Are you a Referendum Denier? If you are, Sinn Fein has you in its sights

Are you a Referendum Denier (in capital letters)? If you believe that we are not yet ready for unity, but want to make Northern Ireland a more reconciled and harmonious society first, you are a Referendum Denier. If you believe that the Republic has not yet devoted enough time to seriously considering the implications of an early move towards unity following the narrowest of narrow victories in a Border Poll, you are a Referendum Denier. If you are a supporter of Micheál Martin’s Shared Island initiative, with its emphasis on practical and mutually beneficial North-South cooperation as the priority in the short term, you are a Referendum Denier. If you believe that we need to win over a significant section of unionism to acquiesce in, if not to support, that unity, you are a Referendum Denier.

That’s the kind of thinking Sinn Fein’s strategists are trying to encourage. Those masters of propaganda have seized on the concept of ‘referendum denial’ as a key component of their single-minded drive towards gaining power at the next Irish election and then pressuring the British Government into holding a Border Poll as soon as possible. They know that planting the weasel word ‘denier’ in people’s minds will immediately put their opponents on the defensive. People who are Holocaust deniers or Covid deniers or racism deniers are, if not downright wicked, clearly utterly wrong-headed.

I first heard Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald use this term on Claire Byrne’s RTE discussion programme on a united Ireland on 22nd March. I then went looking for its source. I found it in an article earlier last month by Ciaran Quinn, one of the party’s smartest strategic thinkers, and currently its representative in North America.

In the article on the Northern commentator Eamonn Mallie’s website1, Quinn said there were two kinds of Referendum Denier: 1) unionists who just hope the unity debate will go away; 2) Referendum Deniers who are “harder to spot. Camouflaged in the language of the peace process, they are about maintaining the status quo.”

He identified some ‘give away’ signs for this latter group. They claim to speak of the ‘spirit’ of the Good Friday Agreement, rather than the strict letter as negotiated by Sinn Fein and other parties and governments in 1998 (“We deal in text”, says Quinn). They view a referendum “through the prism of an impact on unionism” and ignore the North’s nationalists. They argue that “now is not the time” to hold a Border Poll (“This is a dishonest denial of the democratic process,” says Quinn). They claim that such a poll would be divisive. They hint at the danger of violence “without any identifiable threat” (perhaps from the “thousands of signed up members of paramilitary organisations”- most of them loyalist – identified by the 2020 report of the Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitarism?). They suggest some kind of weighted super-majority in order to win over a significant section of unionists.

These are all arguments constitutional nationalist and other politicians have made at various times (as have I). Only last week, at a meeting of the Shared Island dialogue for civil society groups, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, emphasised the need “to create a space of trust and tolerance” in any conversations about the future of Ireland, and warned that there could be “no predetermined outcome” to an exercise like convening the Citizens Assembly to discuss unification – a key Sinn Fein demand – because “if that’s the starting point it would be very difficult to have everyone in the conversation.”

Quinn is brutally clear about the narrowest of narrow votes for unity in a Border Poll being sufficient for existential constitutional change: “The threshold for change is agreed upon and clear. It is a simple majority of those voting. Anything else would be undemocratic and unworkable. For example, the divorce referendum in the South was won by less than 1% of the vote, 50.28% in favour and 49.72% against.”

So now we know the threshold for unity that Sinn Fein would be happy with in a Border Poll: 50.28% would do, even 50.1%. Is this a recipe for stability and harmony and happiness in a so-called ‘united’ Ireland? 49.9% of people in the North being opposed – many of them bitterly – to the new constitutional shape of the nation? Will this not, in the late Seamus Mallon’s words, just “consign the next century in Northern Ireland to a rerun of the last: with the two sides simply changing positions – nationalists in a majority in a ‘united’ Ireland and unionists the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority?”

In my more pessimistic moments – and knowing how ruthlessly Sinn Fein (and the Provisional IRA before them) pursue their goals – I don’t believe that party has any intention of engaging in the extremely difficult business of trying to win over any significant section of unionism to the united Ireland cause. Maybe they think it’s a hopeless quest anyway (and maybe they could be forgiven for thinking that, given the current immovability of political unionism).

But don’t be taken in by Mary-Lou McDonald’s honeyed words, when she talked about “our unionist brothers and sisters” on the Claire Byrne programme (I could almost hear unionist stomachs turning – it is only 25 years, after all, since those “brothers and sisters”, in and out of uniform, were being murdered by the IRA). Sinn Feiners believe unionists have stood in the way of Irish freedom and unity for over 200 years and now – with demographic change moving against them – it is time for Irish history to move on, whether they like it or not. This tougher nationalism is also apparent among some middle-class Dubliners I know, a hardening of attitudes which would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, but which is perfectly attuned to welcoming Sinn Fein as the lead party of government after the next election. For some people in this republic – I’m not sure how many – it’s clearly “feck the unionists” time.

As Quinn concludes: “Unionism has no veto over the process, but has a seat as an equal at the table in defining a new and united Ireland”. For Sinn Fein Irish unity remains the holy grail, and the holy grail, by definition, is non-negotiable.

So expect more salvoes against the ‘Referendum Deniers’ in the near future. You can see the themes emerging in the writings of a commentator like Una Mullally, who often reflects Sinn Fein’s thinking on these issues. In an angry broadside against the Taoiseach and his Shared Island initiative this week2, she accused him of being stuck in the past, kicking the unity issue into touch, “coasting in an era of profound change”, and not being able to see beyond the status quo. “The patronising discourse that is emerging around a Border Poll ending up like the Brexit referendum places little faith in the remarkable culture of societal discourse, active citizenship, grass-roots organising and respectful conversations new generations have achieved in recent years on complex issues…That the leader of the country would arrive to a studio [for the Claire Byrne programme] to discuss such an important issue and dither through is simply not good enough. Deflating, demoralising, uninspiring, disconnected, and putting forward arguments for paralysis as opposed to action, is not where new generations in this country are at.”

So there’s a preview of Sinn Fein’s campaign in the months and years ahead: attacks on ‘Referendum Deniers’ for being dishonest and undemocratic, for ignoring northern nationalists, for kicking unity into touch, for being stuck in the past, for being satisfied with the status quo, and for refusing to face into an exciting Irish future driven by young people. That last element will be key: portraying the drive for unity as something which enthuses the youth of Ireland, when in fact it is a 100 year old cause dating back to the foundation of the state and beyond. It’s as old as the discredited nationalist belief that you can achieve unity by ignoring the unionists.

PS A reader has asked me to produce evidence for my assertion about Northern Sinn Feiners’ new “brazenness” in my January blog. Here are four examples:

  1. In 2019 Sinn Fein members objected to (and appear to have blocked) a proposal to Belfast City Council from one of its committees to erect a statue to that great old West Belfast socialist and SDLP politician Paddy Devlin.
  2. In January Sinn Fein led the charge on the council to allow Belfast residents to have their street names changed bilingually to include Irish – also Ulster-Scots, Chinese or other languages, in the highly unlikely event this is requested – if there is 15% support in their street (15%! What kind of democratic benchmark is that?).
  3. Sinn Fein last month vetoed a proposal (supported by all the other parties) to erect a harmless monument at Stormont, made up of a block of stone in six sections representing the six Northern counties, to commemorate the foundation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921. Assembly member Pat Sheehan said Sinn Fein had not been consulted and the stone only represented one political perspective. “The days of unionism jumping up and down and stamping their feet and getting what they want are done,” he said.
  4. The Bobby Storey funeral.

1 https://eamonnmallie.com/2021/03/how-to-spot-the-referendum-denier-by-ciaran-quinn-sinn-fein-representative-to-us-and-canada

2 https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullally-taoiseach-s-bland-nothings-on-united-ireland-fail-us-all-1.4522302

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Sinn Fein | 6 Comments

Unity and Sanctuary: two difficult causes close to my ambivalent heart

There was an interesting exchange in the Irish Times earlier this month between two men I admire and whose views on Irish reunification I respect. A report in the online paper (its editors obviously deemed it not significant enough for the printed paper) quoted the former European Commission Secretary-General David O’Sullivan saying there was a “huge responsibility” on people in the Republic “not to overtalk…about Border Polls and reunification.”1 He warned: “This is what is deeply destabilising to the unionist community. Because they do see Northern Ireland as having somehow a semi-detached status now which is the sort of ante-room to reunification, which is what some people are talking it up as.”

O’Sullivan said a united Ireland “may happen, it may not happen”, but “we have a long way to go”. Noting that the Taoiseach’s Shared Island initiative was the “right approach”, he cautioned: “Talking as though a united Ireland is now sort of inexorable, inevitable…is deeply unhelpful in this situation. We should all learn to live with what we have…but leave it until later years for the decisions that may present themselves in the future.”

As somebody who worked for many years to bring North and South together through practical and mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation – and who knows the unionist community well – I strongly agree with O’Sullivan’s viewpoint.

But then four days later came a riposte from the former SDLP MLA and councillor, Declan O’Loan, from Ballymena, County Antrim (my birthplace).2 I know O’Loan to be a moderate and thoughtful man, well-attuned to the sensibilities of the unionists among whom he lives. He wrote in a letter to the editor: “To say that it is improper even to postulate an alternative [to remaining part of the UK] in which Ireland would be united and all its people enjoy equal citizenship cannot be reasonable, and does not create a Northern Ireland which treats unionists and nationalists equally.”

