Last evening, with the sleet sheeting down and the ground filled with damp squirrelling into your shoes, I made my way to St Mary’s University College…No, Virginia, I am not going to start arguing the case for the continuation of St Mary’s. I mention it only because it was the venue for the re-launch of Danny Morrison’s 25-year-old novel, West Belfast. It was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion despite the foul weather; I met a number of old friends from real life and some new friends from readers of this blogsite. But it was particularly interesting because of the discussion afterwards.
The guest of honour was a friend of Danny Morrison’s, Ronan Bennett. If you haven’t read Bennett (or Morrison, for that matter), then hurry to Amazon and repent of your literary sins. Bennett has written a number of novels and screenplays. He lives in London, is enormously gifted, and I’d urge you to start by reading Overthrown by Strangers and/or The Catastrophist and you’ll know what I mean.
Among the points raised during the discussion afterwards was the fascinating one of how a writer who is politically committed, something that requires certainty, can write fiction, which demands ambiguity and doubt. If you read either Morrison or Bennett’s novels, you’ll see it can be done. But it requires a breadth of feeling and understanding that doesn’t confront the politics-free writer.
It was Bennett who made the point of the night. He was recalling the demonisation of West Belfast in the 1980s and 1990s, and particularly the demonisation of republicans, and particularly particularly (yes I know I’ve used the same word twice in succession, Virginia) the demonisation of Gerry Adams, which continues to this day. A man of violence, a community which harbours violence, people of violence addicted to their foul deeds, as incapable of abandoning their foul habits as a drug addict. You get the idea? Republican violence and republican violence alone stood condemned.
Bennett made the point that one question must always be asked: where did this violence come from? It didn’t materialise out of nothing: it was prompted into existence by other forces and other circumstances. He instanced a contemporary parallel: the recent killings in Paris.Cruel and vicious as those killings at Charlie Hebdo were, we owe it to the dead and ourselves to ask the question: where did this violence come from? What drove the killers to commit such an act? Only when we see the wider context will we properly understand and judge actions, particularly violent actions.
I couldn’t agree more. The propensity of the Irish and British media to present political violence in a vacuum is both stupid and misleading. If we’re not prepared to ask the question ‘What was the context?’ then we shouldn’t be commenting on such matters at all.
Two final points. What Bennett said is perfectly right, but it extends beyond a demand that the media see the context of West Belfast in the 1980s and 1990s. It demands that nationalists and republicans make the difficult leap of imagination and see the context beyond the context: that is, the context for unionism, and what it is that prompts it to take the position it does so fiercely and unquestioningly. That’s hard. It’s also necessary.
And my final point? The last person I heard talking about context, and the need to judge words and actions in context, was a unionist politician. He wasn’t talking about nationalists and republicans, he was talking about himself. But while his point narrowed down to the personal, he was still right, just as Bennett was right. His name? You’ll be surprised. Gregory Campbell.