Sometimes I despair about the lack of fresh thinking in the Republic about moves towards unity

On 23rd October, the day after the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, launched his ‘Shared Island’ initiative, I wrote the following letter to the Irish Times:

The Taoiseach’s comments at the launch of the Government’s new ‘Shared Island’ initiative, prioritising sharing the island over reunification, deserve wide support. 

Despite your headline, this is not a “departure from core Fianna Fail policy of political reunification”. Mr Martin’s emphasis on building North-South relations rather than ‘Brits Out’ rhetoric is entirely in line with the policies of former Fianna Fail taoisigh like Sean Lemass, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, as well as Garret Fitzgerald, John Bruton and Enda Kenny.

It was Lemass who broke with the sterile anti-partitionism of the first 40 years of the Irish state, and changed the emphasis to seeking improved relationships with Northern unionists. It was Ahern who told his Ministers to put North-South cooperation at the top of their agendas.

Sinn Fein’s push for a Border Poll so as to achieve the narrowest possible 50.1% vote for unity is madness, running the considerable risk of re-igniting the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. In its policy papers over the past 20 years that party has not outlined a single new idea about how, if and when that happens, we are going to cope with the 49.9% of Northerners who will remain stubbornly – and often bitterly – opposed to such an outcome.

A policy built on growing North-South cooperation, and thus new and strengthened relationships in practical areas of mutual benefit – the economy, the environment, health and education – is the only sensible alternative. We should concentrate on building economic prosperity and social harmony on this island and leave the possibility of political unity to the next generation.

As Brian Cowen said wisely in 2010: “The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination – where we end up eventually – is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe. We have to make the here and now a better place, and we have to do it on the basis that we have devised a political culture that is less suspicious and fearful than ever before, that is more open to recognise the common interests we have together while respecting that we are in separate jurisdictions. We should be concerned about what it is we can do together.”

In its wisdom, the Irish Times decided not to publish this letter. The main space in the letters page in the following day’s paper was given over to nine letters about ‘sport and the lockdown’, seven of which were from golfers complaining they could not play their favourite game for six weeks. Over the following week only three letters were published in response to the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Ireland’ initiative: two on an utterly unrealistic proposal from a retired Belfast professor urging him to set up a ‘Shared Islands’ unit involving all of Britain and Ireland, and one on a batty idea for a new ‘Isles of Man’ confederation with its capital on that island.

I have to say that this is par for the course (excuse the pun) when it comes to trying to provoke some fresh or nuanced thinking in this republic about beginning to prepare for moves towards some kind of unity. The response to Micheál Martin’s effort to move Irish government policy towards “strengthening shared relationships on the island” through increased North-South cooperation, and away from the “simplistic narratives” and “the persistence of identity politics” was underwhelming at best, negative at worst. Most of the journalists who covered it – with the honourable exception of RTE’s Tommie Gorman – focussed on whether it meant a major departure from the core Fianna Fail policy of a united Ireland (Martin insisted it did not).

Sometimes I despair at the mixture of old-fashioned delusional thinking and sheer apathy that usually prevents any efforts at serious public debate on this existential topic in the South. I wrote last month about the poverty of Sinn Fein’s thinking when it comes to the extremely difficult practical steps – consultative, security, financial – which we need to discuss before we even contemplate a Border Poll.

The delusional thinking mainly concerns unionists and the likelihood that they will lie down and accept unity. Unionists are one of the most hidebound, fearful and unchanging (and martial) communities in Europe. I remember my extremely liberal mother, daughter of a County Antrim unionist family, warning me as a 21 year old back in 1969 as I headed off to join the civil rights movement: “You’ll never change them, Andrew”.

