Paul McFadden - The sands of time

Libyans wave flags in Green Square, renamed Martyr's Square, for the morning Eid prayer, marking the end of Ramadan and to celebrate their victory over embattled Moammar Gadhafi, inTripoli, Libya, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Libyans wave flags in Green Square, renamed Martyr's Square, for the morning Eid prayer, marking the end of Ramadan and to celebrate their victory over embattled Moammar Gadhafi, inTripoli, Libya, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
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As the dust settles – literally – on Libya, after weeks of pounding by bombers, the monumental task of state-building now looms on the battle-scarred horizon to confront its long-suffering people. They begin the process not so much with a clean slate as a shattered one. Much of their country’s physical infrastructure has been blasted to smithereens by NATO aircraft, while the institutions of state – Colonel Gaddafi creations – have been swept away.

The rebuilding task is a daunting one. Libya is one of the most inhospitable places on our planet. The hottest recorded temperature on earth was measured there, almost 90 years ago, when the mercury touched 136 Fahrenheit – that’s 57.7 Celsius – in Al’Aziziyah. Ninety per cent of the territory is covered by desert and in some parts rain might not fall for decades. It’s a wonder people can survive at all in such conditions, even without the added hazards of despotism, air-strikes and crossfire.

This week, the restoration of water and energy supplies has become a priority for the new rulers, reminding us how much we – in the West – take for granted.

Libya’s original Berber inhabitants have become used to hardship, natural and man-made. Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Turkish and Italian colonizers have all come and gone. Who knows what the natives will be facing by the time the latest chapter in their history is written? As always, that task will fall to the winners of the conflict, and the extent to which NATO countries might have exceeded their mandate – to protect civilians – will, I fear, fade away like the sirocco winds.

To the victors, too, go the spoils. Like desert vultures picking over a carcass, they will take their cut of the rich oil and mineral deposits which lie beneath the sand and which – far more than democracy – made this vast, arid, sparsely populated terrain worth fighting over. It is ironic that among the states which have recognized the legitimacy of the National Transitional Council is Bahrain, which dealt brutally with its own pro-democracy reformers during the Arab Spring.

It is over forty years since our own pro-democracy demonstrations. Since then, the North has been transformed: we have a power-sharing administration governing the Six Counties and, thankfully, violence is far less prevalent than it used to be. We have our own difficulties, of course, with water and energy supplies – problems which the coming winter might magnify – and our infrastructure, especially in the North West, leaves a lot to be desired. But we are so much luckier than so many people in so many other places.

From time to time – as with the recent, trivial spat over GAA collections in supermarkets – old attitudes resurface and ancient suspicions re-emerge, to remind us of the past and alert us to the dangers which could yet lie ahead.

Like the Libyan people, we, too, are confronted by the challenge of state-building. It is a formidable task, not made any easier by our inability to agree even on which state we belong to. Still, in another sense, it is an enormous privilege: we have an historic opportunity – a once in a generation, perhaps once in a century chance – to create the kind of state we can all be proud of and feel at home in.

The responsibility for making it happen falls to our elected representatives. They are the architects who can build a new Northern Ireland and a new Ireland. They will need to show courage, vision and generosity if our transformation is to succeed. Going back is not an option. The opportunity is at once frightening and exhilarating. Get it right and we will bequeath a rich legacy to forthcoming generations. But if it’s squandered, we’ll have one thing in common with the unfortunate Libyans: we’ll both be living in a desert.

Read more from Paul McFadden in the Journal every Friday