Why Micheál Martin’s speech was inspirational and why the Shared Island initiative matters

Nobody would ever accuse the former Taoiseach, Micheál Martin (now Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs), of being an inspirational public speaker. But listening to his speech at the big Shared Island event in Dublin Castle earlier this month, I realised he was outlining an inspiring vision of Irish people, North and South, genuinely coming together around vital shared goals and aspirations, practical and achievable and mutually beneficial. Not political unity – that remains the dangerously risky issue that continues to divide the people of this island, as it has done for more than a century, and will continue to do so for some considerable time to come. But common goals around climate change, healthcare, education, a successful economy – what could be more important and desirable than these?

Martin urged Irish people not to “shy away from, or obscure what still has to be done to achieve a truly reconciled island, for people of all traditions and communities who call it home, and bring people North and South together in real terms….The Good Friday Agreement has enabled us to undertake a journey of reconciliation of our different, equally legitimate aspirations; of the nationalist, unionist and other political traditions on this island…the immense potential of the Good Friday Agreement to bring people on this island together has not yet been delivered.”

“People generally are far ahead of the politics of the Peace Process,” he went on. “They know well that we can transform how we work in every single sector on this island, without in any way compromising our different beliefs and aspirations. The message came through from people time and time again this year, at Shared Island events in Monaghan, Derry, Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Cavan and Meath:

  • focus on the issues that matter most – for people, communities, regions and the planet;
  • support us in taking civic relationships on this island to a higher level;
  • recognise that community identities aren’t one-dimensional; they evolve and are changing, slowly and steadily for the better.”

The former Taoiseach concluded: “To recall Martin Luther King – the arc of change on this island bends towards reconciliation. The fact is nobody knows how our shared island will be configured in 25 or 50 years time…The question is will we take the next step as people together on this island? Will we sustain the journey of the Good Friday Agreement, especially when it is tough; acknowledge and heal the wounds of the recent past; deepen the common cause of our diverse political traditions; and pass on a thriving, peaceful island of Ireland to our children? I have no doubt that the people’s answer is a resounding Yes.”

He took aim (without mentioning the party by name) at Sinn Fein, deploring “the concerted attempts to glorify, justify or minimise the disastrous bloodshed of the Troubles.” He had similarly strong words for those parties, North and South, which adopted “unnecessary, unwinnable identity politics, which ignores and obstructs the full pursuit of our common interests.”

The Irish Times devoted just 120 words to this major speech, in an article which was largely about Martin’s response to its Ipsos opinion poll finding that only 26% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for unity in a Border Poll and 50% of people there would opt for a continuation of the union with Britain.1

That doesn’t mean that the people of the North – including the unionists – do not want to cooperate with and work alongside the people of the Republic in combatting climate change, bettering our inadequate health systems, and improving the economic well-being of the people on this island. I met many people in Dublin Castle who could be categorised as unionists with a small ‘u’: community workers from Belfast and Derry, trade unionists, and spokespeople for business, farming, tourism and the environment. Similarly I had come across plenty of unionist business people, health workers and farmers, in particular, who were in favour of cooperating with the dynamic Southern economy, when I was director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh between 1999 and 2013. In the 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey 84% of those polled said they were “in favour of Northern Ireland entering a political and economic alliance with the Republic of Ireland if it would help jobs and the economy.”

“Shared Island is part of the broader framing espoused by the Taoiseach,” said one Irish government source. “It is meant to be an open and inclusive process, having quiet conversations with civic and community groups, with no pre-determined outcomes. Political unionism may not have participated, but they did not criticise it. That gave more space for civic unionism to engage. For example, when you get people engaging in sectoral dialogues in everything from biodiversity to sport, it becomes a much easier place to come together to build connections, engagement and ultimately reconciliation.” Unionists should take heed of Martin’s phrase – ‘equally legitimate aspirations’ – and the senior official’s phrase -‘no pre-determined outcomes’: this is very far from a Trojan Horse leading inevitably towards political unity; this is about building relationships and practical cooperation and reconciliation between divided peoples.

In the past two years around €190 million of the one billion euros in the Shared Island Fund (until 2030) has been allocated. It has gone to a wide range of projects: everything from a further extension of the Ulster Canal from Cavan into Fermanagh, Monaghan and Armagh (€47 million) and a North-South higher education research programme (€37 million), which previously apathetic university researchers are now queuing up to apply for; to an ultra-sensible €7.4 million collaboration to market the marvellous Wild Atlantic Way (in the Republic) and the similarly wonderful Causeway Coastal Route (in the North) – something which should have happened years ago if it hadn’t been for foot-dragging by the NI Tourist Board.

There are also a number of climate change and biodiversity projects. A National Economic and Social Council research report last spring found that there were shared agendas and legislative and regulatory coherence in these areas between the two jurisdictions, and concluded that “climate change and biodiversity loss provide a clear and urgent platform for ambitious all-island action”. €20 million has been allocated to set up virtual cross-border Centres for Research and Innovation in climate and sustainable food systems (led by Science Foundation Ireland with matching funding from the NI Department of Agriculture and the UK Government’s Research and Innovation Agency). Among the other projects are a cross-border Peatland Restoration project and all-island Invasive Species and Biosecurity initiative (€11 million), and an all-island Electric Vehicle charging scheme, using 90 EV charging points at sports facilities (€15 million). Why should there not also be an all-island Renewable Energy Market to build on the success of the all-island Electricity Market (both jurisdictions have the same 80% target for electricity from renewables by 2030) ?

There are dozens of smaller projects covering such things as community-based climate action; investment in the arts; the Narrow Water Bridge in Carlingford Lough; a new all-island Women’s Forum and an all-island iCommunity Hub between the two ‘umbrella’ bodies for the community and voluntary sectors, The Wheel in the Republic and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (who have been noticeably slow in undertaking any significant cross-border work till now); and a wide range of research projects covering areas like culture, science, enterprise, healthcare, education, energy, migration, emergency planning, law, equality and community relations.

Space allows me to give only a small flavour of the extraordinary range of North-South work going on, much of it for the first time. This is different from the EU Peace and Interreg programmes, which have funded much cross-border cooperation since the 1990s, in that this time it is the Irish Government which is proactively identifying gaps and needs, and then (along with the Northern Ireland Executive – when it is functioning – and occasionally the British Government) allocating the necessary funding. Now it is the Irish Government that is taking the lead in developing practical North-South cooperation and, through that, pushing forward the vital process of reconciliation between the people living on this island.

And this is only the beginning. Less than a fifth of the funding for the decade-long Shared Island programme has been allocated so far. Some big all-island infrastructure projects are on the cards. The report of an all-island Strategic Rail Review is only waiting for the reformation of the Executive to be published. It is expected that this will recommend a much faster, more regular service between Dublin and Belfast (along the lines of the highly successful hourly Dublin-Cork service). The hope is that this major project will start in three years and be completed in ten; high-speed rail projects like this have transformed regional economies in France and Spain. Maybe it will also bring more southern Irish people to the North: the most startling statistic at the Shared Island event was the revelation by Belfast hotelier Howard Hastings that a recent tourism survey had shown that two-and-half million southerners had never visited Northern Ireland.

There are also hopes that the huge potential of more efficient cross-border and all-island public services in crucial areas like healthcare can be kick-started once the NI Executive is up and running again. Altnagelvin hospital’s north-west radiotherapy and emergency cardiology centres in Derry (also serving Donegal), the all-island paediatric cardiac surgery centre in Dublin’s Crumlin hospital and a number of Cooperation and Working Together health and social care projects in the border region are successful trail-blazing initiatives here.

Education will be a more sensitive area for unionists. The British Government may have to become persuaders here to overcome DUP reluctance to engage. But the Republic has seriously good practice to share on tackling educational under-attainment: through the Deis disadvantaged school support programme and wider access to further and higher education through the Republic’s technological universities, the South has brought about much higher school completion rates than the North and raised the educational level of its young people enormously. The Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) has been running successful cross-border student teacher exchanges for 20 years. “With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement coming up, why don’t we look to what we can do for young Irish people, North and South, over the next 25 years?” asked one Irish official.

The significance of all this important North-South work appears to have been almost completely lost on the Southern Irish media, and therefore the public it is meant to inform. It is not only the most practical and sensible way to bring the island together in areas of key concern to ordinary people; it is also a potentially transformative new emphasis based on developing fruitful relationships through joint working, rather than on old-style irredentist nationalism; in this it borrows from the efforts of previous Taoisigh like Sean Lemass, Garret Fitzgerald, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.

Sinn Fein’s approach, in contrast, is not only not transformative, but will set back the cause of unity of the Irish people by deepening the divisions on this island. 70 years ago Eamon de Valera toured the English speaking world preaching the evils of partition in front of adoring Irish diaspora audiences and into the indifferent ears of foreign governments. Mary Lou McDonald is currently doing the same thing. Will that convert more than a tiny handful of unionists to the cause of reconciliation between the unionist and nationalist people of this island? Similarly Ireland’s Future’s mass rallies are preaching to the converted in cities and towns up and down the country. Such old-fashioned anti-partitionist campaigns – by turning off unionists to all-Ireland solutions to our many practical problems – will only hinder the slow, painstaking task of building relationships by working together through innovative and mutually beneficial projects like those undertaken as part of the Shared Island initiative.

Many things have changed since the 1940s and 1950s. In the North we have had a bloody 30-year civil conflict. The Republic has been transformed from a poor into a wealthy country and seen the dramatic decline of the previously all-powerful Catholic Church. The Good Friday Agreement has pledged a Border Poll if and when the British Government deems it likely that such a referendum would result in a vote for unity (which, judging from this month’s Irish Times opinion poll, is not going to be any time soon). Sinn Fein, while remaining utterly unapologetic about the atrocities of the Provisional IRA, has grown into a democratic party which seems likely to lead governments in both jurisdictions in the next few years. And demographic change in the North, increasing the proportion of Catholics, might eventually – although not inevitably, given the rapid growth of non-sectarian ‘others’ – lead to a nationalist majority there.

But one thing has not changed: the 100-year-old demand for constitutional unity ASAP. As former Irish Times political editor Stephen Collins wrote last week: “The incessant speculation about the prospect of a united Ireland is not simply a distraction from the real issues facing the country, but a dangerous cul-de-sac that is provoking an escalation of tension in the North, hampering efforts to find a solution to the Protocol impasse, and undermining the chances of power-sharing being restored.”2 He could have added that is also hindering the vital cause of North-South cooperation and reconciliation, which in my humble (although in this area rather well-informed) opinion is the only way that real unity of the people of this island is ever going to come about.

What will happen to the Shared Island initiative now that Micheál Martin has stepped down as Taoiseach? All the indications are that it will stay in the Department of the Taoiseach. Let us hope that Leo Varadkar will continue with his predecessor’s distinctive vision of genuine reconciliation between people through building relationships between North and South, unionist and nationalist – rather than some version of Sinn Fein’s core aim: a politically ‘united’ Ireland when demographic change in the North brings it about by the narrowest of narrow margins.

1‘Taoiseach ‘not surprised’ by poll findings, 6th December

2 ‘Irish unity is a dangerous and distracting mirage’, 16th December

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 6 Comments

Ulster loyalism feeling abandoned, betrayed and in perpetual crisis

Ulster loyalism is in crisis – but then when in recent years has it not been in crisis? Opinion in working class and rural areas has hardened against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has given DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson little room to manoeuvre when – and it will be when – the British government under its new more pragmatic leader Rishi Sunak reaches agreement with the EU on reforming that controversial instrument. So we’re heading towards one more climbdown for unionism, even if ways may be found to dress it up so that Donaldson can claim credit for some changes.

Since the May Assembly elections the aggressive rhetoric between Sinn Fein and the DUP, stilled for several years as they sought to share government together, has returned. “We’ve lost our way. We’ve lost sight of the core element of the Good Friday Agreement. That was the duty of partnership, to find an outcome that everyone in Northern Ireland could live with,” says a senior diplomat who was involved in the negotiations leading to that historic accord. “Now we are miles away from the search for accommodation, let alone movement towards a reconciled society – we’re back to the aggressive articulation of single identity narratives. The unionists take a highly partisan, single identity position on the Protocol, as if the other community didn’t exist. Similarly Sinn Fein and Ireland’s Future push forward to a united Ireland as if the unionist community didn’t exist. Ireland’s Future’s message seems to be that the unity train is now leaving the station and if you want to be on it, you can, but if you don’t, it’s leaving anyway. For all their ‘new Ireland’ talk, Sinn Fein and Ireland’s Future have done little or no work with unionism. Their leaders have forgotten about the highly volatile nature of Northern politics and about the virus of political violence. Is it dormant or will it flare again? Nobody knows.”