In his ‘Shared Island’ initiative, Micheál Martin is taking on the hard task of trying to change them, and particularly the younger people among them. “He was addressing the tens of thousands [of unionists] who were born after 1998,” says that insightful unionist commentator Alex Kane. “He was addressing that section of unionism worried by the consequences of Brexit and the regeneration of a particularly insular English nationalism. He was addressing those who believe that unionism, in its present guise, doesn’t represent the totality, complexity and nuance of their interests. He was addressing those who might feel more comfortable in a united Ireland than in a UK shorn of Scotland and dominated by a ‘new’ conservatism which doesn’t give a damn about Northern Ireland. It’s no coincidence that the first Shared Island Dialogue will be with ‘new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement.”1

Kane expected there would be “a number of younger people from a unionist or pro-union background who do want their voices and views heard and who may be wanting to say things that mainstream political unionism would prefer them not to say.”

Another part of the wrong-headed thinking in nationalist Ireland is the 150 year old belief that unionists are merely deluded Irish people, who just have to rid themselves of the ‘false conciousness’ that they are British. 50 years ago, as a young left-wing firebrand, I used to believe this. I have been reading a 2015 essay by a similarly left-wing Northern Protestant, Robbie McVeigh, who says that unionists have to throw off politics which are “reactionary and self-destructive” (not to mention sectarian and racist) and “accept that we are an Irish Protestant minority – accept the inevitability of reunification and begin to embrace and celebrate the positive aspects of this prospect”.2

I imagine a large number of people in the Republic – when they think about such things at all – would agree with McVeigh. The inevitability factor, that we just have to wait for the onward march of history and demography, is another disincentive to any serious consideration of the implications of the political, social and cultural upheaval that unity will cause.

The problem is that McVeigh’s thesis is unsustainable: outside a few mavericks, unionists deciding they are really Irish after all is not going to happen (and here I may differ slightly from Kane, although as a distinguished Belfast journalist from that background he is better informed about unionism than I am). After 30 years of violence, much of it aimed at destroying the link with Britain and thus undermining the community which cherishes that link above all things, it seems to me that the great majority of unionists are as attached to the union with Britain as ever (whatever about their perfidious governors in London). And despite the demographic wishful thinkers, the nationalist vote (i.e. for Sinn Fein, the SDLP and a couple of smaller parties) continues to hover at or just under 40%, as it has done for the last 20 years and more.

So unionists’ British identity appears to be as strong as ever. Another essay in that 2015 collection is by the playwright Graham Reid, son of a socialist labourer in the Belfast shipyard, and author of the Billy plays in the early 1980s, the last sympathetic dramatic portrayal of Belfast working class Protestants I can remember. In the mid-1960s Reid had joined the precursor of the civil rights movement, the Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland, and in 1974 voted for the Sunningdale Agreement. He recalled that at a reception in the Mansion House hosted by Charles Haughey, he had written ‘British’ in the nationality section of the visitors’ book. “I was roundly attacked by the then artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, but that’s what I am. Not Northern Irish/British…just British. I love Northern Ireland because it’s British. Having said that, I have very warm feelings for the Republic of Ireland…my early work was staged in Dublin. I have many friends there and respect them as Irish, so therefore expect them to respect me as British.”3

In my experience of many years of living and working in the North, that is as far as any mainstream unionist will go in opening his or her mind and heart to the rest of Ireland. That is the fragile foundation we must build on, and I believe that is what Micheál Martin is trying to do.

1 ‘Unionism at risk if it fails to prepare for Border poll’, Irish Times, 2 November

2 ”Noone likes us, we don’t care: what is to be (un)done about Ulster Protestant Identity’, in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, Thomas Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna (eds.)

3 ‘Convergence’, in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments

Sinn Fein are getting ready for government. But are they ready for unity?

An Irish Times opinion poll on 8th October showed support for Fine Gael at 35% and Sinn Fein at 29%, with Fianna Fail a distant third at 17% and the Greens an even more distant fourth at 4%. Public anxiety and weariness at the rising Covid-19 numbers and the sometimes incoherent coalition government response to the pandemic is clearly at the heart of this, so if the government’s policies start to work and the numbers go down again, that will probably be reflected in future opinion polls. This week’s ultra-generous budget should help.

However, this is also an indication that the seismic shift in Irish politics represented by the Sinn Fein surge in the February election, building on the general move to ‘left populism’ (in the telling phrase of SF’s Eoin Ó Broin) in elections since the 2008 economic crash, is continuing apace. Is popular support in the Republic moving to coalesce around Fine Gael on the right and Sinn Fein on the left, with Fianna Fail reduced to playing a bit part in the future as coalition partner to the new republican power in the land? Two senior civil servants told Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy earlier this month that they found it hard to see any circumstances in which Sinn Fein would not be the largest party after the next election. If that happens, and Mary Lou McDonald becomes Taoiseach in 2025 (and possibly sooner), she has made it clear that her first and most urgent priority will be driving on to unity.

In the February election, Sinn Fein shrewdly played down its core policy of Irish unity brought about by a Border Poll (or rather a series of Border Polls at seven-year intervals) in the near future. Its election manifesto was entitled ‘ Giving workers and families a break: a Manifesto for Change,’ a classic left-wing message. For most Southerners a united Ireland over the next 5-10 years simply does not form part of their ‘frontal brain’ thinking. In the election they were thinking about the state’s glaring inadequacies in housing and health above all. Now, as Covid surges again, they are understandably focussed on the latter.

But how developed is Sinn Fein’s own thinking about the difficult transition to unity they envisage in that very near future, and the practical steps needed to ensure that it happens with a minimum of violence and other political, social and economic dislocation? In particular, how developed is their thinking about how to cope with the 900,000 unionists who remain stubbornly opposed to that unity?

I have been looking through three recent Sinn Fein documents to try to get a clue to this: their 2020 election manifesto, and two 2016 policy documents (the most recent of their kind): ‘Towards a United Ireland’ and ‘Towards an Agreed and Reconciled Future.’ The former is a ‘discussion document’ and the latter an outline of policy ‘on reconciliation and healing.’

As a measure of how developed the party’s thinking is on this transition and the practical steps it will entail, I am using the questions posed by the late Seamus Mallon in his 2019 book, A Shared Home Place (which I co-authored).1

Is some kind of temporary joint authority between the British and Irish governments feasible to ensure that the government and administration of the North do not break down during a transitional period before unity? There is nothing in any of these documents about this.

Will there be some kind of alternative staged process? There is nothing about this either.

What kind of parliamentary and community consultation, public finance and public service structures will be put in place both during and after that transitional phase? There is no mention of any of these vital elements in bringing about drastic constitutional and jurisdictional change in a deeply divided society in any of the three documents.

How will justice, law and order be guaranteed during the inevitable breakdown of law and order that too precipitate a transition will cause, with the danger that revived loyalist paramilitaries would violently resist it and revived republican paramilitaries seek to enforce it? There is absolutely nothing about this vital security question in any of these documents.

What guarantees will be put in place so that the proud British identity of the unionists will be protected, cherished and incorporated into the institutions, ethos and symbols of the new state? At least there is something about this in the ‘Towards a United Ireland’ document, but it is extremely vague and non-specific. In a section entitled ‘Relationships in a New Ireland’, there is a line of pure wishful thinking: “Irish reunification will mean new and better relationships within Ireland, between Ireland and Britain…” Similarly it says: “The Orange tradition is an Irish tradition and the British identity of many people in the North must be accommodated in an agreed, united Ireland.”

What will be those unifying institutions and symbols? Again, vagueness and lack of specifics are the order of the day. A new constitution and an all-Ireland charter of fundamental rights are promised, as is the right of people who hold British citizenship to continue to hold that citizenship. There follow three slightly less vague promises: “Constitutional recognition of the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity of a significant number of people in the North of Ireland; expression being given to the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy; recognition of the place of the loyal institutions (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation.”

Here, for the first time, is some small evidence of re-thinking among republicans. However, once again, lack of specifics are the first thing any intelligent unionist will notice. How does Sinn Fein foresee the constitution being changed to recognise unionists’ British identity? How will their loyalty to the British monarchy be expressed and recognised? How will the Orange Order be recognised? A Dublin resident, Northern Protestant friend of mine (a supporter of unity) recently suggested, only half-jokingly, that a new Irish flag could consist of the present green and white bands with the third, orange band incorporating a small Union flag (in the way Australia does). How would Sinn Fein react to that? Indeed how would the people of the 70-year-old Republic of Ireland react to that? Because that is the kind of radical symbolic change we will be looking at if we are serious about an ‘agreed, united Ireland’ (one of Sinn Fein’s favourite oxymorons).

