Why I am an (Irish) Unitarian

This is a slightly edited version of an address I gave in the St Stephen’s Green Unitarian Church, Dublin, on 30th April.

I’m going to talk today about why I am a Unitarian. But I am going to start with something about my family background, which is a bit unusual for a Dublin resident. My background on my father’s side is full of ambiguity. My father, whom I loved and admired greatly, although he was often an unhappy person, was born a German-speaking Jew (of Polish extraction) is that part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire which was soon to become the independent republic of Czechoslovakia. As a young man, like so many idealistic young Central Europeans of his background, he became a Communist and fought and was badly wounded in the Spanish Civil War. He then lived a wandering existence – complete with false names, false papers, constant danger and finally imprisonment – in France, the Balkans and India. He returned to Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, worked as a journalist, met and married my mother, an adventurous young Presbyterian woman from County Antrim, who was teaching in Prague, before falling foul of his erstwhile comrades soon after the Communists took over the country in 1948. His sin was his continuing and passionate belief in freedom of expression as a cornerstone of any civilised and humane society. He was forced to flee with my mother, and me inside her, back to Northern Ireland.

My father died relatively young in the late 1970s, after spending large parts of the rest of his life suffering from physical and psychiatric illness. He has left me with an enduring belief in democratic socialism as the most humane – if not, up to now, the most economically effective – means of governing human society; an empathy with victims of injustice; and a huge admiration for the courage of those who take difficult and dangerous moral stands.

If my father was born to insecurity and rootlessness, I had the great privilege to be born into a family of solid, God-fearing, fair-minded Northern Presbyterians. I sometimes say, only half-jokingly, that the best and luckiest thing that ever happened to me was the near-accident of my birth in Ireland. Or when I’m not feeling so kind about my Ballymena birthplace, I put it differently. I say I was conceived in Prague and born in Ballymena – a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But actually that is not true. The privilege of my Irish birthplace – you’ll notice that privilege is a word that crops up a lot in this talk – has given me a deep security, rooted in a lifelong love of a place and its people that was never allowed to my father. It has put me in what I believe is the privileged position of being both an insider and an outsider in this country: an insider because of my birth, my residence, my family, my choice to try to live as an active and committed citizen of this Republic; an outsider because of my name, my accent, my religion, and my role as a journalist for the first part of my working career, and a developer of cross-border cooperation between the Republic and Northern Ireland for the second part.

And then there is my Unitarian aspect. I am no theologian, so maybe the rather diffuse and often ill-defined theology of Unitarianism suits me. I am a Unitarian and a Christian for the simple reason that these two sets of belief help me, a child of the latter half of the 20th century and a slightly bewildered citizen of the first half of the 21st, in my search for some deeper spiritual meaning amid the increasing complexity, superficiality and injustice of so much of contemporary life. That deeper spiritual meaning has been personified and taught by holy and heroic people since the beginning of time through the concept of a God who creates all things. I believe in that great, beautiful, although incomprehensible coherence in the universe – therefore I think I must believe in God.

Like most Unitarians, I believe in Jesus Christ as one of those inspirational, God-given figures in human history – by far the greatest one in my culture – rather than as the ‘son of God’. Therefore, like most Unitarians, I hold to the belief in Christ as a great and godly man whose teachings are to be followed, rather than one element in the trinitarian Godhead to be worshipped. Christ is a divinely inspired exemplar and inspiration. Had I been born in another culture it might have been Mohammed or the Buddha. From this comes the Unitarian emphasis on tolerance – all systems of belief in a God who preaches love and justice as the highest goods on this earth are worthy of equal respect and reverence.

I am conscious that I haven’t taken Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ and am therefore in danger of becoming trapped in the temptation of my time, the perpetual search. To quote the Irish Catholic theologian Micheal Paul Gallagher: “In this century [he means the 20th century], we seem to know so much that we can decide with confidence about so little – hence our frequent vagueness about concrete truth and concrete commitments. It can seem more honest to remain in a threshold stance, wondering but waiting.”

One thing I do know, however. Whatever the form of the search, I believe this search for some more unselfish, loving, Christian – in its broadest sense – way of life on this earth is essential to human survival and sanity. Tim Winton, the brilliant Australian – and Christian – novelist puts it like this: “At the end of the day the only definition of any importance for me is love and justice. If it doesn’t fit into that, I’m not interested. People are capable of amazing things. I don’t see people as irredeemably corrupt or doomed to viciousness. Not even the great 20th century cul-de-sac of Marxism could make me think that there isn’t any point in people trying to share wealth and power and demand justice in personal and legislative ways.”

When I look around at the contemporary world – the huge inequalities, the unending suffering of poor people in war-torn countries in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa, the refusal to face up to potentially catastrophic climate change, the deep dishonesty and megalomania of so many political leaders – I am often tempted to give up on any belief in a benevolent deity. During the pandemic I re-read the great French existentialist novelist Albert Camus’s classic The Plague. One of his themes is the nobility of “common decency” that doctors, nurses, health, sanitary, retail and other workers show in terrible times like those. It’s a kind of ‘common person’s heroism’ although Camus (who was himself a hero of the French resistance during the Second World War) did not believe in heroism. The ‘heroes’ of this classic novel are ordinary people, full of doubt, trying to do their best against overwhelming odds: Rambert, a journalist who gives up his plan to escape the plague locked-down town to re-join his wife in order to join one of the sanitary teams; Grand, an awkward, low-level but big-hearted municipal clerk who is secretly trying – and failing – to finish a novel; and Doctor Rieux, utterly exhausted and near despairing, who tells his priest friend Paneloux after they both witness the horrific death of a small child (Paneloux has urged him to “love what we cannot understand”, i.e. God): “No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

Camus, who witnessed all sorts of horrors, continued to believe that deep down most people were good. He believed that to single out heroism for particular praise implied that “such actions stand out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule”. The narrator in The Plague [i.e. Camus] does not share that view. “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding [I think he is talking about Communism here]. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.” I’m not quite sure what he’s saying in this last phrase. It may be something to do with Camus’s ‘existentialism’: his belief that no religious or political dogma can be allowed to stand in the way of the requirement for all human beings clear-sightedly to make their own moral decisions in a turbulent and godless world.

I find that as a left-of-centre person, I fit well into the freethinking, tolerant group of people who make up the Dublin Unitarian congregation. I like the identification with liberal Presbyterians and Unitarians – people like Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken, William Drennan, Archibald Hamilton Rowan and Samuel Neilson – who were prominent in the United Irishmen’s struggle for an independent, democratic Irish republic. I recommend the excellent book by my fellow church attender and former senior trade unionist, Fergus Whelan, on 18th century Dublin Unitarianism and revolution, Dissent into Treason.

I have also found Unitarianism’s idea of ‘progressive revelation’ a helpful one in my personal search for the strength to make moral and spiritual decisions in my life. To quote the long-serving early 20th century minister of this church, Ernest Savell Hicks: “Liberal thinkers in religion are not self-conceited enough to believe that they have arrived at final and ultimate truth in any department of life. They believe in a continuous and progressive revelation, and in a continuous and progressive aptitude – a sharpening of our spiritual wits, if one may be allowed the expression – whereby the soul and mind gradually become more delicately adjusted to receive the messages of God.”

I like that. I hope my spiritual wits are still sharp enough to receive messages both from my fellow human beings and from God, if he or she exists. If they’re not, then I’m not much use either as a journalistic observer of society – which I still am in many ways – or as a human being.

Posted in General, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments

Irish media’s poor coverage of Northern Ireland not helping understanding in the Republic

Earlier this week I addressed the Belfast dialogue group Compass Points on the coverage of Northern Ireland by the media in the Republic. This is a slightly edited version of my remarks.

The first thing I should say is that what follows are the views of a former Irish Times journalist, a man in his seventies; a long-time resident of Dublin (although born in County Antrim), who was a Northern Ireland reporter for the BBC and that newspaper in the late 1970s and 1980s; who went back to Belfast in the early 1990s as coordinator of the independent Opsahl Commission, and from 1999-2013 set up and ran the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. So mine is a particular and maybe outdated view, and probably one not informed enough by contemporary social and online media. But for what it’s worth, here it is.

The key thing to understand about the Southern media’s coverage of the North is that it is serving a constituency which is largely uninterested in and indifferent to Northern Ireland. The former Director-General of RTE, Bob Collins (who also knows the North well as a former chief commissioner of the NI Equality Commission), used to say that there was interest in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when the main evening news bulletin carried graphic daily footage of killings and bombings in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere, but since the Northern violence largely finished at the end of the 1990s, that interest declined and eventually all but disappeared. That is still the situation today.

I always say that in more than 50 years of living off and on in Dublin, I can’t recall a single well-informed conversation with the journalists, academics, teachers, civil servants, cultural and voluntary sector workers who make up my friendship group about what reunification with the difficult and divided North might mean for the politics, economics and culture of the complacent – and in recent years rather successful – society that is the Republic of Ireland. And all these people are avid newspaper readers and TV news and current affairs watchers.

I’m going to focus today on the two media outlets I know best, the Irish Times and RTE. Perusing the other two main national dailies, the Irish Independent and the Irish Examiner, in recent weeks in preparation for this talk, I found almost nothing about Northern Ireland. The Sunday Independent is unusual (apart from its anti-Sinn Fein tone): because of the joint ownership of that paper and the Belfast Telegraph, it carries a weekly column from the excellent Northern journalist Sam McBride.

The Irish Times and RTE do each keep two full-time journalists in Belfast (all, incidentally, from a nationalist background). These are good journalists and I have no criticism of them when it comes to reporting the politics – and it is overwhelmingly the politics they report – of Northern Ireland. I should also say that the coverage of Brexit and its impact on Ireland, North and South, by RTE’s Brussels correspondent Tony Connelly (a Northerner), has been world class. Both the Irish Times and RTE also cover the North’s elections well (although I rely on BBC NI for the granular detail) .

What I am critical of is two things: firstly, there are few if any articles or broadcasts on all the other elements that make up a living, functioning society: the economy and business, health, education, the environment, culture and the arts, local government, community development, the lives of ordinary people, and so on. It is almost as though Northern Ireland isn’t a real society, which significant numbers of Southerners (and not only republicans) probably think anyway. The region is largely seen through the narrow prism of its sectarian politics, and in particular the antics of its two big beasts, the DUP and Sinn Fein. Occasionally the Irish Times carries pieces about past atrocities, most of them at the hands of the security forces.

Secondly, there is little serious analysis and explanation of what is happening in the strange place that is the North. [I should add here that Northern Ireland really is ‘strange’ – i.e. foreign – to most people in the South: a recent tourism survey showed that 50% of the population of the Republic – two and a half million people – had never ever visited the North]. As somebody who is genuinely interested in Northern affairs of all kinds, I have to rely on some of the excellent journalists there are in Belfast for the deeper coverage and analysis that is otherwise lacking: people like Sam McBride, Suzanne Breen, Alex Kane and Allison Morris.

I’m showing my age now, but this is a far cry from when I was in the Irish Times Belfast office in the 1980s. Then – under brilliant Northern editors like David McKittrick and Ed Moloney (and Conor O’Clery before them) – Ireland’s ‘paper of record’ led the world on the big breaking stories: the IRA’s various spectacular atrocities, the Maze Prison hunger strike, the Kincora Boys Home scandal, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and so on. We had a ‘Northern Notebook’ every Saturday to analyse the week’s events; and an ‘Inside Belfast’ column every Tuesday to write about subjects other than politics and violence. Until shortly before I arrived there had even been a Northern business editor to cover the economy (economic stories are now left largely to the Press Association news agency). I have a vivid memory of Belfast Telegraph reporters hanging around our office in Great Victoria Street, waiting for the latest instalment in the Kincora Boys Home saga.