The most likely source of that violence at the moment is paramilitary loyalism. The loyalist community – and I mean by this largely urban and to a lesser extent rural working class unionists – feel abandoned and betrayed both by the British Government and by their traditional leaders. The visionary Northern business leader, Sir George Quigley – who knew the community well, having overseen the decommissioning of loyalist paramilitary weapons – wrote as long ago as 2009 about “the need to find a place for unarmed loyalism. I believe a signal mistake of the peace process was to leave loyalism largely on the sidelines instead of integrating it into the mainstream of issues requiring resolution. Loyalist leaders who are now seeking to manage a process of transformation need to be supported and absorbed further into the political apparatus of democratic practice in Northern Ireland, not left outside it or treated as incidental to it.” This is what happened on the republican side as the two governments ushered Sinn Fein into the political mainstream in the 10-15 years up to 2007.

There were some good loyalist leaders – although not many – in that period. The tragically early death of David Ervine robbed the community of a charismatic, common sense, left-of-centre champion. As he once quipped: “I don’t want to wake up every morning and ask myself ‘Am I British or Irish? I want to think ‘Am I late for work?’

And there were good loyalist initiatives. The UDA-supported Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) in 2007-2010 aimed to equip members and supporters of that organisation with the skills to contribute to the end of all paramilitary activity, reduction of crime and an environment where paramilitary violence would not be a viable option. As Gerald Solinas of Farset Community Enterprises, the well-regarded community organisation that administered the CTI, said: “If you asked me would I give one million pounds to the UDA, I would say no, as would most people. But if you asked would you give money to help Northern Ireland’s most socially deprived areas, reduce interface violence, promote education and youth development, then most people would say yes”. Unfortunately the SDLP’s then Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie tried to withdraw all funding from the CTI (a decision that was ultimately overturned by the courts). Solinas said the problem was that “Loyalist communities were already suspicious of the political institutions and this decision just reinforces that Stormont had nothing to offer them. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to reverse that belief.”

Then there was Northern Ireland Alternatives (now Alternatives/Restorative Justice), a community-based restorative justice initiative developed and supported by former UVF and Red Hand Commando members. This has been a big success under its director Debbie Watters. It has been estimated that NIA prevented over 90% of potential paramilitary punishment attacks in recent years (and it should be remembered that in the 25 years up to 1998 around 4,000 people were victims of paramilitary punishment shootings and beatings). NI Alternatives has been involved in a myriad of programmes to support young people involved in anti-social behaviour, crime prevention, cultural awareness and mediation and restorative practices. “Such projects have made a significant contribution to lowering levels of punishment violence in the communities in which they have operated; have contributed to changing attitudes towards violence in such communities; have enhanced the capacity of local communities to take ownership of local justice issues, and to develop the self-confidence for partnership with statutory agencies”, says Professor Peter Shirlow, the sociologist who heads the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University, and is himself from a working class Belfast Protestant background.1

But overall morale in loyalist communities is now low. Unlike Sinn Fein, there was never any prospect of the small parties which emerged out of the paramilitaries – the Progressive Unionist Party out of the UVF and the Ulster Democratic Party out of the UDA – gaining political power. Respectable working class unionists simply don’t vote for people formerly connected to paramilitaries (in the words of one former mid-Ulster UVF man: “Prods are different; they just don’t like the violence thing unless you’re wearing a uniform.”) The involvement of some elements – such as the UVF in East Belfast – in drugs and criminality did not help. So the more progressive and political strands in loyalism never had any real means of moving away from violence into politics. In many cases the older men who ran the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 1990s still lead them, but have nowhere obvious to go.

So they (or their younger counterparts) are reduced to the kind of sabre-rattling gestures that saw Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney forced to abandon a meeting in north Belfast last March because of a hoax UVF bomb alert, and reports last month – dismissed by the PSNI – that there were plans to attack Dublin following some politicians (notably Mary Lou McDonald) talking up possible joint authority if the Northern institutions were not restored. David Campbell, chair of the paramilitaries’ umbrella body, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), said that joint authority would mean the 1994 loyalist ceasefires “could in no way be further guaranteed.”

The politicians often don’t help in these situations. In 2015 the formation of the Loyalist Communities Council was a well-meaning initiative backed by Tony Blair’s former advisor Jonathan Powell to ensure that the paramilitaries were not left behind politically. But they have no electoral mandate and under the chairmanship of Campbell (an unlikely spokesman as a prosperous County Antrim farmer and David Trimble’s former chief of staff) they have become unreflecting and reactionary. When Brexit Minister David Frost and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis met the LCC last year and reported back on their meeting to the Northern Ireland Committee at Westminster, they gave them – and the loyalist paramilitaries behind them – credibility they did not deserve. [A comparable démarche on the other side – giving unwanted credibility to republican paramilitaries – was then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar showing EU leaders at a 2018 meeting in Brussels an Irish Times report on the killing of nine people in an IRA bomb on the border in 1972 in order to warn them of resumed violence if a hard Irish border was the outcome of Brexit. Even some of his own aides thought that was wrong.]

These ‘Faustian pacts’ between politicians and paramilitaries are a feature of Northern Irish politics and Irish history. Loyalist paramilitary leaders say the DUP don’t want them to go away since the threat they pose is a useful bargaining tool, and regular meetings between politicians like Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley junior with the LCC seem to bear this out.

Successive Northern Ireland Executives have been promising to end paramilitarism “once and for all” ever since the 2015 Fresh Start agreement. They developed a three track approach combining policing, tackling disadvantage in deprived loyalist and republican areas and engagement with the paramilitary groups themselves to bring about their disbandment. Unfortunately the second and third of these tracks have been largely ineffective, with engagement with the groups particularly lacking traction (partly because of NI civil servants reluctance to ‘operationalise’ it). The 2022 report of the Independent Reporting Commission, set up by the two governments to report on progress towards ending paramilitarism and the NI Executive’s efforts to achieve this, warned that “paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger in and for Northern Ireland.” It urged “the redoubling of efforts in the coming year” and “a process of engagement with paramilitary groups themselves with a view to group transition and disbandment”; also the appointment of a reputable “independent person” to speak to the paramilitaries.

The great majority of people involved in loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles have now left the stage or have morphed into criminal gangs. The PSNI estimate that there are still around 17,000 people – most of them young men – available for the UDA and UVF’s commemorations and ‘shows of strength’. However police sources stress that such a figure is relatively meaningless, since few if any are involved in paramilitary activity and members of these ‘supporters clubs’ usually find it difficult, once recruited, to “buy their way out” (if they fail to pay their annual subscription, they may be beaten up). These young people, often poorly educated and with little hope of satisfying and well-paid jobs, have been told repeatedly by their political and community leaders to focus on their defensive ‘single identity’ as Protestants and unionists. They have little to do with, and little concept of the need for a shared society with, their Catholic nationalist fellow-citizens.

One knowledgeable observer summed up the loyalist dilemma as follows: “Their British unionist identity is the totality of their lives; they are frightened of the loss of Protestant identity in a future united Ireland; they are terrified of the triumphalism of Sinn Fein; they don’t trust the UK government; and so they focus on the psychology of nostalgia, for example honouring the dead of the First World War.”

At some point in the future, if the politicians get things wrong, these unfortunate young loyalists may form a kind of reserve army for use in unionism’s last stand against Irish unity. But for the moment – as one Belfast Sinn Feiner put it – “This is a great time to be a republican, but not such a great time to be a loyalist.”

At a Shared Island conference in Dublin earlier this week, I listened to that astute commentator Professor Duncan Morrow of the University of Ulster (and former head of the NI Community Relations Council) talking about loyalists feeling “abandoned” and “extremely left behind.” That is one reason why the Irish government’s non-threatening Shared Island concept was so important, he went on, because after the seemingly perpetual crisis of Northern Ireland over the past 50 years, what we need now is to work towards “perpetual reconciliation… A hundred years of partition will have a hundred years of consequences.” (I will come back to the Shared Island initiative in my next blog).

1 The End of Ulster Loyalism?, pp.140-147

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 3 Comments

A brilliant, hard-nosed look at moves towards Irish unity. Unionists beware!

I have been reading Making Sense of a United Ireland by the University of Pennsylvania-based Irish political scientist Brendan O’Leary. This is an important book, rich in detail, truth-telling but also hard-nosed. It is the first deeply considered exploration of how and why Irish unity should come about through a Border poll as allowed for by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It is not without its flaws, an almost exclusively nationalist reading of the future being the major one. However, it should be required reading for everyone – including unionists – who are interested in and concerned about the fate of this island (including their part of it). Unionist sensibilities are recognised and analysed, although in the end they are deemed less important than the interests of a new nation united, however narrowly, by separate referendums in the two jurisdictions.

O’Leary’s central thesis is a politico-cultural one. “A successful project of Irish reunification must be more inclusive than recent nationalist projects. Irish reunification must overcome the colonial legacies. The historic settlers must be both treated as natives and facilitated in preserving their culture – in all its variety, reformed or otherwise. To commence this task, the future securities for Ulster Protestants and British unionists – in their full internal diversity – will have to be made clear in advance. The diminution of a culture of contempt among Ulster Protestants towards Irish Catholics will make this task easier, but it will not be easy. The Irish nation has been built on the premise that the norm is to be of Irish stock, Catholic, and favourably disposed towards the Irish language. This premise will have to be refurbished. Ulster Unionism has been constructed in opposition to Irish nationalism: it will resist what it will see as its final defeat.”

Elsewhere he writes: “Our plan must expansively accommodate the prospective losers. But not too much. The plan must be sufficiently credible that Southerners will not fear for the stability of their hard-won constitutional republic.” He admits that the most likely cause of that fear would be a possible pre- or post-referendum loyalist insurrection.

Whether the ‘refurbishment’ suggested by O’Leary is going to be adequate for the huge job required is an open question. He devotes a whole chapter to this under the title ‘Integration is not coercive assimilation.’ He outlines in detail his ‘Model 1’ for unity, under which Northern Ireland would persist as a devolved government within a united Ireland (the power-sharing Good Friday Agreement institutions continuing except with Dublin instead of London as the overseeing authority), as a way of maintaining “British and Protestant identifications, modes of being, and symbols in a united Ireland.” He does not explain convincingly how this will work if by the time unity comes about nationalists, led by Sinn Fein, are in a majority in the North. In the end, despite this argument – and also because of the poor record of two-part federations internationally and the likelihood that the Southern electorate would reject a weak federal government with over-representation from the North – he comes down on the side of an integrated/unitary state (his ‘Model 2’). He also asks: “If the power-sharing institutions cannot function within the Union, why should they work better within a united Ireland?”

In terms of protections for unionism in such a state, he opts for the weak legal safeguard of the 1994 European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (has anyone heard of that?). He proposes that Ireland should re-join the Commonwealth, but only after reunification. He says Northern Protestants should not be obliged to learn Irish. There would be no over-representation of unionists in a post-unity Dail, unlike the extra Seanad seats for Protestants after the establishment of the Irish Free State. And he concludes, depressingly, that the Good Friday Agreement’s clause about the British and Irish governments’ acceptance of the right of people who identify as British or Irish or both to hold both citizenships – much trumpeted by nationalists and republicans as a future safeguard for unionists – is merely a restatement of the pre-existing status quo.

O’Leary is a strong supporter of the complex d’Hondt method of government formation in the North, and proposes its incorporation into post-unity institutions: at one point he even seems to suggest that deputies in a future united Ireland Dail might have to designate as Catholic or Protestant, Irish or British. He proposes that in order to allow unionists who continue to be British citizens to stand for election and vote in constitutional referenda in a future united state, the Irish government should legislate to make them Irish citizens (against their will?). However he underplays the role that a triumphant Sinn Fein might wield as the largest party in a coalition that eventually achieves unity: how, for example, would the future unionist minority react to a Sinn Fein-led government’s determination to commemorate (and glorify) the IRA killers of hundreds of Northern police officers and part-time soldiers during the ‘Troubles’ period?

