Sinn Fein’s stunning victory does not signal any kind of unlocking of the Northern deadlock

It was a stunning and historic victory for Sinn Fein. In the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election commentators had made a lot of noise about Sinn Fein being 1,200 votes behind the DUP. This time the party of the IRA were over 66,000 votes ahead of the party of Ian Paisley. Compare the proportion of seats held by the Unionists in the first Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921 (77%), with the number in the new NI Assembly (41%). And remember that parliament was set up to rule over a statelet in which Unionists were meant to have a majority in perpetuity.

So Sinn Fein have every reason to feel triumphant. They fought an extraordinarily disciplined campaign, focussing on the bread-and-butter issues of the cost of living and health, and playing the equality and democracy cards for all they were worth: notably the absolute right of the nationalist community, led by Michelle O’Neill (whose poster was everywhere),to take the First Minister’s post in the event of a majority for their chosen party. Former minister John O’Dowd said those (i.e. in the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice) who did not recognise this right were sending out “the wrong message.” There was barely a mention of a Border Poll and no sign of Gerry Adams anywhere. Their main spokespeople, led by John Finucane and Gerry Kelly, were superb, clearly of a superior calibre to their DUP opponents. In politics the quality of leadership really matters. In the words of the Irish News’ Sinn Fein-friendly columnist Chris Donnelly, their message was one of “unrelenting positivity,” representing a successful “move to the middle”.

And in another impressive show of discipline, they restrained their triumphalism. The only one who broke ranks was party president Mary Lou McDonald, who swept regally into the Belfast counting centre, surrounded by her entourage, mouthing platitudes about a “new Ireland” and telling the BBC she believed an impossibly divisive Border Poll would happen within five years (this was despite a Liverpool University/Irish News poll last month showing that only 30% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for unity ‘tomorrow’ and only 33.4% in 10-15 years time).

For somebody like me, a ‘soft’ nationalist who oscillates between supporting the SDLP and Alliance, there was good and bad news. The bad news was the woeful performance by John Hume’s party, which was squeezed into fifth place as nationalists backed Sinn Fein in order to overturn 101 years of unionism as ‘top dog’. The good news was Alliance’s extraordinary breakthrough: more than doubling their seat share under Naomi Long’s strong leadership, and for the first time giving real political weight to the rapidly growing number of ‘others’- particularly young people – who have little or no time for the stale old verities of unionism and nationalism. It is only a pity that two of Alliance’s victories were at the expense of the small Green Party: not for the first time, Northern Ireland goes against the zeitgeist in this fundamental space.

One cheering development was the record number of women – 32 – returned to the 90-strong Assembly (53% of Sinn Fein’s candidates were women). The political editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen, said the influx of “young, socially liberal women would be a real force for change.” This was personified by the vivid young Alliance candidate, Patricia O’Lynn, who grabbed the last seat from a longstanding DUP stalwart in the bedrock unionist constituency of North Antrim. O’Lynn, a Catholic from the fiercely Protestant stronghold of Larne, has a PhD in education and a Master’s degree in criminology.

With leader Doug Beattie scraping back on the fourth count in Upper Bann, the Ulster Unionists discovered yet again that the constituency for liberal unionism – outside Alliance, which is now agnostic on the constitutional question – is a narrow, stony ground. Unionist leaders from Terence O’Neill to David Trimble to Mike Nesbitt have found themselves outcast on this little desert before.

The DUP was once again caught in a trap of its own making: hung up on the negativity and divisiveness of insisting that the NI Protocol would have to be removed before they took their seats in any new Executive. It is difficult to credit how many mistakes the party of hard-line unionism and anti-Irishness has made since the departure of Peter Robinson and the advent of an existentially undermining Brexit. It was almost unbelievable how they allowed the party committed to the destruction of Northern Ireland to present itself credibly as the one that – in Michelle O’Neill’s words – “irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds” wants to “make politics work” in the North. Time will tell if this is a sincere promise, or just an electoral gambit. In stark contrast, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson threatened that if Boris Johnson did not deal with the Protocol issue to the DUP’s satisfaction, there would be “perpetual political instability” in NI. The BBC’s Mark Carruthers pointed out that “if you want the Union to be secure, you need to make Northern Ireland work.” Wiser heads on the unionist side must have lifted their despairing eyes to heaven.

But what has actually changed in the North? We are back into a wearily extended negotiation among the parties that could take six months and result in another election. Changes in the Protocol depend on outside actors in London and Brussels who have little patience with the phobias of the lilliputian Ulster Unionists. Former Irish Times Northern editor Gerry Moriarty suggested that the Irish government now has a responsibility to help move the EU towards “a bit of pragmatism and movement on the Protocol.” Taoiseach Micheál Martin seemed to be open to this, insisting that so far intractable issues can be resolved. “The landing zone is there”, he said. He believed if it was a question of “making trade as seamless as possible”, compromises could be reached that should be acceptable to the DUP: the problem, he said, lies as always in the nature of Northern Irish politics (shorthand for the DUP and loyalism’s political constituency, always paranoid about any perceived weakening of the constitutional link with Britain). In London, of course, there is the additional problem of a Prime Minister who is a liar and a scoundrel and probably wants to keep the Protocol pot boiling for his own internal party reasons.

In terms of the longer-term and a possible Border Poll, little or nothing has changed. As both Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney pointed out, the balance between the unionist and nationalist votes in the North has not altered significantly. Asked whether it was time to set out the conditions for a Border Poll, Lewis told the BBC that the overall unionist vote “is still larger…Sinn Fein have not gained seats; we haven’t seen a growth in the nationalist vote.” 35 Assembly seats are held by Nationalists (perhaps 36 if you include the Trotskyist People Before Profit), and 37 by Unionists (including the two independent unionists): almost total deadlock, in fact. SDLP-friendly Irish News commentator Tom Kelly said that when John Hume won his last European Parliament election in 1999, his share of the vote stood at over 45%; in last week’s election the nationalist share was 38% (more rigorous analysts have put this at 41%). The combined unionist share was 42%.

One thing that may be up for discussion will be the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements’ near- incomprehensible system of MLAs ‘designating’ themselves as unionist, nationalist or ‘other’, and then the First and Deputy First Minister being nominated by the largest party within the largest sectarian designation and the largest party within the second largest sectarian designation respectively. Alliance object particularly strongly to this, pointing out it meant that if they had come second in this election (instead of a good third), Naomi Long would not have been allowed to take up the post of Deputy First Minister. Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said this system had to be changed because it gave the two largest parties a veto over government formation: Sinn Fein had blocked any government formation from 2017 to 2020, and the DUP were threatening to do so now.

If all this sounds difficult and ultra-complicated, that’s because it is. Let us leave the last word to Tom McTague, the London-based staff writer with the US magazine The Atlantic, who is one of the very few foreign journalists who understands (or rather admits he fails to understand) how the strange place that is Northern Ireland works.

In the magazine’s current issue, he writes: “The truth of [last] Thursday’s elections is surely that the reunification of Ireland is now more likely, and that Northern Ireland will finally be able to put to bed the divisions over Brexit and move on. Right? Wrong.

“The reality remains that Northern Ireland remains as stuck as ever, a Gordian knot without an Alexander to slice it open. In fact, in Northern Ireland there can be no Alexander – and that is the point. The knottiness of Northern Ireland is by design. Remaining stuck is the only way the place works.

“Two inescapable truths continue to govern Northern Ireland. The first is that while Sinn Fein emerged ahead of all other parties in Thursday’s election, a sizable majority of the electorate is still in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom rather than joining the Republic of Ireland. The second is that the Northern Ireland that exists is a strange, unfair and largely dysfunctional place that works only when both its nationalist and unionist communities consent to the system governing it. While more people are now voting for the third-way Alliance Party, which argues that other bread-and-butter issues matter more than unionism or nationalism, for now, Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional reality remains unchanged.”

McTague concludes: “In many ways it [Northern Ireland], is also a deeply unreal place, where the politics of make-believe is the only thing that works: where democracy is real, but not really; where peace settlements rule, but do not settle anything; and where sectarian division is lamented, but entrenched by the system lauded by all. It is a place where Irish nationalists win but are no closer to Irish unity; where unionists lose but are no less powerful; and where clean, rational solutions that look good on paper need to become dirty, irrational compromises that look terrible on inspection if they are to stand a chance of working.” [The only bit of this I disagree with is that unionists “are no less powerful”].

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Poverty in Northern Ireland is not an election issue: society just ‘shrugs’

Last month I sat in on a webinar organised by the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre in which we listened to two very impressive youth workers from the most deprived areas of nationalist West Belfast. They told a shocking story of working against the odds to help young people in an environment of continuing poverty, family breakdown, crime and paramilitary intimidation that feels a million miles away from us in the comfortable South (and I dare say in comfortable middle-class areas in the North).

One told of having to deal with the continuing existence of no fewer than five paramilitary-cum-criminal gangs in his area (the most significant being the INLA). “There is nothing political about these gangs”, he stressed. “This is pure criminal gangsterism and drug dealing”. There has also been an increase in paramilitary-style punishment attacks. He said four young people had been shot directly outside his youth club in recent times, and on one occasion he counted 14 masked men standing on the street outside.

This “legacy of trauma” was largely ignored by the authorities, both policing and welfare. He could not get the police or ambulance service even to come out to deal with one of the shootings outside his club. “There is a real lack of inter-connectedness between the government bodies responsible for safeguarding children in impoverished areas like West Belfast”, he said, as young people were attracted into and then brutalised by criminal gangs.

Poverty was the “number one issue” in areas like these. In his area more than 90% of children were born to unmarried mothers and the suicide rate was twice that of Northern Ireland as a whole. There was little support for people like him trying to work with equivalent youth workers in neighbouring loyalist areas. In his most cynical moments he wondered if it was “in the interests of people in power to keep people here poor and hating.” He thought “tribalist fears” in Protestant working-class areas of Belfast that the Catholic community was growing and expanding at their expense (which would deepen after the 2021 Census results probably showed this happening throughout Northern Ireland) meant there was significant potential for future inter-communal violence. “Sectarianism is rife and continues to grow”, he said.

