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Leona O'Neill: In the north we are exceptionally good at refusing to put ourselves in other's shoes

People in the north are too good at refusing to see issues from any perspective other than their own. Maybe we need to stop and listen to one another instead of shouting each other down, writes Leona O'Neill...

How can we understand the concerns of others if all we do is shout and/or refuse to listen?

THE thing we do better here in Northern Ireland than anything else – better than fashioning soda bread, having the craic, loving our flags, fighting, hosting Game of Thrones, having the sexiest accent on the planet, building the world's biggest bonfires etc – is our flat-out refusal to see things from anyone else's perspective other than our own.

We are, in fact, exceptionally good at viewing things from where we solely stand and absolutely point blank refusing to put ourselves in other's shoes or contemplate that anyone else could be impacted differently by something.

I don't know if this is ingrained in us from children or it is something that grows and thrives as we get older, but it is a trait we seem to hold dear.

Take the support of the actions of paramilitary organisations for example. People will gladly and proudly stand and pose for photographs at commemorations to people who have murdered other human beings – on all sides, not just one – and they will loudly and aggressively tell those who feel hurt by the commemoration of murderers that they are wrong, not for one moment even attempting to understand the perspective of those left behind.

Republicans refuse to understand the fears of their loyalist neighbours with regard to a united Ireland, concerns over their identities being threatened, the perception of their culture being stripped away, concerns over being treated as equals.

Unionists refuse to understand the desire of their nationalist neighbours to want to unite, to have their language rights respected, their concerns over being treated as equals.

All sides stand on the sidelines shouting at one another. No one ever gets heard, concerns are drowned out by the angry, fiery words roared, there is zero understanding, just anger and frustration. We behave like children who have not yet discovered how to share a lot of the time.

I always thought that there were many great things about being a journalist. One of them is how the job puts you in front of all kinds of people, from every background, from every faith and none.

You meet these people face to face, get to hear their stories, hear their concerns, hear the reality of life where they are, what they believe in, what they are angry or concerned about. And the outcome of that is that you gain a greater understanding of where they are coming from and understand their frustrations instead of dismissing them.

I have spent time with the families of those murdered by the British Army, the IRA, the UDA and – sitting in their living rooms surrounded by previous photos, the only thing they have left of their loved ones – I found that pain and hurt and trauma and despair is exactly the same regardless of who pulled the trigger.

I have attended Orange Order marches, loyalist and republican rallies, Easter Rising and centenary parades and listened to those on the stage and those in the crowd. I might not have agreed with what was being said, but I listened, and I got an idea of where each were coming from, their anger, their frustration. I tried to understand, to empathise, even if the situation or issue was completely alien to me.

Perhaps I am silly for trying to see a situation from another's perspective. Perhaps it makes me soft. But maybe we need to be a little softer here, maybe we need to stop and listen to one another, instead of shouting each other down so much. Maybe we need to take the heat out of every single issue and try a different approach.

Maybe we need to dig ourselves out of our trenches here in Northern Ireland and have a look around us. I think we need to walk a little in each other's shoes a lot more. We are 24 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and we are still shouting in our echo chambers, refusing to budge on one issue or another, hurting one another, making enemies out of our neighbours.

It's exhausting being angry all the time. It's time for a change.

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