He went on: “There is a perfectly fair case to be made that the partition of the island has done great damage. The best form of government that has yet been created for Northern Ireland is that under the Belfast Agreement, and even so I would say that every Executive formed since 1998 has been a failure in dealing with the economic administration and social challenges. The reason is the fundamental disagreement on the constitutional question.”

“Many countries across the world have deep divisions, many of which offer no full solution and can at best be managed. That is not the case in Ireland. I have worked closely alongside unionist politicians for many years, and I think I understand them quite well. I am in no doubt that a united Ireland can be built which will better serve all its citizens. Those who share that belief are entitled to work for it.”

For me the key word in this letter is “managed”. For the past 50 years I have believed that the divisions in the North are best capable of being managed through internal power-sharing and North-South cooperation arrangements (the John Hume model). Successive Irish governments have agreed with me. In the words of the eminent international lawyer Claire Palley, who knew Northern Ireland well, back in the early 1990s: “The only people who are entitled to talk about solutions are chemists.”

Clearly Declan O’Loan doesn’t agree. If such a moderate and fair-minded nationalist politician believes that successive Northern Ireland Executives have been a failure on every front, and some kind of united Ireland could be made palatable to the dyed-in-the-wool unionists he lives among in mid-Antrim, maybe it is time to think again, and to think radically about Irish unity in the shorter to medium term. Certainly the DUP – led in recent years by incompetent, corrupt and foolish people – have done little or nothing to make real the hopes of mutual respect and equality within Northern Ireland promised by the Good Friday Agreement.

As I have said many times before, the irony is that the best people to do this radical thinking on unity are the old conservative nationalist parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Once those most hated enemies of unionists, Sinn Fein, get into power in Dublin, it will be a hundred times more difficult to get them to engage in such an existentially threatening negotiation (I agree completely with Leo Varadkar when he said this week on RTE that Sinn Fein’s relationship of “mutual hostility” with unionism and deep anti-Britishness make them “an obstacle to Irish unity,” and that the “sectarian headcount” of a Border Poll is “not the right pathway to a united Ireland”). As the Dublin lawyer Brian Barrington, who was Seamus Mallon’s legal advisor when he was NI Deputy First Minister, has said: “It is they [Fianna Fail and Fine Gael], and not Sinn Fein, who must write the policy for the protection of British people on this island. And they should start doing it now.”

I am thus ambivalent about Irish unity: I would love to see it one day, but I can’t for the life of me see how we are going to persuade a significant number of unionists to go along with it. To explain my ambivalence I should explain a little about myself. I am the son of a Northern Presbyterian mother and a Jewish socialist father who was a political refugee from the former Czechoslovakia. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that I have throughout my life been passionate about two causes: the peaceful persuasion of Northern unionists that their best future lies in a closer relationship with the rest of Ireland, and the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into present-day Irish society. As they say, blood is thicker than water.

The former cause has brought me from youthful radicalism in the NI civil rights movement and the Workers Party, through John Robb’s New Ireland Group, the 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission (of which I was coordinator), the ‘Yes’ campaign in the post-Good Friday Agreement referendum, founding and running the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh for 14 years, to the Irish Labour Party and the Green Party. I now rail against the lack of serious thinking by any Southern political party (and that includes Sinn Fein) about how we are going to undertake the fiendishly difficult journey to an Irish unity brought about – in the words of the new Article 3 of the Constitution – “in harmony and friendship”. And I strongly oppose any attempt to impose it on the unionists by the narrowest of narrow majorities in an early Border Poll – that way, I believe, lies a return to bloodshed and conflict.

If the former cause is my mother’s legacy, the latter cause is my father’s. We on this small island are often consumed by our own internal demons to the exclusion of other, far greater international problems; I’m sure we’re no different from any other country in that respect. That is why I am a recent – although not very active – convert to Green politics. And why the other big cause I have been active in has been the welfare of refugees and asylum-seekers.

The latter has brought me in the past few months to become the acting chair of a small organisation called Places of Sanctuary Ireland (PoSI)(ireland.cityofsanctuary.org), much of whose work is driven by a marvellously high octane Englishwoman (married to an Irish husband) called Tiffy Allen. PoSI is a network of 13 groups – from Cork to Belfast, Galway to Derry, Wexford to Coleraine – whose primary aim is to create a culture of welcome, safety and inclusion for refugees, asylum- seekers and other vulnerable migrants, many of whom are seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. It creates opportunities for Irish people to meet these newcomers to our country, to hear their stories and to help them find a new home here among us. It is part of an international City of Sanctuary movement which began in Sheffield in 2005.

The City of Sanctuary movement works through what we call ‘streams’. These can be schools, universities, town and city councils, workplaces, churches and faith groups, libraries, community groups and other educational, work-based, civic, cultural and grass-roots organisations. In Ireland the most successful ‘stream’ has been Universities of Sanctuary, which was founded in 2017 largely through the efforts of a group of people at Dublin City University, which had become Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary a year earlier.

All seven of the Republic of Ireland’s long-established universities are now Universities of Sanctuary, along with Athlone Institute of Technology. They have between them awarded nearly 400 scholarships for access programmes, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and other courses and programmes. Until they started this activity it was almost impossible for a refugee or asylum-seeking school-leaver to get a funded place to study at an Irish university. Their “vital work” (in the words of the July 2020 Programme for Government) has also led to a change of government policy: now any asylum-seeker in Ireland for three years who is offered a place at a third level institution will get the same financial and other supports as an Irish student.

A more recent development has been Schools of Sanctuary. This gets schools to pledge to undertake a programme of activities aimed at fostering a culture of welcome and inclusion for children who are asylum-seekers, refugees and other vulnerable migrants. Started in 2017 in a primary school in a loyalist working class area of Belfast where immigrants were being attacked and harassed, there are now 42 such schools in Northern Ireland (where they receive significant government funding). In the Republic, where the initiative started a little over a year ago (and with no government funding), there are now five, plus over 20 more schools preparing to become Schools of Sanctuary. The introduction to the Schools of Sanctuary resource pack says that by becoming a School of Sanctuary, “you will be offering refuge to those who need it and you will be equipping pupils and students with intercultural skills and the ability to have compassion in what is, for many, a turbulent world.”

Sanctuary Ambassadors are a group of 50 refugees and asylum-seekers who have received training in public policy and public speaking, and now address local councils, universities, schools and other groups on their experience of fleeing their own countries, arriving in Ireland and struggling to make a new life here.

The Green Minister for Children, Equality and Integration Roderick O’Gorman has now pledged to get rid of the Republic’s wretched Direct Provision system for asylum-seekers within the life of the present government. Now over 20 years old, this arrangement of privately-owned and profitable facilities – mainly unused and often rundown hotels and holiday camps – in which these unfortunate people and their families languish for up to five years (around 300 people for even longer) in a legal limbo with few rights – has been condemned by a wide range of lawyers, human rights experts and international organisations. A White Paper published last month promised a system not unlike the one used in Northern Ireland currently: six newly-built reception centres where arriving asylum-seekers and their families would stay for no longer than four months, followed by ‘own door’ houses and apartments for rent provided by local authorities (not famous for providing adequate social housing for their own people), housing associations and others. It is an ambitious project. I hope and pray it may succeed.

1 ‘United Ireland rhetoric provoking unionist backlash over NI protocol, says former diplomat’ , 4th March

2 ‘Unity is a valid political aspiration’, Letters to the Editor, 8th March

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

A clash between Northern bad faith and good cross-border business and infrastructure?

The unionists are digging another hole for themselves with their court action against the Northern Ireland Protocol. There is universal agreement in non-unionist Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels that the Protocol, however unpleasant in the short-term for the North’s consumers and traders, is here to stay, and the unionists will just have to learn to make the best of it. Without the Protocol, there would simply have been no trade deal reached between the UK and the EU. That great believer in realpolitik, Boris Johnson, fully recognises that.

Personally, I find it hard not to feel some sympathy for David Trimble’s impassioned plea in a long article in the Irish Times last week for a reform of the Protocol on the grounds that it contravenes the central pillar of the Good Friday Agreement: “the need for democratic consent to any changes in the constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland.”1 As he points out, Northern Ireland is now subject to EU laws without any right of dissent. There won’t be a vote in the Stormont Assembly on the implementation of the Protocol until 2024, and even then the cross-community safeguard in the 1998 Agreement will not apply. As I have pointed out in this column before, democratic it is not. However, it is a pity that at no point in his article did Trimble admit that it was the original Brexit vote – which he fully supported – which is the real source of the North’s problems and unionist woes on this issue.

Very few in this republic would share my feelings. Sympathy in Dublin for unionists is extremely thin on the ground: more so, in my opinion, than at any time for over 40 years. The feeling in London is somewhat similar. So rather than flog a dead horse through the courts (an arresting mixed metaphor!), I suggest practically-minded unionists should find ways of making the Protocol work for Northern Ireland. And I would suggest that Irish politicians – rather than engaging in their favourite pastime, finding a scapegoat (in this case the European Commission for its blunder in invoking the Protocol’s Article 16 over the Covid vaccine) – should look for ways to mitigate the effects of the Protocol in the short-term so as to give its longer-term benefits time to become apparent.

