When I was at school the exams that we sat at sixteen were called ‘O’ Levels. I sat the usual mix of arts and science subjects and particularly enjoyed History, mainly because I could relate to the curriculum which covered key events in Europe in the early to mid twentieth century. It was the first time that I was told the historic reasons for the trouble in my home land, and it encouraged me to read much more widely on the subject.
Growing up in Belfast I was exposed to the rhetoric of the local politicians almost daily as they were interviewed on the television news bulletins following the bombings or shootings that were commonplace at the time. Protestants and Roman Catholics lived in different parts of the city and went to different schools so, although my family did not discuss the political situation a great deal, I absorbed the biased reactions from my peers and their families. Some had very strong views.
When, at fifteen, I started to study for the first time why the fighting was happening, I was perturbed to discover that I didn’t necessarily agree with the side I was supposed to be on. I wasn’t at all sure how to deal with this. From my very naive start point it looked as if both sides were fighting for a lost cause. I did not see how there could ever be a winner when the arguments had been brewing for so long, and so many atrocities had been perpetrated by both sides.
Whatever the cause, when fighting occurs with guns and explosives there is going to be injury and death. Parents are going to lose their beloved children; lives are going to be changed forever. I can see very few causes that can be worth this terrible cost. Armchair generals have long sent their troops into battle and counted the cost by number; lives lost versus territory won. Political protests can follow much the same approach; collateral damage is measured against progress made in achieving concessions by the activists who encourage the dissent from their supporters.
I left Belfast before the current, uneasy peace was achieved. On my occasional visits I notice a huge change for the better. It is not just the removal of the barbed wire, search barriers and army patrols in the streets; the young people seem to mix much more freely which can only help to encourage understanding and tolerance. There is still an undercurrent of violence that manifests itself around seemingly foolish things such as when to fly a flag from a public building or which streets to march down when publicly parading allegiances; each side will still loudly and bitterly blame the other for provoking or reacting inappropriately.
I am very uncomfortable with extremism. There is no easy solution to the situation in Ireland which has been centuries in the making. Neither is there an easy option to sort out the insidious political problems in this country which have developed over the last few decades. Deciding whether the rot started with Margaret Thatcher or with her predecessors and the arrogance of the unions at the time makes for interesting debate, but is now largely academic. Attaching historical blame does not help to improve our current situation.
When trying to enter into a political discussion there are some who will try to take ownership of policies that most will support at a basic level, even if they disagree with the best way to implement them. One does not need to be a socialist to wish to help the needy and vulnerable; capitalists are not the only people wishing to benefit personally from the work they do.
If a country is to support those in need then it requires resources which most often come from taxes. For taxes to be paid, businesses need to be allowed to flourish and provide employment. There was much debate last year about large, successful businesses that had managed to avoid paying tax in this country. This was not tax evasion (illegal) but avoidance. I do not know anyone who would willingly pay more tax than they had to. If a company is able to avoid tax then it may be that tax legislation needs to change. If the company is acting within the law then I can understand it wishing to minimise it’s tax liabilities. I would do the same.
Wishing to pay only legally required tax does not mean that I am against helping those in need. I may not always agree that some needs are vital enough to require support from the public purse, but I agree with feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and treating the sick. I would like to see a much simpler system of taxation and support, a lot less waste in state run organisations and a lot less interference in how I live my life, but none of this precludes me from wishing to offer state support to those who truly need it.
Sometimes my socialist friends seem to suggest that their ideals have a monopoly on compassion. They are no more willing to pay additional tax or offer their spare bedroom to a homeless stranger than I am. They wish to be paid for the work that they do and then to be free to spend their money for their own benefit. This does not make them bad people any more than my political allegiances make me a bad person. We can generalise and point out individuals with similar views who may not be admirable, but it is possible to do good from many stances.
The real difference between how my friends and I think becomes more apparent when considering wider issues such as how best to fix the mess that the country’s economy is currently in. Like the problems in Ireland, I do not believe there are straightforward answers, but life will be better for all if we can manage to move forward with a compromise solution that may not offer anyone exactly what they want but will keep the peace.
Of course I would like to see real change in support of my views, just as my socialist friends would like to see real change in support of their views. I think I could cope with either though if we could have honest politicians representing the people rather than their own interests, who were voted in on policies that they would then implement. The deception that pervades the higher echelons of power is much harder to accept than any honest ideal. It is unfortunate that the one thing that is obvious from studying history is that power corrupts.