He did not think the efforts of youth workers to provide a safe environment for young people that would prevent them becoming radicalised into paramilitary gangs were at all appreciated by the authorities. He quoted the many millions of pounds spent by the PSNI on policing summer bonfires in both loyalist and republican areas of West Belfast. Yet a 2021 summer employment scheme for young people run by youth workers at a cost of £30,000 had seen its funding halved this year.

He also said the large amounts of EU Peace Programme funding rarely reached the most impoverished and Troubles-affected areas like the Lower Falls and Lower Shankill. He and his colleagues in the Catholic areas focussed in particular on keeping young people in education, and had seen educational achievement rise significantly as a result (although there was a widening gap between achievers and non-achievers). This was more difficult in Protestant areas, where there had been a tradition in the past of young men going straight into jobs in Belfast’s heavy industries. “The Protestant areas are 25 years behind”, he said.

What they really needed was longer-term, 10-year funding programmes to tackle the huge social problems these areas continued to face. He complained that most of the funding for cross-community work had disappeared, leaving only small grants from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund.

His colleague said cross-community engagement was more vital than ever, as people retreated into their sectarian ghettoes. “It’s now Catholic areas all the way from the Lower Falls to Lisburn – the ‘peace walls’ keep it like that.” He said that when it came to poverty and sectarianism in poor working-class areas like these, the mainstream attitude in Northern Ireland was a “societal shrug”.

For a long time Northern Ireland has been one of the UK’s poorest regions. But it rarely if ever surfaces as a significant issue at election time (Does it in the Republic?). A December 2020 report for the NI Department of Communities by an expert panel of sociologists, childrens’ and anti-poverty activists1 concluded that, despite the commitment in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act to develop a strategy “to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need”, 22 years on no such strategy existed. “People are living in poverty if their income and other resources are so low that they are unable to meet their basic needs [e.g. for food, clothing, housing and home heating], including participation in society”, was the working definition of their study.

Their report focussed, in particular, on the need to tackle child poverty, since “the majority of those living in poverty are families with children.” 27% of all children in the North (121,000) were living in poverty, it found (the 2021 figure for the Republic was a comparable 26.1% according to Social Justice Ireland – so we in the South have no reason to be smug). Child poverty rates have worsened since the mid-2010s, with the extreme poverty of destitution (notably homelessness) a growing problem, and the inadequacy of benefits, particularly Child Benefit, becoming “a significant driver of poverty.”

“If we took action to raise the position of households with children above the poverty line, this would improve the living standards of the majority of all those in poverty,” the report concluded. They quoted a leading British expert, Professor David Gordon of the University of Bristol: “”Redistribution [of resources] is the only solution to child poverty – the economics are very simple and are entirely concerned with redistribution.” The report’s authors suggested that it would cost £306 million per year to lift all Northern Irish children out of poverty, and £708 million per year to lift all 370,000 people currently below the poverty line above it. This is about 3.5% of total NI public expenditure, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money. However I am dubious about these figures, which (if my arithmetic is not mistaken), suggest that poverty could be eliminated in Northern Ireland at a cost of less than £2,000 per person per year.

The main underlying problem, the authors point out, is 12 years of Conservative rule in London. Whereas under Labour, which made it a priority, child poverty in the UK fell from 45% to 28% between 1999 and 2009, under the Tories it fell by a miserable two per cent more in the following decade. “The idea that social security benefits should provide an adequate minimum income below which no one should fall is now broken and historic commitments to an inclusive welfare state increasingly undermined,” the authors said. Successive Conservative governments had decided, pre-Covid pandemic, to run a low tax, low spending economy, and this had had a knock-on effect for a poor region like Northern Ireland.

They were fiercely critical of such UK government measures – duplicated in Northern Ireland – as the Universal Credit single monthly payment system (“widely regarded as a failure”); the “morally odious” two child policy, under which no benefits are paid to the poorest families for a third child or more; and the ‘benefit cap’ (a limit on the total amount of benefits any household can receive in a year). Three of the four authors of this report are well-known left-wingers, and they occasionally overstate their case: for example, talking about “the growing threat of mass unemployment” (this was in the middle of the pandemic), when in fact Northern Ireland unemployment has been at its lowest ever recorded levels in recent years – a pre-pandemic 2.3% at the end of 2019; a post-pandemic 2.5% in early 2022. (How often does one read about that in the media in the Republic, where the current unemployment rate is 5.5%?). But even with their occasionally dodgy statistics, their conclusions are powerful and persuasive ones.

They propose a number of measures to deal with this deep and recurrent societal problem: notably that the Executive and Assembly should draft an Anti-Poverty Act with specific targets to 2030 and beyond; introduce a weekly Child Payment for all 0-4 year olds and for 5-15 years olds in receipt of means-tested Free School Meals by 2024; and set up a Scottish-style Anti-Poverty Commission made up of people who have experienced poverty, people who work with them and experienced poverty researchers and policy-makers to advise the Executive. If a left-wing party like Sinn Fein are returned as the largest in the Assembly, they must surely agree that such a programme to lift the most underprivileged and often traumatised people (because their areas were hardest hit by the ‘Troubles’) out of poverty is shamefully long overdue.

P.S. I read an illuminating article in last week’s Belfast Telegraph by my former colleague Paul Burgess2 (we worked together in the early 1990s on the independent Opsahl Commission into ways forward for Northern Ireland at that deadlocked time). Burgess is about as open-minded, liberal and pro-Irish a unionist as one could meet: a talented working class man from the Shankill Road who went on to lead the UK chart-reaching punk rock band, Ruefrex, and to spend the past nearly 30 years living and working in Cork as a lecturer in applied social studies at University College Cork, academic writer, novelist and musician (and whose Twitter handle is in Irish).

He wrote about sharing the platform at Sinn Fein ‘Towards a united Ireland’ meetings in Cork with party leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. He said the capacity audience at a big meeting in Cork city “appeared elated at the inescapability of their own cause and seemed to prepared to pay lip service to the concerns of unionists, but little more.”

“An undeniable air of confident destiny prevailed. And a sense of political inevitability permeated the proceedings. One fellow panel member, drunk on the certainties provided by a rapt and uncritical republican audience, somewhat lost the run of himself. He suggested that liberal unionists were as rare as unicorns. And that, ‘once you had the unionist community by the balls, their hearts and minds would follow.” How the audience laughed.

Burgess went on: “It was perhaps in that moment that I fully realised the folly of my enterprise. Despite what they may say, Sinn Fein will never be prepared to re-examine and compromise those treasured shibboleths established from their formation, copper-fastened through the ‘armed struggle’ and seemingly legitimised in the present day.”

“Despite the emotional and historical baggage that their party will always carry for the Unionist community, Sinn Fein continue to believe that it is their vocation to deliver any new Ireland in their own unapologetic image. In short, they will never put country before party.

“Latterly, we do not have to look far to find examples of a mean-spirited stymying of unionist identity. From rose bushes to memorial stones, to the NI centenary illumination of Belfast City Hall, the chip, chip, chipping away at Protestant/unionist/loyalist symbolism and culture continues unabated.

“From these experiences, I have concluded that all the posturing around terms like ‘inclusion’, ‘shared futures’ and ‘everything being on the table’ represents little more than spin and hollow rhetoric. Prods are simply going to have to like it or lump it. And God knows what ‘lumping it’ would mean in Sinn Fein’s new Ireland.”

1 Recommendations for an Anti-Poverty Strategy: Report of the Expert Advisory Panel, Goretti Horgan, Pauline Leeson, Bernadette McAliskey and Mike Tomlinson

2 ‘A Shared Future? SF still believes its vocation is to deliver unity in its own, unapologetic image’, 29th April

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

Discussing Irish unity over dinner with Trinity College politics students

I had an interesting dinner with five political science students from Trinity College Dublin last month at which we discussed Irish unity and Southern Irish attitudes to it. I had met them three weeks earlier when I was giving a guest lecture at TCD and had asked the assembled students if any of them would be interested in talking to me further about these topics for a book idea I was researching. Eamon and Molly from Dublin, Martin from Cork, and Geraldine and Maurice from Limerick (not their real names) agreed to join me.

In the first instance, what I wanted to get their reactions to was a blog I had written last November entitled ‘My single transferable blog: the people of the South are not ready for reunification.’ My thesis then could be summed up in the following paragraph: “There appears to be zero discussion here about the crucial issue of what happens to the Unionists at the end of the Union as we have known it. Instead, we in the Republic sail blithely into an unexamined future with a brainless consensus that in the end the good guys of Irish nationalism will win out over the Northern bigots and stooges of British imperialism, and then we will live together happily ever after in harmonious unity.”

All of them appeared to agree with this provocative sentiment, although Maurice remarked: “I really wanted to disagree with you but in the end I agree 100%.” He said he had spoken to “incredibly nationalistic friends” and found they had not at all considered what would happen to the large number of angry, alienated Unionists who would have to be included in a ‘new Ireland’ after a narrow majority for unity in a Border Poll. His conclusion was: “What’s wrong with the way things are right now? We’re living in peace in the South and relative peace in the North. I wouldn’t vote for a united Ireland. I would let sleeping dogs lie.”

Interestingly, Maurice also said: “I’ve a pretty strong national identity. I feel very Irish. However the idea of changing what our country is about to accommodate British colonisers [i.e. Unionists coming in from the North] doesn’t sit right with me. I’m happy with the way things are now.” Several of the others agreed with him about feeling uneasy about bringing “British colonisers” into a united Ireland.

“On the other hand people from the North shouldn’t be punished or ostracised because of their attachment to British culture,” said Molly. “Even though Catholics and Nationalists were treated badly in Northern Ireland (and Unionists have historically wielded the tool of national identity against those who did not want to be British), we have to make sure that our own sense of Irish nationalism doesn’t recreate those same harms to Unionists, people who feel British in the run-up to, and maybe in the aftermath of, reunification.”

Molly felt that while we were no longer being actively colonised, “the lasting effects of colonisation and partition are undoubtedly still felt around the island,” and any discussion on preserving or reshaping national identity had to be conscious of this context and “why symbols of national identity matter so much in the first place.” She said “imposing a national identity on those who do not want it is dangerous…national identity always involves the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others.” She went on: “We have seen over the centuries the harm and violence that came with the forced imposition of British identity and culture on this island – the lesson of that should not be that Britishness is bad (though in many ways it sort of is), but rather that nationalism is almost always exclusionary and usually violent – it cannot be nurtured peacefully or respectfully.”