None of this will be easy. As the economist John Fitzgerald has pointed out, there are some opportunities here for Northern Ireland. Small British firms wishing to supply their EU customers could open a branch in the North, a much cheaper and less complex prospect than starting one in France or Germany. But that requires the DUP Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, to go out and sell the Protocol as a permanent and positive feature. There’s precious little chance of that happening.

In the badly-affected retail sector, the Irish government could perhaps persuade the European Commission to give the small number of UK supermarket chains which supply the Northern Ireland market ‘trusted trader’ status, so they don’t have to wrestle with the mountain of paperwork facing them in sending goods across the Irish Sea. But Commission sources have warned that Dublin’s special pleading for Northern Ireland has its limits. In the longer-term Fitzgerald believes that an all-island retail distribution system with somewhat higher costs is the likely outcome (which would also represent a very small step towards a united Ireland).

I hope that smart people in the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are thinking beyond a few difficult short-term fixes. A little public sympathy for the unionists’ predicament might even be in order. The longer-term challenge is to show that the Protocol – and, more importantly, continued membership of the EU by both Irish jurisdictions – can contribute to improving people’s lives and prosperity on the whole island. Here I believe there are all sorts of opportunities, particularly in the areas of the economy and health.

The Irish government needs to wield some financial incentives to kick-start the very underdeveloped all-island economy, which I still believe is one way to show sensible unionists that it makes sense for the island to work together for the greater good of all its people. In a 2016 report the North-South trade and business development body, InterTradeIreland,2 outlined a number of areas where there were “great opportunities” if cross-border coordination and integration could be stepped up: notably through research, innovation and training in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and software. It pointed to “rich potential for further collaboration” in areas like cloud computing and data analytics. It stressed the “very low level of all-island coordination of the education systems”, and the particular weakness of links between third level institutions.

The report proposed the coordination of research centres and a system of all-island clinical trials in the pharma sector (very topical!); the all-island integration of the medical device industry (which “could lead to the emergence of a very significant concentration of this sector in Northern Ireland”); and an all-island internship scheme involving universities and business, and the merging of existing clusters in Belfast and Dublin in the software sector (which “together would constitute an internationally significant industry agglomeration”). It reported “considerable enthusiasm” for such proposals from business leaders on both sides of the border.

There is no lack of good ideas for greater North-South collaboration in industry and academia. A Belfast businessman friend concerned about climate change points out that both Belfast and Dublin are vulnerable to serious flooding over the next decade as sea levels rise: why not collaborate in a programme of building up our neglected sea walls and creating resilient infrastructure along the heavily-populated east coast?

The same man is enthusiastic about the idea of a high-speed rail line between Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Belfast (and maybe even Derry). It would, of course, be extraordinarily expensive, but could it fire up economic growth for the whole island in the way that Franklin Roosevelt’s huge ‘New Deal’ infrastructure projects did for the US in the 1930s? It would certainly have major economic, social and environmental benefits. For these reasons such lines have become commonplace in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and are even being embarked on by Turkey and Egypt . An Irish government feasibility study into this €10-15 billion project was due to have got under way before Christmas. Dublin City University economics professor Edgar Morgenroth is a little sceptical: he wonders if it is worth spending such a huge amount of money on a train that will have only a limited number of stops. As a border person, he would prefer a far smaller amount to go on an east-west ‘greenway’, partly following abandoned railway lines from Dundalk to Sligo, to help bring tourists to that often forgotten region.

Morgenroth thinks the Irish government needs to find ways of incentivising Southern firms to look to Northern suppliers and helping Northern firms to trade more into the EU (InterTradeIreland could play a role here). More generally, he says since all the emphasis over the past 50 years has been on attracting in multinational companies (through the IDA) and helping Irish companies to export (through Enterprise Ireland), there is now a need for a new government agency to help Irish SMEs to source vital supplies (e.g. Irish bakers to find French flour in place of the now more expensive English variety. One could add Northern Irish bakers: I have always been surprised that the small firms of the excellent Northern home baking sector have not made further inroads into the Southern market).

Then there is health. The level of North-South cooperation to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely limited. Irish government sources have said there was never any serious engagement on a joint approach to key measures like quarantine, travel restrictions or the coordinated shutdown of social and economic life because Dublin recognised that the DUP would never agree to that.3 But at least let us learn from the mistakes of this pandemic, and try to think about how we might do better next time. The Northern Health Minister, Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionists, is a practical man, and I don’t think he would object to a group of eminent public health experts – the likes of Dr Gabriel Scally, Professor Sam McConkey, Professor Paddy Mallon and Professor Martin McKee (all Ulstermen, as it happens) – being brought together by the two governments to report on the future lessons from the pandemic for the island of Ireland.

The Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT) border region network of health boards and trusts – now nearly 30 years old – has shown the way, with impressive cooperation in areas like cardiology, radiotherapy and Ear Nose and Throat surgery. Prevention of communicable and non-communicable diseases (like Covid) was another obvious area for collaboration through joint health promotion campaigns. But CAWT’s good example has not been followed elsewhere. A very senior Northern civil servant told me in 2015: “Neither health system is in good shape, but some rationalisation could have been done together. The cross-border justification could have been used: ‘this has to happen on a cross-border basis – otherwise it won’t happen.’ 60% of people on the island live in the Belfast-Dublin corridor, yet there is no sense of any coordinated services or activities there.”

I fear, however, that there is one key obstacle to any major North-South cooperation project. I call it bad faith. Others might call it the old dishonesties of tribal politics. But can we trust the two parties in government in Belfast to do the best they can for the economy and people of Northern Ireland? I worry about their reluctance, for completely separate reasons, to involve themselves in major North-South projects for the mutual benefit of all the people on the island. The DUP’s reluctance to have anything to do with the Irish government or with all-Ireland projects, however sensible and practical, is well-known. But in the post-Brexit years they have also been playing the worst kind of ultra-partisan politics. For example, when Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots pulled out officials checking imported foods at Larne harbour earlier this month without even checking with the PSNI to see if there was any credible threat to them, was his main aim a political one: to undermine the Protocol?

On the other hand, would Sinn Fein be genuinely willing to do their share of heavy lifting on a major all-island transport or health project if it made the current Fianna Fail-led government look good, and therefore took away from their drive to be in power in Dublin after the next election? I often wonder when people like Michelle O’Neill or Conor Murphy get up in the morning, do they say to themselves: “Today, as a senior government minister, I will work as hard as I can for the people of the North of Ireland”; or rather do they say “I must always keep in mind that my party’s core aim is Irish unity, and thus the abolition of Northern Ireland – and if the North works too well (and I as a senior government minister make it work too well), that aim may be sidelined or postponed”?

1 ‘Protocol threatens rather than protects Belfast Agreement’, 20th February

2 ‘Mapping the Potential for All-Island Sectoral Eco-systems’

3 ‘Why is there no serious engagement on joint North-South cooperation approach to Covid?’ Irish Times, 28th January

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland | 2 Comments

Listen to the wisdom of the man who was rejected by the voters of South Belfast

In democratic societies it is not always the best and wisest people who end up as politicians and political leaders. We have seen that in the USA, the UK and, not surprisingly, little Northern Ireland in recent years. Sometimes the wisest people are rejected by the voters. Below is a Facebook post I received last week from my esteemed friend Professor Duncan Morrow, director of community engagement at the University of Ulster and former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council. In my humble opinion, Morrow is one of the wisest people in Northern Ireland. That was not recognised by the good people of South Belfast who rejected him when he ran for the Alliance Party there in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly elections. He is almost totally unknown south of the border, although an article by him voicing similar sentiments to these appeared in the Irish Independent on 4th February.

“There is a painful inevitability about what is happening in Northern Ireland over Brexit. This is, famously, a divided society. Divided, as is known, over identity and borders. That division has been fought out violently, leaving an appalling wreckage of lives lost and damaged, paramilitarisation, institutionalised social division and trauma.

The Good Friday Agreement reached for something else: through an acknowledgement that difference had to be accommodated, that human rights and full equality had to prevail and that every effort had to be directed to reconciliation, we stumbled away from violence. Too slowly of course, so that governments basically dropped reconciliation from the agenda in favour of bringing the most hostile into government – I suspect because that looked like the quicker way for them to get rid of direct responsibility for dealing with history. We have limped along in a kind of half-conflict half-peace ever since.

Still, some things worked: in practice, if you didn’t focus too much on the unresolved sectarianism, endless political antagonism and the lack of real policy to address anything of substance (specifically sectarianism, inequality and establishing a flourishing economy), you could largely get on with your life, and in a much more open and unthreatened way than for the three decades before 1998. A new generation with new issues seemed to be on the way, if allowed.

Which it was, until Brexit. To manage the Conservative Party, David Cameron called a referendum on leaving the EU, which ultimately turned into a campaign to ‘bring back control’ to ‘our laws, our borders and our money’. Except in Northern Ireland, there is no ‘our’ border, ‘our’ laws’ or ‘our’ money except that we also pay attention to its impact on ‘them’. We are existentially interdependent – and every step away from that is a wound.

