Cooler Times – Cooler Heads

Using funding specially given for the purpose Torfaen County Borough Council (in Gwent, SE Wales) have been running a project ‘Roots to Torfaen’ aimed at combating ‘Racism’.

Children in primary and comprehensive schools were asked to investigate where their parents or grandparents had originated from and bring to their school mememtoes, of special importance or sentimental value, which had come down the generations.

Alex Pascall OBE, the celebrated West Indian oral historian and broadcaster, complete with drum, toured the schools, first, in his own inimitable way, to encourage the children to participate. Some weeks later he returned for the presentation of their research.
The children, parents and staff presented the findings in pictures, stories and memorabilia to highlight the lives and experiences of their families. Some extensive family trees were displayed and many spoke about their origins.

The enthusiasm of Alex, with his reminiscences and the rhythm of his drum got feet tapping very effectively. Children, parents, grandparents and staff - even me - joined in the dances and responses. His continuing theme was "We all got stories to tell".

Although in the two schools in which I was a governor most of the parents and grandparents originated in England and Wales a few were from other parts of Europe, asia, south Africa, Australia and Ireland the mix , I'm sure, would have been much different in other parts of Wales such as Newport, Cardiff and Swansea.

As I listened to the stories and some of the places of origin I was reminded of those reported in The Green Dragon by emigrants from Ireland, forced by the Great Famine and other reasons, to seek new lives in other parts of these islands, the Americas, the Antipodes and elsewhere.

In common with Africa and the west Indies, in fact many parts of the world, Ireland has had a long tradition of stories handed down orally through the generations and in ballads, sung often with political undertones, in both communities, new ones being composed during the last thirty years of warfare.

The tales I heard whilst growing up in Belfast, apart from ancient myths, were mainly about people who had made a difference, were a bit eccentric, or, as one might say, a little odd, but who played a part in the lives of the community or at work. From time to time I try to remember events and happenings indicating the nature of my formative years in Northern Ireland as I grew up in a divided society in which there was, within the antagonisms, an element of community.

Indeed, as the population of both jurisdictions has changed since my days in Ireland there are manifestations of racial tensions similar to those on this side of the water and on the other side of the Atlantic.

As I write Loyalist paramilitaries, via their political leaders, are trying to bring an end to their fratricidal conflict, arson, punishment beatings and shooting.

The Assembly is in recess and political statements from the main party leaders are not much in evidence this side of the Irish Sea, probably sidelined by the hysteria over petrol prices.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry still continues and there are hints that information about the role of intelligence agents in respect of unsolved assassinations will come into the open, exposing the cloak and dagger activities touching on the murders of Paddy Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.

Ongoing also is the inquest on the victims of the Omagh bombing (15 August, 1998) reminding us all of its horrors, the victims still experiencing the trauma, as the amateur video of the aftermath of the explosion is seen at the inquiry.

Although it has not been highlighted very much it has been reported that John Hume is resigning his seat in the N. Ireland Assembly - health reasons have been given. Because of the system of election his place will be taken by the unsuccessful SDLP candidate next on their party list.

I have in the past been critical of Gerard Fitt (now Lord), John Hume and the SDLP in the sixties and of the Nationalists before them, in that their policies fractured the Labour and Trade Union Movement in Northern Ireland into Catholic and Protestant sections.

However, as it became clear that his United Ireland or nothing argument was shown to be untenable he has to be given credit for his subsequent efforts to bring an end to the conflict, for which, along with David Trimble, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1998).

But it does seem strange to me that, considering that his health is a problem, he still retains his seats at Westminster and in the European Parliament.

If his life's work is to be considered to be in working towards a peaceful settlement in Ireland, in my view the seat in the Assembly is the one he should have retained. It may be, of course, that as resigning from the other two would have meant a by-election at a critical time that determined the decision. If the Westminster election is really going to be held next Spring he may yet announce that he will not be seeking re-election to the Foyle seat.

Mo Mowlam, the former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, has recently been in the news as speculation mounts that her relationship with the Prime Minister is less than harmonious as she indicates that she will not be standing again in her redcar constituency and is leaving politics completely.

Conflicting assessments of her role in the peace process have been published and discussed in national broadsheets and in biographies. When seen meeting the people in Northern Ireland it is quite obvious she made an impact on them such as no other minister in the role ever made, before or since.

When she was first appointed as shadow minister and then after becoming Secretary of State i corresponded with her, gave her a critical analysis of Labour's policy document, 'Towards a United Ireland', my submission to the Opsahl Commission and many other comments as she settled into the job.

She showed a willingness to listen and one suggestion from me she accepted when she was shadow minister was to take out a subscription to 'Fortnight' magazine, devoted to current affairs and the arts in Northern Ireland.

The Assembly is again in session so we are in a sense in a waiting game to see how it grapples with the problems and whether further progress in arms dumps inspections will take place.

The hot flash points of the years of marching are now behind us and perhaps life can return to a more reasonably normal tempo for my compatriots as they endeavour to evolve solutions to ecomomic and social problems experienced in both communities.

: Samuel H. Boyd, 13 September, 2000.

Samuel H. Boyd