Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
It’s my first day teaching secondary school in Hong Kong, and my class of Form Ones are sitting perfectly quiet, as only Form Ones can do.
Too nervous to approach each other yet, and feeling homesick for the comfortable familiarity of their primary classroom, it is the only time of the year when you truly hold them in the palm of your hand.
I’m well aware these days of eager attentiveness are numbered, and I have no intention of wasting this opportunity on the impossible combination of vowels and consonants that make up my name. So, swiftly bypassing Fionnuala Lenaghan, I introduce myself as Ms. Fin, and start to explain where I’m from.
I don’t get far before a hand shoots up and starts waving frantically. I give him the nod to speak, expecting he’s probably just bursting for the bathroom, when he asks, “Ms. Fin, after the Good Friday Agreement, were you the Britain or Ireland person?”
I’m bowled over, to say the least. This was the last question I was expecting from my class of 11 year olds, but it turns out they actually learn about Northern Ireland as a case-study for power sharing in their history classes. I feel impressed that kids halfway across the world even know of the existence of Northern Ireland, and more than that, I’m proud that they’re encountering it as a success story.
I could explain that it’s a complicated question, that Northern Irish identity isn’t black and white and that being Northern Irish often means occupying a space somewhere between Britishness and Irishness. But I can’t disappoint him. He thinks it’s magical that we got to choose – British or Irish or both if we want. What a notion! So, I embrace the simplicity of his question, and offer him a simple answer in return. “I’m the Irish person.”
In truth, the answer to this question has always been a simple, straightforward one for me. Growing up Catholic in South Belfast, it’s probably not that surprising or unusual that I’ve always considered myself Irish. I grew up with Irish Dancing classes, mass on a Saturday evening and holidays spent listening to trad music in Peter Oliver’s pub in Donegal.
I honestly never questioned my Irish identity, and despite enjoying 24 years in Belfast, I have never actually described myself as Northern Irish, and certainly not British. So it’s slightly ironic that I ended up leaving Northern Ireland to live in a former British colony, when I made my move to Hong Kong back in 2011.
Where Britain’s colonisation of Ireland is viewed as one of the darkest times in our history; characterised by the erasure of Irish culture and Black and Tan brutality, Britain’s occupation of Hong Kong from 1841 to 1997, is generally viewed in a positive light.
Indeed, Hong Kong has embraced the ‘one country, two systems,’ legacy that was left in the wake of the handover to China in 1997. Hong Kong remains capitalist, with a legal system that mirrors British law. They have avoided adopting the Chinese state curriculum in schools and continue to enjoy the freedom of speech and press denied to their communist neighbours.
However, for Hong Kongers, this is not enough to pacify their fear of Chinese rule. They know about China’s despicable human rights record. They understand the Chinese government is a dictatorship that rules through fear, corruption and deceit. And they remember what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989.
Bearing this in mind, the decision of a small number of students to occupy the streets of Hong Kong in protest for their right to universal suffrage in 2014, was an astounding act of bravery and defiance against China. The movement quickly captured the attention of the media all over the world, as Hong Kongers donned gas masks and their now iconic yellow umbrellas, to shield themselves from the tear gas and batons of the Hong Kong police.
Watching these peaceful protests met with the over-zealous and nervous aggression of an unprepared police-force, was eerily reminiscent of Northern Ireland in the height of The Troubles, and I wondered if they had any idea what a tough road lay ahead of them.
As the days turned into weeks, Beijing held up a façade of indifference to the protests, which now dominated the news, both local and international. In their short-sightedness, they viewed the demonstrators as criminals rather than political protesters, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s “Crime is crime is crime,” attitude towards the hunger strikers in 1981.
The fact that we negotiated The Good Friday Agreement and power sharing by the 1990’s, after losing three decades to The Troubles, should be enough to give anyone hope. However, I can’t help feeling that Hong Kong will be forever fighting a losing battle with Beijing.
As harsh as it sounds, Hong Kongers just don’t have it in them to fight this fight. It’s not in their nature. Their approach to “Occupy Central with Love and Peace“, although admirable and inspirational, will not win them the democracy they so desperately need.
The pride they took in being known as the tidiest and most respectful protesters, recycling, their rubbish and distributing supplies, sadly will not bring them any closer to universal suffrage and the Occupy Central movement eventually petered within mere few months later.
I would never wish on Hong Kong what we endured in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, but at the same time, I dread to think what the future looks like for the next generation under Chinese rule. It makes me unspeakably grateful for the sacrifices and suffering that brought us the peace process, dual citizenship and convivial relationships with both Britain and Ireland that we enjoy today, but we clearly still have work to do.
Unlike Hong Kong, we do have democracy and the right to pick the candidates who represent us in parliament. And what do we do with this privilege? We mindlessly stick to our stagnant, uneducated, tribal voting practices, placing our future in the hands of a party who abuse their power in discriminating and disrespecting the people of Northern Ireland, time and time again. I won’t digress into a diatribe on the DUP, other than to say I reckon Big Arlene and Chairman Mao may have made fast friends had they ever met.
I’d rather sign off on a more positive note, and say that where I may lack faith in Hong Kong’s ability to secure a democratic future against Chinese rule, I do believe in the desire and ability of Northern Irish people to provide the anchor of a brighter future for generations to come.
An anchor that will provide a sense of safety and security for minority groups, who can never hope to enjoy peace and equality under the DUP. An anchor that will keep us grounded in law, ethics and respect for others, and enable us to embrace progress rather than stagnate in the religious dogma of days past. An anchor that will steady us during the storm of hatred and uncertainty that is sure take force in the wake of Trump and Brexit.
We can’t remain stuck in this polluted harbour forever, and I’m hopeful for the day that we cast our gaze further and set sail for a horizon no longer out of reach.
Fionnuala Lenaghan is from Belfast and currently lives in Dublin.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons