By going to Washington DC this St Patrick’s Day, I’m choosing to engage – Patricia O’Lynn

If we all shy away and cower out of fear of criticism, is that in itself not to bow to extremism?

Patricia O'Lynn

Patricia O'Lynn

Patricia O'Lynn is an academic and commentator and former Alliance Party councillor and MLA for North Antrim

US President Joe Biden (Evan Vucci/AP)
US President Joe Biden has been condemned for providing military support to Israel (Evan Vucci/AP)

MANY people don’t know this but in the early years of my life, my family lived in a council estate in Larne next door to a Second World War veteran called Mr Moore.

Growing up, we weren’t allowed to shout or misbehave in the back garden in case we disturbed our neighbour’s peace. As a stereotypically boisterous and disruptive child, you can imagine how frustrating this decree made my sister and I, who enjoyed what can best be described as ‘loud play’.

From a young age I remember having a distinct intrigue about Mr Moore. I observed how polite my parents were in his presence, and it wasn’t until a few years later that dad explained how he had seen ‘considerable action’ in the war and was someone who warranted deep respect, the type of respect that is only demonstrated through old-fashioned decorum.

This conversation remained with me throughout my life as the enormity of what Mr Moore and others like him had endured became prevalent in later years.

It’s fair to say that my parents aren’t like most others. They were, and still are, an eclectic mix of liberal, lassie-fair yet traditional family values-orientated people. As children, they didn’t shy away from exposing us to the harsh realities of the world in terms of our contested history in Northern Ireland and further afield.

Patricia O'Lynn as as eight-year-old on her First Communion day and during her time as an MLA
Patricia O'Lynn as as eight-year-old on her First Communion day and during her time as an MLA

Given that my dad is a bit of a Second World War fanatic and history buff, my sister and I were no strangers to the atrocities of those years. This meant that on any given day, we would have to endure what we considered to be dad’s ‘boring war documentaries’. We didn’t realise it at the time, but being exposed to such horrific imagery and stories about concentration camps, prisoners of war and the general suffering inflicted by Nazi Germany has stood us both in good stead.

My parents’ approach to controversial issues centred on developing our critical thinking skills through problematizing political discourse. Extremism of any kind was not tolerated in our household, nor were flippant statements about any catchment of society. Instead, we were taught to understand that the worst atrocities, such as genocide and other war crimes, are the result of ‘othering’ and marginalization on a large scale.

Given that debate, critical thinking and dialogue are at the centre of what our family values, you can imagine the discussions that took place prior to my departure for Washington DC this St Patrick’s Day.

The tradition of Northern Irish politicians attending St Patrick’s Day events in the United States is long-standing, with representatives from across the political spectrum travelling to engage with the Irish-American community and promote the region on the international stage. These visits have historically been viewed as opportunities to foster cultural ties, attract investment, and garner support for the peace process. However, this year’s events have been surrounded by controversy.

Although I am no longer a politician and my opinion will carry no weight in regards to influencing American representatives, it goes without saying that I am vehemently opposed to violence, to the actions of Hamas as well as the murder of innocent civilians by Israel.

In seeking to decide if I should journey to DC, the condemning words of Bernadette McAliskey have rung in my ear. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t concerned myself with the worry that I would somehow be complicit by using the Washington route to platform the causes I am now working to further.

Bernadette McAliskey addressing the demonstration
Bernadette McAliskey addresses a Palestine demonstration

However, in making the decision to attend, I am reminded of those lessons delivered by my parents. I’ve taken on board their advice about the importance of voicing my opinion and making my perspective known through difficult conversations. If we all shy away and cower out of fear of criticism, is that in itself not to bow to extremism?

This year, much like my parents and Mr Moore, I choose to engage in polite decorum – not because it’s easy or advantageous, but because from my perspective, constructive dialogue is what will eventually lead to peaceful progress.

In choosing to travel to DC, I also choose to stand on that international stage to advocate for the rights of all oppressed people, not just across the world but also at home.