Geraldine said there had been “a big resurgence in Irish identity, based on pride in our economic success over the past 20-30 years.” She wondered if the strong British ties of Northern Unionists were seen as a threat by many people in the Republic. Personally, she would not want “to adapt in any way to British culture, even if that was the price of bringing some significant element of Unionists” into a united Ireland. “We were under the British for so long – now that we’ve got our own successful Irish identity, we wouldn’t want to let that go.” She felt the old British (or rather English) tendency to look down on the Irish had flipped, with the Irish, as economically successful Europeans, now feeling rather superior. “Unity [including the Unionists] would take a lot of unpacking of unconscious biases we have, that even young people have,” she admitted, giving as an example the shouts of ‘Up the Ra’ in Dublin night-clubs.

They all agreed that the extreme conservatism of Northern unionists – led by the DUP – on issues like same sex marriage and abortion reform was particularly off-putting for young Southerners. Eamon said he had a republican friend living in a unionist area in the North who talked about “male prayer groups out in the streets protesting about abortion and gay rights – how much more unattractive can you possibly appear?” He also noted that when it came to places to travel to, Northern Ireland was low down on most young Southerners’ lists: “they see it as a really desperate place.” Noting that not so long ago the Republic was a very conservative, Catholic society, but had changed radically in recent years, he asked why the same thing had not happened in the North.

Eamon appeared to articulate what to this writer is the overwhelming opinion of ‘middle Ireland’.”A united Ireland would be great at some point, but many people here think that overcoming the housing and health service crises is far more important, and to take on unity as well would be just too much.”

Molly said if she was a Northerner worried about paying the mortgage or the rent, she would look at an Irish government that did not seem to care about people who were homeless or hopelessly seeking a place to live, and say: “Sort yourselves out and start running a functioning country where young people in danger of homelessness can get a house. The Republic of Ireland is not exactly a Utopia either, is it?”

Three of the five would vote Sinn Fein in any future election (the other two would vote Labour or Social Democrat). But they all agreed that most young people would vote Sinn Fein, not out of any belief in imminent unity, but because the “historic duopoly” of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael had been in power for ever in the Republic, and Sinn Fein – for all their aggressive, populist rhetoric in opposition – should be given the chance to get into government to see if they could do better at tackling housing and health. “We’ve never had a left-wing party running the country”, said one.

However they also agreed that, in Molly’s words, Northerners were “accustomed to living with the National Health Service, with a far better level of services than the HSE.” She hoped she was not being too optimistic in hoping that bringing into the Irish electorate a large number of people who were used to better health and social services, “unaffiliated with religious organisations, would make it much easier to generate the political will to advocate for increased investment in social services…Many Unionists may be entirely unwilling to identify as Irish, but I think when it comes to healthcare, housing, energy costs and other basic needs, it becomes increasingly clear that, regardless of ideology, many of us want the same things.”

Similarly, they wondered what education would look like in a united Ireland if there was no Catholic Church involvement. Young people in the Republic felt such involvement was normal, “but for most of the world it isn’t – students coming from abroad to study here think it’s very strange.”

Martin said young people learned nothing about Northern Ireland at school: “the Leaving Cert history course was completely one-sided. We complain that the British are not educated to know about Ireland, but we have a nationalistic history syllabus ourselves.” He had grown up hearing “awful stories” from his parents about the ‘Troubles’: “they were seeing the news every day about people being murdered there – that leaves an indelible mark on your outlook about these things.” Not surprisingly, he was the only one of the five who voiced concerns about Sinn Fein’s past links with the IRA. At the same time he was in favour of eventual unity and voiced concern about possible changes in national symbols like the flag and anthem.

“I wonder how much current and younger members of Sinn Fein identify with that [the IRA]. I have a lot of friends who are Sinn Fein members – I don’t want to write them off because of the actions of their predecessors,” said Maurice.

Molly compared Sinn Fein and the IRA with Fine Gael and the fascist Blueshirts in the 1930s:”the reason I don’t point the finger at lifelong Fine Gael voters is that those wrongdoings are no longer relevant, they have passed out of living memory. The same process has happened for our generation with Sinn Fein.” There was general hilarity at the thought of the bespectacled intellectual Eoin O Broin as an IRA gunman.

Eamon said the two main things people in the South worried about when faced with the prospect of the North coming into a united Ireland were firstly, if badly managed, reunification could see a return to violence; and secondly, concern about Dublin having to take over the £10 billion annual subvention from the British treasury to maintain Northern Ireland’s services (“although I don’t even know if that’s a true figure”). However, Maurice thought that a newly prosperous Republic could now cover the British subvention. “Yes, we could. Would we want to? Maybe not.”

I came away from that dinner conversation cheered at the thought that such a smart and impressive group of young people could be running this country in 20 years, even though they shared much of the confusion (and naivety) of their elders when it came to ignorance about the North (and unionism, in particular) and confidence in Sinn Fein as a future left-wing governing party focussed above all else on housing and health. I found their emphasis on the British colonial thinking of Northern Unionists as an unacceptable legacy of the unhappy history of colonialism in Ireland particularly enlightening. Perhaps as somebody from a Northern Protestant background brought up largely in Britain – albeit in a strong Labour household – I have tended to under-estimate the strength of this feeling in Irish young people: real (if not uncritical) pride in an Irish nationalism which a hundred years ago took on the might of the British empire and won independence by force of arms; and, after many years of stagnation and disillusion, has belatedly made a significant success of that independence. Whether it will help us bring about a harmonious united Ireland is another matter. However, as a man in my seventies, I came away certain that it would do me nothing but good to talk to young people like these about such things more often.

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 3 Comments

Sinn Fein will be re-writing recent Irish history when it gets into power

Earlier this month Mary Lou McDonald denied that the deletion of thousands of Sinn Fein press statements going back over 20 years represented an attempt to cover-up the party’s ‘soft’ position on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The Sinn Fein leader had brazenly jumped that ship shortly after the invasion, leading the calls for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador to Ireland.

However as far back as 2015 Sinn Fein’s four MEPs abstained in a European Parliament resolution that condemned human rights abuses in Russia and criticised Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. In December Chris McManus, now the party’s sole representative in the parliament, voted against a resolution that supported Ukraine’s independence, stated that Putin’s military build-up at Ukraine’s borders represented a threat to Europe’s peace and security and called on Russia to respect its international obligations. McManus has abstained or voted against six European Parliament resolutions critical of Russia since 2020.1

We can expect a lot more rewriting of recent history – Irish history – if and when Sinn Fein gets into power in Dublin. The Provisional IRA’s 30-year campaign of violence will be rewritten as an unavoidable consequence of the peaceful civil rights movement in Northern Ireland when faced with the repressive Northern state. Multiple killers of off-duty policemen and UDR men like Seamus McElwaine and Francis Hughes will be portrayed as glorious heroes. And most importantly of all, the IRA’s campaign will be justified as the legitimate and righteous continuation of the 1916-1921 War of Independence against the British occupier, completing the unfinished business of winning Irish freedom, unity and sovereignty.

Many people in the Republic of Ireland will be open to this interpretation. Republicanism is a kind of underlying orthodoxy in Southern society. A lot of people in this state, notably Fianna Fail followers and supporters of left-wing parties, proudly call themselves republicans or republican socialists. In this period of centennial commemorations, many – perhaps most – people here find it easier to identify with the uncompromising Irish republicans of that era than with supporters of the compromising Irish Free State or John Redmond’s peaceful Irish Parliamentary Party (people like this are always in danger of being demonised as ‘free staters’,’shoneens’ or ‘west Brits’). With Fianna Fail now discredited after having spent too much of the past century in government, this adds up to one more psychological advantage for Sinn Fein.

Republican assumptions and language are shared by those who would never call themselves supporters of the Provisional IRA. You can see it in the small things. I am starting to see apolitical theatre reviewers refer to IRA prisoners in the Maze, who may have been convicted killers, as ‘political prisoners’, and a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment as a ‘terrorist.’ The liberal intelligentsia is particularly guilty here: acquaintances of mine inveigh against the former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris, a fierce critic of the IRA, with a vitriol they would never use against Gerry Adams or Mary Lou McDonald. With prominent anti-IRA voices like Harris, Kevin Myers and Professor John A. Murphy silenced by death or disgrace, there are few people left in the media and public life to take on the now ascendant Sinn Fein champions of republican violence.

It may not be politically correct these days, but it is worth reminding people forcefully of the extent of that violence. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. I’m going to repeat that in bold. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. Is there any other ‘freedom struggle’ in recent world history where the forces of ‘freedom’ killed nearly five times more people than the repressive state forces facing them? A Northern friend from a security force background has estimated that there are over 400,000 people with some past or present connection with the security forces in Northern Ireland – and the majority of them have the most vivid recollection of relatives, friends and comrades who were killed and injured by the IRA. Does that affect their view of Sinn Fein and its policy of driving on to an early united Ireland? You bet it does.

Which brings me to an interesting long article in the New York Review of Books this month.2 Because if Fianna Failers and Irish left-wingers are susceptible to Sinn Fein’s propaganda (and Irish republicans are world-class propagandists), that is doubly or trebly so for many (perhaps most) Irish-Americans, who support the IRA because it aims to drive the British out of Ireland, and most European leftists, who admire the IRA as Europe’s very own anti-imperialist guerrilla force. One rarely hears a well-argued contrary view in Europe or the United States. However the novelist Nick Laird, born and reared in Tyrone, has provided one in his excoriating review in that prestigious US publication of a new three volume collection of photographs of Northern Ireland – Whatever you Say, Say Nothing – by the celebrated French photographer of the ‘Troubles’, Gilles Peress, a former president of the Magnum photo agency, and now professor of human rights and photography at Bard College, New York, and senior research fellow at the Human Rights Centre at Berkeley University.

Laird is damning of the partiality and prejudice of this mighty photo collection and its accompanying text, most of it by Peress’s collaborator, an American lawyer called Chris Klatell. Both both Peress and Klatell are unashamed supporters of the IRA. For example, Klatell is happy to quote An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein newspaper, as his source for an account of the disputed killing of IRA men by the SAS; and to describe two men as having been killed “on active service” when the bomb they were making exploded prematurely. Apart from other photographers, those thanked by Peress in the acknowledgements for “their hospitality, generosity and advice” are nearly all IRA members and Republican activists.

