I then ventured the mock suggestion to her that we should put down ‘Protestant.’ Her response was ‘what’s that?’ I asked her did she not know what a Protestant was and she seemed genuinely flummoxed. It was an attitude that repeated itself at today’s Global Atheist Convention when she again asked what Protestants were, her curiosity prompted by a contribution from someone in the audience.
I confess to harbouring surprise as she is not ignorant of religions. She knows what a Muslim is. Islam is a subject she was taught about in school. She wasn’t taught that it was right, just that it existed. Yet her response brought home in a flash more than any amount of political theorising could ever have managed, how far we have travelled from the sectarian mindset that is so entrenched in the North.
When she was around five and living in West Belfast, she came in one day to announce to me her latest discovery - Protestants were bad. I asked her to explain the thinking behind that ponderous judgement and she simply told me that Protestants shoot you. The identity of ‘you’ was not made clear but already in her young mind an ‘us and them’ divide was being forged. The Protestants were ‘them’ and the ones being shot were ‘us.’ They of course were bad for shooting us, whoever made up the ‘us’ camp. I didn’t go as far as to explain to her that her father was no innocent when it came to shooting Protestants. Work for another day.
Being only her father and not her god I had no desire for her to be made in my image. So, a few days later we set out on a journey to the home of a unionist friend. He and I sat and chewed the fat while his mother in law entertained the child for three hours. On our way home I explained to my daughter that the woman she had such a good time with was a Protestant and that she had not shot us. The moral of the story: Protestants were not bad and they do not shoot us.
There was no understanding on her part of any of the politics around her. But already she was being moulded by the discourses she encountered in her daily life. She never disclosed where she picked it up, probably having forgotten. It could have been the schoolyard or in the street at play. Although the parents of the kids she played with never seemed to vent sectarian comments. She may even have heard older kids being loud. While sectarianism is not something in the air that we breathe it might as well have been. Live in that type of culture and we are certain to inhale the particles that make up the atmosphere.
So the census form helped illustrate a strange kind of awakening on my part. I became alive to the fact that in the act of forgetting, my daughter had unlearned the bad and learned the good about people. It left me wondering what Milan Kundera would have thought of the idea that memory over forgetting isn’t always a victory.