At the same time there’s no dodging it - you do face a tough old menu. Flags, parades and the past. Cheesh. I hope your Christmas air ticket is one of those flexi jobs where you can change the return date without cost.
Flags - now there’s a tricky one. Especially as some of our political parties (no names, no pack-drill) like to use the non-flying of a particular flag 365 days a year over a certain City Hall as an insult and an assault on unionist culture, and see no importance attaching to the fact that the decision was arrived at in a democratic vote. Check that you brought your climbing boots, Richard. You’re going to need them to scale the flag cliff-face.
Then there’s Parades. Mmm. You may have gone a bit pale and wobbly when they told you there are over 3,000 Loyal Order marches/parades here every year. That’s Loyal as in loyal to the British Crown; anyone opposed to such marches is, well, the opposite of loyal - to wit, treacherous. My advice is, hide your feelings on this one. Whatever you do, don’t clap your hand to your forehead at the first meeting and go “Jeez - three thousand! I mean, wtf, guys, - can you not stop at three hundred?” Say nothing, maintain your features at their most inscrutable and just nod every so often. Otherwise you’ll be branded an enemy of Orange culture, a bigot and someone opposed to the time-honoured tradition of marching anywhere and everywhere that the Queen’s Highway wends.
What’s that? You’d like some tips about approaching the past? Sorry, Richard - pass. One side of our shaky northern house does not like, is adamantly opposed to, can’t bloody well stand any suggestion that the past conflict was between several sets of people all wearing grey hats. They prefer to think of the past as conflict between two sets of guys, one set wearing spotlessly white hats, the other side hats blacker than a curate’s cassock. You just may have to get used to people who believe their combatants were brave and honourable and wore military uniforms, while the other lot were treacherous cowards who wore no uniform. You’ll also need to grapple with the belief that commemoration of those who wore uniforms is a right and fitting thing, while commemoration of those who wore no uniform is a calculated insult to their victims and the entire community.
One other thing. You’ll find, Richard, that the people who believe in white hats and black hats are totally opposed to equivalence in the past are oddly keen on for equivalence in the recent past. What do I mean? Well, take an example. if you mention that recent efforts to burn down a Catholic Church in North Belfast were bad and say so, you must quickly follow up with condemning attacks on Orange Halls. Or if you say that Orange bands playing the Famine Song outside a Catholic church was not good for community relations, you’ll be told that republicans marching through Castlederg was far far worse. If you mention that mob attacks on Belfast’s Lord Mayor is a bad thing, you must add that you condemn all attacks on anyone. Above all, Richard, try to tune into our sense of humour. For example, there was this councillor a while back who reacted cheerfully to an online joke about machine -gunning and mortar-bombing republicans...No, don’t go pale and lean against the wall like that, Richard. Just listen. It was all a joke - we like to laugh here. That’s why, when the person accused of supporting the idea of machine-gunning/mortar-bombing people in the Castlederg parade appeared in court, several prominent politicians from her party turned up in support. It’s called satirical solidarity.
So yes, Richard, we do have some funny little ways. But we’re depending on you to steer us to a new place where we will do unto others only that which we would have them do unto us. And since many of us are Christians, your task may be difficult but it shouldn’t be impossible. Adh mór ort, Richard. And check that Christmas ticket, OK?