So it’s Monday lunchtime and I’m sitting outside the office in the square basking in the warm sunshine. They are predicting a heatwave this week and word has it that Thursday could be the hottest day on record in Northern Ireland. Like ever! All around me office workers are sitting eating their lunches while tourists amble in and out of the imposing St. Anne’s Cathedral just across the street.
I’ve spent the morning within the arctic confines of our open plan office researching the role of the British Army when first deployed in 1969 at the start of the Northern Ireland troubles. It was a brutal period marked by senseless sectarian murders, street riots, explosions and hijackings. It was a time of confusion and carnage. Belfast was the Beirut of Western Europe. The British Government referred to it as an internal security situation.
Who were they trying to kid, it was a war. I grew up in that world although I lived in a relatively quiet rural area and my parents did everything in their power to shelter me from the reality of what was going on in Belfast and other hot spots. Even then I was tainted by the hatred and violence that flooded into our living room every night on the television news. It was everywhere, you could not escape it.
I’m so glad our country is at peace now. Our children will not grow up in that environment. Belfast is a modern, cosmopolitan city now with a thriving tourist industry. Security barriers and bombed out buildings have been replaced by trendy bars and restaurants. You can freely stroll around the city without fear of being caught in the crossfire of a terrorist attack. Another innocent victim. Collateral damage. Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.
Belfast is a better place. I sit back and stare upwards at the clear blue skies. When I look back down three rough sleepers pass me by. One of them has no legs and is propelling himself along on a wooden skateboard that looks like it was built in the 1950’s. The last time I saw a disabled person use such a mode of transport was when I visited Eastern Africa several years ago. I had never seen such poverty and thought I never would again.
Yet here it is in 2018 on my own doorstep. I look away in dismay to see half a dozen young people at the other side of the square clearly involved in a drug deal. In broad daylight as the tour coaches pull up outside the cathedral and the camera toting hordes disembark. All in the square outside my comfortable office. All in front of my comfortable life. The same square where two teenage girls brawled viciously the other week, fuelled by copious amounts of cheap cider.
The same square where a young man was viciously raped on his way home from a nearby club. Beneath the shiny veneer this city still stinks. You only have to dig a little and it’s there, the nasty underbelly. How civilised are we really? When we can live in a world that is still overflowing with greed and violence; with poverty and despair. It would be unimaginable if it were not for the fact that it is happening right in front of us.
I want to contribute, I want to make a difference, I want to make this wretched world a better place. I see progress and I see potential. But some days you set eyes on sights that bring all your dreams and plans crashing to the ground. Some days you just want to turn your back on it all as you can’t stomach it anymore. Today was one of those days. And all it took was a lunch break in the dazzling sunshine.