Thursday, 15 August 2019

Brollies, Bombs and the Bogside

"The Petrol Bomber". Derry, 1972

It's odd to be sitting here in Ireland watching the demonstrations in Hong Kong. 
Here, in Northern Ireland's Ballymena, where my great-grandfather saw the home birth of my grandfather in 1866. Here in Ireland, watching the students in Hong Kong wave the symbols of their resistance, the simple brollie. And sometimes get violent.
Here, where fifty years ago last week, began the sectarian violence, begun in Derry's Bogside, the beginning of a bloody thirty-year conflict that became "the Troubles". 
And so, as we are asked — by a gate keeper in the depths of the green fields, by a barkeep in Belfast, by a cabbie in Coalisland —  where we are from and we say "Hong Kong", we get a mordant look and "ah, so yez have your own Troubles now, eh?"
And the BBC talking heads mention, in passing, on the way to another point about Brexit, that the demos in Hong Kong are about "freedom and democracy". 
And sure it's tempting to see the parallels, the Irish struggles for Civil Rights, the Hong Kong struggles for... well, for what, exactly?
As we watch the storming of Legco from the lawns of Stormont, a billion brollies from a baleful Bogside, we realise that it's not at all the same. There's no equivalence, no matter how alluring the thought.
Take the "freedom" word for a start. In Hong Kong we have every freedom going: freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; freedom of religion; freedom of conscience; freedom of movement; freedom to watch and use any social media we wish. I can only think of one freedom we don't have and that's to marry someone of the same sex.  But as far as I know the demonstrators aren't making that an issue. The basic point here is that Hong Kong already has all the freedoms of a modern liberal, open, tolerant society. Whereas what started the Troubles were deep and entrenched iniquities.
Then "democracy". Not widely known outside Hong Kong is that we do have broad democracy at the grass roots. At the district council level, where all the minutiae of a modern economy are debated and decided, we can choose amongst a slate of candidates, in free and secret elections. I have personal 
experience of this. Some years ago I was dragooned into being the campaign chairman for a local guy running for a seat in the New Territories electorate. It was down and dirty. Like all good elections. I was calumniated in social media, so much that I considered suing. 
We lost. 
But it was a good tough fight and in the end local citizens made their choices unpressured and unencumbered. 
What we don't have, yet, is the right to freely choose the head of Hong Kong, the Chief Executive. There are elections but from a small group chosen by Beijing. I could go on to suggest that the American system with its money and electoral colleges may not be much better But I won't. I will say that the Basic Law Hong Kong doesn't require that the free election of the CE needs to be by any particular time. But still. No substantive movement forward has been made since 1997 and since the  Occupy movement of 2014, and for sure that's a major irritant to the demonstrators. 
But is this — the constant demos with sporadic violence — the way to get movement on it?  I don't think so. Rather, as former Court of Final Appeal Henry Litton has argued — and I've said the same — it is only likely to have the opposite effect. He suggests a better aim would be to convince Beijing that the "one country two systems" formula is working and that it ought to be extended beyond 2047, a date once distant, now looming. ("It was your idea, Beijing. And brill it was, too! Let's extend it").  This at least has the virtue of being possible. As against air-headed, vapid, stupid, dangerous and simply impossible notions of "independence".  [1]. 
Meantime, even if there are no perfect parallels between the struggles of the Troubles and the struggles of the Students, there are things we can learn from our eyrie in Ireland. 
In Belfast we went on a "different stories" walk. First 90 minutes you walk around with a guide who used to be in the IRA. In the second 90 minutes you're accompanied by a former soldier in the loyalist UDF. The latter, a hard man called Garry, had spent 8 years in jail for multiple murders (of the IRA).  In jail he got a degree and went on to teach mathematics after his release as part of the Good Friday agreement. Twenty years ago these guys were trying to kill each other for their different stories. And now they do guided walks.
I'm not minded to believe that "there are two sides to every story". That's too much of a post-modern moral equivalence gig for me. But here in Northern Ireland there most certainly are two sides to the story. Murals tell both sides of it. All untouched by the opposite side. 
And so in the Middle East. Could they ever do "different stories" walks? An Israeli Jew and a Gazan Muslim? 
And so too in Hong Kong? Can Carrie walk with students and share "different stories"? I dunno. I suspect it's too early. And for now it's she who must make a move. But at least she must make a metaphorical walk with them. 
Please Carrie. Make a move. Don't let these challenges turn into real Troubles. We need our own Good Friday agreement. 
With best wishes from Derry and the Belfast. From the Peace Walls in Bogside. From the Freedom Walls in Belfast. 
20 years of peace attest that even the most bitter battles can be shelved. Let's shelve this one before there are deaths. The police have already found bombs. God help us if we go down that wretched route.

“The petrol bomber” Hong Kong 2019
* You say "Derry" if you're a Republican, likely living in the Republic. You say "Londonderry" if you're a Unionist. Pro-British. Likely living in Northern Ireland.