The most impressive politician I met in 2015 was Julie-Anne Corr Johnston, a 28 year old member of Belfast City Council, representing the small left-of-centre Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), many of whose members are former UVF prisoners. Julie-Anne is a lesbian and gay activist.
At a talk in Dublin’s Liberty Hall earlier this month she spoke movingly of growing up in north Belfast; self-harming as a teenager because she felt different and excluded; and ‘coming out’ and marrying her beloved partner. She also spoke about how her initiation into politics had come through the Belfast union flag protest three years ago, when PUP leader Billy Hutchinson had spotted her at a street demonstration and persuaded her that politics was about a lot more than flags.
Here was a young woman who personified all that is best in politics in this day and age: idealistic, radical, working to correct the injustices of poor health, housing and education in her working class constituency, and a fighter for the rights of LGBT people. In this she is no different from thousands of young people who campaigned so successfully for marriage equality in the Republic of Ireland last spring.
However there is one thing that marks her out from those young Irish people: she is a passionate Ulster Unionist. She told the audience in Liberty Hall: “When the flag came down from Belfast City Hall I felt my identity and sense of belonging as a British person were under attack. I feel British; that’s who I am, that’s how I was brought up, I don’t know anything else; I identify strongly with Britain as an inclusive, progressive, multi-faith and multi-cultural society.”
What are my republican and anti-partitionist friends going to do about this impressive young woman and people like her? She goes against the handy (and handed-down) nationalist stereotype that all Unionists are right-wing, bigoted and impossibly intransigent and therefore the best thing to do with them is to go over their heads and ‘persuade’ their British masters to hand them over to an all-Ireland republic.
The alternative is much slower and more difficult, and may not even work in the end. That is to find some common ground with Nationalists that may – just may – persuade them in the fullness of time that they have something they can share with the other people on this island. Here we can learn from the Dutch, the French and the Germans, who after the Second World War set about the slow, painstaking work of building peace and mutual understanding between peoples who had experienced the horrors of war and occupation to a degree that was almost unthinkable to the self-obsessed Irish, ignorant as we too often are of comparable situations in other regions.
For example, I have listened to several speakers from the Dutch-German border region explaining the 60 year process – beginning in the 1950s – which has led to it becoming the prototype for successful cross-border cooperation in the European Union. They all emphasised that the first way people divided by war and bloodshed can start coming together is through ‘people to people’ cultural and artistic activities. When the people of that region started to work to heal the wounds caused by centuries of conflict – in their case going back 350 years to the Thirty Years War – they began with exchanges in music, sport, the arts and education.
Through a system of twinning 100 town and cities, within 15 years they had over 150,000 people every year involved in these enjoyable and life-enhancing activities. This allowed mutual knowledge and trust to build up and contributed enormously to the success of the second phase of the cross-border process: a business and economic development programme. I heard one Dutch leader emphasising that this very long-term process needed to be continually renewed, with each new generation being “made aware of its neighbours needs all over again” and taught how to overcome psychological barriers and prejudices. This process was beginning to happen across the Irish border in the early 2000s (helped by significant EU funding), but it has dwindled to a trickle in recent years.
Could the Irish language play a role here? Another speaker at Liberty Hall was Linda Ervine (sister-in-law of the late David Ervine), who told the extraordinary story of how she had led the development of Irish in loyalist East Belfast. There are now several hundred people learning the language in that unlikely quarter – usually known for its fierce antagonism to anything Irish – who are comforted by the thought that the Celtic languages are spoken in Scotland and Wales as well as Ireland (and in Scotland by considerable numbers of Presbyterians), so Irish can be a unifying rather than a dividing element in these islands. As Linda said: “As long as it’s used as a weapon, the language has no future. But as a bridge it has a bright future.”
The arts are another area where high barriers put up by centuries of bad, divisive politics can be overcome so that ordinary people start seeing those divisions differently. The author and historian Philip Orr, a third speaker at Liberty Hall, recalled a play of his on the Ulster Covenant in front of an enthusiastic audience containing everyone from dissident republicans to Orangemen in the deeply polarised town of Lurgan. “Theatre gives people a licence to listen to the unlistenable”, he said. Museums also have an important role, Orr stressed, singling out the splendid exhibition ‘Belfast Boys’ – based around the common experiences of a young Unionist and a young Nationalist in the First World War – which is currently showing at the Glasnevin Cemetery Museum.
The Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Wicklow is planning a conference next June on these issues under the title ‘Imagining Reconciliation through Culture’. However this kind of cultural change is necessarily a very long-drawn out business: changing mindsets forged over several centuries of fear and conflict will take something like the same time to put right. Nothing is going to happen quickly. That wise woman Mary Robinson said in a BBC interview three years ago that a united Ireland “doesn’t need to be on the agenda” and “isn’t relevant in the context of what is happening on the island now.” I would suggest it will take the best part of another century (if then) for the kind of necessary trust to build up through healing inter-personal and cultural exchanges in order to begin to re-consider unity as a serious item on the political agenda. It would be most refreshing – although extremely unlikely – if such a message were to go out from at least some political and civic leaders of this republic on the eve of the centenary of the foundational event of our national independence movement.