There is nothing of human design that can be guaranteed to last forever, nor anything that can safely be said to have disappeared for good.
Recent history alone should remind us of that basic truth. It is littered with examples of the sudden disintegration of the seemingly indestructible and the unexpected reawakening of the supposedly vanquished.
Who, for instance, foresaw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the subsequent break-up of the former USSR, and the eventual collapse of communism as a world force? Or ever imagined that after centuries of dormancy religious fanaticism would move swiftly to fill the resulting vacuum, and take hold to the extent that it now poses a serious threat to world order?
In light of that particular reawakening, only a brave or foolish person would wager that militant communism will not re-emerge with renewed vigour at some time in the future. Within a few decades, we have seen the power and influence of Christianity in Europe wane to the point where, at least in relation to our everyday lives, it is now a virtual irrelevance. Though, again, this current state of affairs might prove to be but a brief hiatus.
Noticeably of late, some core Christian beliefs, which, in the interests of harmony, had for a long time been left unsaid, are now being regularly trotted out again by church leaders. Like extreme nationalism, religious fundamentalism feeds off itself: as it begins to manifest in one brand, many members of other faiths tend to adopt fundamental attitudes in response. In little over 50 years, a British Empire that once straddled the globe has shrunk to a United Kingdom whose constituent parts now enjoy semi-autonomy. And it is by no means certain that the process of devolution within the United Kingdom will end at regional semi-autonomy.
Again, nothing can be taken for granted. It is usually only with hindsight that we can identify a series of events which, if taken together, might have alerted us to imminent change and allowed us to prepare for the consequences.
Normally only with the benefit of hindsight, but not always. In a recent speech at the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, reflected on the changes that have taken place in Ireland, North and South, over the past few decades. He also reminded us of the possibility of further radical change.
Though for somewhat obvious reasons it is seldom mentioned, both the British and Irish governments are legally bound by the Belfast and St Andrews agreements to make all the necessary arrangements if at some time a majority in Northern Ireland vote in favour of a united Ireland.
Although he was clear that he believes there is little prospect of a majority vote for Irish unity in the foreseeable future, Sir Kenneth asked whether any serious consideration had been given to the practical implications of this happening:
"The views of people in the Republic about the desirability in principle of such an outcome are clear. If the assumption is of a peaceful, non-divisive and affordable transition, who here is likely to say 'nay' to it? But I suggest that there are fundamental issues which need to be addressed by politicians and others here in the South well before any imminent prospect of unity looms large.
"What kind of a united Irish state would it be? Would the degree of inevitable change in the Irish polity be acceptable? Would the economic and financial consequences of unity be acceptable, both in the six and the 26 counties?"
Sir Kenneth is that rarest of creatures, a thoroughly decent person who combines a formidable intellect with a wisdom born of many years of practical experience.
So it is certain that it was not through any desire to make mischief that he raised these questions. Rather, he was warning instead of the dangers, particularly given our history, of not being prepared for sudden, fundamental change that, however unlikely, is nonetheless possible.
If, as history clearly shows, the "impossible" can happen then the improbable certainly can. In Northern Ireland, we have had to learn hard lessons before about the suddenness of change. I grew up in a tiny, rural, mixed-religion community. Until well into my early adulthood, I would not have thought it remotely conceivable that Northern Ireland might be engulfed in a decades-long conflict.
After a few years of mayhem, I found it hard to believe that the place could ever be peaceful again. Yet the conflict has ended and been replaced by another previously unimaginable scenario: Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness heading up a popular administration at Stormont.
Sir Kenneth was pointing out that the previously unimaginable may not end there, and suggesting that serious thought be given to the practical implications of improbable change.
Given the lessons of history, I agree with him.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
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