The saying, “There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics.” is attributed to the 19th century Prime Minister, Disraeli, so it’s an old one.

But the notion of statistics being abused to make a point, or being selectively used to distort the truth, is bang up to date in the modern world of spin.

The figures for Covid-19 cases in the United Kingdom are shocking, with over 42,000 deaths and rising. Yet Boris Johnson managed to deny such reality by suggesting comparisons with other countries aren’t accurate and claims he’s “very proud” of his Government’s response. And Labour leader, Kier Starmer looked bemused when he quoted figures from a Government report showing child poverty rising. Only for Johnson to respond suggesting figures showed it was actually falling.

Whether it’s Covid or child poverty, you may well think that it’s either the statistics or the Tories that are lying, and a quote comes to mind from the late American writer, James Baldwin, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

Whatever the statistics, behind them is the tragedy of so many Covid victims and children in 21st century Britain relying on foodbanks or the pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford to get them a decent meal.

Here in Northern Ireland, statistics are often used to bolster up the positions of people on both sides of our identity divide. Do the figures always truly reflect the change that’s happening on the ground?

Last week, a joint study undertaken by Queen’s University and Ulster University in the ARK project showed that when it comes to national identity, people here became more polarized in the run-up to Brexit.

A survey of 1,200 people suggested that 59 per cent of Catholics described themselves as Nationalist, an increase of nine per cent on the previous year. The number of Protestants who considered themselves Unionists was also up considerably, now at 67 per cent.

There is a danger that much of the focus and analysis is based on the premise that there are two distinctly different tribes, polar opposites with little in common; that the latest statistics show communities are becoming further entrenched and the best we can hope for is to just co-exist.

Not only would that be pessimistic for those of us who believe that a shared society can be achieved in which difference is respected, even cherished, but the generalization of a divided people also ignores a number of factors. Not least that there are changing demographics over the years, from a time when Protestants were dominant to the point now that no particular community has a majority.

Indeed, in today’s Northern Ireland it’s far too simplistic to say there are just two large groups, each a homogenous one which thinks alike. There are many sections within groups, from Irish speaking Unionists to Catholics who wish to remain part of the UK; from Republicans opposed to the Sinn Fein

leadership but who do not want a return to violence to GAA-supporting Protestants. Plus many others.

Everyone should be heard.

The statistics also show too, for example, that the biggest sample of respondents was those who consider themselves neither Unionist or Nationalist. Overall, according to this survey, 33 per cent of people in Northern Ireland are Unionist, 23 per cent are Nationalist, but 39 per cent are neither. This figure, although down, would tend to bear out the rise of the middle ground in the recent elections.

That is not to minimize or downplay division or difference here, but to say that statistics never really give the full picture of all the subtle nuances. If we needed any reminder of difference, the horrible intimidation of people at Grove Park in Belfast, a shared space, with the disturbing objection to young kids casually playing hurling.

Such sectarian hate should be called out by everyone, and all sections here should value all people’s way of life.

I’ve already referred to the writer James Baldwin, and at the weekend I watched again the documentary “I am not your Negro” based on his unfinished manuscript. While the race divide in America is not entirely similar to ours, there are parallels in some of the wisdom which Baldwin imparted in his words about addressing difference which we would do well to embrace.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” he said, and we need to face the fact that failure to accommodate each other’s culture in the past has seen us sink into an abyss of mistrust which resulted in the scars of violence.

And we have been reminded again of the grievous effects of that violence on many of our people, as the debate continues over a pension for Troubles victims. This is long overdue.

Some of the accounts being published recently by the Wave Trauma Centre of the victims’ lives have been heartrending. This week, they had a photo of a man called Paddy Cassidy who was severely injured in a shooting in 1971 and has been campaigning for a pension to help him for the last 10 years. “Paddy died yesterday without the chance to apply for the pension as the Executive Office have refused to implement them.”

Part of the Wave philosophy is that it “continually seeks creative ways of working through issues that have the potential to divide” and their focus on victims tends to be based on their physical and mental needs. Too often, the bereaved and injured are brought into the centre of a political blame game, which risks society at large re-running the conflict of the past in different form.

As Oscar Wilde said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Baldwin again: “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”

He also said, “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

Using the past and learning from it should mean we cannot move forward without taking care of all the victims of it. We need to remember and change, so that the dreadful violence must never be repeated.

Back in the 90s, there seemed to be opportunity to move forward into a shared society, and later if Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could become friends and work together, anything seemed possible. But there are times when we seem to play fast and loose with the opportunity of peace.

Now that the Stormont Executive is up and running again, it’s been interesting to see how the Covid crisis has been approached with a better relationship between the two women leaders, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill. The cynics may suggest it is for the optics, and no doubt there are challenges ahead; but credit where it is due.

It is a small glimpse of what is needed in that neither will give up their ideology or culture, but show some personal respect to the other side.

Much has been made of the fact we live in extraordinary times and that the “new normal” will be different; is it possible that when it comes to sharing this place, we will all realise that living together in peace is the most important thing we can pass on to future generations?