Upstairs in the RTE office, there was a similar deep seriousness about the coverage of Northern Ireland, with superb journalists like Tommie Gorman, Cathal Mac Coille and Póilín Ní Chiaráin. We all knew that our editors and bosses – men like Douglas Gageby, Conor Brady and Bob Collins – believed fervently that Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’ was an enormously important story which their readers, viewers and listeners absolutely had to pay attention to.

The former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, as a young politician in the 1960s, used to urge RTE to include more unionists in its discussion programmes. That is still not happening except in the most tokenistic way. We don’t understand the North (and particularly the unionist North) because – other than the obvious political leaders – we don’t hear from Northerners. For example, I think I have heard Alliance leader Naomi Long once on RTE in the past 12 months, and have yet to read a decent interview with or profile of her in any Southern paper. I can’t remember the last time I heard a broadcast or read an article about a Northern business or trade union or farmers’ or women’s movement leader. A recent profile of new GAA president Jarlath Burns as a pioneering school principal in south Armagh was only commissioned by the Irish Times after I suggested it.

Of course, in the final three decades of the last century Northern Ireland was often a news-leading world story, as well as a vital Irish one. Today the North’s interminable deadlock is simply boring, and there is no major violence to shock the media-consuming public. Now, with newspapers in particular being under constant threat from social media, much of what serves as analysis and debate is a kind of culture war where an individual commentator’s beliefs – ‘echo chamber’ style – trump the good journalist’s search for truth through gathering facts and evidence. Even I, a lifelong newspaper man, find myself perusing the Slugger O’Toole website (with its multitude of rubbishy ‘threads’, interspersed with some thought-provoking ones) nearly as often as I check with the Irish Times and RTE.

Why would anyone read the Irish Times to find out what is going on in Northern Ireland in any depth these days? Somebody like me, with a continuing deep interest in the place, can get a subscription to the online edition of the Belfast Telegraph to keep up with events there. This is particularly the case when I want to know what is happening in the unionist and loyalist communities, which remain terra incognita to both the Southern media and the people they are supposed to serve.

Unfortunately this leads to an uniformed and indifferent public in the South remaining uninformed and indifferent. Last month the editor of the News Letter, Ben Lowry, unapologetically told a Dublin audience that his pro-unionist paper had scant interest in events south of the border. If they were being honest, the editors of the three national papers in the South would be admitting the same thing: they are nationalist papers serving a readership with little or no interest in the North.

At least the the Irish Times has a weekly opinion columnist with a unionist bent. However, as a relatively knowledgeable Northerner, I often find Newton Emerson’s columns very unsatisfactory. As a satirist-turned-commentator, he doesn’t appear to understand the basic journalistic requirement to back up his statements by referring to confirmatory sources. Thus a good journalist will cite a “government source” or a “source close to Politician A or government department B” when making a claim. Emerson never quotes or cites anyone. As a result I never know whether I am reading something that is actually happening in Northern Ireland or only something that is happening in Emerson’s brain. Once again, it is a very far cry from the columns of the peerless Mary Holland, occasionally flanked by Vincent Browne or Nuala O’Faolain, that I used to rely on in the 1980s and 1990s.

Rory Montgomery, the former top Irish civil servant who was a key player in both the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and the diplomatic manoeuvring following the Brexit disaster, shares my unhappiness with the mixture of delusional thinking and sheer apathy that passes for opinion about Northern Ireland in the South. Agreeing with a recent blog of mine about Sinn Fein rewriting recent Irish history if and when they get into power in the Republic, he wrote: “Far too many people in the South, and elsewhere, are susceptible to cynical republican mythologising. This is not incompatible with, and indeed is only possible, because of enormous levels of ignorance and indifference.” He finds that many members of the younger generation, which is “implacable in its excoriation of manifestations of racism and sexism (with no statute of limitations) seem not to care about, or at best to relativise, the greater sin of murder.” The Sinn Fein narrative of the Northern conflict as “a noble and justified struggle for human rights quietly advances,” writes another astute observer, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy.

All this means that the Southern electorate are extraordinarily ill-informed about the North (and particularly about unionism). The Irish Times did run an excellent series of opinion polls and focus groups on unity and related issues last December and January, which only served to show how little Southerners were prepared to change their comfortable society and traditional symbols in order to accommodate Northerners (and particularly large numbers of alienated and abandoned unionists). It is difficult to overstate how ill-prepared the Southern electorate is for the extremely difficult public debate that will have to start soon here about the huge changes that will be needed to bring about a peaceful and harmonious united Ireland. And the Southern media’s return (for the most part) to its pre-1969 indifference to Northern Ireland is not helping that debate one bit.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 5 Comments

Talking to a cosmopolitan, community-focussed nationalist who is full of good ideas

Conor Patterson emphasises that he is not a politician, political commentator or member of a political party – he is a businessman with a passion for community development in his home town of Newry, in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland.

To use an old-fashioned and probably politically incorrect phrase, he is a working class boy “made good”. Patterson’s father was a welder (sometimes with his own small company, but often unemployed), his mother a telephonist, originally from Dundalk. A bright boy, he passed the 11 Plus and went to the local Christian Brothers Abbey Grammar School. He says he owes a lot to his mother in particular. In the late 1970s the streets of Newry, with weekly rioting against the British Army, were an exciting and sometimes dangerous place for teenage boys. His mother was determined that her children should see a different world. When he was 17 she organised for the family to go on a camping holiday in Brittany. As far as their neighbours in the Barcroft estate were concerned, they “could have been going to Mongolia.”

In the following year, in the summer of the 1981 Maze Prison hunger strike, Patterson joined a group of friends on an archaeological dig in northern France. It was a “life changer” to be camping with young people of various nationalities and to have the sense of status that came with being an international volunteer. He went to Coventry Polytechnic to do a degree in planning and then to Trinity College Dublin for a masters in economics.

After a short period back in Coventry lecturing at the polytechnic (now a university), he joined Grampian Council in Aberdeen as a planner. This was the era of powerful regional councils in England and Scotland having wide-ranging responsibilities over social services, housing, roads, policing and economic development – the sort of functions that years later would be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. He was soon promoted to the key job of managing EU programmes for the council, in which he had an annual budget of £40 million. It was a formative experience that made him into an internationalist, a champion of European economic cooperation and integration.

Following the 1994 IRA ceasefire, he and his wife – also from Newry – decided they wanted to come home. He got a job running the South Armagh Area-Based Strategy, a new intervention to bring economic and social development to that marginalised and formerly violence-ridden district, which brought together 15 partners ranging from the local community association to government departments, district councils and the International Fund for Ireland. He says it was “an early introduction to the complexity of the public sector in Northern Ireland.”

In 1996 he was successful in his application for the post of chief executive of the Newry and Mourne Cooperative and Enterprise Agency (NMEA), which runs the WIN (‘Work in Newry’) business park, the first community-owned workspace project in Ireland. Over the past 27 years he has turned this into an extraordinary success story – although he is quick to pay tribute to the people in the NMEA who came before him, notably its first manager, Frank Dolaghan, its long-time chair, John McMahon and its current chair, Peter McEvoy. There are now 82 business units employing 500 people on its Newry site, and a further 400 employed at four enterprise centres in the Newry and Mourne area under its management. The most remarkable of these is probably at Flurrybridge, on the border in South Armagh, which now employs nearly 300 people and generates £12 million every year for the local economy. In largely unionist Kilkeel, Binnian business park is another successful centre.

It is difficult to over-estimate the transformation of Newry, in which the NMEA and its WIN business park have been key players. When the WIN site was purchased in 1975 with £60,000 collected from local people (including five pounds from Patterson’s mother), Newry, with an unemployment rate touching 30% and experiencing daily Troubles-related violence, was one of the most deprived towns in the UK. Now, with that rate dramatically down to 2%, it is one of the most dynamic towns in Ireland, with major companies in areas like veterinary pharmaceuticals, engineering, robotics and financial services, as well as being a hub for large British retailers setting up stores to cash in on its lucrative cross-border market.

The WIN model was adopted by the International Fund for Ireland to fund economic development partnerships in local council areas all over Northern Ireland. Patterson believes these council-led partnerships, directly involving the community and business sectors, but largely dismantled by the NI Executive in 2008, represented an important element in the upsurge of community involvement and local enterprise between the late 1980s and early 2000s, and thus a key grassroots development in the years of the peace process.

While running the NMEA, he completed a PhD on ‘the role of social capital in economic development in Northern Ireland’. One of his most interesting findings was that the areas where local economic development was a significant ‘change factor’ were predominantly nationalist – where, for example, credit unions were a key feature. He remembers discussing this with Newry unionist MLA (and former NI Executive minister) Danny Kennedy, who told him Protestants were very private people, and that the idea of their peers discussing their business and deciding whether they were worthy of a loan, was ‘anathema’ to them.

Until 2016 Patterson was just an energetic local business leader with an interest in community development and mediation (he had worked closely with the late Brendan McAllister, founding director of Mediation NI).What politicised and radicalised him was Brexit. He remembers being roundly dismissed by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson on the BBC’s Nolan radio show a few days before that vote, when he said that a hard Irish border would be the inevitable outcome of a vote to leave the EU, with a devastating impact on border towns like Newry. He was Newry Chamber of Commerce’s representative on the Northern Ireland Remain campaign, and became that campaign’s border spokesperson. He believes Brexit radicalised many Catholic middle-class people like himself, pointing to how the South Down Westminster constituency, a much sought after place to live, had gone from being represented by Enoch Powell, succeeded by two SDLP MPs, to having a Sinn Fein majority. He is now the health spokesman for the nationalist lobby group, Ireland’s Future.

Asked to define his nationalism, Patterson uses the rather old-fashioned term “anti-partitionist”. “I believe partition has been bad for Ireland, north and south, and particularly bad for Newry. I’ve seen that myself, I’ve seen the frictions and disharmonies that have affected our ability to develop normal relationships within Northern Ireland and on this island”. He gives the examples of the local Daisy Hill hospital, often threatened with serious service reductions, which only has half a hinterland (and the brand-new hospital in Enniskillen, which cannot provide emergency medical surgery because it doesn’t have enough patients); and Dundalk Institute of Technology, which cannot be designated a Technological University in the Republic because it can’t reach the required student numbers (and has few students from the adjoining jurisdiction a few miles up the road).

He stresses that he is not a “cultural exceptionalist – I don’t think that people who identify as Irish or British or as another national or cultural group are exceptional just because they were born in a particular place. I respect people because they are fellow human beings grappling with life’s challenges.”

In a recent paper read to the Belfast dialogue group, Compass Points, Patterson expanded on these reflections. “I want to end partition because I want to end the enforced separation of people living on this small island where there are no topographical barriers to separate one group from another…I want to end the constraining or the sheer preventing of collaborations in business and the delivery of services and collective working more generally, and the effect of that on personal and social patterns of behaviour.”

He advocates “a new 21st century framework of governance with subsidiarity as its guiding principle, in which decision-making is devolved as close to citizens as possible. This would be a model which envisages multiple tiers of sovereignty, one overlaying another, from the community level up through local government, to regional structures and national competences, through to the international collaborative structures which will have an increasing role to play – in disease management, protection from economic exploitation, climate change, ecosystem protection and resource renewal.

“In this model sovereignties would be layered across the island, unencumbered by an externally imposed, sub-optimal partition boundary, because so doing would bring measurable benefits to people here. This model would also mean that, where it made sense, the sovereignty for some functions or resources would be shared with parts of or all of Britain and others internationally…This would be a multilateral model. There would be a west/east dimension, and there would, for practical, administrative reasons, be a continuing Northern Ireland region dimension.

