Public Health: When discussing contemporary Northern Ireland, I use ‘Christians’ as a term for Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland- not just for ‘born-again’ or ‘hardcore’ Protestants, as our wonderfully sceptical dialect has come to suggest.
Writing in the early second century AD, Tacitus (that most revered Roman historian and politician) described Christians as having odium generis humani, or a ‘hatred of the human race’. He based his words on some wobbly assumptions about the Christian agape, or ‘love feasts’ being some sort of guise for cannibalism and or incest. His work was written at a time when Christianity was still feared and loathed by the vastly pagan Roman populous and included some history of Nero’s persecutions (the extent of which was and is frankly overstated by Christian writers- they should be more concerned by Diocletian’s more systematic approach-) some fifty or so years before Tacitus had put pen to paper.
A reader might be forgiven for thinking ‘what has this got to do with anything?’. However, I think there is some current mileage for people in Northern Ireland in what Tacitus says about Christians’ perceptions of others and their actions- even though he and I might differ on the evidence we’d use to make such a point.
Right now, Northern Ireland is preparing itself for yet another Twelfth of July ‘celebration'; the commemoration of a series of battles fought in 1690 between two belligerent would-be rulers of Britain and Ireland. The two ‘kings’, William III of Orange and James II differed in terms of religion- William was Protestant, James was Catholic. They fought in Ireland, with William conscripting and accepting volunteers from the relatively recently planted Irish Protestant population and James doing the same, enlisting Irish Catholics. ‘Different religions or different sects of Christianity?’, you might ask. Bear that in mind a moment.
To cut a long, laborious and over-told story a little shorter, as time went on between 1690 and the 1900s (and there are literally dozens of well-written histories of this period- such as Alvin Jackson’s Ireland, Thomas Bartlett’s Ireland, DG Boyce’s Nineteenth Century Ireland and JC Beckett’s The Making of Modern Ireland), sectarian rivalry persisted, grew and became more vociferous, both ‘sides’ taking up arms against one another from time to time, with the Twelfth of July becoming an extremely contentious time on an annual basis from around 1815 onwards- don’t believe me? Read some old newspapers. Christians literally killing and maiming each other, every Twelfth for almost two hundred years. Sounds more like a re-enactment than a celebration to me, hence the ‘apostrophes’ earlier.
I wonder (and not just because I’m an ancient history geek) what Tacitus would make of our situation. I think he would find it all rather deplorable proof of his original opinions of Christians and their seeming hatred for others. Perhaps he would look to the recent anti-gay agenda, which has raised its head at the highest, most intolerable and intolerant levels of our ‘government’- I think he would ask why there is such a problem. I think he might look on in disgust at the sleaze of Messrs Poots and McCausland- the former spending public money on ‘fighting same sex adoption’ (see http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/northern-irelands-health-minister-edwin-poots-uses-40k-of-public-funds-to-fight-samesex-adoption-29408203.html), the latter up to his neck in the Red Sky fiasco (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0379p01). He might look at the points-scoring tactics of Gerry Kelly, grabbing hold of a police landrover- the equivalent of a ‘one for the cameras’ moment in the Premier League (http://cdn3.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/incoming/article29367554.ece/ALTERNATES/w620/2813DSC454314jpeg_2.jpg). Tacitus might laugh, frankly, at the seeming ineptitude of other parties to get anything done- WHILE ALL OF THE ABOVE COLLECT A SOON-TO-INCREASE PAYCHEQUE AND EXPENSES AND MEDIA APPEARANCES AND EVERYTHING ELSE NORMAL PEOPLE HAVE TO PAY FOR FROM DWINDLING PAY PACKETS.
This is what we do though, isn’t it? In the sight of any adversity whatsoever (most recently the global recession) we in Northern Ireland revert to old Catholic V Protestant V Catholic V Protestant blame-gamery- while Rome (or in this case, Belfast) quite literally burns. In an increasingly secular society, the sectarian pill becomes harder to swallow for the majority of people who want to live and die here in peace, or what relative peace we have left out of the Good Friday Agreement.
Yet our local media consistently gives a voice seemingly to the loudest and least enlightened members of our public- WHY!? BECAUSE IT MAKES ‘GOOD’ TV/RADIO/ONLINE/WRITTEN PIECES OF ‘NEWS’! This was one of the biggest problems at the heart of the flags debacle, the recent very late parades decisions and the perpetuity of Dan Brown-style reliance on old and very obvious SYMBOLOGY. It is harder to explain difficult concepts to people, sure, but don’t flatter yourselves and label the public thick because it’s easier to write a bitchy, pointed little article about flags and religion and other BIG, SLOPPY, PRIMARY-COLOURS-ONLY issues than it is to try something well-balanced and thought-provoking. Maybe if local TV journalists, who have consummate ease with getting local politicians into the studio would stop asking them what they are doing (having just told us what they are doing anyway) and ASK THEM REAL QUESTIONS- such as my favourite one of all- ‘WHY?’ WHY IS GAY RIGHTS SUCH A PROBLEM MR POOTS? WHY DID YOU GET YOUR MITS INVOLVED WITH RED SKY MR MCCAUSLAND? WHY DID YOU GRAB THAT LANDROVER, MR KELLY? WHY DO YOU SEEM TO DO SO LITTLE SDLP, UUP, ALLIANCE, GREENS, TUV? REAL QUESTIONS NEEDING ANSWERED before we continue to let the Parades Commission piss around until the last minute, boiling the blood of people on both sides EVERY YEAR, before shootings become a regular occurrence again.
If we skip back across the Mediterranean and ask where the word ‘ostracise’ comes from, we would find out that in ancient Greece, when a politician or other public figure had outstayed their welcome, people would inscribe that person’s name on an ‘ostracon’ (a small piece of broken pot) and cast it into a pile during a vote. Whoever had most votes was ostracised ie banished within ten days for ten years. I mean if we are really going to keep running this place based on old, old ideas like hating our gay community, watching poverty rise and undervaluing the education our children receive while championing the values of churches crippled by falling numbers, financial and sexual scandals- I’d rather bring back ostracism so we could tell a few of these people to fuck off for a little while. Not only do I think Tactus would enjoy this, but it would at least be one election where Northern Irish people might actually vote.