Laird calls the book “deeply partial, and by turns incomplete, ill-informed, outdated and patronizing.” He gives many examples of this. Here are two: Klatell describes Francis Hughes, who was to die in the 1981 Maze prison hunger strike, as “a charismatic and tenacious young member of the Provisional IRA referred to as the ‘most wanted man in the North of Ireland.’ The authorities captured him in a ditch after a shoot-out with the SAS, looking like a rock star with dyed blonde hair even though he was gravely injured.” What Klatell doesn’t mention is that “Hughes was convicted of killing three people and reputedly killed more than a dozen, with some sources alleging he was responsible for at least 30 deaths. Among the deaths he was linked to were those of a 77-year-old grandmother and a 10-year-old girl.”

Here is a second. “Klatell recounts Peress describing how, back in 1985, Daithi de Paor, an IRA man, had told him a story of the IRA bombing a costume shop: ‘For some reason, or maybe for no reason, the Volunteers decided they had an issue with the Indian man who owned the costume shop’ and decided to blow it up. After setting the bomb on the counter they drove away, but saw in the rearview mirror ‘the fucking Indian guy, calmly carrying the bomb out of his shop and chucking it into the street.’ So the following week they went into the shop, ‘froze the owner at gunpoint, and glued the bomb to the counter. Then they all stood round in awkward silence, holding the bomb down, waiting for the glue to dry.’ After recounting this story, Peress laughed. ‘No one else did. That’s a terrible story, they said. What happened to the poor Indian man who owned the shop?’ Gilles looked around in puzzlement. ‘That story wasn’t about the man who owned the shop’, he said. ‘It was about the glue.”

Laird concludes: “Realizing that murdering an immigrant for ‘some reason, or maybe for no reason’ might strike readers as despicable, Klatell tries here to put some daylight between himself and Peress, though with its black humour, casual gangsterism and purposeless violence this anecdote is somehow one of the truest things in the book.”

Klatell cannot imagine a Northern Protestant sensibility that is “anything other than grotesque”, says Laird. “Orange marches are ‘sadistic victory parades of the Prods, ecstatic in their imposition of humiliation’. To many people, not just Protestants, this might seem not only a caricature but a gross misrepresentation.”

Laird concludes that “among Americans the list of useful idiots for the Irish Republican cause is long, and Klatell, though he has clearly steeped himself in the history and culture of the North, has also, in the end, let himself be a tool of violent Republicanism. He is attempting to cement a story that simply isn’t true, the reality being more complicated and demanding than his scrapbook admits.

“It is, of course, possible to believe in the inevitability and desirability of a united Ireland without supporting or romanticising Irish Republicanism. It is possible to think that partition was a disaster and that Northern Ireland practised systematic discrimination against its Catholic minority for many years, while also refusing to justify, glorify or accommodate the horrific actions of Republicanism. That’s why the Social Democratic and Labour Party exists – to advocate for Irish reunification, though it has been largely eclipsed by Sinn Fein.”

Seamus Heaney is invoked repeatedly in these volumes. “What is missing is Heaney’s sense of a morally complicated place, a location where no one was exactly right but some were clearly wrong: ‘My sympathy was not with the IRA, but it wasn’t with the Thatcher government either”, the great poet wrote during the 1981 hunger strike. Laird recommends reading another engrossing book by an American observer of the North, which takes its title from the same Heaney poem as Peress’s collection: Say Nothing, by the New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. Laird calls this a “masterpiece, and one of the best introductions you’ll find to the twisted state of Northern Ireland.” I could not agree more.

1 Elaine Loughlin, ‘Sinn Fein’s soft stance on Russia is clearly on the record’, Irish Examiner, 1st March

2 ‘Partial Reports’, New York Review of Books, 10th March

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein | 3 Comments

Is Ireland neutral in this battle between good and evil?

Sometimes (rarely) wars are seen as battles between the forces of good and evil. The war of the Allies against Nazism is the classic example in modern times. Except the Irish state chose to sit that one out, unwilling to line up alongside the ancient British enemy – then on the side of the angels – less than 20 years after its war of independence against the old oppressor.

I would suggest that the savage and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia comes into this category. In less than three weeks Putin’s merciless generals have unleashed a campaign of terror unseen since the Second World War: they have pounded residential areas, targeted hospitals, mined and bombed agreed ‘humanitarian corridors’ and forced four million and a half Ukrainians to flee their homes. Putin appeared to threaten nuclear war when he warned that Russia’s response to anyone who stood in its way in Ukraine or “creates threats for our country and people” will “lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history.” 39 countries, including Ireland, have petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.

Ireland is proud of its neutrality (although decisions like allowing US troop planes to refuel at Shannon en route to wars in Iraq and  Afghanistan show how governments can interpret it as they will). But during the seventy years of Soviet rule was the Irish Free State/ Republic of Ireland, among the most conservative and Catholic – and therefore anti-communist – countries in Western Europe, really neutral? Didn’t it shelter under the nuclear-armed NATO umbrella to ensure Ireland’s security? Given its tiny air corps and navy, didn’t it rely on the RAF and the Royal Navy to secure its air corridors and shipping lanes (and to support its limited search and rescue capacity)? Isn’t this a classic example of what Fintan O’Toole calls Irish people’s ability to be in two minds at the same time: neutral and anti-communist, anti-British and reliant on Britain?

I feel a real thrill of pride when I see Ireland’s blue-bereted soldiers flying off on United Nations duty in dangerous places like Lebanon and Liberia, or Irish naval vessels saving the lives of African refugees in the Mediterranean. But neutrality has its darker side too. Perhaps the most shameful episode in a century of Ireland’s international relations was Éamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy in May1945 to offer his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler. This extraordinarily foolish – not to say immoral – gesture helped to ensure that Ireland had few friends in the world in the years immediately after World War Two.

But are Irish people neutral in the battle for Ukraine? Absolutely not. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dail on the afternoon of the Russian invasion that while Ireland was militarily neutral “in this conflict Ireland is not neutral at all. Our support for Ukraine is unwavering and unconditional.” Former President Mary Robinson, speaking on the Late Late Show, called the Russian invasion “a flagrant breach of the UN Charter. Of course we’re not neutral. How could we be?” Her successor, Mary McAleese, said Russians had to be told: “Your country is now a pariah in the world.”

There has been a huge upsurge in support for taking refugees from the war there (we have been told by government ministers that we may have to take up to 100,000 refugees, and at time of writing the Irish Red Cross had logged 14,500 offers of accommodation for them). Our government’s ‘let them all come’ policy is in sharp contrast to the mean-minded, ultra-bureaucratic response of official Britain. Many thousands of people have protested outside the Russian Embassy in Dublin’s Orwell Road. There is something primordial, deeply rooted in Irish history and folk memory, that rises at the sight of a powerful nation attacking its smaller, peaceful neighbour.

There is little dispute in most European countries that the EU needs to rearm and prepare to defend itself against this suddenly much more dangerous Russia. Other European neutrals like Finland and Sweden have put their money where their mouths are and sent arms to Ukraine. 53% of Finns are now in favour of NATO membership, the first such majority ever. Ireland and Finland share similar sized populations and economies, and are both militarily non-aligned. But that’s where the similarities end. Finland’s defence budget is around five times the size of Ireland’s; it has mandatory military service for men over 18; it has just bought 64 ultra-modern F-35 fighter jets from the US; it has more than 200 naval ships compared to Ireland’s nine (even though its exclusive economic maritime zone is 30 times smaller than ours); and it is a world leader in countering ‘hybrid threats’: cyberattacks, social media disinformation and foreign powers attempting to interfere with elections.

On 1st June Danish voters will be asked in a referendum whether to end their country’s opt-out from EU defence (negotiated in order to salvage the Maastricht Treaty after it was rejected by Danish voters in 1992). Its prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, has announced “the largest investment in Danish defence in recent times” in response to Putin’s “pointless and brutal attack on Ukraine.”  As the leaders of the European Union, meeting in Versailles last week, moved towards “a stronger and more capable EU in the field of security and defence” (and President Macron proposed a €200 billion leap in military spending across the bloc), we in Ireland will have to make a difficult choice, almost certainly in a referendum.

The Irish government can, of course, go along with Sinn Fein and much of the Irish left, and decide it doesn’t want to join any efforts to enhance EU security and defence, but Ministers are acutely conscious of how isolated this would leave us, says the Irish Times‘ well-informed political editor, Pat Leahy. He goes on: “Central and eastern European countries would point to the solidarity extended to Ireland during Brexit and wonder at the lack of reciprocity when they feel threatened…Failure to join a new common defence effort would be seen by other countries as ‘very odd and a lack of solidarity’, says a senior diplomat from another (neutral) EU country. ‘Why would we support your Northern Ireland policy – which we do – when you cannot contribute to European security?’ asks this person. Another EU diplomat  from a different country says that failure to join in EU defence would be seen as ‘a kind of Brexit.”

Leahy continues: “If the Government decides to run a referendum, expect it to be fronted by the Taoiseach. He would present himself as a lifelong supporter of military neutrality who has been convinced by events that Ireland must play its part in defending the EU; not an abandonment of neutrality, but a commitment to self-defence. It would strongly reject the idea of equivalence between the EU-NATO side and Russia” (as proposed by MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, honoured guests of the murderous Assad regime).”It would say: time to pick a side.”1

However, seeing this as a contest between good and evil is the easy part for us in Ireland. Our solidarity with Ukraine will only be really tested when we start suffering from oil, gas and even food shortages because of the war. And Europe backing the ‘good guys’ in Kiev with increased arms supplies won’t be nearly enough to bring this horrible war to an early end.