“But there will have to be a much more significant north-south level of governance, because it makes sense for business and for the delivery of public services. Failing to do that in the last 100 years has stymied the economy of the six counties that make up this region. It has made the public sector bigger by far than it should be – because this tiny jurisdiction has had to retain all the paraphernalia of a state rather than a regional tier of government – and it has made the private sector weaker and smaller than it should be (and that has stymied innovation). The effect is that the productivity of the region is carried on the shoulders of a smaller number of wealth creators per capita than elsewhere in Ireland or Britain.

“The future I want to look to is one in which a constraining border has been removed and there is a new collaborative settlement between peoples, traditions and cultures. I say to those who define themselves as British that this model doesn’t envisage an end to links with Britain. I wouldn’t suppress your Britishness. It envisages communities of common purpose not just spanning this island but also spanning the Irish Sea, including at the sub-regional level, for example between Antrim and Dumfries and Galloway, between Newry and Mourne and the area of Lancashire around Heysham (linked by shipping services with the port of Warrenpoint), between Dun Laoghaire and Anglesey, and so on.

“More fundamentally, I want to ask those who are uneasy about change in the role culture plays in society, and any perceived dilution of British culture in Ireland, to think instead about change in the world of technology and business, change in how young people interact with the world, change in the natural world (climate change, loss of species and habitats), change in lifestyle expectations, change in what is demanded of public services, change in how humans communicate, in how we secure and process information, change in how we move between places across this globe.

“Think about these things in the context of this island, these islands, this region of the world. Is it realistic or ethical – might it even be counter-productive – to ignore these strong and powerful change currents? Might it be better to seek to understand the direction in which those currents are flowing, how they interact and how they might affect the wider ecosystem in which we live – rather than try to stop the tide?

“Consider the integration of business on this island to maximise its international competitiveness – do you want to halt that? Consider the interactions between people on this island for whom those interactions make sense – whether it is working or socialising or sport or shopping – do you want to increase the frictions to make those more difficult? What about the ability of people to access effectively public services closest to them and best suited to their needs (for example in healthcare or education) – do you want to make that easier or more difficult?”

Patterson advocates a “utilitarian approach – i.e. the configuration which maximises the benefits for society and the natural environment which hosts our society.” He believes that strong cultures, like the British and Jewish cultures, for example, can thrive irrespective of (or beyond) national boundaries. He asks if isolation, nay-saying and denial are the best ways to ensure that British culture thrives on the island of Ireland.

He believes the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement can be built upon to develop a multiplicity of other strands, and that different local areas in Northern Ireland can have different ‘flavours’ (with protections for minorities built in) depending on their cultural Britishness or Irishness. “My proposition is to vest the bulk of meaningful power in the structures of local government and local civil society institutions. In Switzerland most power is in the hands of the cantons and municipalities. Three, arguably four, different cultural and language groupings live together in peace and harmony in that country because a framework enables it. We tried to do this in a meaningful way here up to 2008 through District and then Local Strategy Partnerships. I contend that those structures played a significant part in embedding the peace and building the transformation. I believe their work threatened interests which were invested in maintaining the status quo, dysfunctional and damaging though it had been, and that’s why the local partnerships were closed down. For me, it is not coincidental that when the ability to shape local change was taken out of the hands of citizens, that’s when progress slowed down, stuttered and eventually stopped.”

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

A wise, insightful examination of the perils and possibilities of Irish unity

If readers of this blog are looking for a book to read on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I strongly recommend Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland, by my friend Padraig O’Malley, the distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts. If anyone deserves such a grandiose title, it is Dublin-born O’Malley. Not content with producing a raft of books on conflicts and peace processes in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Iraq, he has also been centrally involved in the actual business of peacemaking in those divided countries.

Space only allows a few highlights of his long and varied career as a peacemaker. In 1985 he gathered the protagonists in Northern Ireland for a major conference at Airlie House in Virginia. In 1992-1993 he provided much of the intellectual heft behind the Opsahl Commission’s ‘citizens inquiry’ on ways forward for the deadlocked North (which I coordinated). In 1997 he brought the NI parties painfully negotiating what would become the Good Friday Agreement to South Africa to meet President Nelson Mandela and other key players in bringing about the end of apartheid. And in 2008 he took 15 warring Sunni and Shia groups from Iraq to Helsinki to meet key leaders of the Irish peace process, including Martin McGuinness and former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari.

His 1983 book, The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today, is in my view the best account of the first and most violent decade of the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. It is one of two books I recommend to people on the Northern imbroglio, the other being Say Nothing by the American writer, Patrick Radden Keefe – in my humble opinion one of the finest journalists writing in the English-speaking world today – who has penned an endorsement on the front cover of O’Malley’s latest book.

This new book is based largely on around 100 interviews with leading members of Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, the UDA, the UVF, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, the British and Irish civil service, along with leading academics, journalists, psychologists and civil society activists.

It is so rich in insights it is difficult to know where to begin. O’Malley – who among all the analysts of our thorny ‘national question’ is the one who goes out of his way to understand the unionist viewpoint – nevertheless expects to see a border poll by 2032. “This scenario is based on the assumption that Sinn Fein is in government in the South after 2025; that on taking office it immediately calls a Citizens Assembly and the preparatory work takes a minimum of five years; that the [NI] Executive and Assembly remain operative for two election cycles; that the Alliance Party is brought on board following Assembly elections in 2027; that a new Assembly a few years into its term requests the Secretary of State to call a referendum and he or she responds. If all goes as predicted, this will set a referendum date sometime in 2032 – two to three years after the request for one – and, in the event of a vote for reunification, an elaborate and intricate process would thereafter begin, potentially lasting 10 to 15 years, phasing in the transfer of sovereignty and the final pieces of a united Ireland in 2042-47.”

But O’Malley emphasises that everyone uses the word ‘fragile’ to describe this process – “it is easily shattered or broken.” He believes “it is hard to envisage a scenario that would not elicit an angry and hostile unionist reaction once an Irish government takes up the cudgels of unification…All roads to the future are strewn with highly combustible, unknown obstacles.” Warning that seven year border polls are a prescription for instability, he urges the Secretary of State to make it clear that “opinion polls on unity will not be a criterion unless it emerges that they provide unequivocal support for unity, including a significant element in the unionist community, over a sustained period.”

Attitudes in the complacent present-day Republic will be key. “In my view the South isn’t prepared for what Northern Ireland being reunited with the rest of Ireland is going to mean”, says the former head of the NI Community Relations Council (and former Alliance Party chair) Duncan Morrow. He gives the example of “conversations around symbolic issues” [flag, anthem, Commonwealth membership] which he says will be “brutal, difficult, endless and emotive, as they have been for 20 years in Northern Ireland.”

The former unionist Seanad member, Ian Marshall, tells an instructive story about symbols. He said to a couple of republicans: “Look, guys, if you’re serious with this, then if I went and bought a house in Cork and I wanted to put a flagpole up in the rebel county and I wanted to fly a British flag because I still have British identity, would you be comfortable with that? They said: ‘That can never happen, Ian.”

A major problem will be the rise and rise of Sinn Fein. “There is near-unanimity among interviewees that Sinn Fein in government in the South would be a major obstacle to a united Ireland”, says O’Malley. He quotes a range of people of different views on this. The Dublin TD Jim O’Callaghan, who has ambitions to lead Fianna Fail, says “one of the biggest obstacles to unification is the campaign of violence that was carried out by the Provisional IRA…It’s a deciding factor for a lot of unionist people in Northern Ireland who will not engage rationally with the topic [because of what] happened in the past.”

Sinn Fein is still seen as the political wing of the IRA, says Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie. “They still condone and celebrate the murders of the IRA over many years, some of the most heinous crimes imaginable: burning people to death, strapping people to bombs, blowing people up as they attend charity events. There’s a psyche in unionists who will just not give ground to the likes of Sinn Fein. If Sinn Fein became the largest [party in the] government in the Irish Republic, and they are the government, they will be viewed as a hostile government.” With Sinn Fein in government north and south, he believes “the whole balance of the Good Friday Agreement will come unstuck.”

The SDLP MP for South Belfast, Claire Hanna, says: “Sinn Fein’s narrative is that it was appropriate to bomb and kill to get a united Ireland. While that odour is in the air, you can understand people being uncomfortable about moving towards such a united Ireland. Unfortunately the IRA have made a lot of people associate Irish unity and the Irish Republic with death.”

Former SDLP power-sharing minister Alex Attwood fears that “there are people within Sinn Fein whose strategy is to again overwhelm unionism, demoralize them, and thus get Irish unity over the line. And then you’re going to have this hostile conversation, and God knows where hostile conversations go in this part of the world.”

What comes across strongly in his interviews, says O’Malley, is that the present Irish government “would want to see a working Northern Ireland before asking its electorate to partake in a referendum on unification.” That would all change under a Sinn Fein-led government, of course. But that party faces a conundrum. “It is not in its interest to see Northern Ireland working too well, because if too many cultural Catholics are comfortable living there, they might vote for the status quo in a referendum; at the same time, Sinn Fein has to show the electorate in the South that it can govern.”

The Alliance Party agrees with the Irish government. The author frequently quotes its leader Naomi Long on the necessary way forward. “We need all parts of the Good Friday Agreement to be functioning and we need stable government in place, and that is part of the conditions set for a poll on a united Ireland. If we can do that for a sustained period of time successfully, then we are much more likely to be resilient enough to be able to sustain in a peaceful and lawful manner the run-up to any kind of border poll, which will in itself be divisive and contentious. If you layered that on an already volatile political situation, it could be very dangerous.” If the people of Northern Ireland are unable to work together using the structures of the Good Friday Agreement, she goes on, “it is hard to say how we could then as a society actually take a rational and logical look at our long-term future on this island.” She adds that there should be a decisive majority in favour of unity in that poll, and voters should know precisely what a united Ireland entails.

One of the book’s most intriguing sections is O’Malley’s finding that the “across the board” view among those interviewees who ventured an opinion (including from Sinn Fein, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) was that the Stormont Executive and Assembly should stay as part of any future constitutional dispensation, either as an interim stop on the road to unification or as part of the final destination. He believes that the institutions and ‘strands’ of the Good Friday Agreement (internal power-sharing, and North-South and East-West institutions) “would still have legal force following a referendum in favour of Irish unity.” He quotes Irish High Court judge Richard Humphreys, who has written several thoughtful books on moves towards unity: “Any ultimate realignment of sovereignty within an all-island framework would happen slowly, naturally and almost imperceptibly over a period of time with a stable constitutional context where the rights and identities of all were protected. There would be no jagged or unnatural discontinuities.”

This might seem unrealistically over-optimistic, but another wise northerner, Francis Campbell, Tony Blair’s former private secretary and British ambassador to the Vatican, agrees. “If you have a situation where what’s on offer in a referendum choice is the continuation of Stormont, all the checks and balances of the Belfast Agreement and very limited reserved powers at a federal all-Ireland basis, then in my view that is a lot less intimidating to some people than perhaps their worst fears about being absorbed into a system where there’s no check and balances.” Bertie Ahern is another who foresees Stormont continuing.

Perhaps surprisingly, former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson seems amenable to discussion on this fraught issue. He emphasises the importance of an agreed process. “If the result was to go in the direction of a united Ireland, you will have a long period [between the poll result and the implementation of the outcome], because if the disruption from Brexit was as polarizing as it was, you can imagine how much more polarized in Northern Ireland, and the consequences of that polarization…Going from one nation to another. That’d be absolutely massive. The amount of negotiation that would have to take place to transfer education, health, all the work of departments. Absolutely massive.”

Even more amazingly, Jeffrey Donaldson is open to this discussion too. “We’re not planning for constitutional change, but my view is that the three sets of relationships endure whatever the outcome of any future border poll, and therefore giving institutional expression to those relationships is necessary, whatever the future constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland.”