Here, open borders prevent conflict, not closed ones; sharing and negotiating is the only way to live together, not a threat, and new coalitions need the breathing space of peace to emerge. Instead of focusing on the fragile point of common belonging, Brexit amplified the pressures to assert egotism in a place where domination and ‘me first’ are beyond toxic – potentially lethal in fact.

No post-Brexit deal was available for the whole UK without a deal on Ireland. So Boris Johnson tried to solve it by keeping his hard Brexit and shafting the DUP. To get a closed border in Dover, he had to put the hard border in Cairnryan. So he agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol. The risk now is that everything runs in the opposite direction of ‘control’.

None of this is good. Shafting the DUP is not good. A customs border in the Irish Sea is not good. All of it is worse than what we had. The only thing it is better than is trying to bring back control by imposing a hard border in Ireland, which breaks any notion that the Good Friday Agreement is a new collaborative beginning for relationships between Britain and Ireland. That way lies pariah status for the UK, a trade war with the EU and serious problems with US president Joe Biden.

So we are left with no good options, only less bad ones. We can of course export into two markets without hindrance – which we should get on with. We can mitigate some of the practical issues with supply routes through special deals, and we need to do that quickly. We can reconfigure supply lines over time, and that will happen.

But symbolically there is a border within the UK which was not there before and unionism unsurprisingly feels the chill. And there is no way to take away that bald fact unless the whole UK backs away from hard borders and nationalist ‘control’ rhetoric.

The most difficult part is that this has been obvious from the beginning. For years some of us have been trying to signal that moving away from a system [the EU] which prevents hard borders is disastrous. The predicament of unionism now is the result of not wanting to or not being able hear that and marching on regardless. The result is now a problem for all of us, not just unionism, leaving only the comfortless reality of ‘what else did you expect?’

It is to be hoped that wise heads in London, Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, and Washington will prevail. But that will require effort and attention and there is not much bandwidth for those in a Covid crisis.

But it will also require a break with the terrible logic that Theresa May pronounced after the Brexit referendum – you either come from somewhere or nowhere. Actually we here in these six counties do come from somewhere, it is just a more complicated and fragile ‘somewhere’ than national chauvinism allows.

Interdependence does not make you less. But it requires that international plans are built around complexity rather than shoehorned violently into the straightjacket of ‘us’ or ‘them’ to make them work. Not just because they are an annoying obligation, but because, in fact, making interdependence work is the only meaningful agenda for the future of everyone – and Northern Ireland is but a tiny trial run.”

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

Ireland in the 20th century contained not one rotten little state, but two

The impact of this month’s Mother and Baby Homes report came home to me personally through texts from my two daughters, both proud Irish-speaking feminists in their early thirties. “I felt deeply sad and sick to my stomach”, said one. “I’ve never felt so ashamed of this country,” said the other.

As so often, the horror of it was best articulated by Fintan O’Toole. He wrote about “the reign of terror” suffered by the young pregnant women and the “culture of fear which fused the physical and the spiritual, the social and the religious, into a single, overwhelming system of domination.” O’Toole has absolutely no doubt where the main guilt lay. “That power, for the vast majority of us, was wielded by one institution and one institution only: the Catholic Church.”

In 1969 London-based, Dublin-born journalist Alan Bestic quoted the words of a Catholic social worker about unmarried pregnant Irish girls in England:”The fear in these girls has to be seen to be believed. It is only by endless gentleness that we can persuade them that going back [to Ireland] to have their baby wouldn’t be so awful. What sort of society do you have in Ireland that puts the girls into this state?”

O’Toole tries to answer this question, acknowledging “the cruelty of Irish society, its obsessions with respectability and property, its misogyny and its snobbery, its endless capacity (honed by generations of mass emigration) to make its own realities disappear. But the driving force of this cruelty was spiritual terrorism. The sum of all fears was the dread of perdition. It was within this orbit that, as [Edna] O’Brien put it, the female body was ‘blackened by the fear of sin’. There was no such thing as ‘society’ as distinct from this domination of damnation, no neutral State beyond its reach. It pervaded everything and invaded each of our bodies. The brutal institutions of social control – industrial schools, Magdalen asylums and mother and baby homes – were the outward signs of this inward terror.”1

In the words of the great Leitrim writer John McGahern, who was driven from his job as a teacher at the instigation of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid: “In that country, individual thought and speech were discouraged…By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclamation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand… The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarean section, presumably because it was considered more ‘natural’. Minorities were deprived of the right to divorce. Learning Irish was seen as a means of keeping much foreign corrupting influence out.”

Meanwhile the country was so impoverished that in the 1950s half a million people were forced to emigrate, most of them to England. It was an irony beyond irony that this was precisely the time the Irish government chose to mount an utterly futile international campaign to end partition. Little wonder that Northern Protestants, snug in their own bigoted, anti-Catholic statelet, scoffed at this attempt to incorporate them into such a Catholic-run dystopia.

And weren’t they right? The truth is that the Republic of Ireland in the middle decades of the last century was a rotten little place, antipathetic to women, children and anybody who deviated from the path of obedience to the all-powerful Church and its servants in an inward-looking and impecunious ‘ourselves alone’ State. We have been told repeatedly what a dreadful place Northern Ireland was for the 70 years between the 1920s and the 1990s. After the seemingly endless series of recent reports into Catholic Church-related abuses of the weak, the poor and the deviant, it is surely time to confess that the independent Irish State wasn’t much better. And this is not at all to deny that similar abuses – rooted in the Victorian and post-Victorian age’s cruel attitudes to such people – also took place in the North or in Protestant-run homes in the South like Dublin’s Bethany Home.

So what are the lessons of this for those of us who would like one day to see the peoples of Ireland coming together in one constitutional arrangement? It would be easy to dismiss all these scandals as the product of a dark and bygone age, which has now triumphantly passed as the popular votes in the same sex marriage and abortion referenda have turned the present-day republic into one of Europe’s most liberal societies. However the Catholic Church, much diminished but still powerful, continues to wield huge influence – often now through clever trust arrangements – over many of the country’s hospitals and more than 90% of its schools. In the same week that the Mother and Baby Homes report was published, the former master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Peter Boylan, outlined in a letter to the Irish Times how that hospital in its brand-new form would be taken over by one of several “private Vatican controlled entities beyond the reach of the State.”2

And the Republic is not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (despite the astonishing finding of a UN survey last month that it is now the country with the second highest quality of life in the world – after Norway – when measured by income, education, health and length of life). It is one of the most unequal societies in Europe before progressive tax and welfare systems equalise those divisions considerably. It has shocking levels of child poverty, hospital waiting lists, mental illness, social housing shortages and homelessness. The Direct Provision system for asylum-seekers is a national scandal. After the Covid-19 pandemic is over – in common with many other smaller countries – it will face gargantuan and near-unsustainable levels of debt.

So maybe it is time to be a little self-reflective and lay off on the drumbeat announcements that Irish unity is inevitable and just around the corner after one or two Border Polls over the next decade (and will be the solution to all our problems). Maybe we should work for some more years to make our republic a more decent, equal and inclusive society, respectful of other cultures besides our own Irish nationalist one, before expecting Northerners to want to cast aside their Britishness (and fine British institutions like the National Health Service) to come in with us.

It cost the wealthy Germans two trillion euros for new infrastructure alone to help unite their country, with an overwhelming majority of people in favour of that outcome, very few against and people prepared to put up with significant tax increases to bring it about peacefully and harmoniously. Will we be able to muster a quarter of that sum to do the same for our country, when something like a sixth of the population – and half of the population of the present Northern Ireland – will be bitterly opposed to it (and a small number may be prepared to use violence to resist it)? And when we refuse to pay even a small but environmentally urgent water tax?

Is the message from Sinn Fein and other ‘advanced’ nationalists that we want a much closer relationship with the North for the good of all the people of the island, and are prepared to work over a period of time towards complex constitutional and other arrangements (building on the extremely complex Good Friday Agreement) to that end? Or is it rather that once we get the narrowest of narrow wins in a Border Poll, the historic British-imposed wrong of partition will be ended and we will have a unitary state that effectively takes over the North? That is what the Irish political establishment was endlessly demanding for much of the bad old 20th century (read Clare O’Halloran’s seminal book, Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism, if you doubt me). Despite their sometimes honeyed words, it seems to me that what Sinn Fein is offering is little different. And to judge by the brazenness of many Sinn Feiners in Belfast these days – supremely confident that tiocfaidh ár lá – their attitudes have not changed one iota. ‘The boot will soon be on the other foot’ is what that strutting confidence says to me.

1 ‘Spiritual terrorism created world of mother and baby homes’, 19 January

2 ‘State and church and healthcare’, Letters to the Editor, 15 January

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments

Is the UK exit from the EU an opportunity to turn Northern Unionists towards Europe (and Ireland)?

So, four and a half years after the fateful Brexit vote the United Kingdom finally left the European Union on New Year’s Eve with a trade deal in place. The sometimes unfathomable Northern Ireland protocol (which is separate from this deal) is clear on one thing: there will be no customs checks on the Irish border.

After that it becomes complicated. There will be a new ‘regulatory’ border between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales, meaning some checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea. That’s because, unlike the North, Britain won’t have to follow EU rules in the future. This will not be good for Northern Irish consumers.

The EU has very strict rules about what can enter its market when it comes to foods such as meat, milk, fish and eggs. From today, some food products arriving in Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales will need to be checked to ensure they meet EU standards. This will involve border control posts at seaports, where paperwork will be checked and some physical inspections will take place.

However, in order to reduce any potential disruption, supermarkets will be given an initial three month ‘grace period’ where the rules will not be enforced on the food they bring into Northern Ireland. This is to give them time to adapt to the changes and to ensure supplies are maintained. Some meat products, like sausages, will have a longer six month grace period.

What happens after this period is unclear, and will be the subject of future negotiations. The NI Department of Economy’s own recent paper on the economic impact of the protocol accepts that it will represent “a significant shock” to the regional economy, because the requirement to apply “the EU customs code at NI ports will inevitably lead to increased cost for firms importing from GB, in the form of customs declarations, sanitary and phytosanitary certificates [for the processing and transport of livestock] as well as increased checks and surveillance.”

So for trade purposes Northern Ireland is now classified as part of the EU, whereas the rest of the UK is classed as a separate nation. That represents a huge victory for the skilled Irish politicians and diplomats who worked might and main in the EU’s corridors of power to ensure there would be no border on the island of Ireland, and that, if there were to be any post-Brexit border at all, it would be an economic one down the Irish Sea.

It remains to be seen whether, in the words of that deeply untrustworthy senior British minister, Michael Gove, this will mean that “businesses in Northern Ireland have the opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds: access to the European single market, because there’s no infrastructure on the island of Ireland, and at the same time unfettered access to the rest of the UK market.” I hope it may prove so.

This trade agreement and its accompanying protocol also has much broader implications. It means that in the future, across a broad range of economic, trading and other areas of society, Dublin rather than London will be the main interlocutor between Northern Ireland and the EU. There is a great responsibility on the Irish government to handle this crucial new responsibility with sensitivity and balance. I believe it could prove far more important in the long run than Sinn Fein’s Pavlovian and potentially destabilising demands for an early Border Poll.

I have long believed that the coming together of the two economies on the island to ensure the overall prosperity, stability and harmony of its people is the best medium to long-term way forward to some kind of genuinely ‘united’ Ireland. The NI protocol, if handled well by the Irish Government, could be a major step in this direction.

I offer one small non-economic example. Irish higher education minister Simon Harris (a potential future Taoiseach who was much praised for his early handling of the Covid-19 epidemic as health minister) has pledged that the government will cover the cost of any third level student at a Northern university wishing to avail of the EU’s Erasmus programme. This scheme enables third level students (and a few staff) to study for part or all of their degrees in another EU member state or undertake a work placement in an EU country with all their fees and costs covered. In a sign of mind-boggling insularity, the Johnson government has chosen to end British universities’ involvement in Erasmus (which also sees large numbers of European students coming to the UK), despite the EU’s willingness to facilitate their continued participation.

This is a far-sighted move by Dublin. Around 650 Northern Irish students and staff took part in the scheme last year. What better way to persuade the significant minority of those students who are from a unionist background of the bona fides of the Irish government than to fund their studies in this way. That is one way to start turning intelligent young people of a unionist bent – those who will help lead Northern Ireland in the future – into potential supporters (or at least not rigid opponents) of some form of sensible Irish unity.

I would go further. I am shocked to discover that there is no possibility of taking an undergraduate course in European Studies at the North’s two universities. Why doesn’t the Irish government fund a chair of European Studies at either Queen’s University Belfast and/or the University of Ulster? In this way future generations of students from a unionist background can start to see that being European – and therefore also Irish -poses no threat to their parallel British identity and culture.

There are other areas where I believe the Irish government, starting with its €500 million Shared Island fund, could help win hearts and minds for closer relationships in Ireland. I have listened to Dr John Kyle, deputy leader of the small, left-of-centre Progressive Unionist Party, arguing for greater North-South cooperation in areas that particularly affect his poor Belfast working class constituents like disadvantage in education and mental health (the Centre for Cross Border Studies published research reports on the potential for cooperation in both these areas as long ago as the early 2000s)

What did John Hume, Northern Ireland’s greatest advocate of learning from Europe, say about this? I have been reading a lengthy article he wrote in 1989 for the London Review of Books in which he spelt out his philosophy at that time, just after he had finished his first round of talks with the Sinn Fein leadership.1

He had harsh things to say about both Ulster Unionists and Irish Republicans. He decried the “archaic supremacism” of the former, “stripped of ascendancy and privilege” and forced for the first time by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement onto a “politically equal footing” with nationalism. And he condemned the “undiluted fascism” of the IRA and Sinn Fein, with their violent methods and belief that they are the “pure Irish master race.” “They have also the other hallmark of fascism – the need for a scapegoat; as they see it, the Brits are to blame for everything – even their own atrocities!”

Can one see those continuing tendencies, mercifully watered down by two decades of peace processing and power-sharing, in the present day DUP and Sinn Fein? I believe one can. They are less important in the DUP, which after Brexit is a declining force. But there are real danger signs in a resurgent Sinn Fein, not surprising given that the seeds of European fascism are often found in the kind of ultra-nationalism and militarism (and thus hatred and violence) from which that party springs. Last month’s revelation (by Jennifer Bray of the Irish Times) of an unofficial ‘Sinn Fein’ Facebook site (quickly disowned by the party, which asked that it should be taken down) with 16,000 subscribers, full of hate messages and threats of violence against the republic’s constitutional politicians, is only the latest evidence of this ugly strain.2

In his 1989 essay, John Hume went on to outline a viewpoint which I passionately share, and some damning statistics which are largely forgotten in Ireland today. “There is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life. What is more, the vast majority of the major injustices suffered not only by the Nationalist community but by the whole community are direct consequences of the IRA campaign. If I were to lead a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland today, the main target would be the IRA. It is they who carry out the greatest infringements of human and civil rights, with their murders and bombings, their executions without trial, their kneecappings and punishment shootings. The most fundamental human right is the right to life. Who in Northern Ireland takes the most human lives?

“Let the record speak. In the 21-year perod of the current troubles, 31 per cent of those who have died were members of the security forces. 14 per cent were members of paramilitary organisations. 55 per cent were ordinary civilian men and women from both sections of the community, 69 per cent of them from the Catholic community and 31 per cent from the Protestant. And who killed all those people? The statistics are devastating: 44 per cent were killed by the Provisional IRA and 18 per cent by their fellow-travelling ‘Republican’ paramilitaries. 27 per cent were killed by Loyalists. 10 per cent by the British Army. Two per cent were killed by the RUC and 0.28 per cent by the UDR. In short, people describing themselves as Irish Republicans have killed six times as many human beings as the British Army, 30 times as many as the RUC and 250 times as many as the UDR…Was it O’Casey who said: ‘The gunmen are not dying for the people, the people are dying for the gunmen’?”

Hume then went on to talk about Europe. “Forty-three years ago the Second World War ended. Europe was devastated, its major cities in chaos, millions of its citizens dead. The bitterness between ancient foes, particularly France and Germany, was deeper than ever. If in that bleak landscape someone had forecast the Europe of the 1980s, he would have been described as a fool or a dreamer. Yet it happened – because leaders had the vision to suggest new ways. They recognised that if the peoples of Western Europe, with their deep differences and fears for their survival, had chosen the wrong path to protect these differences, the results would have been ruinous for Europe as a whole.

“After 1945, led by men of vision, they tried a new way. They sat down with former enemies to hammer out agreed institutions which settled relationships and preserved differences. No one would have believed in 1945 that by 1992 they would be moving towards the United States of Europe, with the Germans still German and the French still French. One thing is certain: they would never have achieved it had they continued to dwell on the past and call up the ghosts of the past. That approach would have led, as it always had done and as it does in Ireland, to conflict in every generation. Can we in Ireland not learn the same lesson? Can we not sit down with former enemies, with those whom we distrust, and hammer out institutions which will settle our relationships and preserve our differences?”

In the end, in the years up to 1998, the warring parties heeded his call and that ‘hammering out’ led to the miraculous Good Friday Agreement. Now that the dreadful Brexit conundrum has been put to bed for the foreseeable future, let men and women of moderation and goodwill – the vast majority of Irish people, I believe – redouble our efforts to continue to build towards a shared, prosperous and harmonious (but not necessarily politically united) Ireland. And let us do it through small, confidence building steps, and as people who remain – against all the odds – part of the greatest of all modern peace projects, a shared, prosperous and (for most of the time) harmonious (but not necessarily politically united) Europe.

1 https://www.lrb.uk/the-paper/v11/n03/john-hume/john-hume-on-the-end-of-the-unionist-veto-in-ulster

2 ‘Secret Facebook group reveals bitter tirades and abuse of Sinn Fein’s opponents’, Irish Times, 19 December

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Sinn Fein | 2 Comments

Don’t the DUP realise they are hanging on to the Union by their fingertips?

22 years ago, in the months after the Good Friday Agreement, there was a real feeling of hope in Northern Ireland. Seamus Mallon had sensed it when he talked to people in the streets of Omagh, Ballymoney and Poyntzpass after particularly ugly atrocities in those places earlier in the year. “They felt that David Trimble and I working together meant a new and hopeful beginning to deal with all the historic enmity and deep distrust”, he wrote in his 2019 memoir A Shared Home Place.

Enmity and distrust were back with a bang in recent weeks as the Northern Ireland Executive tried to battle the latest surge of Covid-19, which has seen the region with one of the highest rates of the pandemic in the UK (and four times that in the Republic). In particular, the DUP’s deep tribalism and right-wing economic views seemed to be the main block to agreeing eminently sensible measures to deal with that crisis. Here was a unique opportunity for the DUP and Sinn Fein to show they could lay aside the ancient mutual loathing – however temporarily – and work together to protect the people of the North from this existential menace. As the eminent Newry-born head of epidemiology and public health in the Royal College of Medicine in London, Dr Gabriel Scally, said: “These are not constitutional issues – they are public health issues. They are not about sovereignty – they are about human lives and the preservation of jobs and a functioning economy. We can revert to tribal allegiances in due course if we really want to, but in the meantime let’s get the job done.”

Yet twice in a week in mid-November the DUP used the ‘petition of concern’ – the veto mechanism inserted into the Good Friday Agreement to protect minorities on contentious issues – to block measures (principally a two-week extension of the lockdown) that the medical experts had recommended and all the other parties in government (led by Ulster Unionist health minister Robin Swann) had agreed. Even more than the right of the Tory party, men like Edwin Poots, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley junior seemed to believe, Trump-like, that the most important thing was to re-open the economy because the cure was proving worse than the disease. To those who remember his father’s thundering denunciations of alcohol, there was a particular irony in hearing the Paisley son saying that to allow restaurants to open without being able to serve alcoholic drinks was like telling hairdressers to open “without their combs”!

Back in October Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Ian Young , had urged a six week lockdown, which would have brought Northern Ireland in line with the Republic for the first time since the pandemic started over nine months ago. This was resisted by the DUP and the agreed compromise was strict measures for four weeks. Almost immediately First Minister Arlene Foster took the extremely unwise step of ruling out any extension at the end of this period, and this was what led to the deadlock between the DUP and everyone else in mid-November.

In the end, after several days of chaotic negotiations, Foster was forced into another u-turn and the two-week extension recommended by Swann and the medical experts was reinstated. “She looked over the precipice and realised she didn’t want to be held responsible for what might happen if there was another surge before Christmas,” says one person familiar with the DUP’s thinking. “It was one of those TINA (There Is No Alternative) situations.”

The result was further weakening of Foster’s already weak position, both in the Executive and within her own party, and further reputational damage to the Executive, whose credibility among the ordinary people of the North has reached a new low. None of this means that the Executive is going to collapse in the near future, since neither big party wants another election, all too conscious of how well both Alliance and the SDLP did in the last Westminster election 12 months ago.

Sometimes it is difficult to credit just how appallingly the DUP has performed in recent years: both in its witless lining up with the hardest of hard-line Brexiteers to defeat Theresa May’s efforts to keep the whole of the UK in the EU Customs Union, which would have been by far the best post-referendum outcome for Northern Ireland; and in its incompetence in governing the North, highlighted by its recent cack-handed approach to the Corona virus crisis.

“Arlene is a leader at the mercy of her party”, says the well-informed Belfast News Letter political reporter Sam McBride. She had been rendered extremely weak by two factors: her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, and, more importantly, her leadership in the March 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election, which saw the party lose 10 seats and – with enormous symbolism – unionism lose its nearly 100-year-old majority in Stormont. Another knowledgeable commentator, Alex Kane, says she was within 72 hours of losing the leader’s job after that election. She was rescued three months later by a Westminster election result which saw the DUP holding the balance of power in that chamber, leading to a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Conservatives, an opportunity which they then proceeded to squander.

There is now a significant anti-Foster element in the DUP, led by Edwin Poots, who despite his ‘country bumpkin’ image, is a shrewd and ambitious politician who has made no secret of his desire to lead the party. These are the people who opposed the lockdown extension. They overlap with, but are not identical to, the minority of its MLAs (perhaps a quarter) who are still the kind of archaic religious fundamentalists who provided the party’s core in the 1970s and 1980s. They are hard-right in politics, economics and culture, people who would feel quite at home with Donald Trump’s conservative evangelical base. And they detest power-sharing with Sinn Fein or cooperation with Dublin. Any takeover of the DUP by this group would be a major blow to an already weakened peace process.

Meanwhile the picture in London is equally, if not more, depressing. There, as we count down the weeks to the UK leaving the EU, there is little or no understanding of or sympathy for the difficult situation of Northern Ireland and Ireland. I heard a former senior British diplomat say recently that the “altruism” of successive British governments towards Ireland over the past 30 years has been replaced by a politics of narrow self-interest and English nationalism. The relationship between Dublin and London has become so fraught that the Irish government finds it difficult to know who to engage with in the British government these days. The kind of “impartiality and fairness” which informed the Major, Blair and Brown administrations in dealing with Northern Ireland has gone. Shockingly, this man said that while Ireland and the Irish border was one of the three top items on the EU’s priority list during the Brexit negotiations, it probably did not feature among the UK’s top ten.

Does the DUP not realise that this spells real danger for unionist Northern Ireland? Boris Johnson has already shown his utter duplicity in trying to renege on the international treaty that is the Northern Ireland Protocol (and it should be scant comfort to them that he is using pro-unionist arguments to do so). The British Prime Minister is as untrustworthy on Northern Ireland as he is on everything else. It seems to me to be axiomatic that the DUP should be working night and day to ensure that a power-sharing Executive works for the whole people of Northern Ireland, in order to assure them – and particularly the non-unionist section of the population – that the best way of running the place remains, with all its difficulties, a power-sharing regional government within the United Kingdom with strong cooperative links to the Republic of Ireland. Given the demographic pressures and the growth of a centre ground that will be more open to arguments for some kind of Irish unity, that is simply the only way for them to save the Union. Astonishingly, there seems to be something in their DNA that prevents them from seeing this.

PS 30-40 years ago readers of Ireland’s foremost newspaper, the Irish Times, would have read a piece of analysis like the above (minus the opinions!) at least once a week. When I was working in the paper’s Belfast office in the 1980s, we had two weekly columns, ‘Northern Notebook’ and ‘Inside Belfast’: the first to analyse the week’s news and the second to explore aspects of Northern Ireland society other than politics and violence. In addition, we had a weekly opinion column from the peerless and hugely knowledgeable Mary Holland.

These days there is little such analysis. I would suggest this is not its Northern-based journalists’ fault, but is due to decisions by senior editors in Dublin that there is just not enough interest among its readers for such in-depth coverage. It is no wonder that people in the South have little idea about what makes the strange ‘place apart’ that is Northern Ireland tick. For analysis the paper has Newton Emerson, not a journalist versed in the disciplines of checking and double-checking with informed sources, but a satirist-turned-political commentator who seems to look no further than his own maverick unionist mind and imagination for many of his columns. Emerson has been in situ for the best part of five years. As we move into a period when the prospect of unity will become a subject of increasingly serious public discussion, is it not time to replace him with a writer with a real insight into mainstream unionist thinking: somebody like Alex Kane or Sam McBride?

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

Sometimes I despair about the lack of fresh thinking in the Republic about moves towards unity

On 23rd October, the day after the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, launched his ‘Shared Island’ initiative, I wrote the following letter to the Irish Times:

The Taoiseach’s comments at the launch of the Government’s new ‘Shared Island’ initiative, prioritising sharing the island over reunification, deserve wide support. 

Despite your headline, this is not a “departure from core Fianna Fail policy of political reunification”. Mr Martin’s emphasis on building North-South relations rather than ‘Brits Out’ rhetoric is entirely in line with the policies of former Fianna Fail taoisigh like Sean Lemass, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, as well as Garret Fitzgerald, John Bruton and Enda Kenny.

It was Lemass who broke with the sterile anti-partitionism of the first 40 years of the Irish state, and changed the emphasis to seeking improved relationships with Northern unionists. It was Ahern who told his Ministers to put North-South cooperation at the top of their agendas.

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.

A policy built on growing North-South cooperation, and thus new and strengthened relationships in practical areas of mutual benefit – the economy, the environment, health and education – is the only sensible alternative. We should concentrate on building economic prosperity and social harmony on this island and leave the possibility of political unity to the next generation.

As Brian Cowen said wisely in 2010: “The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination – where we end up eventually – is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe. We have to make the here and now a better place, and we have to do it on the basis that we have devised a political culture that is less suspicious and fearful than ever before, that is more open to recognise the common interests we have together while respecting that we are in separate jurisdictions. We should be concerned about what it is we can do together.”