Would these new institutions work best on an all-island basis or in a new northern regional context? In ‘Towards a United Ireland’ there is one passing mention of what Sinn Fein calls “transitional arrangements”: i.e. “continued devolution to Stormont and a power-sharing Executive in the North within an all-Ireland structure”, or “a federal or confederal arrangement”. There is also an unspelled out mention of “other arrangements.” But remember that for Sinn Fein these will all be “transitional” on the way to a united Irish state.

Will the constitutional arrangements involve some sort of federalism or confederalism? There is nothing more than the scant mention above.

Reading these documents, the overwhelming impression is that they contain few new ideas and few departures from the traditional Irish nationalist and republican thinking of the past hundred years: Irish unity is the only solution on offer, with a few vague, unspecified concessions to unionists’ British identity.

It seems that Sinn Fein wants other people to do the hard thinking about how we might move towards a united Ireland and what it would look like. In their February election manifesto the party says that in government it will establish a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity (i.e. get the parliamentarians to do the thinking); establish an all-island Citizens’ Assembly or other forum to discuss unity (i.e. get a random sample of Irish people to do the thinking – minus the unionist parties, who will boycott such an assembly); publish a White Paper on Irish unity (Why can’t they publish a proper policy paper now to give us some idea of their thinking about what should go into such a White Paper?); and hold a referendum, north and south, on unity (under the Good Friday Agreement, this decision is one for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – i.e. the British government, so London would have to do the initial thinking).

In their election manifesto, the extremely difficult process of moving towards unity is summarised in a paragraph which is pure, unthinking waffle. “The future is not about a single step-change in which we go to bed one night in a partitioned Ireland and the next morning wake up in a united Ireland. It’s all about process. A process of discussion. A process of persuasion. A process of change. A process of transition. A process of transformation. A process of reconciliation. It’s about agreeing how we will organise our society. It’s about how we share our future. It’s about all of us having our say and playing our part in this.” ‘Process’ is mentioned seven times in this paragraph, but there is not a word about how Sinn Fein sees this devilishly difficult transition (faced with the unrelenting opposition of close to half the population of Northern Ireland) working itself out peacefully and harmoniously. Given the party believes that once there is the barest voting majority in the North in favour of unity, we must have unity, how do they plan for the ‘processes’ of discussion, persuasion, transition, transformation and reconciliation listed in this empty-headed paragraph?

One of the problems is that too many republicans believe unity and reconciliation are interchangeable terms: in Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney’s words, that “a new, agreed Ireland built upon unity of all its people should put reconciliation and healing at the heart of its civil and political institutions.” Like many others who have been involved in peacemaking and cooperation in the North, I believe Kearney has it the wrong way round. The people of Northern Ireland have to work first and foremost for the reconciliation of their deeply divided little society, using the ingenious (if flawed) mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement – only then can we start talking meaningfully about Irish unity. Unity without some significant prior element of reconciliation between the communities in the North is only going to store up future trouble in that province, this time with the unionists as the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority.

Republicans insist on believing that what they call ‘political unionism’ is at the heart of the problem of the North. People like me think nationalism is also part of the problem. As that wise and brilliant Irishman George Bernard Shaw (who called himself an internationalist) wrote over a hundred years ago: “Nobody in Ireland of any intelligence likes Nationalism any more than a man with a broken arm likes having it set. A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher, to no preacher, until the demand of the nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation.”2

1 A Shared Home Place, p.153

2 Preface to ‘John Bull’s Other Island

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 3 Comments

My tribute to the late, great Eugene McCabe

The great Monaghan writer Eugene McCabe died a month ago, aged 90. This is a tribute I wrote to him nearly nine years ago in my former blog: ‘A Note from the Next Door Neighbours’.