Another revealing, although unsurprising, part of the book deals with the current plight of the unionist and loyalist communities. In their own words, says O’Malley, unionism is “unsettled’, ‘has done a poor job at safeguarding the union’, ‘is in decline’, ‘is living in denial’, ‘cannot speak with a collective voice’, ‘needs to talk to itself’ and ‘is always seeing enemies’; ‘its problem is with itself’, ‘its back against the wall’, it is unsure of its place in the United Kingdom.” “Many interviewees said that political unionism is ‘dead’, in the sense of being unable to adapt to changing circumstances.”

“I can think of no period over my fifty years in politics where unionists have felt more alienated than they are now,” says Peter Robinson. They feel “pilloried for not meeting each of the ongoing, incessant and unending demands from republicans to erase everything British and indulge everything Irish…[they] speculate that the laws which will apply here will, in the greater part, be made not in Stormont or at Westminster, but in a Dublin-influenced European Union, without a single elected representative from Northern Ireland having a vote.”

The prominent Belfast priest, Father Tom Bartlett, sees a striking contrast between “incredibly self-confident” young republicans and young loyalists who were once characterised by religious hatred but whose narrative these days is one of “betrayal, risk, threat and insecurity.”

The author repeats the conclusion from his 1983 book, The Uncivil Wars, that Protestant fears then of being incorporated against their will into an economically backward, Catholic Church-dominated all-Ireland republic – despite the fact that those elements of an earlier age have now almost completely disappeared – are “genetically encoded – a mechanism, like anxiety, necessary for the survival of the species…the inner fear of extinction that lies deep within the Protestant psyche.”

There are a very few people south of the border who recognise or try to understand this. Fianna Fail Senator Mark Daly says many submissions to his Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement “referenced a fear of a united Ireland being that of triumphant nationalism. This fear is not without foundation, and that is why we in the South must change not only our vision of a united Ireland but also how we speak about it. Language was a key component of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and it remains a key component of the peace process. With hard work, we must move from the language of the past such as a ‘united Ireland’ and all the dread and fear which it creates in the minds of our unionist friends and neighbours. We must instead change to the language of the need to protect the peace process, build a vision for a shared island and a united people in a New Agreed Ireland.” But to unionists does this only smack of duplicitous language aimed at reaching the same age-old nationalist goal – political unity?

Are the people of the Republic ready to accommodate unionists’ passionate Britishness in a future ‘new Ireland’, so that it would “stand the test of parity of esteem with the Irish state’s pervasive Irishness?” asks O’Malley. He fears not, and I agree with him. However, he also wonders provocatively whether trying to accommodate Britishness in a united Ireland might be a “fool’s errand” if Britain, minus Scotland, might break up and lose its unifying identity in the foreseeable future.

Unionist paranoia about a united Ireland means that loyalist paramilitary violence is never far from the surface as we move towards that unity. The respected Shankill Road community worker, Jackie Redpath, warns that in the event of a border poll leading to unity “you either get out, suck it up or fight…It would be a recipe for disaster because such a fight, of course, will be bloody but it will be short. It would not be successful, and it would put a desperate shadow over the future in Ireland for another one hundred years.”

O’Malley is scathing about Southern attitudes to the North, and the unthinking belief there that Northern Ireland can be incorporated into an all-Ireland republic without too much difficulty or change. “The South is shockingly ignorant about life north of the border”, he says, and “breathtakingly short of magnanimity.” “The argument that if Northern Ireland cannot work (‘a failed political entity’, to use Charles Haughey’s phrase), the alternative is a united Ireland, brings false equivalence to a new level. It is a form of magical thinking to believe that an entity which fails in one political dispensation partly because one community (the nationalists) wants it to fail, can successfully be transferred into a new dispensation where another community (the unionists) works just as diligently to ensure it fails.”

However the British vote for Brexit – the decision of an electorate utterly indifferent to its impact on Ireland – has put the ‘united Ireland is now in sight’ option firmly on the political agenda. As that excellent analyst, Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, puts it: “The UK and the EU are on different trajectories; Northern Ireland is in the middle…It’s not a place that’s well able to cope with those tensions.” Those tensions have not been eased by the hard-line, anti-EU position taken by its largest unionist party, the DUP, whose strategic judgements have, in the words of Financial Times commentator Robert Shrimsley, been “among the most consistently witless in recent politics.” The DUP, says O’Malley, seems “genetically incapable of understanding the crucial importance to the survival of Ulster unionism of the ‘warm house’ policy [i.e. treating Catholics with full equality and respect] on key issues like recognition of the Irish language.”

Peter Robinson believes the economy (and those whose decisions are determined by the economy) is “the centre ground which will determine whether we have a united Ireland.” The former Alliance politician Will Glendinning says a vibrant northern economy is not possible until it “fully functions on an all-Ireland basis.” However the economists John Fitzgerald and Edgar Morgenroth warn that upgrading the North’s poor and divided (by class and religion) educational system to deliver comparable productivity and economic performance with the Republic will take up to 30 years.

There are very few comforting conclusions to this book, although it is packed with wise observations. If there is one thing O’Malley believes (and I, along with most knowledgeable Northern Ireland observers, agree with him on), it is that there is a need for a revamped Good Friday Agreement which will allow the middle ground – notably the fast-growing ‘neither’ community represented by the Alliance Party – to fully participate in its governance. Many of the most sensible things said in this fascinating survey of a ferociously complex issue are said by people associated with that party. It is surely time for a bit of common sense moderation to prevail in the squabbling ferret’s hole that passes for normality in Northern Ireland politics.

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 9 Comments

Are we afraid of talking about Ireland’s violent past and possibly violent future?

This is a blog about letters to the newspapers. I know it’s dangerous to generalise from the particular, and especially the particular of one’s own tiny experience. But I can’t help seeing a pattern in recent rejections of my letters to the Irish Times, and wondering whether it isn’t part of a general trend in attitudes to Ireland’s violent past and possibly violent future.

In the past two and a half years I have had three letters to that august organ rejected. In that time I calculate I have had 12 letters published (I admit I am a serial letter writer to that paper!) – on subjects ranging from the Opsahl Commission to legacy issues to bicycles on trains to young people’s ignorance of recent Irish history – so I am not at all paranoid about the attitude of the the Irish Times (a former employer of mine) to my views.

But I find it interesting that those three rejected letters all contained elements about two very sensitive subjects which people in this Republic rarely, if ever, want to talk about these days: the 30 year campaign of violence by the Provisional IRA and the possibility of future loyalist violence in the event of a narrow victory in a Border Poll for Irish unity. But first the letters:

In October 2020 I wrote a letter in support of then Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s Shared Island initiative. It included the following paragraph:

Sinn Fein’s push for a Border Poll so as to achieve the narrowest possible 50.1% vote for unity is madness, running the considerable risk of re-igniting the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. In its policy papers over the past 20 years that party has not outlined a single new idea about how, if and when that happens, we are going to cope with the 49.9% of Northerners who will remain stubbornly – and often bitterly – opposed to such an outcome.

That letter was not published.

In April 2022 I wrote a short letter in response to an article about collusion between the Ulster Defence Regiment and loyalist paramilitaries, asking why the writer had not mentioned the huge discrepancy between the numbers killed by the UDR and those killed by republican paramilitaries. This letter read:

‘UDR Collusion in Britain’s Dirty War’ was an interesting if partial article by Micheál Smith. One extraordinarily revealing fact was omitted: the Ulster Defence Regiment and its successor, the Royal Irish Regiment, killed just eight people in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ between 1970 and 1998, compared to the 2,002 people killed by the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA, the Real IRA and the INLA combined (figures taken from the authoritative ‘Lost Lives: the stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles’, by David McKittrick and colleagues).

This letter was not published.

Earlier this month I wrote a letter following Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald’s speech in Kerry about apologising for and forgiving atrocities committed in the Civil War. This letter read:

Mary Lou McDonald is to be congratulated on her speech at Ballyseedy urging the descendants of all sides in the Irish Civil War to apologise for atrocities committed in that conflict (‘All sides in Civil War need to apologise, says Sinn Fein leader’, March 6). 

But she is also guilty of hypocrisy. As leader of the former political wing of the Provisional IRA, she needs to apologise and ask forgiveness for the nearly 1,800 people killed by that organisation much more recently, in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles.’ The IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1,771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians.

Until she stands alongside the families of the victims of Bloody Friday in Belfast, Claudy, Kingsmills, La Mon, Teebane, Enniskillen and the Shankill Road and apologises to them, I for one will not be taking her talk of apology and forgiveness for those who died in our 100-year-old civil war too seriously.

This letter was not published.

I believe that as Sinn Fein move closer to power – and therefore respectability – it is becoming increasingly unfashionable to refer to its past as the political wing of a violent secret army. Up to 2020 a Dail session was hardly complete without a taunt from the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail benches to their Sinn Fein opposite numbers about their support for that violence. Those voices have become stilled in the past few years. Compare the furore over Waterford Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane being filmed singing ‘Ooh, Ah, Up the Ra!’ after the 2020 general election with the widespread belief, voiced by comedian Tommy Tiernan among many others, that such a song was “harmless” when it was sung last October by the Irish women’s soccer team. This change of tone has happened in a surprisingly short time: in fact, in the three years since Sinn Fein did so surprisingly well in that election and started to look like a prospective governing party.

It’s happening in Northern Ireland too. A young Belfast unionist friend (in her thirties) with friends in both communities tells me: “I think it’s become this thing where some people don’t want to talk about the past. It’s impolite to mention it. ‘What about the IRA?’ has become something you can’t say. People feel that if they bring it up they will be viewed as a hard-line unionist like Jim Allister.”

Maybe 26 years after the IRA’s last official killing – I am not including the beating to death of Robert McCartney, Paul Quinn and others by IRA members – it is inevitable that people will forget, and will want to forget, the horrors of the IRA campaign of 1970-1997. For a man in my seventies like me – a working journalist in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s and coordinator of the Opsahl Commission in the early 1990s – the memories of that murderous violence over three decades remain particularly vivid. It seems a very, very long time since constitutional politicians like John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Garret Fitzgerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien used to criticise IRA violence on a weekly basis.

Probably if I was a Dubliner in my twenties or thirties it would seem like ancient history, irrelevant to my concerns about the cost-of-living, housing and health in this prosperous republic in the third decade of the 21st century, and seeing the now peaceful party of republicanism as just another left-wing electoral option. I have to say that when I look at the total mess the coalition government have made of the housing crisis – most recently in their decision to end the temporary eviction ban before putting in place any new tenant-protecting measures – and if I were a young person with no knowledge of the North, I too would be tempted to vote for the former party of the IRA and its impressive housing spokesman, Eoin O Broin.

And of course the loyalist paramilitaries are terra incognita for the Southern public, largely because they are also terra incognita for the Southern media. People here simply see them as ‘beyond the pale’ bogeymen: inheritors of a sinister tradition of anti-Irish bigotry and violence from the ‘Black and Tans’ and B-Specials of the early and mid 20th and the UDA and UVF of the late 20th century. So who in their right mind wants to conjure up the prospect of such terrifying groups again becoming active? It’s ‘head in the sand’ time when it comes to Ulster loyalism. It’s easier just to write off the DUP and their attitude to the Protocol as just the latest in a long line of examples of ‘stupid unionism’ at its most blinkered, and to consign that party and its hundreds and thousands of supporters to the dustbin of history.

But the paramilitaries and their thousands of members haven’t gone away. Knowledgeable nationalists and unionists agree on the likelihood of violence in the event of a premature Border Poll. As that straight-talking political scientist, Brendan O’Leary (a nationalist), puts it: “Given Irish history, especially in the North, the recurrence of significant violence may happen, whatever action or inaction occurs in the South over the next decade.”1 Former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson says: “Every sensible person recognises that to have a Border Poll with a 50 or 51 or 52% result, on a constitutional issue like the future of Northern Ireland, is certain to be violent. There is no other likely outcome in those circumstances, if the result is tight.”2

I realise that increasingly I am a voice in the wilderness. Will that old unionist-lover not shut up and keep up with the times, younger and more nationalist people will demand. But I will not shut up. I will continue to urge people not to vote Sinn Fein because of their past involvement with and present justification of political violence. It is sometimes forgotten that my kind of moderate, non-violent nationalism comes from a noble tradition which runs from O’Connell to Hume.

PS I haven’t written about the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework this month because I have little or nothing to add to the millions of words the media have already spilled about them. However I recommend (particularly to my unionist readers) a recent letter to the Belfast News Letter by the retired professor of history at Queen’s University, Liam Kennedy (originally from Tipperary), who is one of the few Irish academics who tries to understand the unionist point of view. He wrote on 16th March:

In late 1972 I attended a mass rally in Patrick Street in the city of Cork (the ‘real capital’ of Ireland, according to locals).The protest was against Ireland’s imminent entry to the then European Economic Community. The meeting began with the reading of the 1916 Proclamation, which set the tone. Speaker after speaker, mainly from Irish republican backgrounds, decried the loss of sovereignty involved.

In a way, the purists had a point. There was a loss of sovereignty, particularly in relation to agricultural policy. However, the pooling of sovereignty implied by coming under the aegis of the Common Agricultural Policy opened decades of higher prices and higher farm incomes for generations of Irish farmers. In industry the benefits were even greater as multi-national Ireland caught fire.

Today, the Irish Republic has one of the highest incomes per head of any developed country, without any need of subsidies from outside.

If anything, the European Union has enhanced Irish sovereignty. The Irish state and people now have the resources, and hence the power, to implement social and economic programmes that would have been unthinkable as a small, backward agrarian economy circa 1972. This after 50 years of political independence and much patriotic guff.

Fast forward another 50 years and Northern Ireland or, more accurately, Northern unionists are embroiled in a parallel ‘sovereignty’ debate. Should someone invoke a reading of the Ulster Covenant to mirror the Easter Proclamation of 1916? Indeed, should the critics of the Windsor Framework prevail, what glorious future beckons? Political stalemate for a while, another inconclusive election, a boycotting of Stormont, followed by direct rule. By the end of the decade, joint sovereignty?

Victory for the purists and the legally-minded theologians of sovereignty. And to hell with people’s welfare as far as economy, health services and education are concerned.

Oh, and incidentally, a Union mislaid along the way.

1 Making Sense of a United Ireland, p.252

2 Padraig O’Malley, Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland, p.81

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Sinn Fein | 3 Comments

Talking to a broad-minded sporting unionist who defies all the Southern stereotypes

Brian Dougherty is a unionist. This Derry community worker says he is more determined in his unionism than he has ever been. Yet in every other way he goes against the narrow stereotype that most people in the South have of unionists: he is a socialist who is hugely committed to his working class community; open to and interested in Irish music and culture; in favour of cross-cultural legislation including promotion of the Irish language; a board member of an all-Ireland sporting body; and a regular participant in meetings to discuss north-south cooperation and the prospects (and perils) of Irish unity.

Dougherty is a small farmer’s son from Creevedonnell, a few miles outside Derry’s Waterside. He comes from a strong unionist background. His father was in the B-Specials, his brothers in the UDR, his great-uncles members of Rev. Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church and his grandfathers Orangemen (one had donated the land for the local Orange Hall). He doesn’t deny that they were hard-line and sectarian in their attitudes, rejoicing in the successes of the security forces and the killing of IRA men, and indifferent to the fate of those who died on Bloody Sunday.

He was a bright boy, and passed the 11-plus exam, meaning he could go to the local state (i.e. 98% Protestant) grammar school, Foyle College. There, although he was all too conscious that he was a working class boy in a largely middle class environment, he did well, partly because he was good at rugby and cricket. But also because he felt that education was his way to get out of Derry: “I couldn’t wait to leave. I thought it was the biggest and most hostile shithole in Northern Ireland.”

His experience as a Protestant from the Waterside going to school on Derry’s overwhelmingly nationalist city side in the 1980s had been a hair-raising one. “Wearing Foyle College’s maroon uniform and cap you might as well have been wearing a union flag. Our buses were regularly stoned. I was physically attacked twice. My sister got beaten up by four girls at one point. All that was really frightening for an 11-year-old.”

Those early experiences shaped much of this thinking. “I went from being proud of my British identity and feeling I was part of a great country, to something a bit more sinister: a feeling we were under attack here, and had to do what we needed to survive. Here we were again in the 1980s under attack and my brothers and uncles were joining the security forces. There was always a sense that there was something to defend. And someone trying to strip away your identity only meant it became more important.”

He ended up at Manchester University doing a master’s degree in town planning. But then he came home again. In the early 1990s he returned to Derry, first to work for the Housing Executive and a few years later to move to become a community worker in Tullyally in the Waterside, a poor Protestant working class area not far from his home. “If there was ever a community that was completely marginalised and isolated with huge levels of deprivation – worse than anywhere in the city but not being recognised – it was Tullyally. There were few facilities, no social interaction apart from a bar and a football club – it was a community turned in on itself. Young people were falling into the trap of paramilitary activity.”

He was the first Protestant community development worker in Derry. Working class Protestants there hadn’t “grasped the concept of self-help”, he says, believing that “as good British citizens who paid their taxes, the government would provide their play parks and social facilities.” In Tullyally he and the local group were successful relatively quickly in building a play park, a youth club and a community centre and forming a public-private partnership to build small business units.

He learned a lot from community workers in the city’s nationalist areas, Creggan and the Bogside, who had adopted the community development self-help ethos 25 years earlier and were very open to sharing their largely successful experience with their Protestant counterparts in the Waterside. “There was a huge sense of generosity from nationalists in the community sector,” says Dougherty. “There’s almost a sense that the community sector resolves the problems and then the politicians use this to their advantage.” He says local unionist politicians in recent years had realised belatedly that “there was merit in engaging with the community sector. When I started in the mid-nineties, you couldn’t have got a unionist politician to engage for love nor money. We were all socialists and communists and a threat to their power base.”

On the other hand he feels the broader nationalist community in Derry, and their politicians – whether Sinn Fein or the SDLP – were “blind and deaf to the concerns of the largely invisible unionist community.” It had become invisible because during the ‘Troubles’ more than 95% of Protestants living on the city side, intimidated by the IRA’s constant bombing of the city centre and by living among an overwhelming majority of nationalists, had moved in their thousands across the Foyle to the Waterside, the poorer among them to peripheral estates on the city’s eastern outskirts. He admits, however, that the city council – “quite pro-active in wanting to show equality” – had provided funding and resources for the Tullyally project.

Around 2005 he was involved with a piece of research on Derry’s deprived Protestant communities with Queen’s University Belfast and University of Ulster, led by the sociologist Peter Shirlow. Out of this came the perhaps surprising idea that one way to combat the marginalisation and low morale of working class Derry Protestants, and to help them get their voices heard, was through the city’s 14 loyalist marching bands. Nobody had ever thought of this before, largely because “the broad assumption was that the bands were a bad thing, they were sectarian, breeding grounds for paramilitary activity – they were the problem, not the solution. If you drive past a bus stop in Derry and see a young person from a Catholic school with a bodhrán, they’re viewed as a musician. If it’s a young Protestant in a band uniform, they’re viewed as a bigot. But their musical skills are comparable,” says Dougherty.

It became quickly obvious to him that “the band leader was the key community figure in each of these areas; far more influential than the community worker or youth worker”. He and a small group of colleagues set up the Londonderry Bands Forum. “Bands are rehearsing and engaging in creative activity for 52 weeks a year. We felt that if we could work with these young people – and with adults like influential band leaders – we could open many doors for so much else in terms of working to improve social conditions in these areas. Because we saw how being in a band improves the confidence levels and self-esteem of young people. A lot of the young people in bands are low academic achievers, but have skills in music. The challenge is how you use that vehicle as an opportunity to help them improve themselves.”

The Bands Forum has certainly broadened many of those young people’s outlooks. In 2013 the all-Ireland traditional music organisation Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann told the Culturlann Centre in Derry that if they wanted the big annual Fleadh Cheoil to come to Derry (and Northern Ireland) for the first time, they would have to show cross-community inclusivity. After failing to get a couple of Waterside community groups interested, Culturlann contacted the Londonderry Bands Forum. “We were approached to get these young people who had been rioting during the flags protest to play at a major Irish traditional music festival. Their first reaction was ‘get the hell out of here’. But we talked it through and asked them: ‘What is it you want as band members? What is your ideal scenario?’ And they said: ‘To get respect in our city again and be able to march the traditional route we used to have prior to the Troubles’. And I said that this was an opportunity to do that, because ‘the genuine and generous people in Comhaltas are saying: this is about music, not politics.”

So five of the bands played at gigs across the city and at the closing ceremony Deputy First Minister (and former IRA leader) Martin McGuinness talked about “the bands’ generosity and that the nationalist citizens of Derry should be reciprocating that generosity to the Apprentice Boys.”

“Also in August 2013 we had the UK City of Culture coming to Derry, and that was genuinely inclusive. The cloud of Bloody Sunday had lifted with the Saville Report and the Peace Bridge had been built around the same time. So not only was there the musical collaboration of the bands at the fleadh, but young people were coming together in concerts to hear the likes of Coldplay, thousands of them mixing and socialising in bars where they wouldn’t have socialised before.” A highlight of UK City of Culture was the dramatic Walled City Tattoo, a cross-community celebration of Scottish highland and Irish musical cultures with singers, dancers and massed ranks of drummers.

And then came Brexit and everything went backwards. “There was the anti-British narrative that evolved out of Brexit – the sense that all forms of unionism should be boxed as right-wing little Englanders, despite the fact that many of us were ‘remainers’. All of a sudden your identity and sovereignty were back in the public domain and you felt you had to kind of re-establish it. All of a sudden kerbstones started to be repainted and bonfires got bigger. Unionists felt under attack again from multiple sources: from academics, social media, the commentariat. All strands of unionism were persistently demonised.” There was also the funeral of Belfast IRA leader Bobby Storey in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and the suspicion in many Protestant minds that there was a new system of ‘two-tiered policing’ that wasn’t to their advantage.

Dougherty feels much of the generosity of the 2013 period has gone now. “In the Fleadh Cheoil both unionist and nationalist culture could be promoted and celebrated. Now we’ve gone back to unionist culture veering between being tolerated and accepted.” He shocked one prominent Derry nationalist recently by suggesting it might be time to forget about a toxic past that saw a 1969 Apprentice Boys march becoming the spark that lit the ‘Troubles’ in Derry and to put a message up on the famous wall at Free Derry Corner in the Bogside: ‘Derry Welcomes the Apprentice Boys.’ “The blood just drained from his face. His reaction showed how far we are from proper inclusivity in this city.” The Apprentice Boys are now allowed to march around the city’s walls again, but Dougherty says “you don’t have to scratch too far under the surface to see the language of ‘these people know where they are – this is a nationalist city.”

He worries that this augurs badly for a possible united Ireland, where Protestants – as they are in Derry – would be a small proportion of the population. Asked whether his experience of being a member of the Protestant minority in nationalist Derry had persuaded him that he could live in a nationalist-ruled united Ireland, he replies: “It’s done the opposite.” He points to things like Derry Council not supporting or providing funding for any celebration of the centenary of Northern Ireland and not joining other councils in issuing a declaration of regret after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. “In fact there were cavalcades driving around Derry, including past my house, celebrating her death. The fans at Derry City were singing ‘Lizzie’s in a box.’

