Three positive things to make us feel good about Northern Ireland (and Ireland)

“Be positive, Andy” said the former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Tom Hartley, when I met him at ‘Amazing the Space’, a splendid Cooperation Ireland event on the old Maze prison site last month, which brought together 3,500 young people to talk, sing and dance about peace-building.

And he’s right. It’s so easy to be negative about Northern Ireland (especially for an old journalistic hack like me), even if it’s not the North’s fault sometimes these days: for example, being forced to accept Brexit when a clear majority there voted against it. So I’m going to pick out three positive, very different Northern Irish and North-South initiatives I have come across in recent weeks and highlight these for a change.

Firstly, there is the continuing quiet work going on behind the scenes in Belfast and elsewhere to sort out the toxic legacies of decades of conflict. At the end of September this led to the resolution of the three year old deadlock over Orangemen marching past Catholic Ardoyne every 12th July, thus effectively ending 21 years of often violent disputes associated with the Orange marching season. With the help of two facilitators, former Methodist president Harold Good and Derry businessman Jim Roddy, agreement was reached along the following lines: the Orangemen would be allowed to complete their evening march home to north Belfast on this occasion, but there would be a moratorium on future such marches unless the Ardoyne residents association agreed;  that association would not object to (or protest at) future 12th July morning marches to join the main Belfast parade (although of course, this being Belfast, there was a smaller, more extreme republican residents group which angrily dissented); and the Twaddell Avenue loyalist camp protesting the blocking of the march would be dismantled. At the same time an inter-community forum would be set up to open a dialogue which would be about more than just parading.

There are other things happening that would have been unheard of even a few years ago. Sinn Fein and the Orange Order shared a platform in Enniskillen recently to discuss the commemoration of 1916. Discussion panels at the West Belfast Festival and Queen’s University have seen PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Sinn Fein leaders Martin McGuinness and Eibhlin Glenholmes, and leading loyalist Winston Irvine exchanging honest arguments and friendly handshakes.

However the legacy of a violent past is still a major issue blocking moves towards greater mutual understanding and reconciliation. The complex interlocking institutions of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which were meant to begin to deal with that legacy – the Historical Investigations Unit,the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, the Implementation and Reconciliation Group and the Oral History Archive – appear stillborn while the governments and parties try to untangle the Gordian knot between criminal investigation, protecting national security, and uncovering the truth of past violent acts by all sides. Journalist Brian Rowan, who has been involved in several civil society initiatives in this area and has written a book about legacy issues called Unfinished Peace, believes such top-down initiatives may not be what are required and that  “we need to be honest about what is really achievable in terms of the truth”. He thinks a non-political Oral History Archive would be an important initiative to progress on its own, a real opportunity for the families of people who have been killed or injured to tell their stories.

Art and theatre have an important role to play here, Rowan believes. He points to the phenomenal success of the Colin Davidson exhibition of portraits of ordinary people who lost loved ones during the ‘troubles’, which was visited by around 80,000 people in the Ulster Museum and has since transferred to Paris and New York. And to a new play, Green and Blue, by former IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown, based on 40 stories of the conflict in the border region taken from serving RUC officers and gardai. “I was trusted with these stories and my goal was to remain faithful to them,” says the former IRA man-turned-playwright.

Secondly – in the economic area – there is a visionary initiative by the two business confederations, Ibec in the South and CBI in the North, which largely slipped under the radar when it was launched in July due to the post-Brexit furore. This is the All-Island Investment Project’s proposal¹ for a comprehensive motorway and dual carriageway network to serve a projected island population of 8.25 million by 2040. The island currently has a population of 6.6 million, 4.76 million of whom live in the Republic. This has grown by 30% in the last 20 years, and Ireland now has the youngest and fastest growing population (bar tiny Luxembourg) in the EU. So we are not far away from the more than eight million people who lived in Ireland before the Great Famine in the 1840s (amazingly, England had a population of less than 15 million in 1841, compared to 53 million today).

If you think about it, planning our roads together to move the rapidly increasing number of people and goods around the island is plain common sense. The Ibec-CBI proposal says the time to begin doing this is now, when the cost of borrowing large amounts of money for major infrastructure projects has never been cheaper. Their paper contains striking maps of the island’s railway network in 1920 when no town was more than 10 miles from a station. The rail network in 2016 is a poor, shrunken thing compared to a century ago, and since replacing even some of those lost lines is simply not viable – due to Irish Rail’s desperate financial situation –  we must plan seriously for a 21st century all-island road network instead.

The Ibec-CBI argument is that if we don’t want the island’s dramatically increased population over the next 25 years to be squeezed into the east coast ‘corridor’, with all the problems of overcrowding and bottlenecks this will lead to, we absolutely must develop the western seaboard from Derry to Cork. The two business confederations’ most radical proposal is for what they call a ‘C ring road’ around the entire coastline, particularly through the north-west, west and south –  from Belfast through Derry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford – which are not well-served by a radial road network centring on Dublin. They also argue that a new era of ‘low emissions’ road transport is emerging with the development of driverless cars, electric vehicles, car sharing and improved fuel technologies.

“Brexit won’t take away from the need to have this modern infrastructure in both jurisdictions in the future”, says project leader Michael D’Arcy. He believes the Irish government should argue strongly for a relaxation of the EU’s fiscal rules to allow spending on such a strategic project for a uniquely fast-growing population, and this should be part of its special case for Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

The third initiative is much smaller and is already happening. Earlier this month I went to a marvellous conference at which Ireland’s leading historians looked back at how the centennial commemorations of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme were carried out over the past year. 240 people turned up at Dublin’s Mansion House to hear the likes of Professors Roy Foster, Diarmaid Ferriter, Gearóid O Tuathaigh,  Fearghal McGarry, John Horne and Lucy McDiarmid talk about the “sober, sensitive and mature way” –  in Horne’s words  – in which those commemorations had been handled. They singled out for special mention the role of the committee of historians set up by the Irish Government to advise on the commemorations, which had allowed for a suitably nuanced retelling of the complicated and contested foundation myths of both states on this island, and about the extraordinary people involved in them.

The event was organised by Universities Ireland, the all-island body which brings together its university presidents and vice-chancellors, and which is administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies. This was the fifth annual conference to examine the 1912-1923 period and there are plans for seven more up to 2023.

¹ Connected: A prosperous island of 10 million people. Ibec/CBI

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