He says, correctly, that when the British-designed border is gone, there will continue to be “a British question in a united Ireland – even if Great Britain dissolves – and that question requires deep and careful consideration.” Which the people of the South are light years away from considering!

“Southern politicians and civil society need to consider in deliberative depth what changes, if any, they would like to make to the Constitution either in advance (e.g. to encompass the identities, rights and interests of new minorities, including a large British minority) or that would go into effect contingent upon reunification. They need to start at the very beginning of the Constitution.”

The strongest section of this book, as one would expect from a brilliant political scientist – a world authority on power-sharing systems and an advisor to the UN and governments on communal and sectarian conflicts – is on the models and processes of referendums leading to unity (he barely contemplates a referendum leading to the continuation of the UK status quo). The weakest is on security and how a new united Irish state might deal with violent loyalist opposition to its advent and establishment.

O’Leary outlines in graphic – and to unionists, painful – detail how demography in Northern Ireland is going in one direction only. In Lord Ashcroft’s November 2021 Northern Ireland opinion poll, 71% of those aged 18-24 said they would vote for Irish unity, compared to 25% aged 65 or over, reflecting the preponderance of Protestants in the older age group (interestingly, women polled across the age groups were far more ‘undecided’ than men). These figures would certainly be supported by the more recently published 2021 census results. “It is plausible that a referendum in the North might be called around 2030, and it is probable that it can be won by non-unionists”, is O’Leary’s conclusion. He believes by that time the future of Northern Ireland will be in the hands of a non-Protestant majority of electoral age. As a close observer of Northern Ireland in general and Ulster unionism in particular, I have major doubts about both his timescale and the result in that timescale. Why, for example, has the vote for the two main nationalist parties – Sinn Fein and the SDLP – been stuck at around 40% for the past 24 years?

But I agree with his contention about the overall direction of travel. O’Leary warns that “to facilitate losers’ consent, the period ahead must be carefully used to make reunification more attractive to the ‘others’ [i.e. Alliance and other centre ground voters], particularly to cultural Protestants among the others and the self-identifying neither/nors, long before as well as during and after the referendum. It is necessary to think about a soft landing for those unionists shocked by a vote against the Union.”

O’Leary is no apologist for the IRA. “Bitter experience has taught us that reunification through conquest, insurrection, demanding a unilateral British withdrawal or a war of national liberation is impractical, counterproductive and ethically wrong,” he writes. He emphasises that from the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement through the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government was agreeing that there was only one way a change of constitutional status in the North could take place: “through the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Here I have to confess to a change of mind. In 2019, as co-author of the late Seamus Mallon’s memoir A Shared Home Place, I agreed with that distinguished SDLP politician that a 50% plus one vote for unity in a Border poll would not be sufficient to bring about a politically and socially harmonious united Ireland. I still agree with him in broad terms. But I have had to come to terms with the compelling argument (by O’Leary among others) that any attempt to require a weighted ‘super-majority’ to achieve unity would create an inherent inequality in unionist and nationalist votes, unfairly favouring the former over the latter. It could also lead to the nightmare scenario of a majority vote to abolish partition being thwarted by a ‘super-majority’ requirement, thus keeping Northern Ireland within the UK to placate the then unionist minority. Northern Ireland’s legitimacy, always called into question by its nationalist community, would be utterly and dangerously undermined. A new IRA would quickly arise to attack it.

O’Leary states, without equivocation, that under the Good Friday Agreement, Northerners may choose between just two alternatives: keeping the Union with Britain, or joining a sovereign united Ireland. “That’s it. No ifs, not buts, no third ways”. He is utterly dismissive – too dismissive, I believe – of other options like confederation and joint sovereignty. The GFA is ‘holy writ’, he seems to say, incapable of review or amendment (despite such review or amendment being specifically built into paragraph 7 of the review section of that agreement).

The author then proceeds to expound the alternatives on offer in a Border poll. He demands clarity from the Republic’s politicians and people about what reunification will mean. “The Irish Government, political parties and Irish civil society, interacting as fully as possible with their Northern – including their unionist – counterparts, must define a united Ireland, properly in advance, in documented detail.” There is little chance of this happening in the near future, and what chance is there of a future Sinn Fein led-government ‘interacting’ with the unionists in advance of a Border poll?

O’Leary says that ensuring that such a united Ireland is well defined “can occur in two ways. Either by the careful elaboration of a specific model, or by credibly specifying a clear constitutional process to follow a result in favour of reunification” (my italics). The model approach is relatively straightforward, with one major flaw. “The relevant model [to clarify what kind of united Ireland will be proposed during the referendums] will be offered by the Government of Ireland, on behalf of the Southern citizenry, after having taken in-depth and sustained soundings of Northern opinion. The model will be published before the North votes, and it will have to be endorsed by the South when it votes subsequently in its matching referendum” (O’Leary believes the best process is a Northern referendum followed by a Southern referendum). The flaw, of course, is that the political representatives of unionism will refuse to contribute their opinion, on the basis that turkeys don’t give their opinions about the Christmas dinner.

The process approach is more complex. Under this, only the “question of principle” (Irish unity or continued UK membership) would be decided in the two referendums, North and South (and, if these opt for unity, the result would be irreversible). Hard-nosed pragmatism is the order of the day here. “Most unionists will not engage on their preferred model of a united Ireland until they have lost in the referendum, so we should halt discussions of a possible model until they have definitively lost.” After they have lost, an elected all-Ireland constitutional convention would be convened to propose amendments (either extensive or minimal) to the present Irish Constitution. “This convention is where the model would be decided.” All the really difficult issues would therefore be postponed until the convention, in which the defeated unionists, now representing one-sixth of the island’s population, would be a small minority.

The major difficulty with this latter approach, O’Leary admits, is that before they vote in the referendum Northerners would not know the outcome of the constitutional convention. Another problem would be that if there was no agreement at this convention, or if its proposed constitutional amendments were voted down in a further all-Ireland referendum, “the default would be Bunreacht na hEireann, with or without a recognised subordinate legislature in the North.” O’Leary, like the clear-eyed political scientist he is, has foreseen and honestly articulated the thorny issues threatening his proposed outcome. And once again the unionists would lose out and a unitary state would be the default option.

At this convention, says O’Leary, two models would be on offer: a unitary state ruled by a central government and legislature which could make or break regional and local governments. And a federal state, in which sovereignty would be shared between a central government in Dublin (with powers over areas like foreign affairs, defence and some taxation) and a devolved government in Belfast with responsibility for most other matters.

Here is another problem. “In the process approach, the transitional arrangements, unavoidably, would have to take place under the existing Constitution of Ireland. But these transitional arrangements would have to be clear before the referendum. You can see where this discussion is headed. There is no pure process: a transitional model will have to be advocated, and the transitional arrangements will likely predict the final model.” Once again, the odds are tilted against the unionists.

Similarly, the cards are stacked in favour of a unitary state and against the federal option. “The integrated model is the default unless and until Dail Eireann and the Senate vote to recognise the Northern Ireland Assembly as a subordinate legislature. If the convention failed, or if its draft constitution was rejected by the people, then the Oireachtas would decide, by normal legislation, which of the two feasible models went into effect.” This sounds to me like assimilation of the North by default.

One would expect unionists to prefer the federal model, as the least worst option in the event of unity, in that it would recognise “unionists’ local patriotism towards Northern Ireland, and facilitate numerous ways of enabling Northern Ireland to remain, or become, different from the rest of the island, all while being part of a sovereign, united Ireland.” This version of unity would be “constitutionally and institutionally conservative with a small ‘c”. It certainly would not be the radically transformative vision of a ‘new Ireland’ that Sinn Fein often appears to be championing (although O’Leary stresses that SF is highly unlikely to become the majority party in the Republic, so reunification can only be brought about by a multi-party coalition there). However, if it brings along a significant minority of unionists – a conservative group in so many ways – it might just have a chance of working.

Southerners, on the other hand, “will not wish to risk the stability of the state they have built – they will want to recognise the state they have built in a united Ireland.” For this reason, and others already mentioned, they will probably reject federalism. They may plump for a unitary state, but what the reunified Germans call “walls in the mind” are likely to be a barrier to national reconciliation (a word O’Leary avoids) for a very long time after reunification.

Despite his contention that a successful unity referendum is possible by 2030, O’Leary is fully cognisant of the dangers of moving too fast towards a unitary state. “Without advance planning, engagement and deliberation, a Southern takeover is what will happen ubiquitously if the integrated model is chosen. A Southern takeover would be the likely outcome of a last-minute, improvised and ill-considered reunification.” He stresses that a “key objective” of reunification must be “to make unionists feel welcome and secure in their own homeland, homes, and places of work and leisure.” To this end he believes that “rather than a fast-paced transfer to an integrated Ireland, the preservation of Northern Ireland within a united Ireland for a transitional period may be considered the more prudent judgement.”

Without that extremely challenging advance planning and engagement – not the empty, rhetorical versions that Sinn Fein and the campaigning group Ireland’s Future espouse – O’Leary admits that unionists could ‘in extremis’ support an attempted loyalist insurrection before, during or immediately after the planned referendums, targeted in particular at Southern voters, and perhaps aiming for a re-partition to hold parts of Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry. “Repartition would materialize as a messy and bloody choice if – and only if – loyalist militia are allowed to arm on a significant scale; if Irish reunification plans are, or are made to appear, deeply unattractive to cultural Protestants; and if unionists prefer the risk of a loyalist insurrection to emigration or remaking their political lives in a united Ireland.”

“Kid gloves must now be replaced by tough love for the loyalist paramilitaries,” the author argues. “Irish strategy must be to persuade sufficient loyalists that they will be equal citizens in a united Ireland, with full political, civil, cultural and religious rights, and significant prospects of improved prosperity, but at the same time deprive them of any hope that an insurrection against reunification would succeed.” He warns that “it is prudent to avoid provoking a loyalist insurrection, and equally prudent to be prepared to defeat one.” The job of persuasion is going to be fiendishly difficult if their most loathed antagonist, Sinn Fein – the party of the Provisional IRA – is overseeing the transition to unity. Putting down a loyalist insurrection is going to be similarly difficult given the weakness of Ireland’s military.

The Irish state must ensure that only its forces tackle any loyalist insurrection, repressing any “private republican vigilantes.” An “adequate army in reserve” will be needed and Ireland – with one of the lowest defence expenditures in Europe – will have to rebuild its military capacities very significantly over the next decade to deal with such an emergency. Even more problematically, the little Irish army must “improve its own intelligence-gathering and monitoring of loyalist militia. The Directorate of Military Intelligence must have that as a central goal.” All I can say is that this will be starting from an extremely low base and with few prospects of success: the very notion of Irish army ‘plants’ in loyalist paramilitary groups is almost unimaginable. “Intelligence must be gathered on where loyalists obtain their current weaponry, and significant efforts made to ensure the island is as free of private weaponry as possible. That requires a good navy.” Here the mind starts to boggle at the idea of Ireland’s tiny and woefully under-manned naval service sealing off the whole island to arms importers!

This is the book’s weakest section. O’Leary’s honesty about a probable loyalist backlash is unfortunately not backed by any confidence that the Irish defence forces would have the capability to deal with it. But at least he recognises the problem, unlike most people in the Republic, who simply bury their heads in the sand and prefer not to think about it: “Given Irish history, especially in the North, the recurrence of significant violence may happen, whatever action or inaction occurs in the South over the next decade.” However he argues that the threat of violence must not be used to prevent planning for or holding a referendum. “Peaceful and democratic change must not be allowed to be blocked by fear, when such fear could itself be reduced by appropriate and open preparation and planning. Blackmail must be expected; it should not be tolerated.”

The economic arguments for unity are becoming stronger by the day, as Ireland survives Brexit, the Covid pandemic and (hopefully) the cost of living crisis caused by the Ukrainian war in better shape than Britain. O’Leary quotes the economist and journalist David McWilliams on why the Republic is now much better off than the North: its economy four times larger with a workforce that is only two and a half times bigger; industrial output 10 times larger; its exports 17 times greater. He cites a study by Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness of the Economic and Social Research Institute which argues that disposable household income is a reliable comparative measure of standards of living, and by that measure the average Republic of Ireland household is already US$4,600 better off per year than its Northern counterpart. With such statistics, “it is better to be poor in the Republic than in the North”, the author concludes.

I would have preferred O’Leary not to have relied so much on the over-optimistic 2015 modelling study of the economic impact of unity by University of British Columbia professor Kurt Hübner and colleagues, based on the unviable assumption that a peaceful reunification would see Northern Ireland enjoying an immediate boost in GDP per head in the following seven years, with – under the most optimistic scenario – Ireland as a whole enjoying a cumulative increase in GDP per head of over €17,000. Given the likelihood of violence, which will keep foreign direct investment out of the North, I simply do not believe this.

As post-Brexit British democracy totters from crisis to crisis, the pound falls and its economy lags behind its European neighbours, it is hard not to agree with O’Leary’s conclusion that it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Republic of Ireland (and by extension an eventual united Ireland) is now simply a better, fairer and more prosperous country than the United Kingdom. It is a dynamic, English-speaking unit within the world’s largest and wealthiest economic bloc, and a magnet for US and other multinational investment. “A united Ireland may also be judged a comparatively better democracy than its immediate neighbour. The Republic is a more modernised, liberalised, secularised, law-abiding, tolerant and pluralist society than that governed by the Westminster Parliament”. As a northerner who has spent over 50 years in this republic, I have always resisted this kind of boasting, finding self-regarding smugness to be one of the Republic’s least attractive traits. But on this occasion I am in agreement with Professor O’Leary.

The huge and continuing challenge is to convince a significant number of unionists that this ‘new Ireland’ is worth becoming a part of, and that they should ignore over 400 years of mutual fear, hatred and conflict and choose, however reluctantly, to throw in their lot with the ancient enemy.

This is an edited version of a review which appears in the November issue of the Dublin Review of Books.

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland | 4 Comments

Is this columnist’s frightening republican vision shared by young Irish people?

Una Mullally is a high profile Irish Times columnist: a gay left-wing feminist (although I have never seen or heard her describe herself as a socialist) who is particularly popular among the young. This is not surprising given that one of her recurrent themes is that young Irish people (idealistic, open-minded, liberal in gender and identity politics, probably Sinn Fein inclined) are mobilising to take over the running of this country from old Irish people (reactionary, narrow-minded, Catholic Church-influenced, probably Fine Gael and Fianna Fail voting). Earlier this month she wrote a long column following the controversy over the the Republic of Ireland women’s soccer team chanting ‘Ooh, Ah, Up the Ra’ after their defeat of Scotland to qualify for the World Cup finals next summer.1

It was an extraordinary article. She started by stating the self-evident: “There is a question about whether it’s objectively offensive to chant ‘Up the Ra’ and the answer is pretty obvious: yes it is. It is offensive to victims of the Troubles-era IRA.”

However she went on: “But the broader question is, why does a context exist in which it is not just still chanted, but in fact becoming more common?” She then attempted a wordy explanation which led her into the dubious territory of moral ambivalence about and rationalisation of republican violence. “The evolution of contemporary rhetoric, terminology and discourse is driven by youth culture. But in Ireland we have a situation where younger people are reclaiming and reinventing republican sloganeering and are then admonished by many within older generations, which is a weird exercise in political correctness in reverse.” I fail to understand that line: why is admonishing young people for chanting slogans in support of a secret army that killed nearly 1800 people “a weird exercise in political correctedness in reverse”? I would have thought it is taking a straightforward moral stance on the use of violence for political ends.

The “scary thing” for older people, Mullally wrote, is that “an incredible amount of young Irish people identify as republican…Younger generations are aware of the older generations’ squeamishness regarding republicanism, and this in turn consolidates their gravitation towards republicanism, because it allows for something every generation wants: a differentiating factor between generations that evokes defiance.”

“The shocked-and-appalled reactions to cultural realities [I assume she meant by this the popularity of the chant celebrating the killing of all those unfortunate people] are also tedious to many young people,” she continued. “Additionally, the context that has been created for Irish republicanism to be culturally connected to new generations is also to do with how many of the tropes that previously made Irish republicanism unfashionable, and which many in older generations still think of when it comes to republicanism – macho culture, violence, sectarianism, Catholic fundamentalism – have been dismantled.” Have all those ugly realities (surely not tropes?) been dismantled in Northern Ireland? I have serious doubts about that.

She also wrote: “anti-Britishness is increasingly acceptable socially in Ireland, but that also has a context. It’s about disliking the British state and establishment – not British people.” Young people, in particular, have a “lack of deference” towards Britain, which “has to do with an Irish pride that is rooted in confidence, not fear, or shame, or feelings of inadequacy created through comparison.”

“Younger generations are embarking upon a decontextualisation of republicanism that is messy, complex, and to some, wrong-headed and shocking. But it is happening because we are living in a culture where Irish republicanism is ascendant…What a lot of the media and political establishment doesn’t understand is how dominant Irish pride, patriotism and indeed republicanism is as a backdrop to new generations in their thinking, identity and in their popular culture.”

She said many journalists think Sinn Fein is popular despite their republicanism, and their primary policy of Irish unity. “I understand why this mental gymnastics is happening, because it would be overwhelming for many people to actually contend with the reality that Sinn Fein’s overt republicanism is part of their popularity.”

“Contemporary Irish nationalism is complex, but it does dovetail with an optimistic, forward-looking pride”. She went on: “This pride, I believe, is non-sectarian, and yet the framework of national pride that we have to work with historically was sectarian, was anti-English, and did orientate around republicanism and concepts of Irish ‘freedom’. It is inevitable that as this pride morphs and evolves and is distanced from the past, things will become distorted, twisted and there will be weird outcomes, such as a group of young women footballers in a dressing room with a Spotify playlist that’s just as likely to contain the Wolfe Tones as it is Taylor Swift.”

She said the accusation that young Irish people don’t know their history is “ridiculous” (she objected strongly to a British broadcaster wondering whether the young Irish soccer players had been educated in recent Irish history). She claimed that young Irish people are “profoundly engaged with the past” (a claim I would strongly question.)

“Yes, of course time passes. The memories of the Troubles are not live for new generations. How could they be? That can be incredibly difficult to take for people who lived through that time, suffered during it, were victims of it, and lost loved ones to IRA violence. It requires reminding that IRA violence – as abhorrent as it was – had a context. That’s not a defence, but it’s a reason. It requires reminding that the IRA wasn’t the only entity maiming and killing people. There is a strange, even hurtful positivity in the contemporary context. Republican slogans and memes and chants being said, sung and shared by post-Belfast Agreement generations demonstrate the bitter-sweet evidence of the absence of frequent sectarian violence on this island, that the potency of these slogans has been lost because the violence has waned.”

“We are witnessing a profound cultural shift in this country that has emerged from a confluence of factors underpinned by generational change, one that is under-recognised and misunderstood. Patronising young people for their engagement with republicanism – through meme, song, philosophy, history, messy reinterpretations, culture, frivolousness, seriousness or otherwise – is wrong-headed and out of touch.”

“Unless those appalled by that [‘Up the Ra’ slogan] begin to understand the contemporary context, how Irish culture is moving, and where the politics impacted by that culture is going, they will feel even more discombobulated as Irish republicanism and Irish nationalism grow.”

The best reply to Mullally (replete with irony) came from Chris Fitzpatrick, the outspoken Dublin obstetrician, writing to the Irish Times as “a 65-year-old soccer fan and nationalist”: “Clearly I need to get some grinds in contexts and decontextualisations and how to confront things that scare me, before, as Mullally depressingly predicts, I become ‘even more discombobulated as Irish republicanism and nationalism grow.’ I need to accept that IRA atrocities of our recent past had a ‘context’ and a ‘reason’; so best not to think too much about the victims and their families. It’s hard to believe that I could have been so misguided, and so old, to have ever thought that chanting ‘Up the Ra’ by the Irish women’s soccer team could have been disrespectful, offensive and appalling.”2

Another letter writer, Anthony Hartnett from Cork, said: “One of the most disturbing features of contemporary Ireland is the almost universal ignorance among the younger generation of the Northern Troubles, in particular an ignorance of the shocking number of murders and bombings committed by the Provisional IRA in the name of the Irish people.”

One party will be delighted with Mullally’s column, and that is Sinn Fein. They now know that young Irish people believe violent republicanism is worth supporting, however mindlessly, through pro-IRA chants and songs. They can be reassured that young people support them, not for their commitment to solve our housing and health problems, but for that violent republicanism. Similarly, they will be pleased to hear that young Irish people have joined Irish republicans in going back to the anti-Britishness that was a central part of our national ethos for 80 years up to the turn of the century (and of course for centuries before that), but was happily (if temporarily) on the wane after the Irish and British governments worked together to forge the Good Friday Agreement and try to make it work.

We are moving towards a society where this kind of rationalisation (and eventually defence) of IRA violence is going to become more and more common, as Sinn Fein become a (perhaps even the) power in the land. As a moderate constitutional nationalist (and socialist) in my early seventies from a Northern Protestant background, I personally find Una Mullally’s vision of violence-rationalising republicanism – and young Irish people’s support for it – a frightening one. I fear for the kind of ‘united’ Ireland that will emerge out of it.

PS Three days after Mullally’s article, Fintan O’Toole wrote a powerful column entitled ‘The full unexpurgated version of ‘Up the Ra’, in which he listed some of the most egregious atrocities carried out by the IRA.3

It contained lines such as: “Up massacring those mourning the dead of two World Wars. Up Gordon Wilson trapped in the rubble of Enniskillen with his daughter Marie, holding her hand and hearing her last words. Up ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Up timing bombs in pubs for the right hour on pay night when they’d be full of young working-class couples. Up incinerating the members of the Irish Collie Club so thoroughly that their bodies were beyond recognition because, well, those were Protestant dogs. Up hunting down the last of the Graham brothers after you’d got the other two, then driving through the town roaring ‘Yahoo! Yahoo!’ Up putting bombs on school buses full of children. Up killing Irish policemen and soldiers. Up executing a young mother for the crime of delivering census forms” and so on and so on.

All I can say is: Thank God for the voice of truth, decency and humanity that is Fintan O’Toole. But then Fintan is 64, so what does he know?

1 ‘What does it mean to say ‘Up the ‘Ra’? October 15th

2 ‘The chant that won’t seem to go away’, Letters to the Editor, October 15th

3 ‘The full unexpurgated version of ‘Up the ‘Ra’, October 18th

Posted in General, Sinn Fein | 5 Comments

Is Ireland’s Future effectively a front for Sinn Fein? Or is that the wrong question?

I was at the big Ireland’s Future ‘Preparing for a United Ireland:Together we can’ event at Dublin’s 3 Arena earlier this month. There was very little ‘preparing’ in the proceedings – it was more like a ‘Forward to the Promised Land’ rally, with not a voice raised in dissent. Well, maybe one: Fine Gael leader and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, while saying he believed in a united Ireland, then suggested that the existing structures of the Good Friday Agreement – internal power-sharing, North-South bodies and East-West cooperation – should be strengthened and deepened after reunification. He was booed by a section of the nearly 5,000 strong audience.

Maybe it was his remarks immediately before that which annoyed these people. He said some eminently sensible things. “There is a distinct danger that we could focus too much on a Border poll and on future constitutional models, and not enough on how we enhance engagement, build trust and create the conditions for a convincing majority for change.

“So we need to engage with unionists and that growing group who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish, and indeed those who identify as both. We also need to acknowledge the right of Northern nationalists to have equal recognition in the debate.

“We can’t build our future based on narrow majorities or on the wishes of just one community. For these reasons, I believe the objective should be to secure as large a majority as possible in both jurisdictions in any future poll. 50% plus one may be enough on paper, but won’t be a success in practice. Our only hope depends on presenting a proposal – North and South – that will be able to achieve democratic consent. This will involve compromise.

“It involves accepting a form of unification that is more inclusive and imaginative, one that can achieve the greatest measure of democratic support, and therefore legitimacy, and have the greatest chance of success. We need something that can evolve and deepen in time. And we need to remember that the next step doesn’t have to be the final word.”1

The most impressive things about the rally were the large numbers attending, and the wide range of speakers. In its accompanying glossy 130 page brochure-cum-report, Ireland’s Future said that the first phase of its campaign – “the debate on Irish reunification” – had been successful: “moving this discussion from the relative margins to the mainstream of Irish public life.” The range of speakers from every political party in the South – including non-nationalist parties like the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, the Green Party, People before Profit and the Workers Party – testified to that in spades. There were speakers from IBEC, ICTU, the Irish Farmers Association and the National Women’s Council, and diplomats from 10 countries in the audience.

It was there too in an extraordinarily uncritical editorial in the Irish Times, that pillar of the Southern establishment. This opined:”Ireland’s Future is dedicated to creating an island-wide discussion on a united Ireland in the belief that preparation is required for increasingly likely referendums. Its profile is nationalist to unionist eyes, despite its non-partisan stance and credentials, because it chooses unity over any existing or renewed United Kingdom future for Northern Ireland.”2 Ireland’s Future is surely nationalist in anybody’s, not only unionists’, eyes. If that is so, where is the evidence for its “non-partisan stance and credentials”? And where were “the wide variety of potential future Irelands raised at the meeting”? The editorial writer clearly was at a different meeting to the one I attended. As far as I could see and hear, only one potential future Ireland was on offer there: a politically united one. The other obvious option – the continuation of the existing Good Friday Agreement institutions within the UK – was not raised once. Federation, confederation and joint authority were other unmentioned possibilities.

The secretary of Ireland’s Future, Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy, has angrily rejected any suggestion that his organisation is a front for Sinn Fein: “There is absolutely no basis whatsoever in fact or fiction for that ridiculous assertion”, he says.

But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we should ask ‘Cui bono?’ Because Ireland’s Future has the same aim as Sinn Fein: a politically united Ireland, with “the people of this island fully united and independent for the first time ever”. It makes the same main demands of the Irish government: an all-Ireland Citizens’ Assembly, followed by a government White Paper. It finds it similarly difficult to use the internationally recognised name Northern Ireland (except in inverted commas). It argues, like Sinn Fein, that a 50% plus one majority in a Border poll is sufficient under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and expresses dismay at “sustained and ongoing efforts to offer unionism a veto over progress, either before or after the referendums…we reject attempts to smuggle a unionist veto into the process or give unionism multiple opportunities to block change” (presumably a reference to the suggestion by people like Bertie Ahern and the late Seamus Mallon that a weighted majority in a referendum may be needed before successful unity can be achieved).

It shares the same weaknesses as Sinn Fein, weaknesses that were fully on show in the 3Arena. I did not hear a single new idea about ‘preparing’ for unity. There was nothing about the multiple and extremely complicated issues required to marry two inadequate health services. There was nothing about how two education systems that have gone their dramatically different ways in the past century (differences which the people of the two jurisdictions are almost entirely ignorant of) might be brought together. Above all, there was nothing about the major compromises necessary if a significant number of unionists, with their passionate Britishness, might be attracted to this new and united Ireland: on the symbols of that Britishness, such as membership of the Commonwealth; on continuing British involvement in a united Ireland in order to protect unionists (perhaps along the lines of the Irish involvement in the North in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement); on specific policies that might improve the North’s economy in a united country; and so on.

The event brochure was no more helpful. Apart from the obvious outline of aims and objectives, it contained a long, dense and difficult to follow account of ‘rights, citizenship and identity’; an economic chapter full of material about how woeful the North is now and how splendid it will be after unity; a health chapter claiming that an all-Ireland ‘Slaintecare’ (still very far from being implemented in the Republic) will be the “perfect foundation on which to build a world class, outstanding health service”; an article on social security by a sociologist whose statistics I have questioned in the past; an extraordinarily badly-written section on sport; and a short section (less than half the length of the section on sport) on climate change and ecology – a cynic would say that Sinn Fein are similarly careless about this, overwhelmingly the most pressing issue in the world today.

Maybe I am that cynic. One thing I am not cynical about is Sinn Fein’s capacity to organise, strategise and propagandise. As Irish Times political editor, Pat Leahy, puts it (when forecasting once again that the party will head the next Irish government): “In two decades of covering Irish politics, I have never seen anything like its message discipline. Its organisation on the ground, backed by extensive research, is formidable and its online campaigning is simultaneously vicious and effective.”3

In the North, Sinn Fein and its allies are now battering the unionists and the British on multiple fronts. In May’s Assembly election we saw the SDLP losing a significant number of voters in the form of people who wanted to ensure that Michelle O’Neill would become the first ever nationalist First Minister. Very moderate border region nationalists of my acquaintance have been provoked into campaigning by the existential threat of a new Brexit-produced border. Irish language activists have mobilised in their tens of thousands to secure an Irish Language Act. And Sinn Fein has told its activists not to get involved in the protests against the British government’s much-condemned legacy legislation because the victims and legacy groups are leading that fight very effectively as it is.

It has to be said that the Republican movement were better than their loyalist adversaries (and the British) at war and terrorism. And they are now proving to be far better at peace and politics.

So I do think we are asking the wrong question. Whether or not Sinn Fein are behind Ireland’s Future, they are doing their work for them. The five Northern Protestants, led by TV star Jimmy Nesbitt, who appeared on the programme at the 3Arena (a courageous public stand that would have been unthinkable even 10-15 years ago) must have found it far easier to align themselves alongside Ireland’s Future, with its unbloodied past, than with the party of the IRA. Similarly for the leaders of non-republican Southern parties who were on the platform. This newish, broad-based movement can thus do things on the march towards Irish unity that Sinn Fein can’t do. And that suits Sinn Fein down to the ground – they can see emerging the kind of pan-nationalist front that Gerry Adams used to dream about back in the early 1990s, this time untarnished by the violence of the past.

Indeed, Ireland’s Future could do much better if it really wanted to attract more Northern Protestants to its all-Ireland standard. Instead of effectively being Sinn Fein ‘fellow travellers’, it could put a bit of distance between it and SF by genuinely exploring some of the issues of concern to that community (such as I have outlined above). But there is little or no chance of that so long as its leadership is made up of the kind of passionately partisan Northern nationalists that it has at present, people who believe as an article of faith that tá ár lá tagtha (‘our day has come’).

1 I have some doubts about whether Varadkar’s speech, as actually delivered, contained all these paragraphs. But this was the version of his speech issued by Fine Gael.

2 ‘Ireland’s Constitutional Future: A debate worth engaging with’, 5 October

3 ‘Three tasks face Sinn Fein as it contemplates power’, 8 October

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Sinn Fein | 7 Comments

The results of the census and the revolt of the masses

Firstly, and briefly, the 2021 Northern Ireland census results. We know the headline figures well by now, that the number of those who are Catholics or from a Catholic background (at 45.7%) now outnumber the number of people who are Protestants or from a Protestant (or other Christian) background (at 43.5%). Given that Northern Ireland was originally set up as a Protestant state for a Protestant people with a two thirds Protestant majority, that is a truly historic shift.

The political editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen, summed up the challenge facing the Unionists, a challenge they have largely failed even to recognise over the past century of domination. “Protestant numbers have shrunk from 53% in 1991 to 43% today. No amount of wishful thinking will change that. Demographics and Brexit have done what the IRA campaign failed to do and endangered the constitutional status quo. The days of the old red white and blue dominance are over. If unionism is to have a future, it must embrace all the colours of the rainbow.”1

Breen then points out that Unionists have opposed every single attempt at liberal reform in the North. “Rarely has an opportunity been passed over to be narrow, insular and ungenerous.” She says “there is certainly a path to Irish unity, but it is not an unstoppable march.” Nationalists now use new language and new arguments in their pursuit of that unity. “Unionists will have to reinvent themselves to halt the slide, because the same old shibboleths won’t work.” Are Unionists – people and their politicians – capable of this? Some of us who know the unionist community well would have our doubts. If I were a unionist with a small ‘u’ wanting to make Northern Ireland a better and fairer place, I would be voting Alliance.

But neither should Northern Nationalists get too excited about the census figures, the prominent social researcher Paul Nolan, an acknowledged census expert, warns. He points out that 19.4% of the census respondents declared themselves to have hybrid identities (British/Northern Irish, Irish/Northern Irish, British/Irish/Northern Irish, British/Irish, other nationalities and so on). When you add that to the 19.8% who declared themselves ‘Northern Irish only’, you have over 39% who do not identify with the traditional unionist and nationalist blocs. “That is a big victory for diversity”, says Nolan. “It’s good news for those who favour multiple identities, complexity, fluidity.”

“There are disappointments for those hoping for a large jump in Irish identity,” Nolan wrote in an article on the Slugger O’Toole website.2 “It had been speculated that Brexit would boost the Irish identity, and while there has been an increase, it is only from 25.3% to 29.1%. If you were to include the Irish-plus hybrid identities, the percentage moves up to 33.3%, exactly one-third of the population. Set against the combined British identity of 42.8% (including the hybrids), this might give thought for those wanting to see a Border poll in the near future.”

Not a chance. Sinn Fein’s Pavlovian response to the census figures was to call for a Border poll ASAP. The Ireland’s Future group of Nationalists was trumpeting a ‘biggest ever’ mass rally in Dublin’s 3Arena this weekend. “These people are demographic determinists who don’t bother to read the demography”, says Nolan. “The ‘end of days’ millenarian atmosphere when they gather together in rallies like this one sees their fervour only increase as they make speeches to each other. With that amount of faith you don’t need facts.”

As so often, Fintan O’Toole gets it right. The non-nationalist and non-unionist citizens of the North whom he calls the ‘meh’ people now hold the balance of power there, he says. “It is people who feel attached to Northern Ireland, not as a polity but as a place, who will decide the result of any future Border poll. This surely has profound implications for what a united Ireland even means. If nationalists want to persuade a majority in the North to vote for it, they have to be able to present it in a form that does not obliterate Northern Irish identity. They have to include and sustain that sense of belonging.

“That doesn’t look like a simple offer of Dublin rule. It looks much more like a complex set of political and cultural arrangements in which Northern Ireland continues to function as a meaningful entity.”3

And now a complete switch away from the narrow ground of the North, to the wider world of Ireland, Britain and Europe. In my last blog I outlined three reasons why I believe Sinn Fein will win the next election in the Republic: people here have largely forgotten the IRA’s ‘war’; they believe SF is now a normal left-wing party; and, most importantly, they will vote overwhelmingly on ‘bread and butter’ issues like the housing crisis and poor health services.

There is also a fourth: the move among European electorates away from parties of the centre to radical populist parties of the right and left. The latest example of this was the stunning victory of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy, led by the tough-talking Giorgia Meloni, in last month’s Italian election.

In an illuminating and alarming article in Prospect magazine last month, the influential left-of-centre British commentator John Lloyd wondered if a confrontation with right-wing extremist forces – strongly at work in at least three liberal democracies – Italy, Spain and the United States – would one day come to Britain.4 Given that the liberal capitalist administrations in Britain (and Ireland) – in common with other democratic governments – have to “manage a relentless attack on living standards and preside over greater hardship for the lower paid” in the wake of the Ukraine war-provoked cost-of-living crisis, he asks whether anti-liberal forces will come to revolt against democratic politics itself. “Do we have the makings of a widespread campaign demanding a fundamental shift in wealth and political power away from elites?”

This week I heard Jack O’Connor, former ICTU and SIPTU president and one of Ireland’s most respected left-wing voices, speaking at the Centre for Cross Border Studies annual conference, warn against taking liberal democracy for granted. He noted how few people in the world lived in such democracies: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, only 6.4% of the world’s population live in ‘full democracies’, and the 2022 Freedom House Report said that 60 countries had seen a decline in democratic freedoms over the past year.

In an accompanying article in the 2022 Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, O’Connor argued that civil society in both parts of Ireland should organise themselves to come together to press for the maintenance of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a way of keeping a bridge “between two traditional liberal democratic allies who are ‘partners’ in a no tariffs, no quotas trade and cooperation agreement traversing the largest consumer market on the planet.” This construct should “share a similar orientation to that of the very worthy Shared Island unit, conscious of promoting ‘good neighbourliness’ for the practical benefit of all and in a manner which would not offend either side of the ‘constitutional question’ chasm, but without precluding debate.”

“Even more importantly, developing a tool to optimise the impact of organised civil society in furtherance of practical issues affecting people’s lives would also serve to deepen and strengthen representative democracy, notably in our region during a period when it is under serious threat globally.”

O’Connor believes the working class and the less well-off have been “effectively economically disenfranchised” by neo-liberal globalisation in general and the post-2008 ‘crash’ imposition of austerity in particular. John Lloyd quotes the pro-Brexit writer and firefighter Paul Embery (in his 2021 book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class) describing the contemporary working class as “the stratum of society whose members often do the toughest and most grinding jobs (consisting, for example, of physical labour or work in blue-collar industries, factories, call centres, retail or frontline services); those whose wages and social status are generally at the lower end of the scale, who own little or no property or wealth.” A large slice of this class in Britain has, in recent years, twice shown widescale dissent from their traditional support for the Labour Party: in voting for Brexit in 2016 and for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019.

“Now, with an untried Conservative prime minister succeeding Johnson, and Keir Starmer, a former barrister with limited personal appeal as Labour leader, where will this group go for a third revolt? Do these voters still identify with Labour’s values, or think the party approves of theirs?

Lloyd points out that the leaders of the organised working class – for three decades relatively quiescent -are now choosing a more forceful rhetoric, sharpened by the cost-of-living crisis, and their members’ disproportionately large part in keeping the National Health Service running, transport moving and shops open during the pandemic. Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, the UK’s biggest union, a moderate who beat the hard left to get elected to that position, told her conference in June that “poverty is a choice made by the powerful… we see the very people whose courage and dedication got the country through the pandemic now having to rely on charity.”

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, whose railway members have been on strike this summer, talks of a “wave of resistance.” “The working class is back!” he said in an uncompromising speech at the launch of the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign in August, adding, “we refuse to be poor any more.” For perhaps the first time since the 1984-1985 miners’ strikes, union leaders are orienting disputes about wages or conditions around class poverty. “This current administration acts in their class interests, it’s time to act in our class interests.” Lynch told the ‘Enough is Enough’ crowd.

During the Covid pandemic, the working classes went out to work while the middle and upper middle classes stayed at home. Research by scholars at Nottingham and Warwick universities showed that working-class women were more likely than middle-class women (or men) to have had their hours cut to zero in the first months of lockdown “with potentially severe financial consequences.” Those who kept their jobs were “far less likely to be working from the relative safety of home than women in managerial or professional roles – 80 per cent of working-class women said they were never working from home in June [2020].” And they were “the most likely to be keyworkers in roles with close contact with customers, clients and patients.”

It is widely accepted that inequality has increased and will continue to increase in the UK (this was made crystal clear in Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s crazy ‘please the rich’ mini-budget). The share of income going to the top one per cent of the population increased in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, though lower than in the US. This is in line with rising inequality throughout the West. Bill Duker, the venture capitalist owner of a 230-foot yacht called Sybaris (named after a 7th-century Greek city famed for its wealth and excesses), was quoted in the New Yorker recently as saying: “If the rest of the world learns what it’s like to live on a yacht like this, they’re gonna bring back the guillotine.” 

Left-of-centre parties everywhere have adopted what Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, terms “left modernism”. This, says Lloyd, is “a merging of leftist programmes and rhetoric with those of the professional managerial classes – to make an ideology that is destructive of tradition but supportive of a borderless universalism and rapid technological development.”

In doing this, parties of the left are downplaying policies concerned with fairness, equality and redistribution. Instead – according to Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian and biographer of Keynes – the left has shifted significantly to “questions of personal identity arising from race, gender, sexual preference and so on.” These issues, Skidelsky says, “now dominate the spaces vacated by the politics of distribution. Redressing discrimination, not addressing inequality, became the task of politics.” Centre-left politics is increasingly aimed at what has become the largest reservoir of votes – the urban middle class, who are more moved by cultural than material arguments.

There has been, for some years, a current in the British Labour Party that agrees the party is no longer a natural home for working people. In his book The Dignity of Labour, the Labour MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, laments the end of the centrality of labour to the day-to-day practice of politics – especially on the left. “It is a withdrawal that has come at great cost, for it has truncated our moral critique of capitalism and hedged our anger at the degraded work our fellow citizens are forced to perform,” he writes. He points to the example of a food bank set up in Queen’s Hospital Romford in Essex for its staff: “A food bank mainlined into the public service! It tells you something about what’s happening.”

I will come back in a near-future blog to what this startling new poverty in the UK might mean for the pro-British section of the population in Northern Ireland and the future attractiveness of a united Ireland. For the moment I am only asking a question. Will the Republic of Ireland’s poor and young – many of them working in the so-called ‘precariat’ – vote for Sinn Fein, with its ‘left populist’ politics, in the next election, as a protest against what they will see as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s failure to adequately support them? It will be a supreme irony at a time of unprecedented financial strength and historically low unemployment here (not to mention this week’s ‘giveaway’ budget), but I believe they will.

1 Unionism’s fortunes are flagging…and they know exactly who is to blame, Sunday Life, 25 September

2 Census 2021: A first look shows new waves of identity innovation and an ageing society, 22 September

3 Northern Irish identity will be key factor in any Border poll, Irish Times, 27 September

4 Britain’s breaking point, Prospect, 8 September

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

Sinn Fein are winning the peace, as people forget the IRA’s war

Sinn Fein are winning the post-1998 peace. They are now the largest party in Northern Ireland, and almost certainly will be the largest party in the Republic after the next election. A combination of internal and external events have come together to make their brand of ‘left populism’ (housing spokesman’s Eoin Ó Broin’s telling phrase) seem unstoppable. The housing crisis in the South and the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis caused by the Ukraine war in both jurisdictions have combined to make people fearful and angry, and Sinn Fein will be the beneficiaries.

To what extent are Sinn Fein under Mary Lou McDonald – a skilled Dublin politician with no history in or connection with the IRA – turning into a normal left-wing social democratic party? Here are some recent views. First is the opinion of a reader of this blog, Frank Schnittger from County Wicklow, in last month’s comments column.

“As someone who doesn’t support Sinn Fein, I am nevertheless impressed by the degree to which they have been able to reinvent themselves since the 1990s. They have been able to transform themselves from a hard right, socially conservative, proto-Fascist, anti-EU, hard line nationalist party into a relatively moderate, social democratic, relatively liberal, pro-EU party with some very articulate spokespeople to boot…I think we should give Sinn Fein some credit for largely leaving violence behind them over the past 25 years, facing down some dissident threats from their own side, and doing so far more completely than the loyalist paramilitaries.”

Many people in the Republic are coming to believe this. But is it the whole story? I have been reading the Monaghan-born comedian Ardal O’Hanlon’s new novel, Brouhaha, a story of violence, disappearance and death in a border town in the uncomfortable recent transition to peace (in the interest of transparency, it should be noted that O’Hanlon is the son of a prominent former Fianna Fail politician, Dr Rory O’Hanlon). A central character, a young woman newspaper reporter, is asking a Sinn Fein councillor at a public meeting about his involvement in the mysterious disappearance of a young local woman. “The thing that flustered her most was that nobody…backed her up. Obviously, she didn’t expect the average rank-and-filer of the Party to have his conscience pricked and publicly express misgivings. It was not that sort of party – one that brooked dissent or internal debate or independent thought or any deviation whatsoever from the message. Your average aficionado and assorted hangers-on were, understandably, in their element at this point in time, carried away by the momentum, by the showing in the polls, by the intoxicating message of hope, of salvation, of a better world. They were carried away by the novelty of it all, and the youthful character of it, the sophistication of the Party machine, and, yes, perhaps the fetching whiff of sulphur was part of the attraction too. Nobody was denying it. But what was most appealing to people – people who were so often dismissed as losers – was the genuinely serious chance of being part of a winning team.”

My Ireland-loving Belfast unionist friend Paul Burgess used to feel that republican triumphalism when speaking from Sinn Fein platforms in Cork (he has stopped doing that now). He said the capacity audience at a big meeting in Cork city “appeared elated at the inescapability of their own cause and seemed to prepared to pay lip service to the concerns of unionists, but little more.”

“An undeniable air of confident destiny prevailed. And a sense of political inevitability permeated the proceedings. One fellow panel member, drunk on the certainties provided by a rapt and uncritical republican audience, somewhat lost the run of himself. He suggested that liberal unionists were as rare as unicorns. And that, ‘once you had the unionist community by the balls, their hearts and minds would follow.” How the audience laughed.1

It is inevitable that people’s memories of a terrible period like the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ fade over time. We saw that in striking – even shocking – fashion in last month’s Belfast Telegraph/Lucid Talk opinion poll, which found that 69% of nationalists agreed with Michelle O’Neill’s recent remark that there was “no alternative” to the IRA campaign, that (in the wording of Lucid Talk’s question) “violent resistance to British rule during the Troubles” was the only option. This is not what the majority of nationalists who voted for the SDLP in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s believed. In a 1998 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (historically the most accurate of all NI opinion polls), 70% of Catholics said they had “no sympathy at all” with the reasons republicans gave for violence. That’s a 360 degree turn-around in just 24 years – it’s almost unbelievable.

Now only a minority of older SDLP voters disagree with O’Neill. And moderate unionists are genuinely shocked that so many of their nationalist neighbours are now endorsing – albeit retrospectively – the IRA’s campaign of violence against them, their security forces and their society.

“Only those in advanced middle age remember the horrific reality of conflict: the shootings, the bombings, the tears and the funerals,” wrote the Belfast Telegraph‘s political editor Suzanne Breen. “A generation of younger voters, without the power of recall, has a much more romanticised take on what occurred.”2 This amnesia among the young and young middle aged is the stuff of Sinn Fein dreams.

Take a microcosm of the nationalist vote in the largely middle class constituency of Belfast South in the May Northern Ireland Assembly election. Here Deirdre Hargey, not a particularly articulate or impressive Sinn Feiner (although a former Lord Mayor), took 20.3% of the vote, compared to 11.5% for the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, a young, personable and highly competent candidate who was considered one of the party’s star performers. Compare this to the comparable votes in the first Assembly election two months after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement: then the SDLP took 21.7% of the vote compared to Sinn Fein’s paltry 6.4%

It is particularly noteworthy that in 2005 Hargey was one of 70 people who said they were in the toilet in a south Belfast bar during the murder of Short Strand man Robert McCartney by a group of former IRA men and “saw nothing”. It was a particularly brutal murder: McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine (who survived) were attacked with knives taken from the kitchen, and McCartney was taken to a nearby alley to be finished off. The bar was then ‘cleaned up’ in classic IRA fashion. The dead man’s four brave sisters and fiancée mounted an initially high-profile campaign – which took them to the White House and the European Parliament – to try to bring his killers to justice. They courageously named a former IRA commander, Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, as the man who had given the order that McCartney was to be killed (he was himself shot dead in 2015). For their pains they were “shunned, vilified and demonised” (in Catherine McCartney’s words) in the small republican Short Strand area where they lived, until they were finally forced to move away.

Such was the outcry at the time that Hargey was dropped as a Sinn Fein electoral candidate and suspended from the party. None of which stopped her becoming Lord Mayor 13 years later and topping the poll in Belfast South 17 years later. She may have turned a blind eye to a horrific murder, but that did not seem to bother the mainly middle class nationalist voters of the Ormeau Road, the Malone Road, the university area, Stranmillis and Finaghy, as well as the working class nationalists of the Markets area. That’s amnesia in spades.

And what about the Republic? Has amnesia had its effect here too? Among young people, like the Trinity College Dublin politics students I talked to last spring, the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ are ancient history, comparable to Fine Gael’s brief ‘Blueshirt’ phase in the 1930s.3 There are many people, like Frank Schnittger, who believe Sinn Fein has largely cast off its toxic military past. Then there are those who are only interested in the ‘bread and butter’ issues of housing, health and the cost of living in the Republic, all of which are (and will remain) in crisis mode. Finally, there are those people who want as little as possible to do with the North because they are happy with the prosperous, peaceful Republic as it is, and/or, in Fintan O’Toole’s words, because they feel “underlying anxiety about the spread of mayhem across the Border” in the event of a bungled reunification. Significant numbers in all these groups, except the last, are likely to vote Sinn Fein in the next election.

1 ‘A Shared Future? SF still believes its vocation is to deliver unity in its own, unapologetic image’, Belfast Telegraph, 29 April 2022

2 ‘Provos didn’t win their war, but in terms of the historical narrative, republicans are winning the peace’, 20 August 2022

3 ‘Discussing Irish unity over dinner with Trinity College Dublin politics students, http://www.2irelands2gether.com, 14 April 2022

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 4 Comments

Mary Lou McDonald and the forgotten people of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’

The title of this blog,  ‘Two Irelands Together’, was not chosen by accident. My core contention in writing this column is that for more than 400 years there have been two clashing politico-religious cultures on this island – Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist – and that for the past century these have been forced into the ‘narrow ground’ of Northern Ireland, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.

I hold that before Irish people can come together peacefully and harmoniously in the same political unit, there have to be mechanisms in place to allow them to come together in other ways – socially, culturally, economically. That wise man, the business leader Sir George Quigley (who died in 2013), observed that major constitutional change in Ireland “has to obtain legitimacy if it is not to prove destabilising and even impermanent. Achieving legitimacy in this context must surely start with the recognition that there are in this situation two mutually opposed ‘principles of legitimacy’ which are strongly held – one nationalist and one unionist – and that some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus. The Good Friday Agreement recognises this in its espousal of the principal of consent for constitutional change. It would be a delusion to suppose that change could be achieved through some simple majoritarian process rather than by negotiation.”1

There is precious little common ground at the moment. This came home to me last month when I read  Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald’s speech to the National Press Club in Canberra in Australia in the same week that I visited the victims organisation, the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), in Lisnaskea in Fermanagh.

McDonald is a powerful orator who clearly believes it is her destiny to become the woman who will unite Ireland. In Australia (as elsewhere) she made headlines by predicting that a Border Poll on Irish reunification would take place “in this decade.” Her reply to any question about the risk of renewed violence in the North in the event of an extremely narrow vote for unity in that poll – this time certainly led by loyalists – is always the same. “The war is over”, she says.

It is worth quoting her words in Canberra at more length. She was asked by a journalist how she would ensure that such a Border Poll did not reignite violence in Northern Ireland. “The process for reunification will be orderly. It will be peaceful, and it will be democratic. I will not give an inch on that, and really believe there is a strong onus on every political representative and leader to state that categorically. I will not even countenance the scenario you have painted. That cannot happen under any circumstances, and I say that as one of the effigies that was hanged on a bonfire. People decided for peace. The truth is – a big bonfire, a bus lit on the Falls Road – these are very limited phenomena. The war is over. We are moving to the future, and there is no appetite across wide society to return to armed actions and conflict. I cannot accept – I don’t think any democrat could accept – that some unspoken possibility of perhaps tensions somewhere would throw us off our democratic course.”2

When McDonald says “the war is over”, what she really means is that the guerrilla/terrorist war the Provisional IRA waged in Northern Ireland and Britain for nearly 30 years is not necessary any more because Sinn Fein are winning the struggle to move towards Irish unity very effectively now without violence. They are already the largest party in Northern Ireland and will certainly be the largest party in the Republic after the next election, in early 2025 at the latest. And they have reached this enviable position by playing down the drive for unity – their core ideology – in both jurisdictions, and focussing on the housing, health and cost-of-living issues that really concern ordinary people, and are so urgent now that we are in an inflationary spiral caused by the war in Ukraine and the resulting potentially catastrophic rises in the cost of oil, gas, wheat and other staples.

However her declaration that as leader of Sinn Fein (the party of the IRA) she will “not give an inch” on her determination that the process of reunification will be orderly and peaceful is extraordinarily arrogant and hypocritical.  Arrogant because order and peace in the North in the event of a very narrow vote for unity are not within her gift. Hypocritical because, in common with everyone in her party, support for the IRA’s 1970-1997 campaign of violence is a compulsory requirement for membership. When was the last time you heard anyone in Sinn Fein criticising the actions of the IRA? The answer is ‘never’. And the IRA Army Council is still there somewhere in the background, with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris confirming this as recently as 2020.

McDonald’s arrogance is there too in her fanatical belief – common to all republicans – that unity is inevitable, that there is no alternative.”We’ve built the peace [after 30 years of IRA murder and mayhem – AP], and we now look to the next phase: the reunification of Ireland. We are living in the end days of partition. The momentum behind Irish unity is unprecedented,” she said in Canberra. My understanding of the Good Friday Agreement was not that Irish unity would be the next step, but that the reconciliation of the warring communities in Northern Ireland would be the first step along a road that could possibly – but not inevitably – lead to unity.

Which brings me to the victims group in Fermanagh. At the back of a half-empty factory estate in Lisnaskea are the comfortless offices (a far cry from the splendour of the National Press Club in Canberra) of the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), overseen by an  impressive young man from south Armagh called Kenny Donaldson. Donaldson is adamant and even-handed in his insistence that republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces must all be held to account for past atrocities.

For the past 24 years his group has undertaken the difficult, unsung work of representing, counselling and providing services for those whose family members were killed by republican and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain and further afield during the Northern conflict. For obvious reasons, their work focuses in particular, although not exclusively, on civilians and members of the British and Northern Ireland security forces killed (murdered, they would say) by republican paramilitaries (‘terrorists’ they would call them in unionist South Fermanagh, which was one of the Provisional IRA’s most active ‘killing fields’).

As Sinn Fein strides towards gaining political power in Ireland and both recognition and respectability internationally, these are the forgotten people. There are literally thousands of people on SEFF’s books, most of them unknown to the uncaring world outside their families and friends. Who, for example, has heard of the five BBC engineers and building workers who died when they were blown up by a landmine on their way to repair a TV transmitter on Brougher Mountain on the Fermanagh-Tyrone border in February 1971?  Nobody has ever been prosecuted for this atrocity, although it was widely believed to be an IRA bomb meant for the security forces (the battery used as the device’s power source had been bought in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim). For the sad record, those who died were BBC engineers Malcom Henson from Lancashire and William Thomas from Carmarthen in south Wales; and local men George Beck, John Eakins and Harry Edgar, all from Kilkeel, County Down.

Who remembers the names of the 21 civilian victims of the November 1974 pub bombings  in Birmingham, admitted by a former senior IRA man in 2014 but never officially claimed by that organisation? In Ireland this terrible attack is largely remembered because six innocent Birmingham-based Irishmen served 16 years in jail for it before a lengthy campaign led to their convictions being quashed by the Court of Appeal “It is often said that the greatest act of injustice was experienced by the Birmingham Six, but surely the greater injustice was the decision taken by a terrorist organisation to mass murder innocents – and to this day continues to deny victims and survivors the truth of the events that unfolded on that fateful day which saw their loved ones massacred,” says SEFF in one of its publications.

Who remembers the 11 Royal Marine bandsmen who died in an IRA bomb at their barracks in Deal in Kent in September 1989? Or Maheshkumar Islania, an RAF corporal originally from India, and his six-month-old daughter Nivruti, who were shot dead by IRA gunmen in Wildenrath in Germany in the following month? Or the two Australian tourists – Stephen Melrose and Nick Spanos – who were killed in front of their wife and girlfriend in May 1990 by black-clad gunmen when they stopped for a meal in a Dutch town which was popular with off-duty British servicemen?  Or Tom Oliver, a County Louth farmer and father of seven, who was abducted and killed by the IRA in July 1991, his body dumped over the border in south Armagh?

All these people left behind stricken families and devastated lives. They are just a few examples of the thousands of people who are are obliterated from memory as Sinn Fein march onto their promised land of unlikely all-Ireland amity and harmony. There has not been a single prosecution of anyone involved in any of these IRA attacks. There has not been a scintilla of admission (with the singular exception of the Birmingham bombings man), let alone repentance, from those responsible. Nobody in this republic knows or cares about their victims. It is little wonder that Northern unionists ask if the lives of these forgotten people – and so many like them – are worth less than those who were killed by the British Army in Derry and Ballymurphy, whose cases have been the subject of constant and highly publicised international campaigns over half a century. 

The South East Fermanagh Foundation continues its unheralded work from its offices in Northern Ireland and Britain. One of its publications, Terrorism Knows no Borders, also features 56 people (out of an estimated total of 105) killed in the Republic by the UVF, the IRA and the INLA, including those who died in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, Lord Mountbatten and his companions blown up on his boat in Mullaghmore in 1979, and other civilians, soldiers, prison officers and gardai. Another publication, Uniting Innocent Victims, includes victims of ETA attacks in the Basque country. Kenny Donaldson is currently in Rwanda on a study visit to learn how they have worked to bring people together in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in that country.

One of SEFF’s most moving projects is a travelling exhibition of quilts, remembering the individual people from all sides who were killed/murdered during the Northern ‘Troubles’. The project’s three key messages are: “1) violence was futile and totally unjustified; 2) those remembered were wholly innocent, and 3) the legacy of those represented will live on amongst those left behind.”

In its introductory brochure, the organisation says: “Memorial quilts allow us to tell the story of the ‘Troubles’ in a very human way, encouraging people viewing the patches to consider the individual being remembered and not simply the badge or affiliation they had with a particular organisation which for some made them a ‘legitimate target’ for assassination. These individuals’ lives had worth not only to their families but to their colleagues, friends and the wider community at large. Ordinary men, women and children from right across the community were treated as collateral damage during the ‘Troubles’, and this continued with the concessions granted [to] terrorism and its political annexes within the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements (both overt and covert). This continues to exist to this day due to the justice, truth and accountability deficit being borne by innocent victims/survivors of terrorism.”

This is a small voice for justice and truth that needs to be heard throughout this indifferent island. In this jurisdiction it is all but silent. And with Sinn Fein moving into government here in the near future, it will not only be silent, but officially silenced too.

1 The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, No.8, Spring 2013, p.27


Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein | 13 Comments

Will the United Kingdom under Liz Truss be in danger of stepping out on the road to fascism?

From an Irish viewpoint, the prospect of Liz Truss becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is deeply worrying. This is the woman who as Foreign Secretary has outdone Boris Johnson in her aggressive rejection of the Northern Ireland protocol, saying she is prepared to tear up large parts of that agreement with the EU even at the risk of precipitating a trade war in the middle of an actual war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis it has caused. She is the author of the legislation that will drive a coach and horses through that protocol. In the words of the Observer‘s chief political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley: “In belligerence towards Europe, Ms Truss, the former Remainer, now outJohnsons Johnson.”

She is a right-wing libertarian who like Johnson is contemptuous of rules and conventions and calls herself “the disruptor-in-chief.” Fellow-disruptor Dominic Cummings, who has known her for a long time, remarks: “She’s about as close to properly crackers as anybody I have met in parliament.” He predicts that she would be an “even worse” prime minister than his former boss. “On the basis that it takes one to know one, that assessment is extremely alarming,” says Rawnsley.

When it comes to her signature economic pledge to magic up £30 billion of instant tax cuts by putting the cost on borrowing, she is very far from her heroine and model Margaret Thatcher. “The Iron Lady didn’t believe in unfunded and inflation-fuelling giveaways. She would be horrified by the notion of piling on more national debt when the government is already making record interest payments on its borrowing. Trussism isn’t Thatcherism. What she’s peddling is cakeism. In that sense too, she is the true heir of the outgoing prime minister”, writes Rawnsley.1

She certainly looks like the continuity candidate of the Boris Johnson faithful, with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries her noisiest cheerleaders. “She is the adoptive child of the ERG (European Research Group) and all the other batshit groups on the right of the party,” says one Tory MP who would describe himself as a man of the right.

For the past 12 years of Tory rule, each new Prime Minister has represented a move to the right: from David Cameron, through Theresa May to Boris Johnson. Everyone knows that the 180,000 Conservative Party members who will choose the next holder of that office are well to the right of British public opinion as a whole, particularly on the EU and immigration. Barring some huge gaffe on her part, they are going to choose Liz Truss over the slick, high-tech representative of international finance, Rishi Sunak.

How far to the right can Britain go? The other imponderable is the growth of English nationalism, with its toxic mixture of anti-Europeanism and nostalgia for a past of triumphant imperialism. In the 2011 census for England and Wales, 67.1% of people chose “English as a sole identity”, not combined with other identities. This group was three times greater than those who considered their sole identity was “British.”

Does this growth of English nationalism make Britain racist? The writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch has written: “Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis. It is still linked in the imaginations of people of all races to the concept of whiteness. A 2017 poll found that more than half of the British population felt the presence of people from ethnic minorities threatened their culture. Not surprisingly, there is widespread distrust in the language of integration.”2 Against this, one has to say that Boris Johnson in Downing Street, for all his faults, was no racist, filling his cabinet with people from Asian and African backgrounds (including hard right politicians like Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch). And the outside possibility that Rishi Sunak will become the next Tory leader and Prime Minister would put to bed most allegations that Britain is a racist country.

In his book How Britain Ends, in which he warns sternly against the rise of English nationalism, the distinguished former BBC broadcaster Gavin Esler (who grew up in Northern Ireland) quotes historian Peter Hennessy’s “Good Chaps theory of government”, which posits that Britain’s unwritten constitution has functioned successfully over the centuries because “it requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work.”

“But as Hennessy himself wondered…what happens if we run out of Good Chaps, and a few Bad Chaps, men and women who do not show restraint, take over? Or, less dramatically, what happens if the British people have lost so much trust in the political system that they have begun wondering if its vagueness and uncertainty is really able to protect them from abuse by those in power? Trust in the British system of government is at an all-time low.”

In a recent report Hennessy (and co-author Andrew Blick) have wondered about the risk of Britain’s unwritten and thus uncertain constitutional system falling “under the spell of a populist leader, someone who did not take seriously the unwritten checks and balances and sense of restraint inherent in the Good Chaps system. Might we be entering Trumpland – a Trumpland without a clear constitution to limit the powers of a leader who pretended that he or she wanted to Make Britain Great Again?”3

Might this person be Liz Truss, as it was with the mendacious, ferociously ambitious and equally self-obsessed Boris Johnson? And how far would she go to please her constituency on the hard right of the Tory party and beyond?

Unlike many Irish people, I am not instinctively anti-British. On the contrary, I cherish the values of fairness, equality and social democracy I learned growing up in post-war Britain. Only recently I was contemplating a letter to the Irish Times objecting to their left-wing, feminist columnist Una Mullally’s comment that anti-trans rhetoric in Britain showed the “descent of their nation into a fascistic farce” (her second such reference in a few weeks).4

But a recent conversation with a friend who is a high level international civil servant, a man of wise and considered judgement, in which he wondered about indications that the UK might be in danger of moving in a fascist direction, gave me pause for thought. Fascism is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “a system of extreme right-wing or authoritarian views”. This man, the polar opposite of a wild-eyed radical, referenced as examples of moves towards right-wing authoritarianism Boris Johnson’s contempt for parliament during the implementation of Brexit; the ERG’s preference for Britain as ‘Singapore upon Thames’ with little if any protection for the rights of workers; and Home Secretary Priti Patel’s cruel and unworkable plan to deport people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda (which neither Truss nor Sunak have dissociated themselves from).

That took me back to a powerful article by Fintan O’Toole in 2018. He was writing about what he called Donald Trump’s “test marketing” of his policy of separating Latin American migrant children from their parents and locking them in cage-like compounds. “Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate.”

One further step is “the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities” (which we know plenty about in Northern Ireland!). And fascism of course needs propaganda machines so effective it creates for its followers “a universe of ‘alternative facts’ impervious to unwanted realities” (which Trump was a master at creating and testing).

The next and trickiest step, said O’Toole, is “to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination.”5 Let’s see how people feel about crying brown babies in cages or hapless Syrian or Afghan asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda. How will it go down with Rupert Murdoch and the readers of his newspapers? With Fox News? With the Sun and the Daily Mail?

Nearly 60% of US Republicans were in favour of Trump’s brutal treatment of illegal immigrant families on the Mexican border. The great majority of Conservative Party members support Priti Patel’s brutal policy to force asylum seekers to go to Rwanda. These attitudes are not only common in Britain, they are all over Europe: with Marine Le Pen in France; Matteo Salvini in Italy; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Voz in Spain; Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany. The EU’s record of sending back African asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean to barbaric prison camps in Libya is a shameful one.

I may be over-alarmist about this. Nightmare images emerge from Irish and Jewish folk memories. I will leave the last word with the British poet Michael Rosen: “I sometimes fear that/people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress/worn by grotesques and monsters/as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis./Fascism arrives as your friend./It will restore your honour/make you feel proud/protect your house/give you a job,/clean up the neighbourhood,/remind you of how great you once were,/clear out the venal and corrupt,/remove anything you feel is unlike you…/It doesn’t walk in saying,/’Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

1‘Liz Truss reminds me of a Tory leader, but it’s not Margaret Thatcher’, Observer, 24 July 2022

2 How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, Gavin Esler, p.87

3 How Britain Ends, p.269-273

4 ‘Manufactured moral panic on trans rights is nonsense’, Irish Times, 20 June 2020

5 ‘The trial runs for fascism are now under way’, Irish Times, 26 June 2018

Posted in British-Irish relations, General | 3 Comments

From Rebel Cork to Orange Antrim: a cyclist’s journey through the gorgeous heart of Ireland

In the first eleven days of July I cycled with my friend David Ward from Mizen Head in west Cork to Fair Head in north Antrim to raise money for Concern’s work for girls’ education in Afghanistan. The journey confirmed me in my belief that we live in one of the most beautiful, peaceful and friendly countries in the world (I have been privileged to be able to visit over 60 countries in every continent except Australasia). Since I always try to devote at least one blog every summer to something that has nothing to do with politics, I thought I would try to describe my impressions of this 640 kilometre trip through the gorgeous heart of Ireland.

Our route took us from Mizen Head through Bantry, Macroom, Mitchelstown, Templemore, Tullamore, Mullingar, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh, Ballymena and Ballycastle to Fair Head. We traversed 12 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The greatest part of the journey was along secondary and minor roads (and occasionally bog roads and cart tracks) since when you click on the ‘cycle’ icon on Google maps you are inevitably led away from main roads. So it was eleven days spent largely crossing the Irish countryside.

And much of it was in the unfashionable countryside of the midlands: from north Cork, through Limerick, Tipperary, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Armagh. This is not any kind of tourist trail, evidenced by the fact that we did not meet a single other cycle tourist in our passage across those counties. Yet even in the flat centre of Ireland, on the Offaly-Westmeath border, a yellow field of mown hay against a background wall of dark green deciduous trees is a thing of beauty.

There is plenty to marvel at in those relatively unfrequented parts of the country. We passed Ballydoyle stable in south Tipperary where Nijinsky, possibly the greatest European flat racehorse of the 20th century, was trained by Vincent O’Brien. We walked around the handsome and almost totally unknown King’s Square in Mitchelstown, a little gem of a tree-lined Georgian mall built by the extravagant (and eventually insane) Earl of Kingston for the local Church of Ireland community in the 1780s, where we met a builder from Kilkenny who was taking time off from his holidays to help convert six of the houses into accommodation for Ukrainians.

We rode up the wonderfully scenic Glen of Aherlow under the Galtee Mountains, looking across to the rich pasturelands of the Blackwater valley and the Golden Vale. There is good tillage here too – wheat, barley, oats and even maize – which makes an environmentally conscious ‘townee’ like me wonder if this shouldn’t be the future of Irish farming on fertile lands like these in an age of potentially catastrophic climate change. Certainly a world expert like Professor John Sweeney believes that Irish farmers must very soon reverse a process which has seen the size of the country’s dairy herd, its biggest agricultural polluter, increase by almost half over the past decade (Ireland’s 135,000 farms produce 37% of national greenhouse gas emissions).1

We visited Belvedere House on the shores of Lough Ennell outside Mullingar. Here the extremely wicked Robert Rochfort, 1st Earl of Belvedere, locked up his beautiful young wife for 31 years, accusing her of adultery with his brother, until she went mad. He hated and envied another brother so much that he built a folly called a ‘Jealous Wall’ between their adjoining stately homes so that he wouldn’t have to contemplate his property. A better example of an aristocratic 18th century waster it would be hard to find. A 20th century relative and occupant of the house was Charles Howard-Bury, who led the first British expedition to try to climb Mount Everest in 1921 (on which the lead climber was the astonishingly glamorous George Mallory, who was to die on the mountain three years later)

We skirted the Slieve Blooms in Offaly and Laois, stopping for lunch at a charming small cafe (Peavoy’s) in the equally charming village of Kinnity. It is marvellous how the new prosperity of rural and small town Ireland has led to the appearance of excellent cafés and coffee shops in the tiniest of places. In Toon’s Bridge near Macroom in Cork we had a vegetarian lunch of the highest quality in the Dairy, whose primary business is making Mediterranean-style cheeses from unpasteurised buffalo, sheep and cows’ milk and selling them in markets and shops across Ireland. In Ardboe in County Tyrone on a Sunday morning we had coffee and cookies at the High Cow Bagel takeaway coffee shop in a formerly derelict shed at a remote crossroads above Lough Neagh. An hour later we had lunch in a flower-bedecked lock-keeper’s cottage cum café on the banks of the River Bann at Toomebridge. 30 years ago – in violent and Sabbatarian Northern Ireland – such lovely places would have been simply unthinkable.

It is not only the village cafés which are a revelation, but the villages themselves. Places like Kinnity, Castlepollard in Westmeath, Redhills in Cavan and Glaslough in Monaghan are as neat and bright and colourful as any village in rural England or France. Modern bungalows and redecorated farmhouses are surrounded by immaculately-tended gardens. I’m sure there are still pockets of rural poverty, but to the passer-by this looks genuinely like a ‘new Ireland.’ It is a very far cry from the picturesque scruffiness, miserable housing and widespread rural poverty I witnessed when first cycling around Ireland as a teenager in the mid-1960s. For me, this is a sign of a successful country: when ordinary people in humble places traditionally neglected by the metropolis are clearly living in comfort and prosperity.

Another striking finding is the ubiquity of the Gaelic Athletic Association in out-of-the-way places. Every village in Ireland, north and south (outside the traditionally unionist areas of Northern Ireland), seems to have an immaculate GAA pitch, usually with adjoining training pitches, bleachers and often floodlights. It is little wonder that Ireland’s national identity is so strong in rural areas, with such a formidable, island-wide amateur (but superbly and professionally run) sporting organisation at the centre of community life everywhere. The Catholic Church in Ireland may be in sharp decline, but the organisation promoting gaelic football, hurling and other ‘national’ pastimes is stronger than ever.

For of course the great divide on the island is still only too apparent. Cycling through ‘rebel’ west Cork, the memories of the long struggle against British rule are as vivid as ever. At the Pass of Keimaneigh on the road from Bantry to Macroom there is a monument to four ‘Whiteboys’ who died in a clash with the British Army as long ago as 1821. Every few miles along that road there is a memorial to men who died in the 1919-1923 War of Independence and Civil War. In Inchigeelagh in the west Cork Gaeltacht there is a plaque commemorating the local ‘glebe house’ (the residence of the Church of Ireland minister) “burned down by Irregulars to prevent it falling into the hands of the Black and Tans (1922)” – a little rewriting of history there, since the Black and Tans were disbanded in 1922, and the anti-Free State ‘Irregulars’ were actually fighting the new Free State army.

It is a surprising (and recent) change also to see a plaque at Kilbarry National School to a former pupil called Michael O’Leary who won a Victoria Cross in the First World War. Apparently his nationalist father was not impressed.  “I am surprised he didn’t do more. I often laid out twenty men myself with a stick coming from Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could kill only eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet,” he was reported as saying.

At the other end of the island, we rode into Ballymena (my birthplace) two days before the ‘Twelfth’. Across the street in Harryville (which made headlines for the wrong reasons back in 1996 when local Catholics were forced to run a hostile loyalist gauntlet on their way to Mass) was a traditional Orange arch bearing the message ‘Hold Fast to the Good; God Save the Queen.’ Holding fast to the British government’s internationally discredited legislation to overturn the NI protocol after agreeing it with the EU doesn’t have the same ring to it!

As we rode towards Ballycastle on the final day, through the beautiful countryside skirting the Antrim Hills, past Cloughmills (stronghold of my mother’s Gaston family) and Loughguile (birthplace of the late Cardinal Cahal Daly, whom I got to know and admire when I was Irish Times religious affairs correspondent in the 1990s), I felt some sadness in the middle of a perfect summer’s day. The regular Orange halls we passed were testimony to the fact that this is is one of the heartlands of Protestant Ulster. What is going to happen to these Ulster Protestants as events outside their ‘wee North’ turn against them? As the Tory grandees squabble over who is going to succeed the clownish and incompetent Boris Johnson; as the United Kingdom’s stock in the world falls again as it cuts itself off from its closest and most important allies and markets in Europe; as its economy further declines for the same reason; as Scotland, so close to Northern Ireland over the centuries, goes its own way; as Sinn Fein, now the largest party in the North, also becomes the largest party in the Republic after the next election?

So this column tries to avoid Northern Irish politics at least once every summer, and, once again, like every other summer, it fails.

PS Grateful thanks to the many readers of this blog who contributed to my all-Ireland cycle for Afghanistan. I raised €10,850 for Concern’s work in that stricken country.

1 ‘Failure to meet climate commitments will be costly’, Irish Times, 6 July

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 4 Comments