In its wisdom, the Irish Times decided not to publish this letter. The main space in the letters page in the following day’s paper was given over to nine letters about ‘sport and the lockdown’, seven of which were from golfers complaining they could not play their favourite game for six weeks. Over the following week only three letters were published in response to the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Ireland’ initiative: two on an utterly unrealistic proposal from a retired Belfast professor urging him to set up a ‘Shared Islands’ unit involving all of Britain and Ireland, and one on a batty idea for a new ‘Isles of Man’ confederation with its capital on that island.

I have to say that this is par for the course (excuse the pun) when it comes to trying to provoke some fresh or nuanced thinking in this republic about beginning to prepare for moves towards some kind of unity. The response to Micheál Martin’s effort to move Irish government policy towards “strengthening shared relationships on the island” through increased North-South cooperation, and away from the “simplistic narratives” and “the persistence of identity politics” was underwhelming at best, negative at worst. Most of the journalists who covered it – with the honourable exception of RTE’s Tommie Gorman – focussed on whether it meant a major departure from the core Fianna Fail policy of a united Ireland (Martin insisted it did not).

Sometimes I despair at the mixture of old-fashioned delusional thinking and sheer apathy that usually prevents any efforts at serious public debate on this existential topic in the South. I wrote last month about the poverty of Sinn Fein’s thinking when it comes to the extremely difficult practical steps – consultative, security, financial – which we need to discuss before we even contemplate a Border Poll.

The delusional thinking mainly concerns unionists and the likelihood that they will lie down and accept unity. Unionists are one of the most hidebound, fearful and unchanging (and martial) communities in Europe. I remember my extremely liberal mother, daughter of a County Antrim unionist family, warning me as a 21 year old back in 1969 as I headed off to join the civil rights movement: “You’ll never change them, Andrew”.

In his ‘Shared Island’ initiative, Micheál Martin is taking on the hard task of trying to change them, and particularly the younger people among them. “He was addressing the tens of thousands [of unionists] who were born after 1998,” says that insightful unionist commentator Alex Kane. “He was addressing that section of unionism worried by the consequences of Brexit and the regeneration of a particularly insular English nationalism. He was addressing those who believe that unionism, in its present guise, doesn’t represent the totality, complexity and nuance of their interests. He was addressing those who might feel more comfortable in a united Ireland than in a UK shorn of Scotland and dominated by a ‘new’ conservatism which doesn’t give a damn about Northern Ireland. It’s no coincidence that the first Shared Island Dialogue will be with ‘new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement.”1

Kane expected there would be “a number of younger people from a unionist or pro-union background who do want their voices and views heard and who may be wanting to say things that mainstream political unionism would prefer them not to say.”

Another part of the wrong-headed thinking in nationalist Ireland is the 150 year old belief that unionists are merely deluded Irish people, who just have to rid themselves of the ‘false conciousness’ that they are British. 50 years ago, as a young left-wing firebrand, I used to believe this. I have been reading a 2015 essay by a similarly left-wing Northern Protestant, Robbie McVeigh, who says that unionists have to throw off politics which are “reactionary and self-destructive” (not to mention sectarian and racist) and “accept that we are an Irish Protestant minority – accept the inevitability of reunification and begin to embrace and celebrate the positive aspects of this prospect”.2

I imagine a large number of people in the Republic – when they think about such things at all – would agree with McVeigh. The inevitability factor, that we just have to wait for the onward march of history and demography, is another disincentive to any serious consideration of the implications of the political, social and cultural upheaval that unity will cause.

The problem is that McVeigh’s thesis is unsustainable: outside a few mavericks, unionists deciding they are really Irish after all is not going to happen (and here I may differ slightly from Kane, although as a distinguished Belfast journalist from that background he is better informed about unionism than I am). After 30 years of violence, much of it aimed at destroying the link with Britain and thus undermining the community which cherishes that link above all things, it seems to me that the great majority of unionists are as attached to the union with Britain as ever (whatever about their perfidious governors in London). And despite the demographic wishful thinkers, the nationalist vote (i.e. for Sinn Fein, the SDLP and a couple of smaller parties) continues to hover at or just under 40%, as it has done for the last 20 years and more.

So unionists’ British identity appears to be as strong as ever. Another essay in that 2015 collection is by the playwright Graham Reid, son of a socialist labourer in the Belfast shipyard, and author of the Billy plays in the early 1980s, the last sympathetic dramatic portrayal of Belfast working class Protestants I can remember. In the mid-1960s Reid had joined the precursor of the civil rights movement, the Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland, and in 1974 voted for the Sunningdale Agreement. He recalled that at a reception in the Mansion House hosted by Charles Haughey, he had written ‘British’ in the nationality section of the visitors’ book. “I was roundly attacked by the then artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, but that’s what I am. Not Northern Irish/British…just British. I love Northern Ireland because it’s British. Having said that, I have very warm feelings for the Republic of Ireland…my early work was staged in Dublin. I have many friends there and respect them as Irish, so therefore expect them to respect me as British.”3

In my experience of many years of living and working in the North, that is as far as any mainstream unionist will go in opening his or her mind and heart to the rest of Ireland. That is the fragile foundation we must build on, and I believe that is what Micheál Martin is trying to do.

1 ‘Unionism at risk if it fails to prepare for Border poll’, Irish Times, 2 November

2 ”Noone likes us, we don’t care: what is to be (un)done about Ulster Protestant Identity’, in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, Thomas Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna (eds.)

3 ‘Convergence’, in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments

Sinn Fein are getting ready for government. But are they ready for unity?

An Irish Times opinion poll on 8th October showed support for Fine Gael at 35% and Sinn Fein at 29%, with Fianna Fail a distant third at 17% and the Greens an even more distant fourth at 4%. Public anxiety and weariness at the rising Covid-19 numbers and the sometimes incoherent coalition government response to the pandemic is clearly at the heart of this, so if the government’s policies start to work and the numbers go down again, that will probably be reflected in future opinion polls. This week’s ultra-generous budget should help.

However, this is also an indication that the seismic shift in Irish politics represented by the Sinn Fein surge in the February election, building on the general move to ‘left populism’ (in the telling phrase of SF’s Eoin Ó Broin) in elections since the 2008 economic crash, is continuing apace. Is popular support in the Republic moving to coalesce around Fine Gael on the right and Sinn Fein on the left, with Fianna Fail reduced to playing a bit part in the future as coalition partner to the new republican power in the land? Two senior civil servants told Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy earlier this month that they found it hard to see any circumstances in which Sinn Fein would not be the largest party after the next election. If that happens, and Mary Lou McDonald becomes Taoiseach in 2025 (and possibly sooner), she has made it clear that her first and most urgent priority will be driving on to unity.

In the February election, Sinn Fein shrewdly played down its core policy of Irish unity brought about by a Border Poll (or rather a series of Border Polls at seven-year intervals) in the near future. Its election manifesto was entitled ‘ Giving workers and families a break: a Manifesto for Change,’ a classic left-wing message. For most Southerners a united Ireland over the next 5-10 years simply does not form part of their ‘frontal brain’ thinking. In the election they were thinking about the state’s glaring inadequacies in housing and health above all. Now, as Covid surges again, they are understandably focussed on the latter.

But how developed is Sinn Fein’s own thinking about the difficult transition to unity they envisage in that very near future, and the practical steps needed to ensure that it happens with a minimum of violence and other political, social and economic dislocation? In particular, how developed is their thinking about how to cope with the 800,000 or more unionists who remain stubbornly opposed to that unity?

I have been looking through three recent Sinn Fein documents to try to get a clue to this: their 2020 election manifesto, and two 2016 policy documents (the most recent of their kind): ‘Towards a United Ireland’ and ‘Towards an Agreed and Reconciled Future.’ The former is a ‘discussion document’ and the latter an outline of policy ‘on reconciliation and healing.’

As a measure of how developed the party’s thinking is on this transition and the practical steps it will entail, I am using the questions posed by the late Seamus Mallon in his 2019 book, A Shared Home Place (which I co-authored).1

Is some kind of temporary joint authority between the British and Irish governments feasible to ensure that the government and administration of the North do not break down during a transitional period before unity? There is nothing in any of these documents about this.

Will there be some kind of alternative staged process? There is nothing about this either.

What kind of parliamentary and community consultation, public finance and public service structures will be put in place both during and after that transitional phase? There is no mention of any of these vital elements in bringing about drastic constitutional and jurisdictional change in a deeply divided society in any of the three documents.

How will justice, law and order be guaranteed during the inevitable breakdown of law and order that too precipitate a transition will cause, with the danger that revived loyalist paramilitaries would violently resist it and revived republican paramilitaries seek to enforce it? There is absolutely nothing about this vital security question in any of these documents.

What guarantees will be put in place so that the proud British identity of the unionists will be protected, cherished and incorporated into the institutions, ethos and symbols of the new state? At least there is something about this in the ‘Towards a United Ireland’ document, but it is extremely vague and non-specific. In a section entitled ‘Relationships in a New Ireland’, there is a line of pure wishful thinking: “Irish reunification will mean new and better relationships within Ireland, between Ireland and Britain…” Similarly it says: “The Orange tradition is an Irish tradition and the British identity of many people in the North must be accommodated in an agreed, united Ireland.”

