Sinn Fein will be re-writing recent Irish history when it gets into power

Earlier this month Mary Lou McDonald denied that the deletion of thousands of Sinn Fein press statements going back over 20 years represented an attempt to cover-up the party’s ‘soft’ position on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The Sinn Fein leader had brazenly jumped that ship shortly after the invasion, leading the calls for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador to Ireland.

However as far back as 2015 Sinn Fein’s four MEPs abstained in a European Parliament resolution that condemned human rights abuses in Russia and criticised Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. In December Chris McManus, now the party’s sole representative in the parliament, voted against a resolution that supported Ukraine’s independence, stated that Putin’s military build-up at Ukraine’s borders represented a threat to Europe’s peace and security and called on Russia to respect its international obligations. McManus has abstained or voted against six European Parliament resolutions critical of Russia since 2020.1

We can expect a lot more rewriting of recent history – Irish history – if and when Sinn Fein gets into power in Dublin. The Provisional IRA’s 30-year campaign of violence will be rewritten as an unavoidable consequence of the peaceful civil rights movement in Northern Ireland when faced with the repressive Northern state. Multiple killers of off-duty policemen and UDR men like Seamus McElwaine and Francis Hughes will be portrayed as glorious heroes. And most importantly of all, the IRA’s campaign will be justified as the legitimate and righteous continuation of the 1916-1921 War of Independence against the British occupier, completing the unfinished business of winning Irish freedom, unity and sovereignty.

Many people in the Republic of Ireland will be open to this interpretation. Republicanism is a kind of underlying orthodoxy in Southern society. A lot of people in this state, notably Fianna Fail followers and supporters of left-wing parties, proudly call themselves republicans or republican socialists. In this period of centennial commemorations, many – perhaps most – people here find it easier to identify with the uncompromising Irish republicans of that era than with supporters of the compromising Irish Free State or John Redmond’s peaceful Irish Parliamentary Party (people like this are always in danger of being demonised as ‘free staters’,’shoneens’ or ‘west Brits’). With Fianna Fail now discredited after having spent too much of the past century in government, this adds up to one more psychological advantage for Sinn Fein.

Republican assumptions and language are shared by those who would never call themselves supporters of the Provisional IRA. You can see it in the small things. I am starting to see apolitical theatre reviewers refer to IRA prisoners in the Maze, who may have been convicted killers, as ‘political prisoners’, and a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment as a ‘terrorist.’ The liberal intelligentsia is particularly guilty here: acquaintances of mine inveigh against the former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris, a fierce critic of the IRA, with a vitriol they would never use against Gerry Adams or Mary Lou McDonald. With prominent anti-IRA voices like Harris, Kevin Myers and Professor John A. Murphy silenced by death or disgrace, there are few people left in the media and public life to take on the now ascendant Sinn Fein champions of republican violence.

It may not be politically correct these days, but it is worth reminding people forcefully of the extent of that violence. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. I’m going to repeat that in bold. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. Is there any other ‘freedom struggle’ in recent world history where the forces of ‘freedom’ killed nearly five times more people than the repressive state forces facing them? A Northern friend from a security force background has estimated that there are over 400,000 people with some past or present connection with the security forces in Northern Ireland – and the majority of them have the most vivid recollection of relatives, friends and comrades who were killed and injured by the IRA. Does that affect their view of Sinn Fein and its policy of driving on to an early united Ireland? You bet it does.

Which brings me to an interesting long article in the New York Review of Books this month.2 Because if Fianna Failers and Irish left-wingers are susceptible to Sinn Fein’s propaganda (and Irish republicans are world-class propagandists), that is doubly or trebly so for many (perhaps most) Irish-Americans, who support the IRA because it aims to drive the British out of Ireland, and most European leftists, who admire the IRA as Europe’s very own anti-imperialist guerrilla force. One rarely hears a well-argued contrary view in Europe or the United States. However the novelist Nick Laird, born and reared in Tyrone, has provided one in his excoriating review in that prestigious US publication of a new three volume collection of photographs of Northern Ireland – Whatever you Say, Say Nothing – by the celebrated French photographer of the ‘Troubles’, Gilles Peress, a former president of the Magnum photo agency, and now professor of human rights and photography at Bard College, New York, and senior research fellow at the Human Rights Centre at Berkeley University.

Laird is damning of the partiality and prejudice of this mighty photo collection and its accompanying text, most of it by Peress’s collaborator, an American lawyer called Chris Klatell. Both both Peress and Klatell are unashamed supporters of the IRA. For example, Klatell is happy to quote An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein newspaper, as his source for an account of the disputed killing of IRA men by the SAS; and to describe two men as having been killed “on active service” when the bomb they were making exploded prematurely. Apart from other photographers, those thanked by Peress in the acknowledgements for “their hospitality, generosity and advice” are nearly all IRA members and Republican activists.

Laird calls the book “deeply partial, and by turns incomplete, ill-informed, outdated and patronizing.” He gives many examples of this. Here are two: Klatell describes Francis Hughes, who was to die in the 1981 Maze prison hunger strike, as “a charismatic and tenacious young member of the Provisional IRA referred to as the ‘most wanted man in the North of Ireland.’ The authorities captured him in a ditch after a shoot-out with the SAS, looking like a rock star with dyed blonde hair even though he was gravely injured.” What Klatell doesn’t mention is that “Hughes was convicted of killing three people and reputedly killed more than a dozen, with some sources alleging he was responsible for at least 30 deaths. Among the deaths he was linked to were those of a 77-year-old grandmother and a 10-year-old girl.”

Here is a second. “Klatell recounts Peress describing how, back in 1985, Daithi de Paor, an IRA man, had told him a story of the IRA bombing a costume shop: ‘For some reason, or maybe for no reason, the Volunteers decided they had an issue with the Indian man who owned the costume shop’ and decided to blow it up. After setting the bomb on the counter they drove away, but saw in the rearview mirror ‘the fucking Indian guy, calmly carrying the bomb out of his shop and chucking it into the street.’ So the following week they went into the shop, ‘froze the owner at gunpoint, and glued the bomb to the counter. Then they all stood round in awkward silence, holding the bomb down, waiting for the glue to dry.’ After recounting this story, Peress laughed. ‘No one else did. That’s a terrible story, they said. What happened to the poor Indian man who owned the shop?’ Gilles looked around in puzzlement. ‘That story wasn’t about the man who owned the shop’, he said. ‘It was about the glue.”

Laird concludes: “Realizing that murdering an immigrant for ‘some reason, or maybe for no reason’ might strike readers as despicable, Klatell tries here to put some daylight between himself and Peress, though with its black humour, casual gangsterism and purposeless violence this anecdote is somehow one of the truest things in the book.”

Klatell cannot imagine a Northern Protestant sensibility that is “anything other than grotesque”, says Laird. “Orange marches are ‘sadistic victory parades of the Prods, ecstatic in their imposition of humiliation’. To many people, not just Protestants, this might seem not only a caricature but a gross misrepresentation.”

Laird concludes that “among Americans the list of useful idiots for the Irish Republican cause is long, and Klatell, though he has clearly steeped himself in the history and culture of the North, has also, in the end, let himself be a tool of violent Republicanism. He is attempting to cement a story that simply isn’t true, the reality being more complicated and demanding than his scrapbook admits.

“It is, of course, possible to believe in the inevitability and desirability of a united Ireland without supporting or romanticising Irish Republicanism. It is possible to think that partition was a disaster and that Northern Ireland practised systematic discrimination against its Catholic minority for many years, while also refusing to justify, glorify or accommodate the horrific actions of Republicanism. That’s why the Social Democratic and Labour Party exists – to advocate for Irish reunification, though it has been largely eclipsed by Sinn Fein.”

Seamus Heaney is invoked repeatedly in these volumes. “What is missing is Heaney’s sense of a morally complicated place, a location where no one was exactly right but some were clearly wrong: ‘My sympathy was not with the IRA, but it wasn’t with the Thatcher government either”, the great poet wrote during the 1981 hunger strike. Laird recommends reading another engrossing book by an American observer of the North, which takes its title from the same Heaney poem as Peress’s collection: Say Nothing, by the New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. Laird calls this a “masterpiece, and one of the best introductions you’ll find to the twisted state of Northern Ireland.” I could not agree more.

1 Elaine Loughlin, ‘Sinn Fein’s soft stance on Russia is clearly on the record’, Irish Examiner, 1st March

2 ‘Partial Reports’, New York Review of Books, 10th March

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein | 3 Comments

Is Ireland neutral in this battle between good and evil?

Sometimes (rarely) wars are seen as battles between the forces of good and evil. The war of the Allies against Nazism is the classic example in modern times. Except the Irish state chose to sit that one out, unwilling to line up alongside the ancient British enemy – then on the side of the angels – less than 20 years after its war of independence against the old oppressor.

I would suggest that the savage and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia comes into this category. In less than three weeks Putin’s merciless generals have unleashed a campaign of terror unseen since the Second World War: they have pounded residential areas, targeted hospitals, mined and bombed agreed ‘humanitarian corridors’ and forced four million and a half Ukrainians to flee their homes. Putin appeared to threaten nuclear war when he warned that Russia’s response to anyone who stood in its way in Ukraine or “creates threats for our country and people” will “lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history.” 39 countries, including Ireland, have petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.

Ireland is proud of its neutrality (although decisions like allowing US troop planes to refuel at Shannon en route to wars in Iraq and  Afghanistan show how governments can interpret it as they will). But during the seventy years of Soviet rule was the Irish Free State/ Republic of Ireland, among the most conservative and Catholic – and therefore anti-communist – countries in Western Europe, really neutral? Didn’t it shelter under the nuclear-armed NATO umbrella to ensure Ireland’s security? Given its tiny air corps and navy, didn’t it rely on the RAF and the Royal Navy to secure its air corridors and shipping lanes (and to support its limited search and rescue capacity)? Isn’t this a classic example of what Fintan O’Toole calls Irish people’s ability to be in two minds at the same time: neutral and anti-communist, anti-British and reliant on Britain?

I feel a real thrill of pride when I see Ireland’s blue-bereted soldiers flying off on United Nations duty in dangerous places like Lebanon and Liberia, or Irish naval vessels saving the lives of African refugees in the Mediterranean. But neutrality has its darker side too. Perhaps the most shameful episode in a century of Ireland’s international relations was Éamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy in May1945 to offer his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler. This extraordinarily foolish – not to say immoral – gesture helped to ensure that Ireland had few friends in the world in the years immediately after World War Two.

But are Irish people neutral in the battle for Ukraine? Absolutely not. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dail on the afternoon of the Russian invasion that while Ireland was militarily neutral “in this conflict Ireland is not neutral at all. Our support for Ukraine is unwavering and unconditional.” Former President Mary Robinson, speaking on the Late Late Show, called the Russian invasion “a flagrant breach of the UN Charter. Of course we’re not neutral. How could we be?” Her successor, Mary McAleese, said Russians had to be told: “Your country is now a pariah in the world.”

There has been a huge upsurge in support for taking refugees from the war there (we have been told by government ministers that we may have to take up to 100,000 refugees, and at time of writing the Irish Red Cross had logged 14,500 offers of accommodation for them). Our government’s ‘let them all come’ policy is in sharp contrast to the mean-minded, ultra-bureaucratic response of official Britain. Many thousands of people have protested outside the Russian Embassy in Dublin’s Orwell Road. There is something primordial, deeply rooted in Irish history and folk memory, that rises at the sight of a powerful nation attacking its smaller, peaceful neighbour.

There is little dispute in most European countries that the EU needs to rearm and prepare to defend itself against this suddenly much more dangerous Russia. Other European neutrals like Finland and Sweden have put their money where their mouths are and sent arms to Ukraine. 53% of Finns are now in favour of NATO membership, the first such majority ever. Ireland and Finland share similar sized populations and economies, and are both militarily non-aligned. But that’s where the similarities end. Finland’s defence budget is around five times the size of Ireland’s; it has mandatory military service for men over 18; it has just bought 64 ultra-modern F-35 fighter jets from the US; it has more than 200 naval ships compared to Ireland’s nine (even though its exclusive economic maritime zone is 30 times smaller than ours); and it is a world leader in countering ‘hybrid threats’: cyberattacks, social media disinformation and foreign powers attempting to interfere with elections.

On 1st June Danish voters will be asked in a referendum whether to end their country’s opt-out from EU defence (negotiated in order to salvage the Maastricht Treaty after it was rejected by Danish voters in 1992). Its prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, has announced “the largest investment in Danish defence in recent times” in response to Putin’s “pointless and brutal attack on Ukraine.”  As the leaders of the European Union, meeting in Versailles last week, moved towards “a stronger and more capable EU in the field of security and defence” (and President Macron proposed a €200 billion leap in military spending across the bloc), we in Ireland will have to make a difficult choice, almost certainly in a referendum.

The Irish government can, of course, go along with Sinn Fein and much of the Irish left, and decide it doesn’t want to join any efforts to enhance EU security and defence, but Ministers are acutely conscious of how isolated this would leave us, says the Irish Times‘ well-informed political editor, Pat Leahy. He goes on: “Central and eastern European countries would point to the solidarity extended to Ireland during Brexit and wonder at the lack of reciprocity when they feel threatened…Failure to join a new common defence effort would be seen by other countries as ‘very odd and a lack of solidarity’, says a senior diplomat from another (neutral) EU country. ‘Why would we support your Northern Ireland policy – which we do – when you cannot contribute to European security?’ asks this person. Another EU diplomat  from a different country says that failure to join in EU defence would be seen as ‘a kind of Brexit.”

Leahy continues: “If the Government decides to run a referendum, expect it to be fronted by the Taoiseach. He would present himself as a lifelong supporter of military neutrality who has been convinced by events that Ireland must play its part in defending the EU; not an abandonment of neutrality, but a commitment to self-defence. It would strongly reject the idea of equivalence between the EU-NATO side and Russia” (as proposed by MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, honoured guests of the murderous Assad regime).”It would say: time to pick a side.”1

However, seeing this as a contest between good and evil is the easy part for us in Ireland. Our solidarity with Ukraine will only be really tested when we start suffering from oil, gas and even food shortages because of the war. And Europe backing the ‘good guys’ in Kiev with increased arms supplies won’t be nearly enough to bring this horrible war to an early end.

In an instructive if depressing article last week, Gerard Toal, professor of government at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (who is Irish), warned that “attractive as ‘good versus evil’ thinking is right now, it is the enemy of de-escalation and the ugly compromises needed to give this war’s victims a good enough peace, an opportunity to return home quickly, to mourn, and to rebuild.” He proposed a package of ‘ugly compromises’: Russia and Ukraine to sign a treaty which would see Ukraine committing to becoming a neutral state in return for Russia supporting its bid for EU membership as a neutral state like Ireland; the UN to administer self-determination referendums in Crimea and Donbass; Ukraine to agree to dissolve far-right armed groups on its territory; in a phased process, the US and EU to drop sanctions against Russia; and NATO and the Russian Federation to commit to negotiating a new military security order in Europe, involving closing the door to future NATO membership to Ukraine and five other former Soviet bloc countries situated between Russia and the EU.2

Is this the only way to stop Russia threatening Europe? To reward Vladimir Putin’s aggression by giving him much of what he is demanding? Is this the best way to defend the values of peace and democracy which European countries have spent more than 70 years painstakingly building through the EU and its predecessors, and which Putin’s Russia has worked so hard to undermine? Values like liberal democracy; human rights; open societies with freedom of movement and information; fundamental freedoms of conscience, expression and peaceful assembly, and as much human (including racial and gender) equality as a capitalist economic system will allow. I just don’t know. What I do believe is that it is time for Ireland to stand fully alongside our European partners and friends, even if our odd half-in, half-out neutrality has to be sacrificed at this grim turning point in European history.

1 ‘Any decision on neutrality will come at a price’, 12 March

2 ‘There’s a way out of this, but it’s not good news for Ukraine, Irish Times, 12 March

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

Unionism unloved and unbowed, and the rise and rise of Alliance

“Unwanted and unloved, Unionists are unbowed…but Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is just the latest example of many in Britain kicking unionism and then being loved even more strongly in return”. That was the headline above a Belfast Telegraph column by Sam McBride earlier this month. If you want to know what it happening inside the imploding world of the DUP in particular and unionism in general these days you have to read McBride – for my money the best-informed reporter in Northern Ireland.

McBride recalled that when Johnson addressed the nation in December 2020 to announce his trade deal with the EU to “get Brexit done”, the prime minister effusively told the British public: “We have taken back control of laws and our destiny. We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation. In a way that is complete and unfettered. From January 1 we are outside the customs union and outside the single market. British laws will be made solely by the British Parliament. Interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts. And the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will come to an end.”

Every word of that was only true, McBride pointed out, if followed by an “excludes Northern Ireland” disclaimer — which it didn’t. “Whether mendaciously or thoughtlessly, the prime minister of the United Kingdom spoke of the country he leads in a way which was only accurate if he defines that country as excluding Northern Ireland.”

It is not surprising that there are Unionists — even passionate, traditional, longstanding Unionists — whose commitment to Britain has been shaken by the betrayals of recent years. But McBride believes they are the exception. “There is no evidence that hordes of Unionists are recanting. Unionists knew before Northern Ireland was created that they were unloved by London. It did not diminish their sense of Britishness. In fact, hundreds of thousands of them were willing to fight and die to stay British. History shows that when unionism feels forsaken, it more often goes in the direction of militancy than moderation.”

As Northern Ireland came into being in 1921, the father of Ulster Unionism, Edward Carson, railed against British double-dealing: “But why is all this attack made upon Ulster? What has Ulster done? I will tell you what Ulster has done. She has stuck too well to you, and you believe that because she is loyal you can kick her as you like.”

That fear of abandonment — and the determination to resist regardless of pressure — lies deep in the unionist psyche. But while history is a guide to the future, it does not determine what that future will be. Unionism now is weaker than it was in 1912, 1921, 1974 or 1985, says McBride. “It now might be at or close to the point where militancy is no longer feasible. Yet even if that is the case, it does not mean that compromise will replace confrontation. There is within a strain of unionism an atavistic preponderance towards lashing out, even when it seems pointless.”

“That unionism’s attachment to the UK is sustained through repeated humiliation shows the depth of the connection — and shows how hard it will be to persuade even a substantial minority of Unionists to change sides in a border poll,” McBride concluded.

The background to this article was, of course, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s decision, in a belated protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, to pull the plug on the Executive – or that major part of it which required the DUP First Minister Paul Givan and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to be in post. This means that certain key Executive actions – such as a budget for the next three years – will now not go ahead, and an Assembly election campaign which was due to start at the end of March (with polling day on 5th May) kicked off in early February.

The North’s two main opinion polls – LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph and University of Liverpool/Irish News – using different methodologies, agree on one thing: Sinn Fein are on course to become the largest party on 5th May and therefore the DUP will lose the First Minister’s post. On the BBC the day after Givan’s resignation Donaldson squirmed for eight minutes – an eternity on radio – to avoid Stephen Nolan’s repeated questioning about whether he would accept the outcome of such an election by agreeing to serve as Deputy First Minister.

At a Chatham House-rules gathering I attended last week in Belfast – along with a group of well-informed political and community activists of all stripes, addressed by leading journalists – the consensus was that, after some tortuous negotiations, a divided and weakened DUP would again go into government under Michelle O’Neill as First Minister (the alternative would be a return to Direct Rule, which most of them loathe). Under new legislation those negotiations could take up to six months, with the old, now headless Executive staying in office for that time. If you think the fractious 2020-2022 period was a recipe for inertia and deadlock, just wait for that unhappy vacuum.

This is going to involve highly complex stuff that may require some amendment of the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements’ strange ‘designation’ rules. If current opinion poll trends are proved right, under those rules Sinn Fein, as the party with the largest number of seats from the largest ‘tribal’ designation (i.e. nationalism) will automatically get the First Minister’s post. However, this may be contested by unionism – even if it is split three ways between the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice – if they are still in a position to claim that they are the largest designation.

This will be even more complicated if Alliance’s surge in the 2019 Westminster and European elections continues into May’s contest. A University of Liverpool poll in the Irish News earlier this month put Alliance (with 15.6%) in third place, after Sinn Fein (23.2%) and the DUP (19.4%). This compares with an Alliance vote of 3.7% in the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly elections and 9.1% in the 2017 Assembly elections. Not surprisingly, this rise in Alliance support is paralleled by a fall in the support for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

If Alliance and other non-sectarian parties (e.g. the Greens, who registered 6.3% in the University of Liverpool poll) get over 20% of the seats, there will be pressure to change the whole ultra-complex D’Hondt voting system (and particularly its ‘designation’ element) brought in by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. For example, my understanding is that if Alliance does so well that it is returned with the second largest number of Assembly Members, it could find itself nonetheless not entitled to the Deputy First Minister’s post; this could go still to the DUP as the largest party in unionism, the second biggest ‘designation’.

The bizarre ‘designation’ rules were originally incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement as a way of ensuring that the four leading ‘tribal’ parties – the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Fein – would sit in government together. Will the British government – as it faces multiple problems of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the post-Brexit disruption of trade and internal rows over the prime minister’s character and behaviour – want to devote the huge time and effort needed to renegotiate this extraordinarily complex Agreement (which took 22 months under the Solomon-like chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell to put together in the first place)? I doubt it very much. We are, after all, in the era of Boris Johnson, who lied his way to an Irish Sea border with barely a thought for Northern Ireland, not Tony Blair, who for all his later faults genuinely believed he could make history by solving the interminable ‘Irish Question.’

I have been asking another question at conferences and gatherings on the North I have been attending in recent months. If the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance between them won enough seats after May’s election and wanted to form a centrist coalition government without the DUP and Sinn Fein, would the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements allow that? Both politicians and journalists who responded to my question believed the answer would be ‘no’.

Wouldn’t it be a big step forward if those agreements could be amended to allow such a democratic opening to take place? To quote the distinguished Queen’s University Belfast educationalist, Professor Tony Gallagher: “This would be a shift towards a voluntary coalition in which a Programme for Government becomes a collective enterprise, not a set of disparate and separate wish lists. Such a Programme for Government might even be worked out before the election, as a platform to put to the electorate. It should certainly be agreed before any new Executive gets under way. After all the outgoing Executive collapsed having never agreed a Programme for Government.” Is such a normal democratic process impossible ‘pie in the sky’ in Northern Irish circumstances?

POSTSCRIPT 1: I found it very moving the way that Assembly Members of all parties, including Sinn Fein, lined up to pay tribute to Christopher Stalford, the 39-year-old DUP MLA, Deputy Speaker, and father of four small children, who died suddenly nine days ago. By all accounts he was a warm, witty and highly intelligent man. This was the ‘new’ Northern Ireland at its most united, honourable and optimistic. Sinn Féin chief whip John O’Dowd recalled how the previous week “he gave us both barrels across the chamber”, but went on to say mournfully, “I will miss him. As has been said, this place will not be the same without him.” His Sinn Fein colleague Caoimhe Archibald said the South Belfast MLA was “decent; he had manners; he had class.” Linda Dillon said Stalford was “full of integrity and a pleasure to do business with… I genuinely felt sad yesterday when I heard the news, and I still feel that overwhelming sadness.”

POSTSCRIPT 2: It is difficult to write about the drearily familiar problems of little Northern Ireland when more than 75 years of relative peace in Europe (other than in the former Yugoslavia) was shattered by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s utterly unprovoked attack on Ukraine last week. I cannot do better than to repeat the extract from the Irish Times editorial on 26th February which it splashed across the top of its front page on that day.

“The immediate horror of the Russian invasion has been visited on the people of Ukraine. It is they who have been subjected to a murderous and flagrantly criminal assault that may plunge them into years of violent turmoil. Yet John Donne’s ominous words come to mind: ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’ Vladimir Putin has tolled the knell of an era of relative peace and stability in Europe. For all of us, the reverberations will linger in the air for many years to come.”

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 1 Comment

Fintan O’Toole, Leopold Bloom and me

I have been reading We Don’t Know Ourselves, Fintan O’Toole’s marvellous personal and political memoir of Ireland over the past 64 years. I am an unashamed admirer of O’Toole’s writings, and his brilliantly insightful, left-wing views on multiple aspects of Irish life in all its glory and grubbiness. I once introduced him to a Northern Irish audience as a “national treasure”. In my years in the Irish Times, our paths occasionally crossed, most memorably on the terraces at Belfast’s Windsor Park on a bleak night in November 1993, when we sat silent and anxious beside a section of the crowd singing about being up to their knees “in Fenian blood”, and inwardly cheering as an Alan McLoughlin goal sent the Republic of Ireland to the finals of the following year’s World Cup.

O’Toole shares some of my pet hates: the all-powerful Irish Catholic Church of the mid-20th century, with its imperious prelates, brutal Christian Brothers and child-abusing priests; that church’s long alliance with Fianna Fail, personified by the astonishingly corrupt and hypocritical figure of Charles Haughey; and the doublethink of the IRA and Sinn Fein, who for many years combined “electoral politics and mass killing, political party and private army, victim and perpetrator.” This was “of a piece with the larger Irish capacity for being in two minds simultaneously” – although he feels that by the 1990s this capacity was radically diminishing. I fear a new generation, those who will vote in their hundreds of thousands for Sinn Fein in the next election, have inherited at least some of it.

I did not experience the unanimous fury of the people of the Republic at the horror of 14 innocent people murdered by the British Parachute regiment in Derry 50 years ago last weekend. I was told of it by a driver as I was hitch-hiking through Colombia. In contrast, O’Toole’s father, a socialist and sceptic about Irish nationalism, announced that he was prepared to go to war over it. “We have to face it”, he told his wife and sons. “Me and the boys are going to be up in the North, fighting. It’s coming. There’s no choice now. It’s just the way it’s going to be. It’ll be them or us. We have to be ready for it.” 14 year old Fintan was “stunned, terrified, but also excited. It was a big thing to think about, this civil war that was going to shape our destinies.” If ever there was a ‘two nations’ moment in Ireland, this was it: nationalist Ireland ready to go to war over a British atrocity; many in unionist Northern Ireland wrong-headedly equating it to the killing of Protestant civilians by the IRA. 

As an Irishman of part-Jewish ancestry, I was particularly intrigued by a chapter on Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce’s Ulysses (first published a hundred years ago this week), who, according to O’Toole, had an afterlife following his starring role in that greatest of novels. O’Toole recounts the story of Bloom’s death in 1942 (certainly apocryphal, since Bloom was not a real person) from a Dublin Jewish chronicler, Asher Benson. According to Benson, he was barred from burial in the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish cemetery on the grounds that he was “a confirmed apostate, an eater of forbidden food, and had married out” (and was also a great lover of a jug of porter). He ended up being half-buried in the middle of the night under the wall dividing the Jewish cemetery from the houses on Aughavannagh Road in Crumlin, and thus possibly in the O’Toole family’s back garden.

I have always been interested in Leopold Bloom as the sort of atypical Irishman I could identify with. In the famous Cyclops episode in Ulysses, which takes place in Barney Kiernan’s pub, off Capel Street, Joyce contrasts the citizen’s aggressive and xenophobic nationalism with Bloom’s gentle insistence on tolerance and compassion. Bloom talks about “persecution…all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.” The citizen interrupts:”What is your nation, if I may ask”. “Ireland”, says Bloom. “I was born here. Ireland.” “The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.”

Later in the conversation Bloom gives his views on violence and hatred. “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.” “What?” says Alf, another drinker. “Love”, says Bloom. “I mean the opposite of hatred.”

In terms of love and hatred in the northern part of Ireland, I fear sometimes that we haven’t moved on much since 1904. I worry that the xenophobic nationalism of the citizen is about to be reborn in the form of a near-future government dominated by the militant republicanism of Sinn Fein squaring up to the jingoistic English nationalism of a Tory government in London. I ask myself: where will I, as a peace-loving, left-of-centre, non-republican person from a half-Presbyterian, half-Jewish background, fit into the ‘new Ireland’ ruled over by Sinn Fein?

In all my years in Dublin I have always been bemused when somebody is described as a “republican” as if that were a mark of distinction, a source of pride. To me, a contemporary Irish republican is somebody who believes in killing people in pursuit of some ill-defined all-Ireland republic. I agreed with John Hume back in 1989 when he said that “there is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life.” He said the same thing repeatedly about the IRA’s killings and bombings in pursuit of unity, denouncing their ultra-nationalistic and fascistic belief that they were the “pure Irish master race.”1

Between 1998 and 2016 I had hoped we were moving into a benign period of power-sharing between the parties of unionism, nationalism and republicanism in Northern Ireland and increasing cooperation between North and South on the island of Ireland, and that over a period of 30 or 40 years of joint EU membership and rising prosperity this would start to remove much of the historic poison from relationships on this island. I believed that the neuralgic issue of Irish unity could be postponed until a future and perhaps wiser generation. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I underestimated the right-wing anti-European forces that were gathering in Britain to drive on to Brexit; the DUP’s insularity and stupidity in fully backing that madness; and Sinn Fein’s determination to take full advantage of such a huge British misstep to up the tempo of the drumbeat for unity.

I had hoped that in this benign period there would be recognition of a new broad definition of Irishness, that one could be fully recognised as Irish as a non-Catholic, an immigrant, a gay person, a black person, a Northern Protestant or unionist – anybody, in fact, who, like Leopold Bloom, is born on the island of Ireland. One would not have to fit into the stereotype of the ‘true Gael’ that was dominant in the first 50 years of this state’s existence: an Irish-speaking, Brit-hating, GAA-following, physical force-supporting republican. With the huge immigration into this country over the past 25 years of people from Eastern Europe, Africa and Brazil (among many other countries), the definition of Irishness will have to be greatly broadened anyway (despite the 2004 constitutional referendum, endorsed by nearly 80% of those voting, which, against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, restricted citizenship to those born in Ireland to Irish citizens).

I sometimes I wonder where I, as a kind of ‘West Brit’, with my Northern Protestant background and largely English upbringing, will fit into this new Ireland with its Sinn Fein-led worship of violent republican ancestors, including those who killed over 1,700 people in the Northern Ireland conflict. Just as ‘republican’ is usually a compliment in the present day Republic of Ireland, ‘West Brit’ is an insult. ‘Unionist’ is one of the worst insults one can throw at anyone in Irish politics, and even a Taoiseach like John Bruton was not safe from the insulting epithet ‘John unionist’ for trying to reach out to the unionists at various stages of the 1990s peace process.

I am a passionate and lifelong lover of Ireland and its people and culture (in my retirement I have taken up set dancing and have been learning Irish). But I just cannot see how we are going to attract any significant number of Northern unionists into our shiny new Ireland, many of whom are understandably opposed to all things Irish after being battered by 30 years of IRA violence (in the 2011 census 2.1% of Northern Protestants defined themselves as Irish, compared to 20% in 1968). And if the politicians overseeing that transformation are from the party which glorifies the perpetrators of that violence as the heroes of the final stage in the long and noble struggle against the British oppressor, unionists’ acquiescence in such an outcome is even more improbable.

We need a change of heart in the South if we are going to attract any unionists into our society. A Dublin friend who has held prominent positions in both Irish jurisdictions asks if the citizens of this republic “can open up to the notion that a sixth of the population will have an identity which is not Irish”. He goes on: “I think we need an expression of Irishness that accommodates, welcomes and doesn’t exclude Britishness. It doesn’t compromise the notion of being Irish; we don’t have to dilute a sense of Irishness to be open to a sense of Britishness. Nobody is purely Irish and nobody is purely British on this island – it’s too interwoven for that.” This man believes the work of bringing about Irish unity is a 100-150 year project.


Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 4 Comments

Whatever the Unionists wish for, the Protocol looks like it’s here to stay – and it can be good for all of us

One year on, the Northern Ireland Protocol looks like it’s here to stay. Its fiercest opponent (and chief negotiator) in the British government, Lord David Frost, has gone. Before that the British had dropped their demand that the European Court of Justice must be removed from the Protocol, and indicated they were now ready to join the EU in focussing on the practical problems that were creating difficulties for the North. Its strongest critic in the North, the DUP, is agonising over whether it should carry through with its threat to collapse the Stormont institutions over the issue, knowing that it will almost certainly be punished in the May Assembly election for doing so. How best to implement “the best of both worlds” scenario (i.e. the North’s unique dual access for goods to both the British and EU markets), espoused by politicians as different as Michael Gove, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar, is starting to loom into view.

Meanwhile business people and consumers in Ireland and Northern Ireland are getting on with the hard choices about what they buy: whether it is Northern supermarkets replacing more difficult to get British goods with local ones; or firms in the Republic choosing to source manufacturing inputs from Northern Ireland rather than Britain; or Northern shoppers choosing food products like sausages and black puddings not on the basis of their countries of origin but on price and quality.

Unfortunately the DUP, unusually for a right-wing party, is known for its deaf ear when it comes to listening to business saying things it doesn’t want to hear. It is a deep irony that Sinn Fein, whose mission is to see the eventual destruction of Northern Ireland, is now urging the need for stability, while the DUP keeps issuing threats to bring Stormont down if it doesn’t get its way over the Protocol (although its leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, “paused” those threats this week in order to give British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, time for further negotiations with the EU). Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long has called them “frankly embarrassing.”

A businessman friend who knows the UK and Irish markets well particularly welcomes what he calls the “right of dialogue” which the Northern Irish business sector, led by a couple of particularly smart people, has gained from the EU vice president Maros Sefcovic and his team. Sefcovic said after his visit to the North in the autumn: “Not one of the business representatives I met in Northern Ireland asked me to scrap the Protocol. Rather they asked me to fix the practical challenges in implementing it.” This dialogue must be one of the factors which saw the president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Paul Murnaghan, saying last week that almost 70% of his membership believed that “Northern Ireland’s unique status now presents opportunities for the region.”

Another Dublin-based businessman friend, who has over 25 years experience of Northern Ireland, gives four reasons why the Protocol is the best way to stabilise – and eventually develop – the Northern economy. Firstly, it provides the institutional structure (the UK-EU joint committee) to deal with any difficulties. Secondly, it gives Brexit a specific, manageable form which will help to create a stable economic climate throughout the island of Ireland. Thirdly, the majority of Members of the NI Assembly support the Protocol, thus giving it democratic legitimacy, and providing a stabilising influence by putting pressure on political unionism (in particular the DUP) to back off from its extreme position. Finally, it has led (and will continue to lead) to a substantial growth in North-South trade and business.

The figures certainly support the last of these statements. Figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office for the first six months of last year show a 60% (or €800 million) increase in imports from Northern Ireland to the Republic and a 45% (or €1.9 billion) increase in exports to the North compared with the same period in 2020.

My first businessman friend warns against reading too much into this sharp increase in North-South trade. He says that by European standards trade levels across the Irish border are still relatively low, reflecting the smallness of the Northern market and the weakness of its manufacturing sector. There are some exceptions of course: the very significant growth of the all-island agri-food sector in the past 30 years; and, more specifically, the purchase by Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus of buses from Wrights of Ballymena.

This man does not think we will see Northern Ireland taking advantage of its post-Protocol “best of both worlds” situation until the uncertainty surrounding the Protocol is removed by an Assembly vote in 2024. Certainly major FDI companies are not going to invest while the sword of Damocles represented by that vote and the loud opposition of political unionism to the Protocol is a continuing factor. However he hopes that the result of this May’s Assembly election might just lead to what he calls “a consensus of the sensible” who will lobby to keep the Protocol, which by then should have its annoying birth pains smoothed out, with a lot of its awkward paperwork being simplified through digitalisation.

Maybe it is time to grasp the nettle and put forward a radical idea to go alongside the Protocol. That excellent Irish Times economic commentator, Cliff Taylor, had an article in the paper on Christmas Eve pointing out what a great selling point the Protocol will be for attracting Foreign Direct Investment into Northern Ireland.1 However the body charged with this, Invest Northern Ireland, is far behind its Southern equivalent, the IDA, which is envied around the world for its extraordinary record of attracting foreign firms into the Republic in recent decades. Even last year, in mid-pandemic, employment in the companies it supported grew by almost 17,000. Last month I heard Fergal O’Brien, a senior executive at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, state that no other country in the world in modern times had done what Ireland (led by the IDA) had done: double the number of people at work – from one to two million – in the space of just 25 years (from 1993 to 2017).

There are, of course, major obstacles to be overcome. The North’s sclerotic and sectarian politics is the obvious one. Its lower skills levels, with lower university participation and a brain drain of high-achieving young people to Britain, is another. Taylor recalled hearing a suggestion at a recent ESRI seminar that the work of Skillnet Ireland – which supports business to link with education and access skilled employees – could be extended to Northern Ireland. Obviously this whole proposal also needs to be framed “in the context of the climate change agenda, realising that clean energy, for example, is now a vital factor in attracting companies here.”

Taylor concluded: “But you could see the play to be made. A green, high-skill Ireland offering two different but complementary investment offers…Dublin is jammed, has a chronic housing shortage and does not need more FDI beyond what will develop from firms already there. As well as tasking the IDA with attracting investment to other parts of the Republic, common sense would say that it could also play a role in working with Invest NI in developing an all-island offering with targets to be met.”1 I suggest the IDA could start by pointing interested investors towards Derry, in which local people complain Invest NI is less than interested, and where a significant number of cross-border workers from Donegal have traditionally found employment.

15 years ago the chairman of the Ulster Bank Group, London-based, Northern Ireland born businessman Alan Gillespie proposed that the IDA and Invest NI should be merged. Maybe he was a little ahead of his time. Perhaps now, with the Protocol to be managed for the good of both Northern Ireland and Ireland, is the better time.

Pragmatism is the key word here: an appeal to the hard-headed, industrious values that Ulster Protestants, in particular, used to be famous for. I insist on believing that the way to soften their resistance to the Protocol’s Irish Sea trade border – as to all other policies they perceive (with good reason) as weakening their links with Britain – is through improving their prosperity through good jobs and rising living standards. And I think that, given time and good implementation, the Protocol can help greatly in that process.

There are, I believe, many more working class unionist people like Alan McBride, the impressive north Belfast man who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA’s Shankill Road fish shop bombing in 1993, and has worked with and for victims of violence ever since. McBride told journalist Susan McKay in her recent book Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground :“I am a pragmatist. And I mean, economically, I want to be able to have a house and a car and a job and a standard of living. And to be honest with you, those things matter more to me than the flag that’s flying above our country. And if, because of Brexit, Northern Ireland is not flourishing and the South is, why would you not want to be part of that? I absolutely would.”

I also agree with the former senior Irish trade unionist Blair Horan in a recent paper on the Protocol for the Dublin-based Institute of International and European Affairs. He argues that the Protocol is a “far superior outcome” for the North than that enjoyed by Britain under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. The paper itself is dense and complex, but his final conclusion is clear enough: “The Protocol is about trade relationships. It is not related to the constitutional issue. It is worth reflecting if the hardest land border ever [i.e. the Irish border having become the external border of the EU single market in the event of a hard Brexit] would be more polarising of the communities in Northern Ireland than the compromise of the Protocol with its compensating economic benefits for Northern Ireland, which could lead to a more stable and prosperous Northern Ireland, and remove the constitutional issue from the pressure of events.”2

1 ‘Time for the IDA to spread its success over the border, Irish Times, 24th December

2 ‘The Trade and Investment Advantages of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’, IIEA, 22nd October

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland | 3 Comments

Majority of Southern voters think united Ireland “not very important” but they would like to see it “some day”

That is the headline I would like to have seen on the Irish Times front page lead story on 11th December about the paper’s latest opinion poll on unity and other issues. Its editors went instead for the much more predictable ‘Large majority of voters favour united Ireland in the long term’. The figures are revealing: 62% of people said they would vote “in favour of uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.” However 52% said unity is “not very important” to them, but they “would like to see it some day.” The latter sentiment is entirely in line with my experience of the views of citizens of this republic for the best part of 50 years.

The other compelling finding was how little the South’s voters were prepared to compromise on their comfortable existence and traditional nationalism in order to accommodate unionists in a ‘new’ Ireland. 79% would not accept higher taxes; 79% less money for public services; 77% a new flag; 72% a new anthem; and 71% re-joining the Commonwealth. Little wonder that the paper’s political editor, Pat Leahy, concluded: “This sounds less like a new shared country than assimilation into the existing one.”

Referring to the 52% who said unity was not very important to them, but they would like to see it some day, Leahy commented: “This sounds like the voice of middle Ireland. Sure, we want to see a united Ireland eventually, but what’s your hurry? Haven’t we enough to be doing?”1 The overwhelming numbers opposing any kind of serious political, financial and cultural change in order to bring about unity caused him to wonder about the need for a public debate about the consequences, costs, processes and timelines for unity. “It is certainly true that none of these questions – not to mind the answers to them – have been remotely understood to date. But there is little evidence today that there is any urgency among the public to do so.”

This has been one of my constant themes in these columns since I started them over eight years ago. The extremely difficult transition to a peaceful unity will only begin to happen when two processes are in train: the people of the Republic are seriously debating the consequences for their cosy, stable,  prosperous, 100-year-old state; and a significant number of Northern unionists are at least prepared to acquiesce in what for them will be an existentially annihilating change. It is reassuring for this deviant Irishman – with his Presbyterian mother and Jewish father – to be part of the mainstream that wants unity eventually, but not at the breakneck speed demanded by Sinn Fein and other ‘advanced’ nationalists.

Ironically, the previous day the Irish Times poll had shown Sinn Fein (on 35% public support) now an extraordinary 15% ahead of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (on 20% each). With the government struggling to cope with the fourth surge of Covid-19 and the new Omicron variant seeping into the country, Sinn Fein just has to sit back and watch the growing uncertainty and confusion on the coalition’s watch and the consequent deepening public unease translate into votes for them at the next election. As things stand, people will be voting then for that party’s ‘left populist’ policies on building more houses and improving health services, with not a thought for its overriding core strategy: to push hard and soon for a Border Poll in order to begin an early countdown to unity.

That election is not due until 2025 if the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael-Green Party government lasts the course.   Public confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic, at 57%, is still just about holding (although down from 74% in October, with a slightly different question). However if onerous new restrictions have to be imposed on a weary populace to deal with a serious outbreak of Omicron, this support could quickly evaporate. An inability to keep the schools open would be a potential tipping point here.

It is a fair assumption that Sinn Fein – who have been noticeably muted in their criticism of the government’s measures to deal with Covid-19 until recently – have been devoting a lot of thinking to their strategy in the next election. Two things are for sure: they won’t be making the mistake of not putting up enough candidates again; and they will once again play down their obsession with an early Border Poll to concentrate on the issues of housing, health and the cost of living which they know will be the real vote-winners. They know too that for the first time they are making inroads into the middle-class vote in the Republic.

They will also be making no concessions to unionists. They know that there are no votes in the Republic for such generosity (this is only confirmed by the Irish Times poll findings). It was a French friend, knowledgeable about Ireland, who pointed out to me that Sinn Fein will definitely not be making any gestures to unionists before an election in the Republic in which they have an excellent chance of gaining power.

A small part of me hopes that Mary Lou McDonald will feel able to be more flexible and generous to unionists if she becomes Taoiseach at the head of the largest party in a future coalition (either with the small left-wing parties or Fianna Fail). However a former republican prisoner friend stresses that Sinn Fein are “anything but generous.” He goes on: “Much will depend on the degree to which Mary Lou has been infected by the toxicity of [Gerry] Adams. She has to be aware that her meteoric rise in the South must be related to his departure from the scene. To some extent she gets the vote because of a perception of not being him. Therein lies the potential for generosity.”

On the other hand I worry that Sinn Fein’s rise and rise in both the Republic and the North (plus the weakened state of the DUP in the latter) means they may feel they are now on a winning run and don’t have to make any concessions to unionism. I was very struck when addressing a group of Irish-American lawyers and activists last spring (via Zoom) how few questions they asked after my unionist-friendly presentation (arguing along the same lines as my 1st November blog that the people of the South are not ready for reunification). Did that largely pro-Sinn Fein audience believe that history is now speeding unstoppably towards unity, so they don’t even have to contemplate the difficult, non-nationalist compromises needed to bring some element of unionism on board?

It is also striking how Sinn Fein are discussed by journalists and academics these days as a purely Southern party of the left, with little or no mention of their violent Northern past (which suits them down to the ground). In a recent interview politics professors Gary Murphy of Dublin City University and Aidan Regan of UCD,  pointed out that Irish voters are becoming more polarised in terms of left and right, which may leave Fianna Fáil with a declining electoral base in the middle – and maybe the Hobson’s choice of becoming Sinn Fein’s minority partner in government.2

“It’s quite clear from the data that the Irish electorate is becoming increasingly polarised along a very clear left-right axis, and economic inequality/economic conflict is the key dimension to Irish politics that’s shaping the vote. Sinn Féin have emerged and are emerging as the key anchor to the left and are probably going to mobilise and occupy that space for some time,” said Prof. Regan.

“That opens up the space for Fine Gael who are the clear anchor of the right. There’s no way Fine Gael are going to go into government with Sinn Féin. I would imagine Fine Gael are completely resigned to going into opposition already…so we probably will see Irish politics revolving around a very clear centre-left, centre-right divide, with Fine Gael becoming the leader of the liberal centre-right and Sinn Fein acting as the leader of the centre-left, and the party that’s likely to get squeezed in this is Fianna Fail.”

POSTSCRIPT  The man who is most likely to lose out if Fianna Fail choose to ally themselves with Sinn Fein is the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, who insists on putting North-South cooperation and reconciliation ahead of Border Polls and that party’s drive towards political unity in the short-term.

Addressing a webinar organised by his department’s Shared Island unit on 10th December, Martin outlined an impressive list of projects being (or to be) funded under that scheme: new phases of the cross-border Ulster Canal; the resuscitation of the Narrow Water bridge across Carlingford Lough; a €40 million cross-border research programme with 350 applicants for its first phase (including in priority areas like climate change, cybersecurity and precision medicine); the first all-Ireland strategic rail review; an all-island electrical vehicle charging network; a cross-border pilot green hydrogen plan for buses and heavy goods vehicles; cross-border climate action partnerships; new cross-border greenways as part of an all-island greenway network; new funding for the three cross-border local authority networks; greatly increased artistic and cultural exchanges, including an all-island ‘Fighting Words’ network for young writers from disadvantaged backgrounds; closer cooperation between the University of Ulster and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, including a new innovation hub in the north-west; 12 teacher education research projects involving SCoTENS, the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (the outstandingly successful network administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies); and so on.

John Downing in the Irish Independent found “much to engage, encourage and stimulate” in this programme.3 But what will happen to all this sensible, practical coming together of North and South if its main proponent, Micheál Martin (sometimes I think he is its only real proponent in this government) is forced to depart the scene following his handover of the Taoiseach’s job to Leo Varadkar in 12 months? Because it is likely that there will then be a challenge to his leadership of Fianna Fail from a more traditionally republican figure such as Jim O’Callaghan, and that challenge will bring into the open the divisive debate within the party about whether to go into government with Sinn Fein.

1 ‘Yes, we want to see a united Ireland eventually – but what’s your hurry?’ Irish Times, 11 December


3  ‘Cross-border cooperation is good – but the new UK immigration law is reminder of complex challenge’, Irish Independent, 10 December

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 1 Comment

Could North-South agri-food cooperation help cross the rural-urban climate change divide?

So in the end the political will did not exist among world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow to radically tackle global warming. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned at the end of the conference: “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.” He called for an end to fossil fuels subsidies, a phase out of coal (not a ‘phase down’ as was agreed in Glasgow), a price on carbon, building resilience of vulnerable communities against the impacts of climate change and to make good on the long-promised €100 billion climate finance commitment to support developing countries.

“Global leaders have turned their backs on indigenous communities, small-scale farmers, women and girls who desperately need support to recover and rebuild after climate disasters. This is a matter of great injustice,” said Siobhan Curran, head of policy at Trocaire, who was at the conference.

Rachel Kinnerly, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, summed up the general feeling of disillusion among both activists and the concerned public: “The road to 1.5C just got harder when these talks should have cleared the way to making it a whole lot easier. The UK government cunningly curated announcements throughout this fortnight so that it seemed rapid progress was being made. Here we are though, and the Glasgow get-out clause means that leaders failed to phase out fossil fuels and the richest countries won’t pay historic climate debt.” She urged countries, after this disappointing “COP moment”, to “break away from the pack in their race for meaningful climate action and let history judge the laggards.”

Could a small country like Ireland take a lead here? Our government’s €125 billion Climate Action Plan, published during the first week of COP, set out 475 actions to halve Ireland’s greenhouse emissions by 2030, including extensive offshore wind power, retrofitting 500,000 homes and putting one million electric vehicles on Irish roads (I have doubts about the feasibility of the last of these). As that insightful political commentator Pat Leahy wrote: “The plan represents a very significant political success for the Green Party. After a year and a bit in government – in the midst of a pandemic – the party has moved climate action to the very centre of the Coalition’s priorities and committed the country to a radical scheme of decarbonisation that could only have been dreamed of by the party when it was in opposition.”1

The island of Ireland could lead in other important ways too. I listened last month to a debate held under the auspices of the John and Pat Hume Foundation on ‘How the island of Ireland can best contribute to COP26?’ A lot of it was about how more sustainable farming and food production could help bring Ireland’s farmers on board as partners in the battle against global warming, rather than as reactionary defenders of the size of the national herd. This was something that was largely absent from the public debate following the publication of the Climate Action Plan.

The distinguished public service leader, Tom Arnold – chair of the Irish Government’s 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee and a former Concern Worldwide chief executive and chief economist at the Department of Agriculture and Food – told the Hume Foundation colloquium that climate-driven common challenges and changed policy contexts in the European Union, the UK and Ireland, North and South, “provide a compelling case for cooperation in agro-environmental policy to be brought to a different scale than ever before.” North-South supply chains and ownership structures mean that agri-food is already the largest cross-border trading sector on the island of Ireland.

Arnold says it is remarkable that the key policy documents on agriculture, food production and climate change in all four jurisdictions are now so extraordinarily aligned. The core objective of his committee’s recent policy document – Food Vision 2030: A World Leader in Sustainable Food Systems – is the achievement of “a carbon neutral food system by 2050, with verifiable progress by 2030, encompassing emissions, water quality and biodiversity.” This is now official government policy.

He quotes John Bell, the Dubliner who is director of the Healthy Planet unit in the EU’s DG Research and Innovation, who said last year that the €1.8 trillion European Green Deal (EGD) represented a huge opportunity for Ireland, North and South. Noting that the EGD would be “the motor and the compass” of the European Union’s economic recovery after Covid-19, with the aim of becoming the first continent to be carbon-neutral by 2050, Bell forecast that Ireland would be among the leaders in European non-meat production and the restoration of peat bogs. The EU’s companion €9 billion Horizon Research and Innovation programme has five ‘moonshot missions’: preparing Europe for climate disruptions such as extreme weather and sea-level rise; restoring oceans and water systems; tackling cancer; building 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030; and restoring 75% of European soils and land. By placing the island at the centre of this research programme, Ireland could become “the green heart of the Green Deal,” said Bell.

Closer to home, Arnold says the Irish Food Vision 2030 strategy and the Northern Ireland Executive’s Green Growth strategy both reflect the reality that the agri-food sectors in both parts of the island are under increasing societal pressure to demonstrate their contribution to ambitious national efforts to combat climate change. “The sectors need to adhere to short-term measures to tackle existing problems of water and air quality and loss of biodiversity, within a longer-term vision of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing carbon sequestration and on-farm renewable energy,” he says. He suggests that to the three ‘strands’ of the Good Friday Agreement should be added a climate-conscious fourth strand to provide “a link between tackling certain problems on an all-island basis – reducing emissions, improving soil health – and the major EU policies such as the European Green Deal.”

“Delivering on such measures can be the basis for a new shared vision between the agri-food sector and environmentalists which recognises their commonality of interests, changes the negative narrative that has developed between them in recent years and provides a basis to agree a common future agenda. That agenda should envisage farmers and the sector as being first responders in the climate emergency, ecosystem service providers, producing high quality food, capturing carbon and supporting biodiversity. In the post-Covid world, there needs to be a serious re-evaluation of the role that the agri-food and health sectors play in society,” he adds.

John Gilliland, a former president of the Ulster Farmers Union and chair of the Expert Northern Ireland Working Group on Land Management, was the first farmer in Europe to set up a combined heat and power project to process wood from his 110 acre willow farm outside Derry. At the Hume Foundation event he praised Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots (let us Southerners suspend our prejudices for a moment!) – a farmer himself – for “a leap of leadership” in announcing a scheme to measure the carbon sequestration in the soil, hedges and trees on all Northern farms every five years. “How can we make the Green agenda relevant to the around 150,000 farmers on this island? One thing we can do is to measure our carbon stocks every five years and see if we’ve made a positive or negative change to that agenda, ” suggested Gilliland.

Gilliland is also Director of Global Agriculture and Sustainability with Devenish, the Belfast-based agri-technology multinational, which uses science to achieve the most effective utilisation of nutrients in food production. He said that at their model farm at Dowth, Co Meath, Devenish had reduced greenhouse gas emissions in beef and lamb production by 26% in one year. He said the research-based innovation happening on ‘lighthouse’ farms like that at Dowth “empowers farmers to make their economics more resilient and delivers environmental goods at the same time.”

He said that in Scotland they had created a Just Transition Commission, which had “gone a long way to alleviate the concerns about building up a rural-urban split which is in danger of building here too. Rural people and farming families need to be comforted that they won’t be steamrollered; that there is a just process going on; that there is good science, and we need to reduce the emotion and get on with ensuring behavioural change.”

Gilliland and Arnold both believe that if the proper incentives are put in place farmers will play their part in the fight against global warming, innovating as they see the benefits of emission reductions. “We don’t want to leave our farms to our children and grandchildren in worse shape than we inherited them,” says Gilliland. “I realised after four wet harvests that my farm had to change because the weather is changing. What I’ve learned is solutions that I and other practising farmers can implement. I have a duty to reduce the negative legacy that my generation is leaving to the next generation.”

It is right that there should be sticks as well as carrots here. The professor emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin, Alan Matthews, warns that “current levels of [farm] output are associated with unprecedented biodiversity loss, deteriorating water quality and levels of ammonia emissions that exceed legal limits. Failure to address these issues will lead to restrictions on output as happened in the Netherlands and New Zealand, where warning signals were ignored. There is a cost to inaction. Ireland already fails to meet its EU climate targets and will continue to do so if agricultural emissions are not reduced.”2

I know little or nothing about farming. But I do believe strongly that greater North-South cooperation on this island – between farmers, processors and retailers – can only produce good results: both in providing high quality food and in slowing climate change. When I sit in my Dublin home eating Linwoods flaxseed (milled in County Armagh) for my breakfast and Ditty’s Irish oatcakes (baked in County Derry/Londonderry) for my tea – both produced to the highest environmental and health standards – I am happy in the knowledge that these small examples of all-island sustainable food production are the shape of the climate-conscious future.

1 ‘If plan is implemented in full it will be on a par with Lemass’s 1960s opening up’, Irish Times, 5 November

2 ‘Farmers need the right incentives to reduce emissions, Irish Times, 1 November

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | Leave a comment

My single transferable blog: the people of the South are not ready for reunification

In his long and distinguished political career, John Hume many times gave what came to be known as his ‘single transferable speech’. He used to say that as a former teacher he realised that for even the smartest pupils, the repetition of key themes over and over again was the only way to get his young charges to take in and remember what he was teaching them. I believe there were actually two or three  ‘single transferable’ Hume speeches, but the one I internalised was that any solution to the Northern Ireland imbroglio would have to have three ‘strands’: an internal Northern Irish strand, a North-South strand and a British-Irish strand. These three elements were to become the foundations of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The message of my single transferable blog is much simpler: it is that the people of the present Republic haven’t even begun to think about what reunification means for them and therefore are about as far from ready for it as one can get. In the nearly 50 years I have lived mainly in Dublin I can’t recall a single well-informed conversation with the journalists, broadcasters, academics, teachers, voluntary sector workers and theatre people who make up my friendship group about what unity might entail for the politics, economics and culture of this jurisdiction. How would bringing in 900,000 largely alienated and contrarian unionists affect our concepts of Irish identity (including our dislike of their passionate Britishness), our nationalist historical myths, our 100-year-old political institutions, our public spending bills (and reluctance to have our taxes increased to cover them), our church-controlled education system, our creaking two-tier health service, and so on?

The Oireachtas rarely essays into this difficult territory (its Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, under Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein chairmen, have used it largely as a cheerleader for rather than hard-nosed examiner of unity); the media even less so. Academics – with the occasional exception of the excellent Institute for British-Irish Studies at UCD – have largely ignored how this jurisdiction, comfortable in the relative social and economic success of the past 30 years, might be forced to change if the unionists are going to be accommodated in any significant way.

Because if we are sincere about the revised Constitution’s pledge to unite the nation “in harmony and friendship” (as approved by over 94% of the electorate in the 1998 post-Good Friday Agreement referendum), there are going to have to be some very uncomfortable changes. I have been giving a talk over the past two years (sometimes courtesy of Zoom) in very different places – from a local history society in Belfast’s loyalist Shankill Road through a group of Irish-American lawyers in New York to a dinner of retired senior civil servants, diplomats and bankers in Dublin – about the kind of changes we may have to contemplate. The rest of this blog is taken largely from that single transferable speech.

Many nationalists and republicans probably imagine – if they think about it at all – that when demographics and the consequent rise in the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland eventually bring about a narrow majority for unity in a Border Poll, unionism as a philosophy on this island will just disappear. I have to disabuse them of this foolish and self-serving notion. Large numbers of unionists, if they are voted against their will into a united Ireland which they have struggled fanatically against for the past 140 years, will continue to withhold their allegiance from that Irish state and will continue to feel, behave and declare themselves as British. They will wave the Union flag; pledge their allegiance to the British monarchy; and reject Irish language and culture as nothing to do with them. They will be a sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority, just as the nationalists were in Northern Ireland. This is not a recipe for social peace and harmony.

I know this because I come from a half-unionist background; my mother came from a strongly Presbyterian and unionist family in County Antrim. The late Seamus Mallon knew it too. He lived his whole life in Markethill in south Armagh, a 90% Protestant village. As he wrote in his 2019 book, A Shared Home Place (which I co-authored), a 50% plus one vote for unity “will not give us the kind of agreed Ireland we seek…We need both communities in any future constitutional settlement to feel they belong to their common home place in an equal and mutually respectful way.” His preference was for “some kind of confederal arrangement because I believe unionists will find it very difficult to feel any sense of loyalty to a unitary Irish state.”

This is the huge challenge we face as Brexit, demography and electoral arithmetic in the North probably move us towards some form of unity. And with the DUP now in disarray after their disastrous hard-line Brexit stand, the advent of the difficult Protocol compromise, the chaos caused by the leadership upheavals earlier this year and the complete untrustworthiness of the present British government, a Border Poll on unity – urged on by Sinn Fein – may arrive sooner than we expect.

Which brings me to ‘Irish unionism’, a relatively widespread phenomenon a hundred years ago but very thin on the ground today. Could any significant element of unionism be prepared to countenance an all-Ireland accommodation if important elements of their British ethos and culture were to survive and flourish in that new state?

Guaranteeing unionists their British ties and identity in a post-unity scenario will be extremely challenging to the complacent nationalism of the present-day Republic (where in many circles ‘unionist’ is a dirty word). But it may be the only way of bringing a significant element of unionism on board. And it is very far from the unitary state Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail have traditionally been wedded to. It seems to me to involve a constitutional system somewhere along the spectrum between federalism and confederalism, with a key continuing role for the British government. In any case these are the kind of ultra-complex arrangements – as nuanced as anything in the Good Friday Agreement – which we need to begin to discuss in this republic.

In fact, there appears to be zero discussion here about the crucial issue of what happens to the unionists at the end of the Union as we have known it. Instead, we in the Republic sail blithely into an unexamined future with a brainless consensus that in the end the good guys of Irish nationalism will win out over the Northern bigots and stooges of British imperialism, and then we will live together happily ever after in harmonious unity.

Here are a few ‘against the consensus’ ideas to start this discussion. Firstly, we have to find some way of redefining Irish unionism as a positive good with a future role on this island, rather than an unloved relic of hated British rule in Ireland. We have to start embracing what is symbolically important to unionists – as we were starting to do during recent commemorations of Irish soldiers who had fought and died in the First World War.

Shared institutions and symbols will be important here. The Republic’s political parties, and that includes Sinn Fein, have rarely, if ever, spelled out what they are prepared to offer the unionists for the sake of unity in terms of inclusive institutions and symbols in a ‘new Ireland’. Here, I suggest, is an indicative list (meant to be thought-provoking): a power-sharing regional government and parliament to continue in Belfast with all the safeguards enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (with only a few major powers such as foreign affairs, defence and some taxation now held by London being transferred to Dublin); Irish membership of the Commonwealth; the reactivation of the British Irish Council (set up under the Good Friday Agreement but largely unused) to bring together the British, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh governments with real cooperative powers and responsibilities in a number of key policy areas (for example, climate change); an agreement with London that a number of Northern politicians will continue to sit as British legislators in the House of Lords; an overhaul of the Irish Constitution to remove or tone down any remaining elements influenced by 1930s-style Catholicism and nationalism, and to include elements recognising the British identity of Northern unionists (for example, their loyalty to the British monarchy); a new flag (I suggest the symbols of the four Irish provinces, or more provocatively, the present tricolour with a small Union Jack inserted in the orange band, in the way Australia does with its flag); a new, non-militaristic national anthem (perhaps the all-Ireland rugby anthem Ireland’s Call); a new system of state education (including an end to compulsory Irish) and a new free, single-tier health service without Catholic Church involvement.

Will the people of the Republic of Ireland be able to stomach such radical changes? After a hundred years of independence I don’t believe so. But these are ways in which we can begin to persuade unionists that they are really wanted in the ‘new’ Ireland – and at the very least we need to start discussing their merits and demerits. At the moment the great majority of unionists don’t feel any identification with or fellow-feeling for the 26 county Irish state: for many – perhaps most – of them it remains a threatening foreign country. As that most liberal of men, former Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, after defining himself as a ‘Brit’, puts it: “What I haven’t heard from nationalists is that ‘We want you in this new dispensation and here’s why…Somebody has to explain to me why we’ve gone from ‘Brits Out’ to ‘Brits In.’1

We have to find some ways in which Irishness and unionism can comfortably co-exist. A good example of this is the sterling work of Linda Ervine (former UVF leader David Ervine’s sister-in-law) in the teaching and learning of Irish in loyalist East Belfast. She argues that the Irish language – linked as it is to Scots Gaelic and Welsh – can be a healing element in the British Isles.

We have to start carefully examining the kind of multi-cultural federations and confederations which seriously commit to co-existence (however difficult and inadequate) between people with clashing concepts of self-determination within the same constitutional polity. We could start by looking at the French and Flemish in Belgium, and English and French speakers in Canada.

Then there is the enormous financial cost of unity. In a 2019 paper, the distinguished economists John Fitzgerald and Edgar Morgenroth (among the few Southern economists, along with my friend John Bradley, to have seriously studied the Northern economy) concluded that because of the poor state of that economy and its heavy dependence on financial transfers from London, unification would be “exceptionally expensive” for the Republic.

“Irish unity, if it involved ending transfers to Northern Ireland, would produce a dramatic
fall in the standard of living there. Alternatively, unification where Ireland took over responsibility for the transfers to Northern Ireland, would necessitate a major cut in the standard of living in Ireland of 5% to 10% in order to allow Northern Ireland to maintain a standard of living between 10% and 20% above the Irish standard of living. Whatever form Irish unity took there would be a heavy economic cost for both Northern Ireland and Ireland.”2 When did you last hear a serious public or media discussion about these alarming projections? The answer is never.

The lengthy discussion we need to have in the Republic about all these issues will be an extremely difficult one. To those who say that all the concessions are being made in the one direction, I would respond – echoing the respected Derry nationalist Denis Bradley – that we in the South have to be generous because it is we who are doing the wooing, and wooing a very reluctant swain.

Perhaps the most difficult discussion of all will be about the requirement – in a republic that cast off British rule after a war of independence a century ago – to talk about what kind of continuing British involvement in Ireland we can live with for the sake of the peace and harmony of the whole island. That, for many unionists, will be a sine qua non. For many republicans and nationalists it will be a huge step too far. And of course, this vital dimension will not work if the British, as they move out of the EU into their own strange post-imperial, post-European orbit, want nothing more to do with us.

1 Seamus Mallon, A Shared Home Place, p.159

2 The Northern Ireland Economy: Problems and Prospects.

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 5 Comments

My tribute to a group of mountaineering Irishmen (and a note about Micheal D.)

For the past 48 years I have been hill-walking with a group of men – mainly Dubliners – the length and breadth of Ireland: mainly in Wicklow, but also in Kerry, Connemara, Mayo, Donegal, the Cooleys and the Mournes. I have also joined them in Snowdonia in Wales, the English Lake District and the Cairngorms in Scotland.

Last week we were in Connemara and Mayo, using the cosy and welcoming Leenane Hotel (costing an astonishingly reasonable €180 for three nights bed and breakfast with an excellent dinner) on the shore of Killary Harbour as our base. The highlight was a six hour walk in the crystal-clear after-rain sunshine from the remote Glenummera under the Sheefrey Hills, up a long ridge to Ben Creggan, across Ben Gorm and down to the famous Aasleagh Falls at the head of Killary. In the clear air at the top of Ben Gorm we could see all the way from Galway Bay and the Aran Islands in the south, across to the jagged line of the Twelve Bens and the impressive bulk of Mweelrea (Connacht’s highest mountain) in the west, and as far as Achill Island and Croagh Patrick in the north. On a light-filled day like that, to be in the mountains in the west of Ireland is to be as close to heaven as one can get on this earth. [Of course, this being the west of Ireland, the next morning a thousand varieties of pouring, pelting rain were dumped on us for 36 hours!]

And the ‘craic’ was good. To the casual observer in the hotel bar or restaurant, our group of 18 was just an ordinary cross-section of cheerful elderly men on a jaunt in the Irish wilderness. We were retired printers, engineers, salesmen, electricians, fitters, journalists, taxi-drivers, brewery workers, jewellers, geologists, school inspectors, semi-state company and supermarket managers, The talk round the dinner table was of creaking bodies and absent friends, of past days spent scrambling in the hills and nights spent drinking and carousing, with a few hair-raising tales and political arguments thrown in (the group represented the full gamut of Irish opinion, everything from ‘Redmondite’ to ultra-republican).

But this was no ordinary group of Irishmen. For this group have walked and climbed in most of the great mountain ranges of the world: the Himalayas, the Pamirs, the Andes, the Rockies, the Mountains of the Moon in Congo, Mount Kenya, the Urals, the Alps.

Paddy O’Leary is one of the finest Irish mountaineers of the modern age (as well as the author of the classic 2015 book on Irish mountaineering, ‘The Way that We Climbed’). For 20 years he was director of the Tiglin Adventure Centre in Wicklow. In the early 1990s he spent some months wandering in a mountainous region in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh which, because of its proximity to Chinese Tibet, had been closed to outsiders for about 35 years.  He crossed high passes into valleys which had not seen a westerner in several generations, and joined in their various religious and harvest celebrations. He reconnoitred routes into mountains which would later be climbed by members of the Irish Mountaineering Club (including other members of our Connemara group). He was arrested for straying into a forbidden zone and had what he calls “the wonderful experience of horse-riding for two long days, while under relaxed arrest, across wild and lovely Ladakhi terrain not seen by outsiders since before the Second World War.”

Back in Ireland, he recalls a night-long walk in the Twelve Bens around 1955. “Having completed a long rock-climb late in the evening, four of us walked over several peaks including the range’s highest, Benbaun. The glorious sunsets were reflected in the myriad of lakes in Roundstone Bog and in the Atlantic. The moon was so bright we didn’t need torches. The midsummer’s night was so short that as we descended dawn broke.”

Dublin taxi-driver Liam Doyle twice went to the Venezuelan Andes in the mid-1990s to climb that country’s two highest peaks, Pico Humboldt (4,940 metres) and Pico Bolivar (4,978 metres), expeditions that were led by another pioneering Irish climber, Tony Kavanagh (who in the 1960s had climbed in the Cerro Torre region of the Patagonian Andes with legendary British climber Don Whillans). He has a vivid memory of the first of those climbs, setting out from their base camp in the pitch black of the small hours, slipping badly while crossing a rock face in the dark, and being saved by Noel McGarry’s (another of the Connemara group) ice axe. This was followed by an energy-sapping crossing of a glacier field with crampons and ropes under fierce morning sunlight.

Gerry Cairns was a member of the Ludlows folk music group in the late 1960s, before moving to Scotland and a career as a schools inspector. He walked and climbed in the Scottish Highlands for over 40 years before retiring back to Dublin. One of his strongest memories is of a rescue by a very courageous young man called Brian Dunne, a member of the famous Creagh Dhu climbing club.

In the winter of 1974 Cairns, Dunne, two experienced climbing friends and two novices, were trying to get out of the remote bothy at Knoydart because torrential rain had made the surrounding glen impassable. They climbed the 3000 foot ridge between Glen Pean and Glen an Lochan Eanaich, but met a ferocious gale at the top. Cairns was blown against rocks and fractured two ribs, and their compasses were spinning out of control because of the ridge’s magnetic field. They were forced down into Glen Dessarry where the main river was in terrifying spate. One of the novices, Eddie Daly, was swept away in the flood. Dunne, in full mountaineering gear including heavy boots, dived into the raging river and managed to drag him to the bank. As Daly kept fainting after his ordeal, they were forced to build a makeshift wall from rocks and to erect a shelter using a fly sheet propped up by a bush. During the night they had to retreat again as the adjoining burn burst its banks and started to sweep the shelter away. “I eventually walked out to safety wearing one boot and one tennis shoe. But if Brian Dunne hadn’t dived into that torrent, Eddie Daly would have been dead”, Cairns recalls.

My experience of high mountains is in the ‘ha’penny’ place when compared to my adventurous friends in the west. The highest mountain I have climbed was Popocatépetl (in 1978), the 5,426 metre snow-covered volcano 70 kilometres outside Mexico City. This not a difficult mountain – one is likely to be greeted at the top, having ascended with the full gear of crampons and ropes and ice-axes, by day trippers who have driven up the other side and parked a few hundred feet from the summit! In Europe I have climbed the Monte Rosa, on the Swiss-Italian border, another ‘easy’ mountain not requiring any great rock, snow or ice climbing skills (although at 4,634 metres it is the second highest peak in the Alps).

So that’s my short tribute to the company of men – they resolutely refuse to give their group a name – with whom I have spent many a happy hour over nearly half a century in the mountains of Ireland and further afield. Thanks for the company and the conversations and the adventures to Noel McGarry, Mick Behan, Joe Bent, Gareth Jones, Paddy O’Leary, Eddie Cody, Gabriel McCarrick, Gerry Cairns, Liam Doyle, Willie O’Brien, Derrig Monks, Con Woulfe, Sean Stevenson, George Mongey, Christy Greer, Gary Forde and John Casey (and some who have passed on, notably that lovely man Mick Slevin , who left us last November).

POSTSCRIPT: I was out of the country last month during the controversy over President Micheal D. Higgins’ declining of an invitation by the main church leaders to attend – along with the Queen – a “service of reflection and hope” in Armagh on 21st October “to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland.” President Higgins objected that the title of the service “wasn’t a neutral statement politically.”

I felt I had little to add to the hundreds of thousands of words in the media on that issue. But now that the Government has announced that it will be represented at that service by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Chief Whip Jack Chambers, I have three thoughts.

Firstly, I was extremely disappointed at our President’s decision. I thought he should have been statesman enough to have compromised in a small way on his nationalist/republican beliefs in order to attend the service of ‘reflection and hope’ which was the church leaders’ carefully considered attempt to join together in remembrance of a very significant (and, many would say, very tragic) landmark in Irish history, and to look forward to a better and more reconciled country in the future. How are we going to begin to contemplate making the huge compromises needed for a harmonious united Ireland – in definitions of Irishness, governing ethos, political systems, health and education, flags and anthems and a host of other areas – if our President can’t even bring himself to attend a harmless ecumenical service?

As the respected Derry nationalist Denis Bradley put it: “The most transformative moments in Anglo/Irish and unionist/nationalist relationships have been when individuals and institutions have gone beyond the politically correct and the judicially safe.” Citing Albert Reynolds meeting loyalist paramilitary leaders and Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen, he said these events were “the result of political astuteness that recognised the changing atmosphere that was demanding a more courageous leadership. The generosity that was shown was in tune with the prevailing winds.”1

Secondly, his action has diminished what I would call the ‘reconciling space’ above tribal politics which was created by the presidencies of his two wise predecessors, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, not least by their invitations to all shades of Northern opinion to Áras an Uachtaráin every July (a custom which Michael D. has continued). Moderate unionists – as well as those of us who insist on believing in the possibility of reconciliation between unionists and nationalists on this island – will find it hard in the future to see President Higgins as anything other than a traditional old nationalist/republican whose credibility as a key symbol of reconciliation has been irrevocably damaged.

Thirdly, President Higgins’ supporters will say that his action was vindicated by the Irish Times opinion poll finding that 68% of people in the Republic supported his decision. I wonder if there was an overlap with the 82% who in the same poll opposed higher taxes on energy and fuel to help prevent the approaching climate change catastrophe.2 Clearly, truth and wisdom are not found in opinion polls.

[I imagine that most of my mountaineering friends would disagree with the sentiments in this postscript. These are entirely my own opinions.]

1 ‘President can and should attend service in Armagh’, Irish Times, 20 September

2 ‘Poll reveals Higgins ‘right to decline’ invite to partition event, Irish Times, 8 October (and other opinion poll results)

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

A brave exploration of the plight of Northern Protestants

Over the summer I have been reading Susan McKay’s new book, Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground. This is a brave and brilliant book. For those of us who have watched the decline and fall of the unionist monolith, and the resultant fear and confusion of many Protestant and unionist people, it is also a sad one. With the probability that some kind of Irish unity is approaching in the near to medium future – and because the great majority of people in the Republic are deeply ignorant about Northern Protestants and their problematic place in that future – it is also one that should be compulsory reading for anybody who is concerned for this island’s well-being.

Susan McKay is a self-confessed ‘Lundy’. Robert Lundy was the governor of Derry who wanted to open the gates and negotiate with the besieging Catholic forces of King James II in 1689, after they had been slammed shut by 13 Protestant apprentice boys. For traditional unionists, Lundy is a hate figure, a traitor whose effigy is burnt every year on 12th July bonfires. McKay concludes her book with the words: “I am Northern Irish, my husband and children are Irish…I am reconciled to my Lundyism. There are a lot of us [this writer is another]. I enjoy the company and we are not planning to flee.”

As the likelihood of a Border Poll comes closer, a central question is how many of the 900,000 or so Northern unionists will flee in the event of a very narrow – and it will be very narrow – vote for unity. Former DUP leader Arlene Foster has said she will be one. Some of the Northern Protestants McKay talks to – particularly in working class housing estates and border areas – will certainly follow her to England or Scotland. They will become Britain’s pieds noirs: embittered and abandoned as they are forced out of their native province (which is how they will see it), and giving their support to the most reactionary and anti-Irish elements in British politics.

Others will come to terms with the new dispensation, however much they detest it; and if it means a united Ireland dominated by Sinn Fein, unrepentant apologists for the IRA who spent 30 years bombing and killing them, they will detest it even more. A few – perhaps more than a few – will accept it more willingly, and will try their best to make it work for everyone.

McKay has roamed Northern Ireland seeking out all these people, and many more. Her range of interviewees in a community not known for being courageously outspoken – especially to a Republic of Ireland-based writer – is extraordinary. She uncovers a rich tapestry of backgrounds and opinions in a people usually characterised – and often demonised – as narrow, intolerant and prejudiced.

Here is just a flavour of some of them: gay men from the Antrim glens and Belfast housing estates; a left-wing feminist from Ballymoney; the sister of Edgar Graham, the Queen’s University law lecturer murdered by the IRA in 1983; a young woman who runs an all-Ireland haulage business from Antrim town; the trade unionist and south-east Antrim community activist Mark Langhammer, and other youth and community workers in the impoverished estates of that loyalist heartland; a Northern Ireland international woman footballer; a mixed race former paramilitary from east Belfast; a Baptist pastor with a Malaysian husband who works on the Belfast ‘peace line’; the daughter of a man murdered by loyalist thugs on the Newtownards Road; Alan McBride, who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA’s 1993 bombing of a fish shop in Belfast’s Shankill Road; the Protestant Irish language activist Linda Ervine; former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis and activist Sophie Long; Protestant students who believe Queen’s University has become a ‘cold house’ for unionists, and Protestant students who don’t; South Down fishermen of all political viewpoints; a woman who was slandered by grammar school ‘rugby boys’ involved in gender-based bullying and sexual abuse; the son of a prison officer murdered by dissident Republicans in 2012; the sister of a man killed by the IRA in the 1976 Kingsmill massacre; a hard-line evangelical preacher and his South Armagh congregation; a Nigerian Church of Ireland woman rector on the Fermanagh-Donegal-Leitrim border; unionist politicians Sammy Wilson and Roy Beggs; novelists Jan Carson and Phil Harrison (both from ultra-Protestant evangelical backgrounds); poets Jean Bleakney and Scott McKendry; playwright Stacey Gregg. All human life is here.

McKay is a courageous and resolute researcher, not flinching from the most difficult and potentially dangerous encounters. In Bangor she tries to attend a ‘betrayal act’ (against the Northern Ireland Protocol) rally in an Orange hall but is aggressively shown the door. She joins a protest in Portrush against the closure of a Royal British Legion care and respite centre for ex-British soldiers. She tours places in South Armagh where Protestants had been murdered by the IRA in the company of the late Willie Frazer, a unionist hard-liner whose father had been one of them, who points out houses where he said the killers lived, calling them “nests of rats.” She goes into the hardest of hard loyalist estates and converses with an anonymous paramilitary who warns that any change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status “would cause an eruption of violence equal to if not worse than that of the past.”

However she is also determined to paint Northern Protestants in all their complex and varied human colours, rather than scrunching them into the Orange straitjacket that is usually pinned on them. She discovers as many heroes as villains, as much bravery as bigotry. Many of her most impressive interviewees are women. Amy lives in a housing estate in a mid-Ulster town town with many flags. She understands only too well that poor Protestants are the “scum of the earth” in many people’s eyes, and that “nobody is interested in investing in young people from that background, even if they have brains…I can understand why young working-class Protestant men think no one gives a shit about them.”

She is a senior housing manager now and could move to a middle-class area, but chooses not to. As an intelligent, outspoken woman she is a target for threatening abuse on social media. “It’s not good for a woman to be seen to be doing well in loyalist communities. The men don’t like it.” But Amy is a fighter. She saw one of her keyboard warrior abusers working in a local filling station and openly challenged him: “Are you the wee fucker who has been targetting me online? Say it to my face. I’m standing here now. Come on.’ He near shit himself and he walked away into the garage.”

Amy was the only one in her family and friendship circle who had voted to remain in the EU. Why was that? “A border as high as you can get it and all the foreigners out. And no united Ireland. They just did what the DUP said, and sure now it has all backfired on the DUP. But round here if you don’t vote DUP you are an outcast.” She doesn’t “even want to think about a Border Poll. Oh my God, World War Three. I really do think loyalists are back in 1912 right now.”

Debbie Watters, who runs Northern Ireland Alternatives, a community-based restorative justice group, is another admirable woman. She comes from Tobermore in County Londonderry, in the shadow of the Sperrin Mountains. “Growing up in a village that was 99.9% Protestant has definitely shaped who I am…Overt sectarianism was the world that I grew up in. You know: ‘Don’t sell your land to a Catholic’, and even the awful ‘The only good Fenian is a dead Fenian” (although her family did not think or talk in that way).

Watters is one of those who are politically stranded by the fact that she is pro-union but not comfortable voting for any of the unionist parties. “For me the issues that are important are poverty, mental health, equality, human rights. If you look back to the whole trade union movement, which was very strong within working-class loyalism, I’m not sure how we’ve ended up here. Part of it is because republicans have seen human rights and equality as a platform, and unionists have sat back and allowed them to hijack it. They’re scared to use the narrative, in case they’re seen as being wishy-washy unionists…Negotiation, compromise, changing your point of view – all were seen as appeasement.”

“Republicanism and nationalism have seasoned politicians who have come from the grass roots”, she says. “What is missing within unionist politics is activism. We have politicians that know how to manoeuvre, but they are disconnected from the people. They go straight for the Orange card but the social issues have been neglected. The people who are disadvantaged by this vote unionist to keep republicans out. The quality of their life hasn’t truly changed since the Good Friday Agreement. They feel angry and abandoned. So they blame the agreement.”

She concludes: “I believe in the union. But if my sense of identity and my family’s sense of identity was respected, if I could live the same quality of life, if there was a health care system and an education system that I didn’t have to pay for outside of taxes, I think I could be quite relaxed about a united Ireland.”

Aadi, the half-West Indian former paramilitary from east Belfast, and clearly a thoughtful and intelligent man, sums up the views of many ordinary unionists who might not want to stay in a unified Ireland. “If there was a border poll and people voted to leave [the UK], I would accept it because that is democracy, but we would not be unionists any more and I would probably leave. I would either go to England or back home to the West Indies. I would be sad. For all the faults with Northern Ireland, and with Ireland as a whole, it’s a great country.”

However he notes that there is still an arrogance about unionism: “They don’t think that they have to explain their case…The minute you start questioning it, they pull up the drawbridge, or they say, oh, that guy doesn’t get it, he’s a Lundy…There’s not the same political development in unionist communities as there is in nationalist communities. There are the same issues – bad housing, bad education, bad job prospects, poor political parties, poor public services. But unionist communities always take the view that if you oppose those, you seem to be a traitor. So it’s difficult for them.”

Alan McBride, an open-minded man who now votes Alliance, calls himself “a romantic unionist – I just love being part of a group of islands that are so diverse and incredible.” Having experienced terrible trauma himself, he has worked unstintingly for many years on behalf of the victims of the Troubles and their families. But he runs the serious risk of being seen as another Lundy. “I am a pragmatist. And I mean, economically, I want to be able to have a house and a car and a job and a standard of living. And to be honest with you, those things matter more to me than the flag that’s flying above our country. And if, because of Brexit, Northern Ireland is not flourishing and the South is, why would you not want to be part of that? I absolutely would.”

Former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis has a darker view. She quotes the belief of her charismatic predecessor, the late David Ervine, that the DUP would be responsible for the break-up of the union. “And he is being proved right. He said the DUP couldn’t make Northern Ireland work because, in his words, the party just hated Taigs.”

An admirable young man who defies all the stereotypes is Stephen Donnan-Dalzell, who lives in one of the toughest housing estates in the Shankill Road area, works in a homeless hostel, has been an election candidate for the Alliance Party and is a gay man. His parents are ‘born again’ Christians. “I know the Orange state stripped away the rights, entitlements and expressions of identity of nationalists and republicans and Irishness here, and that was abhorrent and entirely wrong. But you can’t start a new Ireland by doing the same thing to working-class Protestants,” he says.

“My mum and dad worked in the RUC during the Troubles and lost friends and saw some horrific things. So I need to be more mindful, I think, of why they feel that they need to vote for the DUP…I’m thirty-one. I’m very lucky that I grew up in a time when the Troubles were coming to an end. One of my really good friends, she lives in London, and she is a die-hard republican from Armagh, a big GAA supporter. We’re both lefties. But certain conversations are uncomfortable because she doesn’t think there’s any such thing as a good soldier, or a member of the RUC that was a decent person. And when she says those things, she’s actually talking about my parents.

“You have to try to empathise. Like, there are people voting for the DUP on the Shankill estate who lost relatives in the Shankill bomb. It’s hard for people to look past the constitutional issue because it’s not just about their place in the union, or their place in a united Ireland. It’s about the people they buried, it’s about the things they have had to witness, it’s about the bodies they have pulled out of rubble. It’s really deeply personal. We haven’t recovered as a society from the mass trauma of the Troubles, and the health infrastructure is just not there to deal with that.”

Donnan-Dalzell encapsulates the view of many open-minded unionists when he says: “I just want to live in a place that thrives. I would prefer it to be within the EU, and I would prefer it to be within a United Kingdom, but whether we have a united Ireland or not, unless there is significant social change in how the most vulnerable are treated, it doesn’t make a difference.”

Many of McKay’s interviewees – particularly those with lower incomes – are sick of hearing endlessly about the constitutional question, and emphasise the importance of issues like poverty, mental health, integrated education and gender discrimination, all neglected as the DUP and Sinn Fein obsess over British sovereignty and the Irish border. Derry community worker Catherine Pollock, while stressing that as a democrat she will accept a majority vote for unity, goes on: “I don’t see much of a difference in Dublin or London. I think I’ll be poor no matter if the border’s there or not.”

Remembering atrocities is another perilous issue. Bloody Sunday in Derry, Ballymurphy in Belfast and Loughinisland in County Down have been endlessly commemorated and investigated, their victims championed and the British security forces involved excoriated. But when did anybody last make a TV programme or write an investigative article about the IRA’s attacks on the La Mon hotel, the village of Claudy, the workers at Kingsmill and Teebane returning from their places of employment, or the Enniskillen war memorial? The parents of sisters Joan Anderson and Margeret Veitch were killed in the 1987 Enniskillen bombing. Anderson says she has spent her life since “in just utter despair and crying.” Veitch says: “The British government has done nothing for us British citizens that lived in hell for thirty-five years. It was a slaughter match around Fermanagh and right around the border. Those twelve victims in Fermanagh are very bit as important as the Bloody Sunday victims.” 34 years on the families of those victims are still waiting for a satisfactory memorial to their loved ones, one containing “a clear statement that the IRA had murdered them.”

The poet Jean Bleakney comes from a Fermanagh family, although she grew up partly in Newry. She has terrible memories of what Newry was like for its Protestant minority in the early years of the Troubles. She showed McKay an opinion column in the nationalist Irish News which referred to how Protestant businesses had ‘disappeared’ from the town. One grocer’s shop, formerly owned by Robert Mitchell, was now the columnist’s favourite Chinese takeaway. What he didn’t say was that Mitchell, a 69-year-old Orangeman, had been shot by the IRA in front of his two elderly sisters in 1977. “Not a word about this. I just felt, dear God, our stories are just going to go unrecorded and forgotten.”

Playwright Stacey Gregg moves between Belfast, Dublin and London. “I feel uneasy when people mock working-class Protestants – it shows a poverty of empathy. There’s a flavour of condescension.” She is gay, a Belfast working-class girl who went to Cambridge University, an outsider, “a restless iconoclast”, drawn as a writer to what is “new, unsettled, shifting, out on the edge, or beyond it.” She thinks most of the North’s Protestant privilege is “essentially gone or going, but the residual entitlement remains, and can become brittle and defensive. I became aware that I’d inherited some of this, and part of going away was to dismantle it; yet in the same way I’m sensitive to power hierarchies because of my queer antennae, so this bizarre Protestant entitlement helps me understand why some behave as they do; how unless you are given the tools to identify and scrutinise, it can take root and solidify into something very unattractive.”

One suspects that Susan McKay empathises with Stacey Gregg. She too is an outsider: a left-wing woman from a Northern Protestant background living in the Republic, whose writings should have been educating us about the North in the Irish Times on a daily basis for many years. It is a tribute to McKay’s skills as a journalist and interviewer that in this fine book she wins the trust of members of a community that is notoriously untrusting and wary of outsiders, and as a result produces some startlingly honest and insightful testimonies. One wonders if Northern Catholics would be quite so outspoken and unsparing in their criticisms of their own people – I think not.

Her qualities as an observer and commentator are the key to her achievement in offering a uniquely illuminating glimpse into a much misunderstood, belittled and even reviled community. Her own Derry Protestant background helps, as does her flinty integrity (in one potentially hostile setting she is seen as “hard but fair”), which is much valued in the straight-talking Protestant North. Even her sparky (and occasionally spiky) feminism must have been useful for drawing out the testimonies of some of the impressive ‘ordinary’ women she talks to.

This book brings out the humanity and complexity of Northern Protestants in a way that is extremely rare. Traditional Irish republicans, for all their soft talk, have tended for a hundred years and more to dismiss these stubborn people, with their proud Protestantism and old-fashioned Britishness, as a lesser breed of human beings. They have overlooked and ignored them in a belief that they have no real agency in Irish history, which they see as a centuries-old struggle between the British imperialist overlord and Ireland’s noble anti-colonial fighters, a struggle which they believe they are now finally winning. McKay’s marvellously thought-provoking exploration is a necessary and powerful antidote to that simplistic view.

This is an edited version of a book review which appears in the September edition of ‘The Dublin Review of Books.’

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