I attended a historic event last night - historic in both senses, of being unique and having to do with history. It was held in Berry Street Presbyterian Church and with the BBC's Yvette Shapiro in the chair, there was a panel discussion between Gordon Lucy, Eamonn Phoenix and Tom Hartley. The topic was the first of the many centenaries thundering this way: the signing of the Ulster Covenant.
Well. If the English are a nation of shopkeepers, then we must be a nation of historians. The breadth and detail of knowledge of events shown by the three panel members and various contributors from the floor - including (whisper it) Fianna Fail's Martin Mansergh, Martin McAleese and Alban Maginniss - was impressive to the point of astonishment, at least for an ignoramus like me. People were talking about events in 1886, 1910, 1914, 1921 with an ease and familiarity, as though they had happened yesterday. That's your cue, if you're so inclined, to say that this is precisely the problem - we dwell on the past far too much. I beg to differ. The debate was lively and informed, and set the Covenant signing in a context that I found repeatedly illuminating.
There was one moment in particular that stood out for me. It happened when Gordon Lucy, speaking from the unionist tradition, was asked what he and the other panel members would like to see achieved at the end of this 'decade of sensitive centenaries', as I think Martin McAleese phrased it. (Yes, since you ask, Jackie McDonald was there too). Lucy's reply was that he'd like to see lots of events like this one but added an emphatic note of caution: he'd put his view of things, people like Alban Maginniss would put theirs, but it wouldn't really change anyone's thinking. Both parties would leave with the same views they entered. At this point, without waiting for the microphone to be passed to him - or permission from the chair - a man at the back stood up and said he completely disagreed. The whole point of discussion was to open your mind to new ideas, new perspectives on a given topic, and that you should leave meetings like this with something to chew on, mull over, nudge your thinking in new directions.
There you have it in compressed form. You either see the meeting of different points of view as a verbal butting of heads, looking to see who comes out on top; or you see such meetings as opportunities to acquire - at no cost - food for thought. Tom Hartley says something to this effect in the (very blurred) video clip that I'm hoping to put up with this posting. The evening was rich in so many talking points, I feel I'm doing it an injustice with something as brief and amateurish as this. But maybe you were there. In which case, post your comment. For God, Ulster and Ireland's sake.