What will be those unifying institutions and symbols? Again, vagueness and lack of specifics are the order of the day. A new constitution and an all-Ireland charter of fundamental rights are promised, as is the right of people who hold British citizenship to continue to hold that citizenship. There follow three slightly less vague promises: “Constitutional recognition of the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity of a significant number of people in the North of Ireland; expression being given to the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy; recognition of the place of the loyal institutions (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation.”

Here, for the first time, is some small evidence of re-thinking among republicans. However, once again, lack of specifics are the first thing any intelligent unionist will notice. How does Sinn Fein foresee the constitution being changed to recognise unionists’ British identity? How will their loyalty to the British monarchy be expressed and recognised? How will the Orange Order be recognised? A Dublin resident, Northern Protestant friend of mine (a supporter of unity) recently suggested, only half-jokingly, that a new Irish flag could consist of the present green and white bands with the third, orange band incorporating a small Union flag (in the way Australia does). How would Sinn Fein react to that? Indeed how would the people of the 70-year-old Republic of Ireland react to that? Because that is the kind of radical symbolic change we will be looking at if we are serious about an ‘agreed, united Ireland’ (one of Sinn Fein’s favourite oxymorons).

Would these new institutions work best on an all-island basis or in a new northern regional context? In ‘Towards a United Ireland’ there is one passing mention of what Sinn Fein calls “transitional arrangements”: i.e. “continued devolution to Stormont and a power-sharing Executive in the North within an all-Ireland structure”, or “a federal or confederal arrangement”. There is also an unspelled out mention of “other arrangements.” But remember that for Sinn Fein these will all be “transitional” on the way to a united Irish state.

Will the constitutional arrangements involve some sort of federalism or confederalism? There is nothing more than the scant mention above.

Reading these documents, the overwhelming impression is that they contain few new ideas and few departures from the traditional Irish nationalist and republican thinking of the past hundred years: Irish unity is the only solution on offer, with a few vague, unspecified concessions to unionists’ British identity.

It seems that Sinn Fein wants other people to do the hard thinking about how we might move towards a united Ireland and what it would look like. In their February election manifesto the party says that in government it will establish a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity (i.e. get the parliamentarians to do the thinking); establish an all-island Citizens’ Assembly or other forum to discuss unity (i.e. get a random sample of Irish people to do the thinking – minus the unionist parties, who will boycott such an assembly); publish a White Paper on Irish unity (Why can’t they publish a proper policy paper now to give us some idea of their thinking about what should go into such a White Paper?); and hold a referendum, north and south, on unity (under the Good Friday Agreement, this decision is one for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – i.e. the British government, so London would have to do the initial thinking).

In their election manifesto, the extremely difficult process of moving towards unity is summarised in a paragraph which is pure, unthinking waffle. “The future is not about a single step-change in which we go to bed one night in a partitioned Ireland and the next morning wake up in a united Ireland. It’s all about process. A process of discussion. A process of persuasion. A process of change. A process of transition. A process of transformation. A process of reconciliation. It’s about agreeing how we will organise our society. It’s about how we share our future. It’s about all of us having our say and playing our part in this.” ‘Process’ is mentioned seven times in this paragraph, but there is not a word about how Sinn Fein sees this devilishly difficult transition (faced with the unrelenting opposition of close to half the population of Northern Ireland) working itself out peacefully and harmoniously. Given the party believes that once there is the barest voting majority in the North in favour of unity, we must have unity, how do they plan for the ‘processes’ of discussion, persuasion, transition, transformation and reconciliation listed in this empty-headed paragraph?

One of the problems is that too many republicans believe unity and reconciliation are interchangeable terms: in Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney’s words, that “a new, agreed Ireland built upon unity of all its people should put reconciliation and healing at the heart of its civil and political institutions.” Like many others who have been involved in peacemaking and cooperation in the North, I believe Kearney has it the wrong way round. The people of Northern Ireland have to work first and foremost for the reconciliation of their deeply divided little society, using the ingenious (if flawed) mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement – only then can we start talking meaningfully about Irish unity. Unity without some significant prior element of reconciliation between the communities in the North is only going to store up future trouble in that province, this time with the unionists as the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority.

Republicans insist on believing that what they call ‘political unionism’ is at the heart of the problem of the North. People like me think nationalism is also part of the problem. As that wise and brilliant Irishman George Bernard Shaw (who called himself an internationalist) wrote over a hundred years ago: “Nobody in Ireland of any intelligence likes Nationalism any more than a man with a broken arm likes having it set. A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher, to no preacher, until the demand of the nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation.”2

1 A Shared Home Place, p.153

2 Preface to ‘John Bull’s Other Island

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

My tribute to the late, great Eugene McCabe

The great Monaghan writer Eugene McCabe died a month ago, aged 90. This is a tribute I wrote to him nearly nine years ago in my former blog: ‘A Note from the Next Door Neighbours’.

Does being a border writer mean that, by definition, you are going to be marginalised? That would certainly seem to have been the fate of Eugene McCabe, the Clones-based writer of at least one great play, one masterpiece of a novel and some of the most powerful short stories to have come out of Ireland in the past half-century. He deserves to be ranked up there with William Trevor and Frank O’Connor in the canon of great 20th century Irish writers, but rarely is.

One of the problems may be that for a man who is now over 80, McCabe’s output has not been voluminous (he has spent as much time farming as writing). Another may be that he writes about the deeply unfashionable people of the border region – both sides of it – in all their savage divisions, sorrows and loneliness. He has never shied away from the darkest and most controversial issues in Irish life. King of the Castle, the play which first brought him notoriety in the 1960s, was about an ageing, wealthy farmer who hires a travelling labourer to sire a child on his young and unhappy wife, and it about the darker side of sex. ‘Sex is the currency of the play, the language into which everything else – greed, history, the rise of the self-made man – is translated’, wrote Fintan O’Toole. And sex in Ireland in the 1960s was still largely a taboo subject.

Death and Nightingales – which Colm Toibin has called McCabe’s masterpiece – is a gothic novel of love, murder and sectarian hatred in the 1880s: the decade of Parnell as the uncrowned king of Ireland and of the terrorist ‘Invincibles’. Billy Winters, the conflicted planter and Beth, his accursed Catholic ‘daughter’, are unforgettable characters: Fermanagh versions of the tormented souls of Lorca’s Andalucia or Chekhov’s Russia.

Heaven Lies About Us, his collection of short stories published in 2005, begins with a terrible tale of a child’s death after sexual abuse by her brother. In the words of the English writer and critic Ian Sansom, the rest of the stories – and particularly the triptych ‘Cancer’, ‘Heritage’ and ‘Victims’ – are ‘like burning beacons, warnings from history’. McCabe writes of the border counties as ‘a dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields…housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts…To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before.’

This is ‘troubles’ writing at its bleakest and finest. ‘I have never read fiction that renders with such economy and brutal force the co-existing truths of sectarian hatred and entangled cohabitation. For readers keen to experience the power of which fiction is capable, the dread and sorrow it can elicit, the linguistic excitement it can provoke and, above all, the thrill of seeing anew, and more profoundly, what one thought one knew, McCabe is indispensable,’ wrote the American novelist Claire Messud.

I would make these dark stories required reading for all Irish and Northern Irish sixth formers, both for the brilliance of their spare use of language, and – more importantly – because this vision of black hatred and bloody murder should convince them like nothing else of the absolute obligation to do all in their power to ensure that never, ever again will neighbour take up arms against neighbour in the northern province of this island.

McCabe – perhaps uniquely among Irish Catholic writers – is equally able to write about the terror and contempt of Protestant border farmers and UDR men as he is to portray the anger and vengefulness of their Catholic neighbours and historic adversaries. And he is able to see into the wounded humanity of both communities and evoke sympathy with the most unlikely people, people driven demented by religion and politics and death and drink and bigotry.

I met Eugene McCabe once over 30 years ago. I visited him on his farm where the driveway – in the way of so many border back roads – actually crossed from Monaghan into Fermanagh and back again. He couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming to a young, raw and rather ignorant BBC reporter doing a programme about the Protestants of County Monaghan. After the interview, his son gave me a lift through the February snow to Dublin to watch a rugby international at Lansdowne Road.

McCabe is also a fine writer of love poetry, and I’m going to finish with the final lines of one of those poems to his wife: ‘For Margot for a lifetime’ (which is the frontispiece to Heaven Lies About Us):

…Now Winter’s marching round Drumard

We’ll log up stoves against the coming cold

Much to live for, still more to remember

And never, ever talk of growing old.

Light can catch the glory in November

Of summers past and though God gives no sign

When love is all there is no final line.

I think I will ask for that final line to be put on my gravestone: “Though God gives no sign, when love is all there is no final line.”

PS  I would also like to pay tribute to my good friend Art Ó Briain, who died earlier this month. Art was a much-admired theatre director (including of the first production of Brian Friel’s Translations in Derry in 1980), television director, film-maker, community theatre innovator, community development worker, Gaelscoil campaigner and lover of the Connemara wilderness. He was a man of great courage and independence of spirit, with a generous heart and a huge social conscience, endlessly creative, imaginative, stubborn and funny. We will miss him enormously. Suaimhneas sioraí dó.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment