In the days before World War 2 I used to hear, as the old year passed and the New One began, the pealing of bells, the sounds of ships’ sirens and factory s from those which had night shifts working.
The waiting crowds, milled around the Albert Clock near Belfast’s centre, filling the square, High Street, Ann Street and the surrounding area. On one such occasion one of the four clack faces was damaged, allegedly by one of the bottles thrown against the structure (doubtful when its height is considered), or by a gunshot as midnight struck.
As we entered 2001, here in Cwmbran, it was greeted by the swish of rockets and bangs from back gardens and social gatherings across the Borough of Torfaen. I supposed, as I listened, that in my native city of Belfast similar expressions of welcome were taking place, probably interlaced with the sounds I used to hear when there.
On New year’s Eve / Morning, in the days of open coal or turf fires in ireland, there was a custom (which my mother kept), the origin of which I don’t know, to ‘read the ashes’, to foresee or forecast what sort of year might lie ahead for the family.
So, as we end the first week of the first year of the true start (mathematically), are we to see the ashes of the hopes and aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement scattered to the winds of outdated conceptions, of ethnicity and of fundamentalist religious obduracy?
Shall we see whether or not Northern Ireland in 2001 and subsequent years will experience only the sort of rocket fire and flare bangs as prevailed at the start of the next 1000 years of our history?
Will we see the Six Northern Ulster Counties rising ‘phoenix like’ from the ashes of 30 years of fratricidal strife, as reality and reason penetrate through centuries old sedimentary layers of thickness, energising the grey cell centre into thinking positively and the acceptance by both sets of protagonists that their own best interests are best served by consideration of those of others?
These are the sort of questions which will or should have occupied the minds of politicians during the festive season recess, especially if confined indoors by the wintry weather or if struggling against that onslaught of snow, wind, flood and ice which crosses all divides, respects no borders, when parity of disregard rather than of esteem predominates.
President Clinton has been and gone – his last appeal for full implementation of the Agreement will echo around the last few weeks of his presidency. Tony Blair has made his own visit and his own appeal and now settles down to develop his next appeal (date unspecified) to the UK electorate.
The Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, John Taylor, in a recent BBC radio interview. discounted Clinton’s influence on the affairs of Northern Ireland (strange when George Mitchell, Clinton’s special envoy, was so much involved) and gave all the credit for what has been achieved to Blair and Ahern. Then in its New year message The IRA said that the decommissioning problem can be overcome and called on Tony Blair to actively engage himself again in the Peace Process.
As I survey the position it seems that foot dragging will continue, the posturing and manoeuvring will most likely prolong the delay in Agreement application until the composition of the next Westminster Parliament and Government is decided.
That, I feel, must surely be the case unless the interregnum of Christmas and New Year has allowed sufficient time for positive thinking and perhaps unnoticed quiet contacts to have taken place.
Maybe the Ulster Unionists can manage to restructure their party organisation and reorientate themselves as they face the Westminster election with a divided party. The SDLP and Sinn Féin will be facing up to each other in the same election, competing for influence in the Nationalist community.
Once again, as previously happened, the outcome in Ireland of attempts to to settle the ‘Irish Problem’ will depend on the disposition of power in the British Parliament.
If Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern do intervene again to end the impasse and Ulster Unionists and Sinn Féin can collaborate in a Decommission Deal, a seemingly impossible scenario, 2001 would really bang off with a watershed (don’t hold your breath!).
And if the future of the Belfast Agreement and the Peace Process is now firmly hinged on the next UK election contest then the sooner it comes the better so that we can see the contents of programmes and policies and the strength of support they muster.
Whatever the disposition of seats as a result of the vote, despite what a certain mobile phone advertisement says, the future can not be Orange but must be multi-coloured.