A Merriman view of a new Ireland

The annual Merriman Summer School is a wonderful institution: for 46 years people interested in the language, history, literature and music of Ireland have gathered in a town in County Clare every August for lectures, discussion, poetry, dancing and other enjoyable pastimes. This year it took place in the pretty spa town of Lisdoonvarna, the topic was ‘Ireland, North and South: two societies growing apart?’ and I was privileged to be the director.

The school featured a wide range of speakers who approached this topic from very different angles. Among them were the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Richard Clarke, and the head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Geraldine Smyth, discussing it from a religious viewpoint; former Northern Ireland civil service head Sir Ken Bloomfield looking at the choices facing people in a Border Poll; critics Fintan O’Toole and Edna Longley forensically examining the role of culture and the arts in an ‘unreconciled Ireland’; economists Dan O’Brien and John Bradley exploring the role of economic cooperation; academics Aoibhin de Burca and Katy Hayward looking at the changing attitudes of young people; journalists Poilin Ni Chiarain and Cathal Goan at the role of the media.

The high point was a joint reading by Ireland’s two most eminent poets, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, friends since the 1960s.  In which other country would over 300 people crush into a village hall on a Friday night and listen in absolute silence – punctured by outbreaks of wild applause – to an hour and a half of poetry?  Geraldine Smyth quoted the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas on the impact this had on the listeners – it was “something to wear against the heart in the long cold.”

Because of lack of space I am going to focus on three of the most interesting political sessions. The school opened with a hard-hitting speech by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, warning that unless North/South relations were revived from their present torpor “historic opportunities will be lost.’ Martin accused the current leaderships in both Irish jurisdictions of showing a “dangerous complacency” in all three strands of the peace process, but particularly on North/South cooperation, where there was “absolutely no urgency or ambition” and thus a “slow but undeniable retreat from the policy of deeper cooperation.”

He gave the example of the recent ‘Economic Pact’ for Northern Ireland agreed between Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and David Cameron. This agreement, presented as the definitive strategy for the development of the Northern Ireland economy, “excludes any North/South dimension whatsoever” – there is not “a single mention of the Border Region or cross-border cooperation.” He stressed that this was not an agreement among unionists: “Sinn Fein was a full participant”.

Emphasising that such economic cooperation was very far from the “slippery slope” towards a united Ireland so feared by unionists, he said Fianna Fail would be publishing “a list of the areas where we believe new and expanded [North/South] bodies are not only justified but badly needed.”

He then went on to give a flavour of this expansion. He said the activities of Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland to support indigenous Irish and Northern Irish companies exporting overseas should be merged into one body. He called for the English and History curricula in schools in the two jurisdictions to include common areas of study, e.g. the poetry and plays of Ulstermen Seamus Heaney and Frank McGuinness.

He urged agreement on a range of common topics in Irish history to be included in both curricula, and attacked a recent speech by Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly in which he had referred to “a double narrative of our history” when defending a controversial commemoration of two IRA men who had died on their way to bomb a mainly unionist town. “How can there ever be an understanding between traditions if this attitude prevails?” asked Martin. He noted that in the past 20 years the commemorations he attended had changed radically in that these events were now used “to signal points of unity rather than division – to explain how the concept of victory and defeat have little relevance today.”

He urged greater cooperation between Northern and Southern universities through a cross-border body to facilitate “the mutual recognition of qualifications and transfers between institutions.” He wanted a formal all-island approach to advanced research, noting that the EU’s largest research fund, the Framework Programme, actually requires cross-border collaboration.

The second interesting political session was on the final night, when six young politicians from the DUP, the new NI21 party, Sinn Fein, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail debated the school’s theme. The refreshing frankness and civility of the exchanges between the young participants were noteworthy.  Emma Little, a DUP advisor to First Minister Peter Robinson, said “there are a whole range of shared values across Ireland, North and South, where we can bring benefits to each other and move forward on a very positive, opportunistic basis.” Who could have dreamed of such language from a DUP politician even a few years ago?

The young Southern politicians from the governing coalition had a somewhat different view. Both the Labour and Fine Gael speakers, Rebecca Moynihan and Neale Richmond, emphasised the primacy of the Republic’s economic plight. The former didn’t put a fine tooth in it: “What I care about is our sovereignty over our own affairs in Ireland. At a time like this we can’t indulge ourselves by being involved in the North’s affairs. I don’t care that it’s the economic crisis that preoccupies us – we want to engage with the real issues that will impact on the next generation, not the Troubles or flags or parades in Belfast.”

Perhaps the revelation of the summer school was Alliance Deputy Leader and East Belfast MP Naomi Long, somebody few in the audience had heard speak before. Along with another strong independent voice, Marian Harkin MEP, she addressed the closing session. She said that an aggressive form of “frontier nationalism” had developed in Northern Ireland, a parody of national identity that must feel alien to those living in Britain and the Republic of Ireland who shared that nationality. The violence over flags and emblems was just one example of this. She said the “uber-unionism” of the North was out of touch with the rest of British society, and the same was true of the use of the Irish tricolour and, to a lesser extent, Irish language signage, as “territorial markers” in local neighbourhoods.

“Ironically, despite the tendency of frontier nationalism to emphasise differences between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, they have in truth more in common with each other than with mainstream British or Irish society respectively”, she went on.

She believed that just as in Scotland many who vote for the Scottish National Party will not necessarily vote for independence, so “amongst those who vote for nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland, the number who would vote for a united Ireland if a referendum were to be held now, has steadily declined since devolution. It’s not that people feel less Scottish or  less Irish than they did before; it is that they feel they can be fully Scottish or Irish without a change in the constitutional arrangements – their identity to some degree has become divorced from territorial debate. Devolution has allowed differentiation and distinctiveness within the context of wider interdependent relationships. In the case of Northern Ireland, it is a differentiation from both Great Britain and Ireland, whilst maintaining strong bonds with both.”

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