Looking around the Transition group in Omagh with a focus on diversity, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps we had an exigent exclusion policy against anyone who is not white Caucasian, middle aged and middle class.
About two percent of the group are mixed race, there are some young families, a couple of pensioners, a couple of working class people. That is the whole extraordinary breadth of our diversity.
In fairness, it probably reflects the national average of any organisation concerned with environmental/social issues in Northern Ireland. Uniquely though, diversity is here, be that as it may, in a slightly skewed fashion which could only be found in Ulster. Not a wildly exuberant type of diversity, but all the same it is diversity for us.
Forgive me whilst I go off topic for a moment to visit the natural world. In nature pioneer plants are the first to colonise the wasteland, the benefit of moving to a mutually advantageous space for survival, far outweigh the risks. Nevertheless it’s not too long before they are joined by other species, all enjoying the common advantage of space, light and food. Multiple plants and animals living together in biological harmony, together creating a sustainable ecological system bursting with biodiversity.
Using this colonisation as an inventive analogy we return to the story of Omagh.
In the three years that Transition Omagh has been in existence, nature has moved quickly. Some courageous pioneering species have progressed from the Omagh prairie to Transition wilderness. These are hardy species, specially adapted to survive in a tough environment. They grow quickly, flower soon, set seed and die even more quickly, to be swiftly replaced by other species that will live longer, grow proud and strong, eventually developing into a long lived multi species sustainable forest of the future.
The forest is evolving and succeeding naturally from the ground up, exploiting the original niche that provides for the common needs and wants of a whole generation of species, subject to the exacting laws of nature.
Allow me to take this imaginative analogy even further: In the past, energy, money and resources were poured into Northern Ireland in clumsy attempts, followed by even clumsier attempts to build a kind of ‘artificial’ tolerance into our communities for the “Other”. Top down strategies designed to build diversity were continually foisted on community after community. Peace and reconciliation organisations flocked here, with the sole intention of enabling and encouraging us to live and work together as a diverse and multicultural community.
By any stretch of an elastic imagination, this ‘enforced’ diversity could not be described as a ‘bottom-up’, naturally occurring, growing and evolving, niche filling diversity that obeys the laws of nature. Not surprisingly, despite years of all this great effort, progress is painfully slow.
Decades of mistrust and generations on both sides traumatised by injustice have created a wasteland that has been sterile and barren for so long that it will take even the most determined of pioneers a long time and colossal effort to become established and start the process of growing a genuinely integrated and sustainable community.
Fact; we don’t live particularly well together. Or rather: we do live particularly politely together, that kind of frozen politeness which successfully ignores the existence of the other 50% of the population.
Believe it or not, here in Northern Ireland, we have two sets of everything. Locally we have two newspapers, one for the Catholics and one for the Protestants. We have the Red Cross and the Saint Vincent de Paul charitable organisations. We have Catholic schools and Protestant schools. On the school buses the Catholic kids sit at the back the Protestant ones sit at the front. We have Catholic shops and pubs and Protestant shops and pubs, we have Catholic auctioneers and estate agents and Protestant auctioneers and estate agents, we even have Catholic sports and Protestant sports and so on and so on, never the t’wain shall meet ... ......
Sharing resources....hmmm that will be the day!
So what has any of this to do with diversity and Transition Omagh
? From the ground up, happening quietly in an organic fashion almost unbeknownst to us, Transition is slowly bringing together people from diverse political and religious backgrounds. Some of us are actually managing to leave aside our distrust of “the other”, to work cooperatively together because of a mutually shared threat to our community; that is Peak Oil and Climate Change. Ironic that a major global peril is now assisting us in Omagh to walk together on a path towards the gradual creation of normal community.
Sometimes looking around our Transition group and noticing the son of an ex-political prisoner / combatant sitting closely together with the daughter of a policeman, heads bowed low, concentrating on the finer details of a connection question at a world cafe session, simply takes the breath away.
This may seem ludicrous to anyone living anywhere outside Northern Ireland, however Transition is providing a space where both sides of the community can comfortably communicate and start working collaboratively with each other.
Living in peaceful, harmonious, sustainable, interconnected and diverse communities is still a long way off for us here in Northern Ireland, however the small steps made by Transition pioneers are beginning to cut a swathe through our differences. As for diversity, yes its there and we are proud of it albeit its our own brand growing organically from the ground up ....
To borrow from an exchange between Bones and Kirk on ‘Star Trek’“It’s diversity, Jim, but not as we know it.”
First image with kind permission from Anja Rosler (Autumnal diversity in the garden)
Second image with kind permission from Pc Principles and Holmgren Design Services websites www.holmgren.com.au