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Race or politics, all real barriers are in the mind

Published: 20 Feb 2014 09:300 comments

The classic “Pulp Fiction” is a pretty bloodthirsty film, as you might expect from Quentin Tarantino, and the violent characters include mobster’s hitman Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L Jackson.

It’s just as well that in real life the black actor isn’t as trigger happy or ruthless as his on screen persona, or an American television interviewer would have been in trouble this week. Sam Rubin, on Californian television, began by asking Jackson about his commercial on the Super Bowl break.

Jackson paused, and then asked: “What Super Bowl commercial?”

As the interviewer stuttered an apology, the actor quickly realised that he had mistaken him for another black actor, Laurence Fishburne, who had done an advert. It’s not as if Jackson isn’t well-known and he made the interviewer squirm for a while.

Yes folks, even in Obama’s America, there are people who think all blacks look alike.

In this part of the world, we don’t even need a different colour of skin to make assumptions about people. Sadly, too many of us look at eastern Europeans who have settled here and make a great contribution in our county and come up with some stereotypical negative claptrap about them.

And still, even in peacetime Northern Ireland, there is a tendency to look at our own “other side” with a preconceived idea from the past about our own people.

So with elections coming up, survival instincts will kick in and the desire to make sure your own side wins, as much to keep the other side out as anything. The old joke about someone breaking into the Kremlin in Russia and stealing NEXT year’s election results isn’t that far away from the truth in Northern Ireland.

While Scotland’s independence referendum seems to be generating genuine, if sometimes facile, debate, what will be the issues on which our people vote in the forthcoming European and Council elections? And even after that when the next Assembly elections come around, is anybody really expecting it not to result in the DUP and Sinn Fein remaining the largest parties on their own side, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP struggling to make up, Alliance still in there. Of course, there will be subtle differences around, and who knows how NI21 and the TUV will perform.

But don’t expect any massive change. All five of the main parties should get enough votes to get them back into “government” and there will be no opposition, unless there’s a change of heart. How many DUP voters will consider Edwin Poots performance as Health Minister, or will John O’Dowd’s role as Education Minister win him or lose him votes from Sinn Fein voters?

At least, though, these parties can claim to have a mandate. I’ve been wondering recently about the airtime given to some of the loyalists causing disruption. I’ll admit I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry when the ludicrous squeaky flag protester Jamie Bryson comes on, and I wonder who do people such as him and the not-very-articulate Winston “Winky” Irvine really represent. Surely this is a purely Belfast phenomenon, which the rest of us can only watch in wonder; wondering what are they loyal to and can they not see that they are causing more disruption to their own beloved city than their so-called opponents.

And how many people within the Order does George Chittick speak for when he advises people against learning Irish.

Should they be heard? Well, of course, they should. However small a body of opinion they represent, and they do, all people have the right to be heard. But, what about some perspective.

These are some of the people who the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness refers to when he accuses mainstream Unionists of dancing to the tune of loyalist extremists.

Meanwhile, more and more liberal Unionists are abandoning the political process. One Protestant I spoke to a couple of weeks ago just shook his head and said: “Why would I be bothered with politics?”

Of course, this strategy won’t cost the main Unionist parties any seats; the disillusioned Protestants won’t be going anywhere else. So, the DUP members who still won’t even look at Sinn Fein in the corridor will be returned because it’s easy not to take risks.

But that is a risk in itself to the whole political and peace process.

The only people who can affect change and make political change are the voters.

I read a story recently about a huge barracuda fish in a massive tank at Sea World in the United States. Half way across the tank there is a reinforced glass barrier; the fish swims up and bangs into it a number of times and then realises he can only swim on one side. But after a time, the barrier is removed.

And yet, the barracuda swims up to where it once was and, every time, turns back and stays on his own side of the tank. There is no physical barrier; the barrier is in his mind.

Barriers still exist in our minds, don’t they?

Another story. In a book called Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, there is a character in a lifeboat whose only companion is a 450-pound Bengal tiger. He has to analyse his fears; should he stay in the boat, or jump out into the ocean.

We, in this country, could stay in the situation and be eaten by tiger-like fear, or we could step out of the boat.

The election results will surely tell us that we’re not ready to do that yet, even if the only barrier is in our own minds.

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