In an instructive if depressing article last week, Gerard Toal, professor of government at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (who is Irish), warned that “attractive as ‘good versus evil’ thinking is right now, it is the enemy of de-escalation and the ugly compromises needed to give this war’s victims a good enough peace, an opportunity to return home quickly, to mourn, and to rebuild.” He proposed a package of ‘ugly compromises’: Russia and Ukraine to sign a treaty which would see Ukraine committing to becoming a neutral state in return for Russia supporting its bid for EU membership as a neutral state like Ireland; the UN to administer self-determination referendums in Crimea and Donbass; Ukraine to agree to dissolve far-right armed groups on its territory; in a phased process, the US and EU to drop sanctions against Russia; and NATO and the Russian Federation to commit to negotiating a new military security order in Europe, involving closing the door to future NATO membership to Ukraine and five other former Soviet bloc countries situated between Russia and the EU.2

Is this the only way to stop Russia threatening Europe? To reward Vladimir Putin’s aggression by giving him much of what he is demanding? Is this the best way to defend the values of peace and democracy which European countries have spent more than 70 years painstakingly building through the EU and its predecessors, and which Putin’s Russia has worked so hard to undermine? Values like liberal democracy; human rights; open societies with freedom of movement and information; fundamental freedoms of conscience, expression and peaceful assembly, and as much human (including racial and gender) equality as a capitalist economic system will allow. I just don’t know. What I do believe is that it is time for Ireland to stand fully alongside our European partners and friends, even if our odd half-in, half-out neutrality has to be sacrificed at this grim turning point in European history.

1 ‘Any decision on neutrality will come at a price’, 12 March

2 ‘There’s a way out of this, but it’s not good news for Ukraine, Irish Times, 12 March

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment

Unionism unloved and unbowed, and the rise and rise of Alliance

“Unwanted and unloved, Unionists are unbowed…but Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is just the latest example of many in Britain kicking unionism and then being loved even more strongly in return”. That was the headline above a Belfast Telegraph column by Sam McBride earlier this month. If you want to know what it happening inside the imploding world of the DUP in particular and unionism in general these days you have to read McBride – for my money the best-informed reporter in Northern Ireland.

McBride recalled that when Johnson addressed the nation in December 2020 to announce his trade deal with the EU to “get Brexit done”, the prime minister effusively told the British public: “We have taken back control of laws and our destiny. We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation. In a way that is complete and unfettered. From January 1 we are outside the customs union and outside the single market. British laws will be made solely by the British Parliament. Interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts. And the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will come to an end.”

Every word of that was only true, McBride pointed out, if followed by an “excludes Northern Ireland” disclaimer — which it didn’t. “Whether mendaciously or thoughtlessly, the prime minister of the United Kingdom spoke of the country he leads in a way which was only accurate if he defines that country as excluding Northern Ireland.”

It is not surprising that there are Unionists — even passionate, traditional, longstanding Unionists — whose commitment to Britain has been shaken by the betrayals of recent years. But McBride believes they are the exception. “There is no evidence that hordes of Unionists are recanting. Unionists knew before Northern Ireland was created that they were unloved by London. It did not diminish their sense of Britishness. In fact, hundreds of thousands of them were willing to fight and die to stay British. History shows that when unionism feels forsaken, it more often goes in the direction of militancy than moderation.”

As Northern Ireland came into being in 1921, the father of Ulster Unionism, Edward Carson, railed against British double-dealing: “But why is all this attack made upon Ulster? What has Ulster done? I will tell you what Ulster has done. She has stuck too well to you, and you believe that because she is loyal you can kick her as you like.”

That fear of abandonment — and the determination to resist regardless of pressure — lies deep in the unionist psyche. But while history is a guide to the future, it does not determine what that future will be. Unionism now is weaker than it was in 1912, 1921, 1974 or 1985, says McBride. “It now might be at or close to the point where militancy is no longer feasible. Yet even if that is the case, it does not mean that compromise will replace confrontation. There is within a strain of unionism an atavistic preponderance towards lashing out, even when it seems pointless.”

“That unionism’s attachment to the UK is sustained through repeated humiliation shows the depth of the connection — and shows how hard it will be to persuade even a substantial minority of Unionists to change sides in a border poll,” McBride concluded.

The background to this article was, of course, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s decision, in a belated protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, to pull the plug on the Executive – or that major part of it which required the DUP First Minister Paul Givan and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to be in post. This means that certain key Executive actions – such as a budget for the next three years – will now not go ahead, and an Assembly election campaign which was due to start at the end of March (with polling day on 5th May) kicked off in early February.

The North’s two main opinion polls – LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph and University of Liverpool/Irish News – using different methodologies, agree on one thing: Sinn Fein are on course to become the largest party on 5th May and therefore the DUP will lose the First Minister’s post. On the BBC the day after Givan’s resignation Donaldson squirmed for eight minutes – an eternity on radio – to avoid Stephen Nolan’s repeated questioning about whether he would accept the outcome of such an election by agreeing to serve as Deputy First Minister.

At a Chatham House-rules gathering I attended last week in Belfast – along with a group of well-informed political and community activists of all stripes, addressed by leading journalists – the consensus was that, after some tortuous negotiations, a divided and weakened DUP would again go into government under Michelle O’Neill as First Minister (the alternative would be a return to Direct Rule, which most of them loathe). Under new legislation those negotiations could take up to six months, with the old, now headless Executive staying in office for that time. If you think the fractious 2020-2022 period was a recipe for inertia and deadlock, just wait for that unhappy vacuum.

This is going to involve highly complex stuff that may require some amendment of the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements’ strange ‘designation’ rules. If current opinion poll trends are proved right, under those rules Sinn Fein, as the party with the largest number of seats from the largest ‘tribal’ designation (i.e. nationalism) will automatically get the First Minister’s post. However, this may be contested by unionism – even if it is split three ways between the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice – if they are still in a position to claim that they are the largest designation.

This will be even more complicated if Alliance’s surge in the 2019 Westminster and European elections continues into May’s contest. A University of Liverpool poll in the Irish News earlier this month put Alliance (with 15.6%) in third place, after Sinn Fein (23.2%) and the DUP (19.4%). This compares with an Alliance vote of 3.7% in the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly elections and 9.1% in the 2017 Assembly elections. Not surprisingly, this rise in Alliance support is paralleled by a fall in the support for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

If Alliance and other non-sectarian parties (e.g. the Greens, who registered 6.3% in the University of Liverpool poll) get over 20% of the seats, there will be pressure to change the whole ultra-complex D’Hondt voting system (and particularly its ‘designation’ element) brought in by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. For example, my understanding is that if Alliance does so well that it is returned with the second largest number of Assembly Members, it could find itself nonetheless not entitled to the Deputy First Minister’s post; this could go still to the DUP as the largest party in unionism, the second biggest ‘designation’.

The bizarre ‘designation’ rules were originally incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement as a way of ensuring that the four leading ‘tribal’ parties – the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Fein – would sit in government together. Will the British government – as it faces multiple problems of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the post-Brexit disruption of trade and internal rows over the prime minister’s character and behaviour – want to devote the huge time and effort needed to renegotiate this extraordinarily complex Agreement (which took 22 months under the Solomon-like chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell to put together in the first place)? I doubt it very much. We are, after all, in the era of Boris Johnson, who lied his way to an Irish Sea border with barely a thought for Northern Ireland, not Tony Blair, who for all his later faults genuinely believed he could make history by solving the interminable ‘Irish Question.’

I have been asking another question at conferences and gatherings on the North I have been attending in recent months. If the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance between them won enough seats after May’s election and wanted to form a centrist coalition government without the DUP and Sinn Fein, would the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements allow that? Both politicians and journalists who responded to my question believed the answer would be ‘no’.

Wouldn’t it be a big step forward if those agreements could be amended to allow such a democratic opening to take place? To quote the distinguished Queen’s University Belfast educationalist, Professor Tony Gallagher: “This would be a shift towards a voluntary coalition in which a Programme for Government becomes a collective enterprise, not a set of disparate and separate wish lists. Such a Programme for Government might even be worked out before the election, as a platform to put to the electorate. It should certainly be agreed before any new Executive gets under way. After all the outgoing Executive collapsed having never agreed a Programme for Government.” Is such a normal democratic process impossible ‘pie in the sky’ in Northern Irish circumstances?

POSTSCRIPT 1: I found it very moving the way that Assembly Members of all parties, including Sinn Fein, lined up to pay tribute to Christopher Stalford, the 39-year-old DUP MLA, Deputy Speaker, and father of four small children, who died suddenly nine days ago. By all accounts he was a warm, witty and highly intelligent man. This was the ‘new’ Northern Ireland at its most united, honourable and optimistic. Sinn Féin chief whip John O’Dowd recalled how the previous week “he gave us both barrels across the chamber”, but went on to say mournfully, “I will miss him. As has been said, this place will not be the same without him.” His Sinn Fein colleague Caoimhe Archibald said the South Belfast MLA was “decent; he had manners; he had class.” Linda Dillon said Stalford was “full of integrity and a pleasure to do business with… I genuinely felt sad yesterday when I heard the news, and I still feel that overwhelming sadness.”

POSTSCRIPT 2: It is difficult to write about the drearily familiar problems of little Northern Ireland when more than 75 years of relative peace in Europe (other than in the former Yugoslavia) was shattered by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s utterly unprovoked attack on Ukraine last week. I cannot do better than to repeat the extract from the Irish Times editorial on 26th February which it splashed across the top of its front page on that day.

“The immediate horror of the Russian invasion has been visited on the people of Ukraine. It is they who have been subjected to a murderous and flagrantly criminal assault that may plunge them into years of violent turmoil. Yet John Donne’s ominous words come to mind: ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’ Vladimir Putin has tolled the knell of an era of relative peace and stability in Europe. For all of us, the reverberations will linger in the air for many years to come.”

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 1 Comment

Fintan O’Toole, Leopold Bloom and me

I have been reading We Don’t Know Ourselves, Fintan O’Toole’s marvellous personal and political memoir of Ireland over the past 64 years. I am an unashamed admirer of O’Toole’s writings, and his brilliantly insightful, left-wing views on multiple aspects of Irish life in all its glory and grubbiness. I once introduced him to a Northern Irish audience as a “national treasure”. In my years in the Irish Times, our paths occasionally crossed, most memorably on the terraces at Belfast’s Windsor Park on a bleak night in November 1993, when we sat silent and anxious beside a section of the crowd singing about being up to their knees “in Fenian blood”, and inwardly cheering as an Alan McLoughlin goal sent the Republic of Ireland to the finals of the following year’s World Cup.

