Volume 11 Number 6
Where Labels Can Be Killers
01 December 1998
Faustina Starrett is Coordinator of Media Programmes at the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education in Derry, Northern Ireland.
In the month after the single worst atrocity of 'The Troubles', the Omagh bomb, the people of Northern Ireland showed their spirit of resilience and commitment to reconciliation. The fund for the victims-29 killed and over 220 injured-topped £2 million. More than 200,000 people, anxious to express their sympathy and emphasize their rejection of violence, signed condolence books.
The bomb came as a terrible shock, at a time when there was hope on the horizon. The reaction has been concerted action from every corner to make sure that it does not put out the light or set people against each other, as it was meant to.
Perhaps Northern Ireland's media have made a fresh start, too. For the first time ever the victims of the atrocity were not described with tribal labels in media reports.
There should be no better barometer than our media of our mental and spiritual well-being as people. Yet the crude labels-Catholic/Nationalist/Republican and Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist-encourage the stereotyping that creates and perpetuates sectarian prejudices.
Institutional bias is not always a conscious thing. It comes from an organization's ownership, history and audience. It feeds off the experience of individuals. The challenge facing every individual and institution of state, including our churches and media, is to push ourselves away from prejudice. This is no easy task.
In truth, we are all still dealing with the pain of our history, trying to cast off the shackles of the past. Our experience is rooted in our sense of belonging to one community. The geography, demography, history and politics of the state have all helped to reinforce our different perspectives.
My own biography illumines how personal experience becomes political experience.
My father was an Englishman, a Protestant and an officer in the Royal Navy. He met my mother, a Catholic, while stationed in Derry during the Second World War.
The moulding of my father's character by the experience of the navy and the war had consequences for our personal life. And, in as much as they were national characteristics, I imagine they made an impact on political life, too.
The sense of being in control of one's destiny, comfortable in the seat of judgement, and able to appear objective were among the qualities that gave birth to an empire and fired the spirit of English nationalism. The Protestant community, that grew out of the English and Scottish planters, were intent on retaining control, upholding the Protestant faith and keeping Ireland-now diminished to Northern Ireland-loyal to Britain.
My father also experienced, through my mother, the victim status afforded to Catholics, who laboured a long time as second-class citizens. Their sense of inferiority went deep, resulting in a lack of control that moved from the outer landscape to the inner psyche. Self-confidence in their own judgement only came with a new generation, liberated by education and non-violent protest. My father, to his embarrassment, saw injustice at work in the lives of all our relatives.
The myth in Britain and abroad that all Catholics were Nationalists wanting to overthrow the system and create a United Ireland is simply not true. Many wanted the system to be fair and to find a place within it.
I grew up as a Catholic. Life seemed peaceful until I was about 11. But there were clues to 'the problem' even a child could pick up. Raised voices in the home over housing allocations and jobs, knowing to avoid certain areas for play, and then the heady days of the civil rights protests. The situation affected me more as I grew up and felt the impact of prejudice.
Exasperation within communities tended to legitimize violence and reinforce prejudices, and an atmosphere of 'zero tolerance' permeated our society. Local, regional and national media were crudely identified as taking sides and these perceptions encouraged the belief that the media were part of the problem.
We all need to become more aware and active in resisting sectarian positions. We need first to deal with our own prejudices as people.
Tournier said, 'We cannot heal society, we can only heal individuals one by one.' So perhaps the lessons from Northern Ireland are not general but relate to each of us.
Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, writes of the reconciling power of silence, of the need to 'listen till it hurts' to those on the other side of a conflict. We should be 'voices of contradiction' within our own culture. She sees division as a consequence of separation from God and reconciliation as primarily a spiritual quest. Religious labels and doctrine seem to be part of the problem.
Whether or not we choose to frame our search for reconciliation and peace in this way is not the issue at stake. Our behaviour towards others is.
We in the media are learning to ask if our own attitudes, opinions and activities can be deemed negative and therefore prejudiced. The challenge is to be vigilant about reporting the facts and not reinforcing the prejudices. Perhaps the media can set the pulse for the Millennium by showing that the era of greed and power is a spent force and personal, social and global responsibility will inform and shape the future for the better. At home, we might make this process more than a platitude by acknowledging the forces that keep hope alive.
The challenge for all of us is to become personally accountable to and for our media institutions, to seek to improve them so that they command respect and contribute to making a better Northern Ireland and, ultimately, a better world for us all.