On the other hand he is more optimistic about people in the South learning to accept, promote and even celebrate unionist culture. He points to a collaboration last December when another mainly Protestant organisation he heads, the North West Cultural Partnership, came together with the celebrated Donegal fiddler and singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and her band to put on an act to highlight Irish and Northern Irish/Scottish traditional music and dance at a Shared Island event in Dublin Castle. He hopes one day to bring his Derry loyalist bands to march in the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, and to put on a Dublin City Tattoo mass drumming event in Collins Barracks. “I’d look forward to the day when we’d have loyalist bands accepted in Dublin as normal – and because Ireland is becoming so diverse, they might be part of a kind of Dublin-style Notting Hill Carnival.”

“I think if there was a referendum [on unity], there is a recognition in the South that this is not an overnight thing, it’s a generational discussion. My experience of speaking to people in the South is that they listen. Up here, when we’re on a panel, nationalists lose interest because what we say is not what they want to hear. In the South any panels we’ve been on, there has been a genuine interest – because they want to know what the implications are and what the consequences will be of Irish unity. And I would hope that anything that is dear to a British citizen or somebody who feels British in Northern Ireland would be respected in a united Ireland. That’s under current structures. Whether that shifts under Sinn Fein remains to be seen.” He worries about “payback and discrimination and cultural erosion and lack of respect” for unionists in a united Ireland. And he wishes that moderate voices like those of John Hume, Mark Durkan and Micheál Martin (“I have a lot of respect for Micheál Martin”) were the ones leading the debates about unity.

He has reassuring words for unionist young people: “I say to them, it’s OK to be unionist. You can be progressive, you can be socialist, you can still try to improve the quality of your community and your environment. Because other people have characterised unionism as something bad, that doesn’t mean it is.”

However Dougherty prefers to talk about community development, cultural exchange, music and sport than politics. He remains a keen cricketer, representing the north-west (clubs in Derry and Donegal) on the board of Cricket Ireland. “My other great love is the Northern Ireland football team – I’m not quite sure where that would fit into a united Ireland.”

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 2 Comments

The new GAA president is that rare thing: an anti-sectarian Ulsterman

I am going to stray into the unfamiliar territory of the Gaelic Athletic Association for this blog. As a sports-mad half-Irish boy growing up in London, my games were football (soccer in Ireland) and rugby (although I was occasionally seen on the touchline at the GAA’s London ground at New Eltham). At the risk of being controversial, I would describe Gaelic football and hurling in Northern Ireland as objectively sectarian pastimes, since few if any Protestants play them and the GAA has made only limited efforts to recruit them (apart from the new club in East Belfast). The experience of young Darren Graham, the Protestant Fermanagh under-21 county footballer (whose father and two uncles, members of the UDR, had been murdered by the IRA) who gave up Gaelic football in 2007 after years of sectarian abuse, did not help.

However I would like to congratulate Jarlath Burns, former captain of the Armagh football team and south Armagh secondary school principal, on being elected last week as president of the GAA. Burns is an impressive and visionary man. I saw him on the BBC earlier this month talking in remarkable tones about his beliefs, interests and aspirations. He said then:

“I have a serious curiosity and interest in British culture and Unionist culture and Orange culture. We have the Orange Order in our school all the time talking to our young people, to get them to understand what that is about, what parading is about, what walking to give witness to their sincere belief in their reformed faith is about. If we show in our organisation that we have sympathy and an understanding for the culture of the Protestant people in Northern Ireland, maybe then, when we ask them to respect our culture, they will. Because it can’t be our culture and nobody else’s. There’s a significant British population who reside in this part of Ireland and they feel under siege and they are misunderstood in many respects and they become outraged and furious about many things because they feel their backs are against the wall. And because we are becoming a majority we can [say] ‘yahoo – we can do what we want with our flag and anthem’. But I think the GAA is a good example of how you do those things sensitively. We are proud to be Irish. The Irish flag is my flag, it’s not everybody’s flag. What I am trying to say that I would be open to a situation in a new Ireland, in a new Ireland that wants to be fully inclusive of all traditions and faiths, that it may be a compromise we have to make, and it wouldn’t be a very big one for the big prize of having a united Ireland, which would be a dream for me.”

I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone from the nationalist or republican tradition in Northern Ireland talking about their Protestant and unionist neighbours in such a sensitive and generous way. But then Burns is a remarkable man who is the principal of a remarkable school. St Paul’s High School outside Bessbrook near Newry (high schools are for those children to do not make it to selective grammar schools in the North), is a 1,700 student Catholic maintained secondary school in a largely Catholic area, but which also opens its doors to pupils from the largely Protestant villages of Bessbrook and Newtownhamilton for recreational and ‘shared education’ activities.

For Burns, the happiness of the child comes first. “The biggest challenge facing education is how to end the hegemony of the grammar school”, he told journalist Frank Connolly for his 2022 book United Nation.”1 Middle class Catholics and Protestants have the loudest, most articulate voice in education. If we removed the unfair selection system, the raison d’etre for elite grammar schools would no longer exist.”

Such academic testing at an early age has also led to the unfair situation where non-selective high schools like St Paul’s take a far higher proportion of children with special needs – from autism to dyslexia – than grammar schools. “It is a question of values which, in our school, are built on integrity, truth, compassion and kindness. We never give up on a pupil. We believe there is something special in every child,” said Burns.

“We need a completely new model of education,” he went on. “A united Ireland should not be the North welded on to the South. We have to reimagine how we do education. We need to understand that young people do not exist solely for the purpose of school, but should be allowed to live happy, carefree lives, enjoying the outdoors and [getting] involved in sport, music, reading for pleasure, poetry and the arts.

“In our school, up to the age of 14 we do not impose excessive homework on the pupils. We try to make them enjoy the experience of education and, during this time, we work on building their resilience. We wonder why mental health is such a huge issue with teenagers. It is due to the pressure they are under. Instead, we teach our junior pupils about their local history and geography. We set our own curriculum. At their age, we were picking blackberries and climbing trees, not buried in homework.”

The result, not surprisingly, is an over-subscribed and highly successful school with pupils from a wide catchment area. It provides an unusually broad curriculum, from the strongly academic to the vocational, and its pupils have a record of high achievement in GCSE and A level exams. In a recent school inspection, it was judged to be ‘Outstanding in All Areas.’

Burns believes his ‘shared education’ model , rather than a fully integrated system, is more realistic in a divided society like Northern Ireland. Since he became principal in 2013, he has adopted a policy of reaching out to the Protestant and unionist community in south Armagh; “In an area where nationalists dominate, we have devoted a lot of time to reaching out to the Protestant community, which suffered over the years in south Armagh. We have taken confidence-building measures to assist them, including by bringing in the Orange Order and PSNI former Chief Constable George Hamilton to talk to our pupils. It would be a disaster for the Protestant community if their schools were to close, and they have depended on St Paul’s for resources to ensure that does not happen.”

It is therefore common to see pupils from the smaller Newry and Newtownhamilton high schools walking the corridors of St Paul’s and accessing subjects that are not available in their own schools.

Burns has also encouraged pupils to attend the annual Pride event in Newry. “When we marched for Pride in Newry in 2015, some of the more right-wing elements [of] the community expressed disappointment and protested. We wanted to send out a message to the LGBT pupils in our school that was not a question of simply tolerating or accepting them, but of celebrating our diversity and our humanity. It was controversial, but I contacted the CCMS – which controls Catholic schools – before the event, and their reply was, ‘You are the principal, it is your decision.”

He argues that in a new, all-island education model there should be a move from content-based to skills-based learning and an emphasis on problem solving and IT literacy: “Our education system currently produces well-qualified people with few skills or common sense, and this is the natural outcome of a focus on exams rather than actually learning. Teacher training should be streamlined and current obstacles to young graduates from the North teaching in schools in the South eliminated” [And vice-versa. AP – wearing my hat as former secretary of SCoTENS, the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South, which sends young trainee teachers from both parts of Ireland to do part of their teaching practice in the other jurisdiction].

“The powers of the boards of governors and trustees, which promote the unfair system of academic selection in the North, and the fee-paying secondary system which only wealthy people can afford for their children in the South, have to be challenged. Of course, a united Ireland won’t be a utopia. There will always be those with money [who] can get access to private education or healthcare. But that does not mean we cannot try to create a fairer and better system of education for future generations.”

In a ‘new Ireland’ education system, Burns would like to see all children transferring at 13 from primary school to their local or regional non-selective secondary school, whose admissions criteria would not be set by the school, but by the education authority. Each school would have an emphasis on transferable skill acquisition and would have meaningful vocational pathways for pupils to prepare for apprenticeships or trades as well as for universities and institutes of technology. He would offer a post-16 choice between a five subject or three subject option, which would mirror the Leaving Certificate/A level models. Both of these systems have their advantages and disadvantages, but he prefers the A level system which, he argues, prepares pupils more effectively for third level study.

I only wish there were more generous and anti-sectarian nationalists like Jarlath Burns around. I met him 23 years ago at St Patrick’s Grammar School in Armagh (also a non-selective school), when he was the captain of the Armagh team which had just won the 1999 Ulster title, and I was giving the commencement speech at that school’s annual prizegiving. My other memory of that occasion – 18 months after the Good Friday Agreement – was the shock expressed by a local Catholic professional man that such a prestigious Catholic school would invite a Protestant with an English accent like me to give that speech.

1 United Nation: the case for integrating Ireland, pp.64-68

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

In this still deeply divided country, should we be talking about confederation?

The former Tánaiste and Progressive Democrat leader, Michael McDowell, has been writing recently about confederation.1 I may not often agree with his views on social and economic issues, but I have always found his political analysis of the North to be nuanced and insightful. He concluded from the findings of the Irish Times/ARINS opinion polls in December that there is “a very large gap between majority opinions in Northern Ireland and the Republic respectively.”

He went on: “Quite apart from the issue of whether there should be a united Ireland at all (where northern opinion seems at this point to be negative in the great majority), there is a remarkable divergence on the model for Irish unity. In the Republic, most people seem to conceive a united Ireland as a unitary state with Stormont abolished. Not so in the North.”

He wondered whether all possible models of Irish unity have been fully explored. He then posited a third possible model between unity and continued union: “an Ireland in which the Republic and Northern Ireland would confederate on a partnership basis to share a membership of the European Union. Such an Irish confederation would not involve the absorption or dissolution of either part of the island: both might continue to exist largely as they are, but share institutional links such as joint membership of the EU.

“It is noteworthy that a very clear majority (57%) in Northern Ireland favours membership of the EU. That majority could be accommodated in a confederal partnership on the island where EU membership was shared and operated on some form of partnership between North and South. Some formula for joint external status, possibly along a Swiss or Belgian model, is possible. It may not need a shared flag or an anthem; it may not need a single written constitution.” [I’m not sure why McDowell talks about “joint external status” for Belgium, which is a core, founding member of the EU, but maybe he is confusing that country’s relationship with the EU with its complex, quasi-federal political system involving Flemish, French and German speakers, which could be a model for an Irish confederation.]

McDowell thinks it is “somewhat naive to expect unionist politicians to enter an open-ended dialogue focused on the end of the union. There is simply little or no political gain for them in doing so. But by exploring alternatives to a big bang end-of-the-union unitary state scenario, those who believe, as I do, in Irish unity can sketch out a more reassuring and less threatening subject for general dialogue on the island.

“If anything, the Irish Times/ARINS research seems to suggest that the people of the Republic are dangerously disengaged on what the realities are in the North. We have collectively deluded ourselves into thinking that a united Ireland based on a unitary state is likely to come about in the short term. We have not really asked ourselves whether we need a united Ireland incorporating a badly alienated and very hostile northern minority…There is nothing inevitable about Irish unity. Those who want it must educate themselves and work for it. They must first work out what it is that they are working for.”