O’Toole shares some of my pet hates: the all-powerful Irish Catholic Church of the 20th century, with its imperious prelates, brutal Christian Brothers and child-abusing priests; that church’s long alliance with Fianna Fail, personified by the astonishingly corrupt and hypocritical figure of Charles Haughey; and the doublethink of the IRA and Sinn Fein, who for many years combined “electoral politics and mass killing, political party and private army, victim and perpetrator.” This was “of a piece with the larger Irish capacity for being in two minds simultaneously” – although he feels that by the 1990s this capacity was radically diminishing. I fear a new generation, those who will vote in their hundreds of thousands for Sinn Fein in the next election, have inherited at least some of it.

I did not experience the unanimous fury of the people of the Republic at the horror of 14 innocent people murdered by the British Parachute regiment in Derry 50 years ago last weekend. I was told of it by a driver as I was hitch-hiking through Colombia. In contrast, O’Toole’s father, a socialist and sceptic about Irish nationalism, announced that he was prepared to go to war over it. “We have to face it”, he told his wife and sons. “Me and the boys are going to be up in the North, fighting. It’s coming. There’s no choice now. It’s just the way it’s going to be. It’ll be them or us. We have to be ready for it.” 14 year old Fintan was “stunned, terrified, but also excited. It was a big thing to think about, this civil war that was going to shape our destinies.” If ever there was a ‘two nations’ moment in Ireland, this was it: nationalist Ireland ready to go to war over a British atrocity; many in unionist Northern Ireland wrong-headedly equating it to the killing of Protestant civilians by the IRA. 

As an Irishman of part-Jewish ancestry, I was particularly intrigued by a chapter on Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce’s Ulysses (first published a hundred years ago this week), who, according to O’Toole, had an afterlife following his starring role in that greatest of novels. O’Toole recounts the story of Bloom’s death in 1942 (certainly apocryphal, since Bloom was not a real person) from a Dublin Jewish chronicler, Asher Benson. According to Benson, he was barred from burial in the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish cemetery on the grounds that he was “a confirmed apostate, an eater of forbidden food, and had married out” (and was also a great lover of a jug of porter). He ended up being half-buried in the middle of the night under the wall dividing the Jewish cemetery from the houses on Aughavannagh Road in Crumlin, and thus possibly in the O’Toole family’s back garden.

I have always been interested in Leopold Bloom as the sort of atypical Irishman I could identify with. In the famous Cyclops episode in Ulysses, which takes place in Barney Kiernan’s pub, off Capel Street, Joyce contrasts the citizen’s aggressive and xenophobic nationalism with Bloom’s gentle insistence on tolerance and compassion. Bloom talks about “persecution…all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.” The citizen interrupts:”What is your nation, if I may ask”. “Ireland”, says Bloom. “I was born here. Ireland.” “The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.”

Later in the conversation Bloom gives his views on violence and hatred. “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.” “What?” says Alf, another drinker. “Love”, says Bloom. “I mean the opposite of hatred.”

In terms of love and hatred in the northern part of Ireland, I fear sometimes that we haven’t moved on much since 1904. I worry that the xenophobic nationalism of the citizen is about to be reborn in the form of a near-future government dominated by the militant republicanism of Sinn Fein squaring up to the jingoistic English nationalism of a Tory government in London. I ask myself: where will I, as a peace-loving, left-of-centre, non-republican person from a half-Presbyterian, half-Jewish background, fit into the ‘new Ireland’ ruled over by Sinn Fein?

In all my years in Dublin I have always been bemused when somebody is described as a “republican” as if that were a mark of distinction, a source of pride. To me, a contemporary Irish republican is somebody who believes in killing people in pursuit of some ill-defined all-Ireland republic. I agreed with John Hume back in 1989 when he said that “there is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life.” He said the same thing repeatedly about the IRA’s killings and bombings in pursuit of unity, denouncing their ultra-nationalistic and fascistic belief that they were the “pure Irish master race.”1

Between 1998 and 2016 I had hoped we were moving into a benign period of power-sharing between the parties of unionism, nationalism and republicanism in Northern Ireland and increasing cooperation between North and South on the island of Ireland, and that over a period of 30 or 40 years of joint EU membership and rising prosperity this would start to remove much of the historic poison from relationships on this island. I believed that the neuralgic issue of Irish unity could be postponed until a future and perhaps wiser generation. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I underestimated the right-wing anti-European forces that were gathering in Britain to drive on to Brexit; the DUP’s insularity and stupidity in fully backing that madness; and Sinn Fein’s determination to take full advantage of such a huge British misstep to up the tempo of the drumbeat for unity.

I had hoped that in this benign period there would be recognition of a new broad definition of Irishness, that one could be fully recognised as Irish as a non-Catholic, an immigrant, a gay person, a black person, a Northern Protestant or unionist – anybody, in fact, who, like Leopold Bloom, is born on the island of Ireland. One would not have to fit into the stereotype of the ‘true Gael’ that was dominant in the first 50 years of this state’s existence: an Irish-speaking, Brit-hating, GAA-following, physical force-supporting republican. With the huge immigration into this country over the past 25 years of people from Eastern Europe, Africa and Brazil (among many other countries), the definition of Irishness will have to be greatly broadened anyway (despite the 2004 constitutional referendum, endorsed by nearly 80% of those voting, which, against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, restricted citizenship to those born in Ireland to Irish citizens).

I sometimes I wonder where I, as a kind of ‘West Brit’, with my Northern Protestant background and largely English upbringing, will fit into this new Ireland with its Sinn Fein-led worship of violent republican ancestors, including those who killed over 1,700 people in the Northern Ireland conflict. Just as ‘republican’ is usually a compliment in the present day Republic of Ireland, ‘West Brit’ is an insult. ‘Unionist’ is one of the worst insults one can throw at anyone in Irish politics, and even a Taoiseach like John Bruton was not safe from the insulting epithet ‘John unionist’ for trying to reach out to the unionists at various stages of the 1990s peace process.

I am a passionate and lifelong lover of Ireland and its people and culture (in my retirement I have taken up set dancing and have been learning Irish). But I just cannot see how we are going to attract any significant number of Northern unionists into our shiny new Ireland, many of whom are understandably opposed to all things Irish after being battered by 30 years of IRA violence (in the 2011 census 2.1% of Northern Protestants defined themselves as Irish, compared to 20% in 1968). And if the politicians overseeing that transformation are from the party which glorifies the perpetrators of that violence as the heroes of the final stage in the long and noble struggle against the British oppressor, unionists’ acquiescence in such an outcome is even more improbable.

We need a change of heart in the South if we are going to attract any unionists into our society. A Dublin friend who has held prominent positions in both Irish jurisdictions asks if the citizens of this republic “can open up to the notion that a sixth of the population will have an identity which is not Irish”. He goes on: “I think we need an expression of Irishness that accommodates, welcomes and doesn’t exclude Britishness. It doesn’t compromise the notion of being Irish; we don’t have to dilute a sense of Irishness to be open to a sense of Britishness. Nobody is purely Irish and nobody is purely British on this island – it’s too interwoven for that.” This man believes the work of bringing about Irish unity is a 100-150 year project.


Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 4 Comments

Whatever the Unionists wish for, the Protocol looks like it’s here to stay – and it can be good for all of us

One year on, the Northern Ireland Protocol looks like it’s here to stay. Its fiercest opponent (and chief negotiator) in the British government, Lord David Frost, has gone. Before that the British had dropped their demand that the European Court of Justice must be removed from the Protocol, and indicated they were now ready to join the EU in focussing on the practical problems that were creating difficulties for the North. Its strongest critic in the North, the DUP, is agonising over whether it should carry through with its threat to collapse the Stormont institutions over the issue, knowing that it will almost certainly be punished in the May Assembly election for doing so. How best to implement “the best of both worlds” scenario (i.e. the North’s unique dual access for goods to both the British and EU markets), espoused by politicians as different as Michael Gove, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar, is starting to loom into view.

Meanwhile business people and consumers in Ireland and Northern Ireland are getting on with the hard choices about what they buy: whether it is Northern supermarkets replacing more difficult to get British goods with local ones; or firms in the Republic choosing to source manufacturing inputs from Northern Ireland rather than Britain; or Northern shoppers choosing food products like sausages and black puddings not on the basis of their countries of origin but on price and quality.

Unfortunately the DUP, unusually for a right-wing party, is known for its deaf ear when it comes to listening to business saying things it doesn’t want to hear. It is a deep irony that Sinn Fein, whose mission is to see the eventual destruction of Northern Ireland, is now urging the need for stability, while the DUP keeps issuing threats to bring Stormont down if it doesn’t get its way over the Protocol (although its leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, “paused” those threats this week in order to give British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, time for further negotiations with the EU). Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long has called them “frankly embarrassing.”

A businessman friend who knows the UK and Irish markets well particularly welcomes what he calls the “right of dialogue” which the Northern Irish business sector, led by a couple of particularly smart people, has gained from the EU vice president Maros Sefcovic and his team. Sefcovic said after his visit to the North in the autumn: “Not one of the business representatives I met in Northern Ireland asked me to scrap the Protocol. Rather they asked me to fix the practical challenges in implementing it.” This dialogue must be one of the factors which saw the president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Paul Murnaghan, saying last week that almost 70% of his membership believed that “Northern Ireland’s unique status now presents opportunities for the region.”

Another Dublin-based businessman friend, who has over 25 years experience of Northern Ireland, gives four reasons why the Protocol is the best way to stabilise – and eventually develop – the Northern economy. Firstly, it provides the institutional structure (the UK-EU joint committee) to deal with any difficulties. Secondly, it gives Brexit a specific, manageable form which will help to create a stable economic climate throughout the island of Ireland. Thirdly, the majority of Members of the NI Assembly support the Protocol, thus giving it democratic legitimacy, and providing a stabilising influence by putting pressure on political unionism (in particular the DUP) to back off from its extreme position. Finally, it has led (and will continue to lead) to a substantial growth in North-South trade and business.

The figures certainly support the last of these statements. Figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office for the first six months of last year show a 60% (or €800 million) increase in imports from Northern Ireland to the Republic and a 45% (or €1.9 billion) increase in exports to the North compared with the same period in 2020.

My first businessman friend warns against reading too much into this sharp increase in North-South trade. He says that by European standards trade levels across the Irish border are still relatively low, reflecting the smallness of the Northern market and the weakness of its manufacturing sector. There are some exceptions of course: the very significant growth of the all-island agri-food sector in the past 30 years; and, more specifically, the purchase by Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus of buses from Wrights of Ballymena.

