biggest, our grievances
the most valid. Newsflash, none of that is true.
Just that we are some of the best self-aggrandizers
in the world. Woe is us, for we are undone, for
we are men of unclean lips. The cachet of being
a child of The Troubles, of having seen things (and
known things) no longer is worth anything. Holding
court in the pubs telling stories of being woken
(on the couch, with your girlfriend in you arms,
at 3am) as another bomb goes off don't generate
the same interest as when said bombs were still
being placed. Or the threat of them being placed
on the mainland existed. The world has moved on,
terror has moved on, but Northern Ireland still
clings to the past.
on the radio when I am home is a depressing affair.
And not in the unintentionally hilarious way that
local radio is anywhere else in the world. It is
a collection of throwbacks and ill-informed pundits,
only ever commenting in a snide and colloquial way,
pretending they have answers to the great and unanswerable,
being smug with their lot as they are in thrall
to The Truth, and by God they will make sure that
you know that. For Northern Ireland is still home,
and always will be, even though the longer I am
away, the less it will seem so, and the more I will
have moved on. Rest assured, Northern Ireland does
not move on, and if it does, it is at a glacially
slow pace. The healthcare system is at least twenty
years behind the mainland in outlook and attitude,
social perceptions even worse, as woe betide if
you are female, unemployed, working class, or not
part of The Old Boys Golf Club Network.
that sense of the past is what makes us expats despair.
You have it all, you are just to proud and pigheaded
to realise it. (Oh, and bigoted, and explotative,
too, if you still think beating and censorship is
the best way to treat your community.) Attempting
to control the media, to portray yourselves as the
great downtrodden may work on those on the fringe
of sympathy, but us who lived there, and know, just
see you as shallow and wallowing in some perceived
victim status, attempting to pull cheap political
shots. Here are we, elsewhere, enjoying the best
that 21st centruy society can offer, and when we
look to the western edge of Europe, we see a backwater
that isn't a utopian rural escape from the ratrace,
but a stale and sordid twist of life.
moral deceptitude that we see, when we even see
it, for we have more pressing problems to deal with
ourselves, turns us off further. We can't believe
that is what we have left. Were we so blind when
we lived there? So we smirk, knowing for sure
how to solve the ills of Northern Ireland, how we
could sort you all out, put the place to rights
and make it a paradise where little fluffy rabbits
open their eyes over green pastures every morning,
a rainbow caressing the sky as the children of both
communities skip and laugh together until sunset.
You lot just don't get it, do you? We know
what is good for you. (And us, too, which is why
we say these things with certitude from anywhere