The picture of two states and societies which have grown apart after a century of partition was confirmed by another Irish Times/ARINS poll last month. This found that two-thirds of people in the Republic say they have no friends in Northern Ireland; more than 80% say they have no relations there, and more than half have not travelled across the border in the past five years.2 So if we want a deeper and closer relationship between the two jurisdictions, why don’t we think about confederation?

The distinguished US-based political scientist, Professor Brendan O’Leary, who has provided much of the intellectual energy behind the ARINS (Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South) project, defines confederations as follows:

 “A confederation is a union of states that delegate their revocable sovereignty to shared confederal institutions, and that retain the right of secession. The North South Ministerial Council (NSMC), though it has not been the site of major initiatives and activities, could still prove a stepping stone towards a confederal Ireland. The British-Irish Council…could still become the vehicle to  provide unionists with institutional links to the entire Isles in the event of Irish reunification.” Both these potentially confederal institutions – one North-South (and therefore of interest to nationalists) and one East-West (and thus of interest to unionists) – were set up under the Good Friday Agreement.3

O’Leary advocates successive Border Polls: the first one in the North and, if that results in a majority for reunification, a second one in the Republic. He says: “If the key negotiations occur before the Southern referendum, then that may increase the likelihood of an Irish confederation – namely, the formation of a new political system in which two sovereign states are joined together in a common state, jointly establishing a confederal government with delegated authority over both of them for specific functions. This process would necessarily involve the recognition of Northern Ireland as a state  properThe confederation would represent Ireland in the EU and internationally; it would have all-island institutions, which would certainly include a common court, but could also include an army with constituent territorial units, and, probably, a confederal police, devoted to serious crime, although its powers could be delegated to a joint body. All such institutions would have to be negotiated, and some presumably could build on the NSMC.” 4

Why has there been so little discussion about how the North South Ministerial Council and the British- Irish Council might be developed into confederal institutions? O’Leary is largely dismissive of the viability of two-state confederations, noting that they have had a poor record internationally, and stresses an unlikely interim stage of Northern Ireland having to become an independent state before agreeing to enter a confederation with the Republic. But it is still remarkable that this potential outworking of the Good Friday Agreement to provide a possible compromise between the clashing aspirations of nationalists and unionists has been so little explored.

The late Seamus Mallon wrote in his 2019 book A Shared Home Place (which I co-authored), that a 50% plus one vote for unity “will not give us the kind of agreed Ireland we seek…We need both communities in any future constitutional settlement to feel they belong to their common home place in an equal and mutually beneficial way.” His preference was for “some kind of confederal arrangement, because I believe unionists will find it very difficult to feel any sense of loyalty to a unitary Irish state.”

I have quoted the Northern civil service and business leader, the late Sir George Quigley (who was a Presbyterian), on numerous occasions on the subject of a confederal Ireland. He said in 2013: “If there is ever a new constitutional configuration for the island, my guess is that the model by far the likeliest to secure consent is the confederal model…On this basis, the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between North and South, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies related to the powers to be specifically delegated to confederal level determined jointly by representatives from North and South.” This would “reflect the political and administrative realities of the past 90 years and would entrench a measure of autonomy for both parts of the island within an all-island framework. While protecting and fostering the identities and ethos of the two traditions, it would enable them to work together in the common interest.” Unionists would be able to “maintain special links with Britain.”5

I know none of this complexity will be attractive to the people I call “romantic territorial nationalists”: those in Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail, the Northern nationalist community and the general public in the South whose hundred-year-old demand for reunification is based on the desire to get the ‘fourth green field’ back (these people appear to have forgotten John Hume’s message that “the real division of Ireland is not a line on a map but in the minds and hearts of its people”). However, I hope there are large numbers of realists out there who understand that unity on this basis – with hundreds of thousands of angry, alienated unionists as part of our ‘new Ireland’ – simply won’t work.

The realists will look at Northern Ireland and wonder at its unreconciled societal divisions, stubbornly resistant to change; its often unworkable political institutions; its ever-present risk of a recurrence of sectarian violence; its economic under-development and its financial dependence on subsidies from London. And they will wonder if a now peaceful, prosperous and successful independent state of Ireland (albeit with significant housing and health system problems) needs to graft this unhealthy northern limb onto a largely healthy southern body politic. Wouldn’t keeping it at arm’s length, while satisfying the age-old nationalist aspiration for some kind of unity through a confederal solution (with the British government largely, although not completely, out of the picture) be enough to be going on with?

1 ‘Confederation better model for Irish unity’, Irish Times, 14 December 2022

2 ‘Little interaction between people living North and South, new polls show’, 28-29 January 2023

3 A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Volume 3 Consociation and Confederation, p. 212

4 Ibid, p. 313

5 The Journal of Cross Border Studies, No.8, Spring 2013, pp.27-28


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

A united Ireland will have to include unionists – so let’s get on with the difficult task of including them

I will be surprised if I see a united Ireland in my lifetime (I am in my early seventies). But the direction of travel is unmistakable. The history-changing reasons have been well rehearsed: the growth of the Catholic population – and particularly the young Catholic population – in Northern Ireland; the new confidence of Sinn Fein-led northern nationalists; the emergence of the Republic of Ireland as a prosperous, successful, liberal country at the heart of the EU; and the decline of the United Kingdom as a world power and a multi-cultural nation, particularly after Brexit, and with the probable breakaway of Scotland (with which many northern Protestants feel a particular affinity) as an independent nation.

I agree with Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy in his analysis of last month’s major opinion poll in that paper on unity and related topics. “If the arguments for unity are to be won, it seems they will be won not with windy rhetoric, but with worked-out and practical plans and probably over a long period of time. In the absence of reassurances that things will change for the better rather than the worse, politically and personally, [southern] voters are likely to follow their conservative instincts to retain the status quo. In addition, many voters in the South would have to be persuaded to persuade northerners about unity through changes and concessions – something they are disinclined to do.” He also warned: “The drum beating for unity is not winning over the growing and likely decisive section of the population of Northern Ireland – the middle ground. It is through them that the path to a united Ireland – if it is ever to happen – will run.”1

How deep is the commitment to unity among people in the South? The answer is: not very deep, whether it is in terms of symbolism, security or economics. Large numbers of voters in the Republic become less likely to vote for a united Ireland if that entity has a new flag and anthem. Nearly half of those polled (47 and 48%) said they would be “less likely” to vote for unity if it meant a change of flag or anthem. An extraordinary 54% said the symbolic gesture of re-joining the Commonwealth would make them less likely to support a united Ireland. Unsurprisingly, a unity which would lead to respondents being £3,500/€4,000 a year worse off would make 48% of people in the Republic (51% in Northern Ireland) less likely to vote for that outcome. 66% chose “whether a united Ireland would be peaceful” as the issue “voters would need to know about to make an informed decision on Irish unity.”

The unwillingness of southerners to make changes in their comfortable society to accommodate northern unionists was clear from the poll’s accompanying focus groups, organised by the two heavyweight political scientists who oversaw the poll, Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania and John Garry of Queen’s University Belfast. Among those focus group participants, “there was a sense of surprise, shock and some distaste that such changes – on the flag, anthem, Commonwealth and political institutions – could happen. Participants essentially assumed that in a united Ireland, the North would be absorbed or assimilated, with little need for change down south.” This is entirely in line with my experience of living for over 50 years in the Republic: when people here think about unity at all, which is rarely, it is with the assumption that life will go on almost as normal.

It is equally my experience that there is little sign of any significant number of unionists being won over by arguments for Irish unity in the short term. In recent months I have been interviewing unionists whom I believe to be liberal, open-minded people, but I haven’t found a single one who has changed his or her mind about preferring to remain part of the United Kingdom. This is in contrast to the magical (some might say delusional) thinking by the northern nationalists of the Ireland’s Future campaign, who have produced a small number of converted unionists and Protestant nationalists at their meetings and rallies in an apparent effort to give the impression of a significant opinion shift north of the border. As one young unionist woman community leader put it to me: “A Northern Orangeman is never going to become a left-wing Irish Catholic – it’s not going to happen.”

So here’s my message to Sinn Fein, Ireland’s Future, and others of that ilk: if you want unity to be as peaceful and harmonious as possible, get on with making it attractive to those most difficult of people, the Ulster unionists. One way to do that is to keep as many British links as possible in the ‘new Ireland’, however unpalatable that may be to you as Irish republicans and nationalists. As Linda Ervine, much loved by gaeilgeoiri for her valiant efforts to promote the Irish language in loyalist East Belfast, says: “I wouldn’t lose sleep over a united Ireland, but I would lose sleep over losing links with the rest of the UK – that would be an issue for me.” None of this is going to be easy, given the current anti-British and anti-unionist atmosphere in the Republic and the stubborn, unmoving and unforgiving nature of unionism in the North. A lot more ‘uncomfortable conversations’ (the title of a Sinn Fein initiative eight years ago aimed at dialogue with Protestants and unionists, which ran out of steam) will be needed, and I suggest this time they are led by parties other than the detested Sinn Fein.

Because, in contradiction to what I have said above [“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – Emerson], there is evidence of new thinking among some intelligent unionists. Two years ago, Dennis Kennedy, an unusual unionist in that he is a former deputy editor of the Irish Times, wrote: “Perhaps it is time to look again at advice once offered to unionists by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Writing in 1999, he proposed ‘a deal with constitutional nationalism to avert British surrender of Northern Ireland to violent republicanism’. He meant inclusion in a united Ireland, an inclusion agreed on negotiated terms which would safeguard the vital interests of the unionist community. But even Conor could not have envisaged that the day would come when Sinn Féin, still glorifying the IRA’s terrorism, would be in government in Belfast and very close to being in government in Dublin. But it has.

“Today there is at least a possibility that in a Border poll the North would vote for Irish unification. No poll, or a vote for staying in the UK, can result only in continued deadlock, possibly with unionists a minority in the Assembly and in the province, with an enhanced threat of violence and the bleak prospect of years of political deadlock, a divided society, minimal government in Belfast, and an increasingly unsympathetic one in London. And possibly a United Kingdom in disarray or collapse. Are there in the broad unionist community those who can see that such a negotiated union [with the Republic] would be better for all than those prospects, or being forced into a union by losing a referendum?

“We already have some of those guarantees Conor hinted at. The Belfast Agreement lays down that, in a united Ireland, government ‘shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities…”

“The real gain for all would be that a negotiated deal would have to result, not in some form of continued partition with devolution for the North, nor in reserved places in government for special categories, but in a new agreed Ireland, with an agreed national narrative, neither the present one of the Republic, nor that of Northern Ireland. For a majority of Northerners another bonus would be re-entry into the EU, which in turn might be expected, along with a relieved UK, to give financial aid to the new Ireland.”2

This is broadly good advice, although I wish I shared the belief that a future Sinn Fein-led Irish government would move towards “an agreed national narrative, neither the present one of the Republic, nor that of Northern Ireland.” Given the views of the Republic’s citizens about changing as little as possible in the South after reunification, and Sinn Fein’s determination to impose its anti-British and violence-justifying version of recent Irish history, this appears to me at the moment to be ‘pie in the sky’.

Another view is that of Brian Walker, a former BBC Northern Ireland political editor and Radio 4 current affairs editor. He urges Northern nationalists “to engage on an open agenda on the future. While this would fool nobody about the ultimate aspiration, it should encourage unionists to present publicly an agenda for maintaining the British link and a shared future for all Ireland that all could accept. In other words it would be the fulfilment of the main body of the Good Friday Agreement, the best of both worlds, not the only part of it that is a zero sum.” He believes that for unionists this would be preferable to the other two main options: to wait for an Irish government offer they might or might not refuse; or to frighten the South off by “becoming as troublesome as nationalists were in pre-1998 Northern Ireland.”3 But are unionists (let alone the DUP) ready for such an ‘open agenda’? I have serious doubts.

