Sound and fury, signifying nothing

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 20 July 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:174
  1. Liam Farrell

    It is very hard to articulate just how disheartening the past week has been. Graham Greene reflected that anyone can die for something beautiful—a family, a civilisation, a truth—but that it takes a god to die for something miserable and sordid. As Ulster trudged towards its own squalid Calvary, we never needed a god more. As I explained in this column two months ago, the marching season is a time of atavistic madness and always a source of resentment and conflict, but none of us could have predicted such a rapid descent into a stinking chaos where monsters prowl and the wild packs still bay at the moon.

    In Gulliver's Travels disagreement over which end of a boiled egg to chop off was the cause of a war, but at least you can eat eggs. The unfathomable lust of some people to walk down one particular little road, combined with the inability of others to look the other way for a few minutes, has reopened old wounds and ignited trouble all across Ulster—once started, the riots and counterriots create their own implacable logic; our culture seems defined only by their mutual enmity. Surely there can never, ever, ever have been such a pigheadedly stupid cause of so much sorrow and pain for so many people.

    Once again, as in Canary Wharf, the individual tragedy is obscured. In the middle of all the posturing and paranoia, a young man was shot dead three days after receiving his degree, leaving a child to mourn him.

    Hard though it seems, hemmed in between Manchester bombers and Drumcree bigots, this is not a time when we can afford to despair. There is an unexploited and untapped drive for moderation and reconciliation which at the moment simply cannot find expression, and the majesty of Nelson Mandela during his triumphant reception in London serves as a poignant lesson that flexibility and the ability to compromise are signs not of weakness but of strength, confidence, and sheer goodness. The events of the past weeks may even lend an extra urgency to the peace talks.

    There are also serious medical implications. The local Department of Health recently established a working party to rationalise cancer treatment throughout Northern Ireland and ensure that expertise was concentrated where it would be of most benefit. Four cancer units—in Belfast, Derry-Londonderry, Antrim, and Craigavon—were proposed, and this seemed an eminently sensible plan; but that was two months ago, in what now seems a more innocent time. Last week none of my patients, and few patients from the south of the province, could have reached any of these designated hospitals, because of riots and roadblocks on the way. Sick and dying patients need easy access to treatment and cannot be asked to run a gauntlet of violence and intimidation. Even if, as we hope, things do settle down for the time being, the marching season and its attendant problems will come around again next year. The cancer working party will need to be reconvened to consider these new and tragic priorities.—LIAM FARRELL, general practitioner, Crossmaglen, County Armagh

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