This man does not think we will see Northern Ireland taking advantage of its post-Protocol “best of both worlds” situation until the uncertainty surrounding the Protocol is removed by an Assembly vote in 2024. Certainly major FDI companies are not going to invest while the sword of Damocles represented by that vote and the loud opposition of political unionism to the Protocol is a continuing factor. However he hopes that the result of this May’s Assembly election might just lead to what he calls “a consensus of the sensible” who will lobby to keep the Protocol, which by then should have its annoying birth pains smoothed out, with a lot of its awkward paperwork being simplified through digitalisation.

Maybe it is time to grasp the nettle and put forward a radical idea to go alongside the Protocol. That excellent Irish Times economic commentator, Cliff Taylor, had an article in the paper on Christmas Eve pointing out what a great selling point the Protocol will be for attracting Foreign Direct Investment into Northern Ireland.1 However the body charged with this, Invest Northern Ireland, is far behind its Southern equivalent, the IDA, which is envied around the world for its extraordinary record of attracting foreign firms into the Republic in recent decades. Even last year, in mid-pandemic, employment in the companies it supported grew by almost 17,000. Last month I heard Fergal O’Brien, a senior executive at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, state that no other country in the world in modern times had done what Ireland (led by the IDA) had done: double the number of people at work – from one to two million – in the space of just 25 years (from 1993 to 2017).

There are, of course, major obstacles to be overcome. The North’s sclerotic and sectarian politics is the obvious one. Its lower skills levels, with lower university participation and a brain drain of high-achieving young people to Britain, is another. Taylor recalled hearing a suggestion at a recent ESRI seminar that the work of Skillnet Ireland – which supports business to link with education and access skilled employees – could be extended to Northern Ireland. Obviously this whole proposal also needs to be framed “in the context of the climate change agenda, realising that clean energy, for example, is now a vital factor in attracting companies here.”

Taylor concluded: “But you could see the play to be made. A green, high-skill Ireland offering two different but complementary investment offers…Dublin is jammed, has a chronic housing shortage and does not need more FDI beyond what will develop from firms already there. As well as tasking the IDA with attracting investment to other parts of the Republic, common sense would say that it could also play a role in working with Invest NI in developing an all-island offering with targets to be met.”1 I suggest the IDA could start by pointing interested investors towards Derry, in which local people complain Invest NI is less than interested, and where a significant number of cross-border workers from Donegal have traditionally found employment.

15 years ago the chairman of the Ulster Bank Group, London-based, Northern Ireland born businessman Alan Gillespie proposed that the IDA and Invest NI should be merged. Maybe he was a little ahead of his time. Perhaps now, with the Protocol to be managed for the good of both Northern Ireland and Ireland, is the better time.

Pragmatism is the key word here: an appeal to the hard-headed, industrious values that Ulster Protestants, in particular, used to be famous for. I insist on believing that the way to soften their resistance to the Protocol’s Irish Sea trade border – as to all other policies they perceive (with good reason) as weakening their links with Britain – is through improving their prosperity through good jobs and rising living standards. And I think that, given time and good implementation, the Protocol can help greatly in that process.

There are, I believe, many more working class unionist people like Alan McBride, the impressive north Belfast man who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA’s Shankill Road fish shop bombing in 1993, and has worked with and for victims of violence ever since. McBride told journalist Susan McKay in her recent book Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground :“I am a pragmatist. And I mean, economically, I want to be able to have a house and a car and a job and a standard of living. And to be honest with you, those things matter more to me than the flag that’s flying above our country. And if, because of Brexit, Northern Ireland is not flourishing and the South is, why would you not want to be part of that? I absolutely would.”

I also agree with the former senior Irish trade unionist Blair Horan in a recent paper on the Protocol for the Dublin-based Institute of International and European Affairs. He argues that the Protocol is a “far superior outcome” for the North than that enjoyed by Britain under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. The paper itself is dense and complex, but his final conclusion is clear enough: “The Protocol is about trade relationships. It is not related to the constitutional issue. It is worth reflecting if the hardest land border ever [i.e. the Irish border having become the external border of the EU single market in the event of a hard Brexit] would be more polarising of the communities in Northern Ireland than the compromise of the Protocol with its compensating economic benefits for Northern Ireland, which could lead to a more stable and prosperous Northern Ireland, and remove the constitutional issue from the pressure of events.”2

1 ‘Time for the IDA to spread its success over the border, Irish Times, 24th December

2 ‘The Trade and Investment Advantages of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’, IIEA, 22nd October

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland | 3 Comments

Majority of Southern voters think united Ireland “not very important” but they would like to see it “some day”

That is the headline I would like to have seen on the Irish Times front page lead story on 11th December about the paper’s latest opinion poll on unity and other issues. Its editors went instead for the much more predictable ‘Large majority of voters favour united Ireland in the long term’. The figures are revealing: 62% of people said they would vote “in favour of uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.” However 52% said unity is “not very important” to them, but they “would like to see it some day.” The latter sentiment is entirely in line with my experience of the views of citizens of this republic for the best part of 50 years.

The other compelling finding was how little the South’s voters were prepared to compromise on their comfortable existence and traditional nationalism in order to accommodate unionists in a ‘new’ Ireland. 79% would not accept higher taxes; 79% less money for public services; 77% a new flag; 72% a new anthem; and 71% re-joining the Commonwealth. Little wonder that the paper’s political editor, Pat Leahy, concluded: “This sounds less like a new shared country than assimilation into the existing one.”

Referring to the 52% who said unity was not very important to them, but they would like to see it some day, Leahy commented: “This sounds like the voice of middle Ireland. Sure, we want to see a united Ireland eventually, but what’s your hurry? Haven’t we enough to be doing?”1 The overwhelming numbers opposing any kind of serious political, financial and cultural change in order to bring about unity caused him to wonder about the need for a public debate about the consequences, costs, processes and timelines for unity. “It is certainly true that none of these questions – not to mind the answers to them – have been remotely understood to date. But there is little evidence today that there is any urgency among the public to do so.”

This has been one of my constant themes in these columns since I started them over eight years ago. The extremely difficult transition to a peaceful unity will only begin to happen when two processes are in train: the people of the Republic are seriously debating the consequences for their cosy, stable,  prosperous, 100-year-old state; and a significant number of Northern unionists are at least prepared to acquiesce in what for them will be an existentially annihilating change. It is reassuring for this deviant Irishman – with his Presbyterian mother and Jewish father – to be part of the mainstream that wants unity eventually, but not at the breakneck speed demanded by Sinn Fein and other ‘advanced’ nationalists.

Ironically, the previous day the Irish Times poll had shown Sinn Fein (on 35% public support) now an extraordinary 15% ahead of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (on 20% each). With the government struggling to cope with the fourth surge of Covid-19 and the new Omicron variant seeping into the country, Sinn Fein just has to sit back and watch the growing uncertainty and confusion on the coalition’s watch and the consequent deepening public unease translate into votes for them at the next election. As things stand, people will be voting then for that party’s ‘left populist’ policies on building more houses and improving health services, with not a thought for its overriding core strategy: to push hard and soon for a Border Poll in order to begin an early countdown to unity.

That election is not due until 2025 if the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael-Green Party government lasts the course.   Public confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic, at 57%, is still just about holding (although down from 74% in October, with a slightly different question). However if onerous new restrictions have to be imposed on a weary populace to deal with a serious outbreak of Omicron, this support could quickly evaporate. An inability to keep the schools open would be a potential tipping point here.

It is a fair assumption that Sinn Fein – who have been noticeably muted in their criticism of the government’s measures to deal with Covid-19 until recently – have been devoting a lot of thinking to their strategy in the next election. Two things are for sure: they won’t be making the mistake of not putting up enough candidates again; and they will once again play down their obsession with an early Border Poll to concentrate on the issues of housing, health and the cost of living which they know will be the real vote-winners. They know too that for the first time they are making inroads into the middle-class vote in the Republic.

They will also be making no concessions to unionists. They know that there are no votes in the Republic for such generosity (this is only confirmed by the Irish Times poll findings). It was a French friend, knowledgeable about Ireland, who pointed out to me that Sinn Fein will definitely not be making any gestures to unionists before an election in the Republic in which they have an excellent chance of gaining power.

A small part of me hopes that Mary Lou McDonald will feel able to be more flexible and generous to unionists if she becomes Taoiseach at the head of the largest party in a future coalition (either with the small left-wing parties or Fianna Fail). However a former republican prisoner friend stresses that Sinn Fein are “anything but generous.” He goes on: “Much will depend on the degree to which Mary Lou has been infected by the toxicity of [Gerry] Adams. She has to be aware that her meteoric rise in the South must be related to his departure from the scene. To some extent she gets the vote because of a perception of not being him. Therein lies the potential for generosity.”

On the other hand I worry that Sinn Fein’s rise and rise in both the Republic and the North (plus the weakened state of the DUP in the latter) means they may feel they are now on a winning run and don’t have to make any concessions to unionism. I was very struck when addressing a group of Irish-American lawyers and activists last spring (via Zoom) how few questions they asked after my unionist-friendly presentation (arguing along the same lines as my 1st November blog that the people of the South are not ready for reunification). Did that largely pro-Sinn Fein audience believe that history is now speeding unstoppably towards unity, so they don’t even have to contemplate the difficult, non-nationalist compromises needed to bring some element of unionism on board?

It is also striking how Sinn Fein are discussed by journalists and academics these days as a purely Southern party of the left, with little or no mention of their violent Northern past (which suits them down to the ground). In a recent interview politics professors Gary Murphy of Dublin City University and Aidan Regan of UCD,  pointed out that Irish voters are becoming more polarised in terms of left and right, which may leave Fianna Fáil with a declining electoral base in the middle – and maybe the Hobson’s choice of becoming Sinn Fein’s minority partner in government.2

“It’s quite clear from the data that the Irish electorate is becoming increasingly polarised along a very clear left-right axis, and economic inequality/economic conflict is the key dimension to Irish politics that’s shaping the vote. Sinn Féin have emerged and are emerging as the key anchor to the left and are probably going to mobilise and occupy that space for some time,” said Prof. Regan.

“That opens up the space for Fine Gael who are the clear anchor of the right. There’s no way Fine Gael are going to go into government with Sinn Féin. I would imagine Fine Gael are completely resigned to going into opposition already…so we probably will see Irish politics revolving around a very clear centre-left, centre-right divide, with Fine Gael becoming the leader of the liberal centre-right and Sinn Fein acting as the leader of the centre-left, and the party that’s likely to get squeezed in this is Fianna Fail.”

POSTSCRIPT  The man who is most likely to lose out if Fianna Fail choose to ally themselves with Sinn Fein is the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, who insists on putting North-South cooperation and reconciliation ahead of Border Polls and that party’s drive towards political unity in the short-term.

Addressing a webinar organised by his department’s Shared Island unit on 10th December, Martin outlined an impressive list of projects being (or to be) funded under that scheme: new phases of the cross-border Ulster Canal; the resuscitation of the Narrow Water bridge across Carlingford Lough; a €40 million cross-border research programme with 350 applicants for its first phase (including in priority areas like climate change, cybersecurity and precision medicine); the first all-Ireland strategic rail review; an all-island electrical vehicle charging network; a cross-border pilot green hydrogen plan for buses and heavy goods vehicles; cross-border climate action partnerships; new cross-border greenways as part of an all-island greenway network; new funding for the three cross-border local authority networks; greatly increased artistic and cultural exchanges, including an all-island ‘Fighting Words’ network for young writers from disadvantaged backgrounds; closer cooperation between the University of Ulster and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, including a new innovation hub in the north-west; 12 teacher education research projects involving SCoTENS, the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (the outstandingly successful network administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies); and so on.

John Downing in the Irish Independent found “much to engage, encourage and stimulate” in this programme.3 But what will happen to all this sensible, practical coming together of North and South if its main proponent, Micheál Martin (sometimes I think he is its only real proponent in this government) is forced to depart the scene following his handover of the Taoiseach’s job to Leo Varadkar in 12 months? Because it is likely that there will then be a challenge to his leadership of Fianna Fail from a more traditionally republican figure such as Jim O’Callaghan, and that challenge will bring into the open the divisive debate within the party about whether to go into government with Sinn Fein.

1 ‘Yes, we want to see a united Ireland eventually – but what’s your hurry?’ Irish Times, 11 December


3  ‘Cross-border cooperation is good – but the new UK immigration law is reminder of complex challenge’, Irish Independent, 10 December

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 1 Comment

Could North-South agri-food cooperation help cross the rural-urban climate change divide?

So in the end the political will did not exist among world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow to radically tackle global warming. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned at the end of the conference: “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.” He called for an end to fossil fuels subsidies, a phase out of coal (not a ‘phase down’ as was agreed in Glasgow), a price on carbon, building resilience of vulnerable communities against the impacts of climate change and to make good on the long-promised €100 billion climate finance commitment to support developing countries.

“Global leaders have turned their backs on indigenous communities, small-scale farmers, women and girls who desperately need support to recover and rebuild after climate disasters. This is a matter of great injustice,” said Siobhan Curran, head of policy at Trocaire, who was at the conference.

Rachel Kinnerly, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, summed up the general feeling of disillusion among both activists and the concerned public: “The road to 1.5C just got harder when these talks should have cleared the way to making it a whole lot easier. The UK government cunningly curated announcements throughout this fortnight so that it seemed rapid progress was being made. Here we are though, and the Glasgow get-out clause means that leaders failed to phase out fossil fuels and the richest countries won’t pay historic climate debt.” She urged countries, after this disappointing “COP moment”, to “break away from the pack in their race for meaningful climate action and let history judge the laggards.”

Could a small country like Ireland take a lead here? Our government’s €125 billion Climate Action Plan, published during the first week of COP, set out 475 actions to halve Ireland’s greenhouse emissions by 2030, including extensive offshore wind power, retrofitting 500,000 homes and putting one million electric vehicles on Irish roads (I have doubts about the feasibility of the last of these). As that insightful political commentator Pat Leahy wrote: “The plan represents a very significant political success for the Green Party. After a year and a bit in government – in the midst of a pandemic – the party has moved climate action to the very centre of the Coalition’s priorities and committed the country to a radical scheme of decarbonisation that could only have been dreamed of by the party when it was in opposition.”1

The island of Ireland could lead in other important ways too. I listened last month to a debate held under the auspices of the John and Pat Hume Foundation on ‘How the island of Ireland can best contribute to COP26?’ A lot of it was about how more sustainable farming and food production could help bring Ireland’s farmers on board as partners in the battle against global warming, rather than as reactionary defenders of the size of the national herd. This was something that was largely absent from the public debate following the publication of the Climate Action Plan.

The distinguished public service leader, Tom Arnold – chair of the Irish Government’s 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee and a former Concern Worldwide chief executive and chief economist at the Department of Agriculture and Food – told the Hume Foundation colloquium that climate-driven common challenges and changed policy contexts in the European Union, the UK and Ireland, North and South, “provide a compelling case for cooperation in agro-environmental policy to be brought to a different scale than ever before.” North-South supply chains and ownership structures mean that agri-food is already the largest cross-border trading sector on the island of Ireland.

Arnold says it is remarkable that the key policy documents on agriculture, food production and climate change in all four jurisdictions are now so extraordinarily aligned. The core objective of his committee’s recent policy document – Food Vision 2030: A World Leader in Sustainable Food Systems – is the achievement of “a carbon neutral food system by 2050, with verifiable progress by 2030, encompassing emissions, water quality and biodiversity.” This is now official government policy.

He quotes John Bell, the Dubliner who is director of the Healthy Planet unit in the EU’s DG Research and Innovation, who said last year that the €1.8 trillion European Green Deal (EGD) represented a huge opportunity for Ireland, North and South. Noting that the EGD would be “the motor and the compass” of the European Union’s economic recovery after Covid-19, with the aim of becoming the first continent to be carbon-neutral by 2050, Bell forecast that Ireland would be among the leaders in European non-meat production and the restoration of peat bogs. The EU’s companion €9 billion Horizon Research and Innovation programme has five ‘moonshot missions’: preparing Europe for climate disruptions such as extreme weather and sea-level rise; restoring oceans and water systems; tackling cancer; building 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030; and restoring 75% of European soils and land. By placing the island at the centre of this research programme, Ireland could become “the green heart of the Green Deal,” said Bell.

Closer to home, Arnold says the Irish Food Vision 2030 strategy and the Northern Ireland Executive’s Green Growth strategy both reflect the reality that the agri-food sectors in both parts of the island are under increasing societal pressure to demonstrate their contribution to ambitious national efforts to combat climate change. “The sectors need to adhere to short-term measures to tackle existing problems of water and air quality and loss of biodiversity, within a longer-term vision of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing carbon sequestration and on-farm renewable energy,” he says. He suggests that to the three ‘strands’ of the Good Friday Agreement should be added a climate-conscious fourth strand to provide “a link between tackling certain problems on an all-island basis – reducing emissions, improving soil health – and the major EU policies such as the European Green Deal.”

“Delivering on such measures can be the basis for a new shared vision between the agri-food sector and environmentalists which recognises their commonality of interests, changes the negative narrative that has developed between them in recent years and provides a basis to agree a common future agenda. That agenda should envisage farmers and the sector as being first responders in the climate emergency, ecosystem service providers, producing high quality food, capturing carbon and supporting biodiversity. In the post-Covid world, there needs to be a serious re-evaluation of the role that the agri-food and health sectors play in society,” he adds.

John Gilliland, a former president of the Ulster Farmers Union and chair of the Expert Northern Ireland Working Group on Land Management, was the first farmer in Europe to set up a combined heat and power project to process wood from his 110 acre willow farm outside Derry. At the Hume Foundation event he praised Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots (let us Southerners suspend our prejudices for a moment!) – a farmer himself – for “a leap of leadership” in announcing a scheme to measure the carbon sequestration in the soil, hedges and trees on all Northern farms every five years. “How can we make the Green agenda relevant to the around 150,000 farmers on this island? One thing we can do is to measure our carbon stocks every five years and see if we’ve made a positive or negative change to that agenda, ” suggested Gilliland.

Gilliland is also Director of Global Agriculture and Sustainability with Devenish, the Belfast-based agri-technology multinational, which uses science to achieve the most effective utilisation of nutrients in food production. He said that at their model farm at Dowth, Co Meath, Devenish had reduced greenhouse gas emissions in beef and lamb production by 26% in one year. He said the research-based innovation happening on ‘lighthouse’ farms like that at Dowth “empowers farmers to make their economics more resilient and delivers environmental goods at the same time.”

He said that in Scotland they had created a Just Transition Commission, which had “gone a long way to alleviate the concerns about building up a rural-urban split which is in danger of building here too. Rural people and farming families need to be comforted that they won’t be steamrollered; that there is a just process going on; that there is good science, and we need to reduce the emotion and get on with ensuring behavioural change.”

Gilliland and Arnold both believe that if the proper incentives are put in place farmers will play their part in the fight against global warming, innovating as they see the benefits of emission reductions. “We don’t want to leave our farms to our children and grandchildren in worse shape than we inherited them,” says Gilliland. “I realised after four wet harvests that my farm had to change because the weather is changing. What I’ve learned is solutions that I and other practising farmers can implement. I have a duty to reduce the negative legacy that my generation is leaving to the next generation.”

It is right that there should be sticks as well as carrots here. The professor emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin, Alan Matthews, warns that “current levels of [farm] output are associated with unprecedented biodiversity loss, deteriorating water quality and levels of ammonia emissions that exceed legal limits. Failure to address these issues will lead to restrictions on output as happened in the Netherlands and New Zealand, where warning signals were ignored. There is a cost to inaction. Ireland already fails to meet its EU climate targets and will continue to do so if agricultural emissions are not reduced.”2

I know little or nothing about farming. But I do believe strongly that greater North-South cooperation on this island – between farmers, processors and retailers – can only produce good results: both in providing high quality food and in slowing climate change. When I sit in my Dublin home eating Linwoods flaxseed (milled in County Armagh) for my breakfast and Ditty’s Irish oatcakes (baked in County Derry/Londonderry) for my tea – both produced to the highest environmental and health standards – I am happy in the knowledge that these small examples of all-island sustainable food production are the shape of the climate-conscious future.

1 ‘If plan is implemented in full it will be on a par with Lemass’s 1960s opening up’, Irish Times, 5 November

2 ‘Farmers need the right incentives to reduce emissions, Irish Times, 1 November

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | Leave a comment