The most interesting unionist contribution to this debate I have read recently was one by a Belfast historian and blogger, Samuel Thompson. In a post on the Slugger O’Toole website last month, he wrote:

“In the push for a Border poll one thing that is largely being ignored is what unionists might do if they lose it. Arlene Foster is already on record as saying she may pack her bags, and while some may say ‘good riddance’, what about the rest? Those with the money to move will probably be the least affected by any change, and home is home. For those without funds, becoming a refugee in Glasgow or another British city is hardly an enticing project. The vast majority of unionists are likely to stay put just as nationalists did in 1921. What they do next is the key issue.

“The DUP seem to be preparing a contingency for losing a Border poll. We constantly hear ‘cross community consent’ in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, but I suspect it has more to do with setting a precedent whereby major constitutional change cannot take place without the consent of the majority of unionists, or in other words, never. This is a very dangerous game and encourages fantasies of reliving 1912, and also gives a massive boost to republican groups still engaging in violence. How can we spend decades persuading republicans to play the political game and then move the goal posts if they look like winning it?

“I have no doubt there will some kind of violent reaction to a lost Border poll, but how much? Demonstrations and riots can be taken as read, but the level and severity of violence will depend on what is actually been voted for and the margin of victory. An undefined vote for change like the Brexit referendum, with a similarly small majority, is a recipe for chaos. My guess is there will be a Good Friday-style proposal with significant detail on pensions and finance and a poll will not take place unless the outcome is close to a foregone conclusion. This will be after a succession of pro-unity election results, not one or two opinion polls. In those circumstances unionism will have had time to realise change is on the cards and a vote for Irish unity may not be a prelude to civil war, even if there are 12,500 edgy loyalist paramilitaries.

“The UK government will not hang onto Northern Ireland if a majority votes to leave the UK. It just won’t; internationally it would be crucified and domestically only a lunatic fringe would support such a policy. The political pain would be too much for absolutely no gain.

“It should also be borne in mind that the loyalist paramilitaries are thoroughly infiltrated by the intelligence services. That was the case when John Stevens investigated collusion in the 1990s and, with MI5 now leading operations, the intelligence situation can only have improved. It is highly likely that a high proportion, if not the majority, of loyalist paramilitary leaders are state agents. In other words, a concerted campaign of violence cannot happen unless HMG permits it or colludes in it. Given that Britain shall finally have the honourable exit from Ireland it has long sought, this is highly unlikely. The Irish authorities can expect a high degree of British co-operation in making any transition as peaceful as possible.

“What would violence achieve? Loyalism can’t force the UK to keep N. Ireland against the will of the majority of its inhabitants, which leaves, in my view, only two alternatives: independence for Northern Ireland – effectively the parts of it loyalists can gain control of – or an accommodation with Dublin that respects the rights and sensitivities of the new minority.

“Loyalists could create types of no-go areas where Dublin’s writ would be more notional than real. This would Balkanise the North into areas of government control, splashed with isolated pockets of resistance. These areas would suffer economically, and military resistance needs a clear and achievable political objective to have any chance of success. Otherwise, what is the point?

“The other possible outcome is one where unionism, including paramilitaries, sits down with the Irish and British governments and their nationalist neighbours and negotiates the best deal it can for its people. This is not an implausible scenario: there have been informal contacts between Irish governments and loyalist paramilitaries for years. It is to everyone’s benefit they continue. These things can be done before or after Doomsday, but they will have to be done.”4

1 ‘Irish Unity: The North says No for Now’ Irish Times, 3 December 2022; ‘Support in Republic for unity is wide – but not very deep’, Irish Times, 5 December 2022.

2 ‘Who’s for a U-turn?’ Dublin Review of Books, June 2021

3 ‘Do they reelly, reelly want it? A reflection on ‘Ireland’s Future’? Slugger O’Toole, 2 October 2022

4 ‘How realistic is the Doomsday Scenario?’ Slugger O’Toole, 30 December 2022

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 8 Comments

Now for something completely different: an optimistic story about climate change

In the first week of January 2023 it is not easy to be optimistic. There is no obvious end to the cruel, grinding Russian war against Ukraine. Economic recession looms for the West. Climate change targets are being missed all over the place. Closer to home, the Protocol deadlock continues and hope of any real reconciliation in Northern Ireland has all but disappeared.

So for my first blog of the New Year I am going to write about a novel that I read over the Christmas period (‘one of Barrack Obama’s favourite books of the year’), which positively fizzes with radical good ideas about how climate change can be successfully combatted over the next two decades. The central protagonist in The Ministry for the Future, by the celebrated American science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, is Mary Murphy (loosely modelled on Mary Robinson?), a 45-year-old former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and trade union lawyer. She is appointed to head a new Zurich-based agency charged with implementing the decisions of successive COPs and safeguarding the “legal standing and physical protection” of future generations threatened by global warming.

Her chief of staff is a mysterious Nepalese man, who is in charge of the organisation’s secret ‘black wing’, which is believed to be waging “a savage war against the carbon oligarchy”: assassinating heads of fossil fuel companies; destroying coal and oil-fired power plants; using drones to shoot planes (mainly used by business travellers) out of the sky; torpedoing diesel-powered container ships; and introducing ‘mad cow’ disease into millions of cattle all over the world to frighten people into stopping eating beef.

Or maybe that is all the work of the India-based Children of Kali terrorist group? This is founded after a terrible heatwave kills over 20 million people in that country in 2025 (a graphic description of which provides the starting point for the novel). After that catastrophe India starts to lead the world in a wide range of positive as well as negative ways. It uses geo-engineering to shoot sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to replicate a volcanic ash cloud in order to lower the global temperature. It nationalises all the country’s energy companies and decommissions their coal-fired plants. It spreads organic regenerative agriculture developed in Sikkim and Bengal across the whole sub-continent, and uses fertile soils in states like Karnataka to plant specialised crops which save large amounts of carbon. It espouses ‘direct democracy’ by following the example of left-wing governments in Kerala to devolve government down to village level (Mary Murphy notes that Switzerland does something similar). Its ‘Silicon Valley’ in Bangalore leads the planet in IT solutions.

“We have so much sun”, a senior Indian official tells Murphy. “It’s power, right? We can use solar power to pull water right out of the air, hydrogen out of the water, grow the plants that provide for bioplastics and biofuels for whatever still needs liquid fuels, use hydrogen to power turbines. Sun also helps grow forests that draw down carbon, and fuel the biochar burners, and provide the wood for building. We are a fully recycling solar powerhouse. A green power. Other countries don’t have our advantages in sunlight, and minerals, and people, especially people. And ideas.”

In the summer of 2032 the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover melts away completely. Experiments are being carried out there, and even more in Antarctica, to pump water from under the melting glaciers threatening to raise sea levels up to the surface in order to spray and refreeze it across the ice caps. On an idealistic pre-Russian invasion of Ukraine note, Stanley Robinson has the Russian navy donating a nuclear submarine reactor to provide the massive power required for this pumping. As the oil industry is slowly persuaded by carbon taxes and a carbon reduction-based new currency (see below) to abandon fossil fuels, it sees a new business opportunity in the enormous pumping of meltwater that these exercises require.

Probably Mary Murphy’s toughest task is to persuade the world’s central bankers – the real powers in financial and economic decision-making – to adopt a new system of ‘quantitative easing’ (i.e. the creation of new money to try to boost the economy) based on the urgent existential need to reduce carbon. “If you combined this thing with carbon taxes,” she argues, “you would get taxed if you burn carbon, but paid if you sequester carbon.”

This would require “the exertion of state sovereignty over the global market, by way of international cooperation between nation-states big enough to face down the market; even to alter the market. To fucking buy the market.” And if this sounds like socialism, or even communism (the Chinese are enthusiastic supporters), so be it: the future of the human race on the planet depends on it.

So eventually the reluctant central bankers take on Murphy’s proposal: they come together to issue a new single currency [the ‘carbon coin’], coordinated through the Bank of International Settlements. “For every ton of carbon not burned, or sequestered in a way that would be certified to be real for an agreed-upon time, one century being typical in these discussions so far, you are given one carbon coin. You can trade that coin immediately for any other currency on the currency exchanges, so one carbon coin would be worth a certain amount of other fiat currencies. The central banks would guarantee it at a certain minimum price, they would support a floor so it couldn’t crash. But it could also rise above that floor as people get a sense of its value, in the usual way of currencies in the currently exchange markets.” This seems to work, since by the end of the book it looks as though the carbon coin might soon supercede the dollar as the world’s hegemonic currency, the ultimate guarantor of value.

The new currency is typically circulated by a new Facebook-replacing worldwide internet provider, YourLock, created by the Ministry for the Future, but owned as a co-operative by its thousands of millions of owners. Data-mining companies can access this to offer people micro-payments for their data on things like health information, consumption patterns and finance.

The background to all this is a ‘Super Depression’ in the late 2030s, with unemployment rising to 25%, banks crashing and governments forced to nationalise financial systems everywhere (but also causing a major drop in carbon dioxide and methane emissions).

On the environmental side, equally dramatic things are happening. The Half Earth project to rewild huge areas of the planet’s surface is spreading from continent to continent, with the Yukon to Yellowstone and Yellowstone to Yosemite habitat corridors – allowing plants to thrive and animals to roam, with humans compensated to leave – leading the way in North America. People are talking about an extension, following the Andes mountains, to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Latin America. The African countries are coming together in an ‘Africa for Africans’ movement, with oil-producing countries like Nigeria being pressured to claim the carbon coin to fund major infrastructure and education, and total debt forgiveness being demanded with a common voice.

By the 2040s things are improving greatly. Huge increases in clean energy mean far less CO2 being burned than ever before. More and more people are starting to follow the Swiss 2,000 Watt Society’s (founded in 1998) example of learning to live (and live well) on 2,000 watts of power (based on the calculation that if all the energy consumed by households were divided by the number of humans alive, each would have the use of 2,000 watts of power – people in Western Europe currently use about 6,000 watts; in the USA 12,000; in India 1,000). The earth’s population has started to fall. Fewer domestic beasts are being raised for human food, occupying far less land. The 2030s depression has been overcome through robust Keynesian-style stimulus spending using the new system of carbon quantitative easing (CQE) and a governmental job guarantee for everyone, as economics is re-oriented to human and biosphere welfare.

Here we come close to utopianism, with all kinds of extraordinary projects happening everywhere: regenerative agriculture; landscape restoration; wildlife stewardship; garden cities; ‘global citizenship’ passports for refugees (there are 100 million climate refugees in the ‘zombie thirties’); universal basic income and services; the reintroduction of airships for long-distance travel; and financial, manufacturing and higher education cooperatives being set up everywhere, modelled on the remarkable Mondragon initiative in Spain. The most arresting symbol is the use of aircraft carriers as mobile towns in the Antarctic (“swords into ploughshares kind of thing”), as the melting glacier slowdown proves a success. It is truly becoming a wonderful world.

And if some of this sounds a bit dense for a novel, Mary Murphy also has a (kind of) love affair with an airship captain from Belfast. She undertakes a hair-raising trek through the high Alps. And she forms a deep friendship with a young man, a traumatised survivor of the Indian heatwave catastrophe, who takes her hostage. The novel’s conclusion comes down on the side of utopian communism: that money and energy and even land will have to become state-owned public trusts if the planet is to survive. But whatever your politics, this is a rich and rewarding and, above all, a visionary and optimistic read for the New Year.

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, The island environment, Views from abroad | Leave a comment