On a beautiful island – together

by Terence MacNamee

Once upon a time there was an emerald-green island in the ocean. The British took over the place and ruled it as a colony. They found that there were two peoples there, who differed in religion and ethnicity. Eventually the British left, but when they did, they left the two communities to sort out the problem themselves.  And ever after on that island there was strife without end.

I could be talking about (Northern) Ireland. Or I could be talking about Sri Lanka. The similarities between the problems of the two places are striking.

Indeed, how wonderful to live on your own island. It can be a paradise. But the trouble is, the island is small, and you all have to get along. In a small space, away from the rest of the world and its problems, you may get on each other’s nerves. And whose island is it, anyway? Ours or theirs? Ours of course! And then the trouble starts…

Both Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka have been through decades of debilitating civil strife. In Northern Ireland, the two communities were exhausted in the end and agreed on a compromise. In Sri Lanka, one side defeated the other militarily, in an apocalypse of destruction. In neither place can the problem be said to be resolved. The situation has not returned to normal. Even though the shooting is over, the two communities still face each other with distrust and sullen hostility.

An island can be a paradise or a hell on earth to live in, depending on what you choose. You can try to live in harmony with the others who share the small space, or you can regard them as the enemy – always looking over your shoulder, wondering what “they” are up to this time. If it wasn’t for “them”, think of all we could be doing on this island… Strangely enough, we can grow to need our enemies as enemies, if only to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives and our own destiny.

Living on your own little island means, at its best, that the rest of the world leaves you alone. But you find that you are not alone after all. There are all kinds of people on any island who have arrived there at different times and made it their home. For better or worse, they are stuck with each other. The challenge of living on a beautiful island turns out to be having to share it.