Does being a border writer mean that, by definition, you are going to be marginalised? That would certainly seem to have been the fate of Eugene McCabe, the Clones-based writer of at least one great play, one masterpiece of a novel and some of the most powerful short stories to have come out of Ireland in the past half-century. He deserves to be ranked up there with William Trevor and Frank O’Connor in the canon of great 20th century Irish writers, but rarely is.

One of the problems may be that for a man who is now over 80, McCabe’s output has not been voluminous (he has spent as much time farming as writing). Another may be that he writes about the deeply unfashionable people of the border region – both sides of it – in all their savage divisions, sorrows and loneliness. He has never shied away from the darkest and most controversial issues in Irish life. King of the Castle, the play which first brought him notoriety in the 1960s, was about an ageing, wealthy farmer who hires a travelling labourer to sire a child on his young and unhappy wife, and it about the darker side of sex. ‘Sex is the currency of the play, the language into which everything else – greed, history, the rise of the self-made man – is translated’, wrote Fintan O’Toole. And sex in Ireland in the 1960s was still largely a taboo subject.

Death and Nightingales – which Colm Toibin has called McCabe’s masterpiece – is a gothic novel of love, murder and sectarian hatred in the 1880s: the decade of Parnell as the uncrowned king of Ireland and of the terrorist ‘Invincibles’. Billy Winters, the conflicted planter and Beth, his accursed Catholic ‘daughter’, are unforgettable characters: Fermanagh versions of the tormented souls of Lorca’s Andalucia or Chekhov’s Russia.

Heaven Lies About Us, his collection of short stories published in 2005, begins with a terrible tale of a child’s death after sexual abuse by her brother. In the words of the English writer and critic Ian Sansom, the rest of the stories – and particularly the triptych ‘Cancer’, ‘Heritage’ and ‘Victims’ – are ‘like burning beacons, warnings from history’. McCabe writes of the border counties as ‘a dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields…housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts…To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before.’

This is ‘troubles’ writing at its bleakest and finest. ‘I have never read fiction that renders with such economy and brutal force the co-existing truths of sectarian hatred and entangled cohabitation. For readers keen to experience the power of which fiction is capable, the dread and sorrow it can elicit, the linguistic excitement it can provoke and, above all, the thrill of seeing anew, and more profoundly, what one thought one knew, McCabe is indispensable,’ wrote the American novelist Claire Messud.

I would make these dark stories required reading for all Irish and Northern Irish sixth formers, both for the brilliance of their spare use of language, and – more importantly – because this vision of black hatred and bloody murder should convince them like nothing else of the absolute obligation to do all in their power to ensure that never, ever again will neighbour take up arms against neighbour in the northern province of this island.

McCabe – perhaps uniquely among Irish Catholic writers – is equally able to write about the terror and contempt of Protestant border farmers and UDR men as he is to portray the anger and vengefulness of their Catholic neighbours and historic adversaries. And he is able to see into the wounded humanity of both communities and evoke sympathy with the most unlikely people, people driven demented by religion and politics and death and drink and bigotry.

I met Eugene McCabe once over 30 years ago. I visited him on his farm where the driveway – in the way of so many border back roads – actually crossed from Monaghan into Fermanagh and back again. He couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming to a young, raw and rather ignorant BBC reporter doing a programme about the Protestants of County Monaghan. After the interview, his son gave me a lift through the February snow to Dublin to watch a rugby international at Lansdowne Road.

McCabe is also a fine writer of love poetry, and I’m going to finish with the final lines of one of those poems to his wife: ‘For Margot for a lifetime’ (which is the frontispiece to Heaven Lies About Us):

…Now Winter’s marching round Drumard

We’ll log up stoves against the coming cold

Much to live for, still more to remember

And never, ever talk of growing old.

Light can catch the glory in November

Of summers past and though God gives no sign

When love is all there is no final line.

I think I will ask for that final line to be put on my gravestone: “Though God gives no sign, when love is all there is no final line.”

PS  I would also like to pay tribute to my good friend Art Ó Briain, who died earlier this month. Art was a much-admired theatre director (including of the first production of Brian Friel’s Translations in Derry in 1980), television director, film-maker, community theatre innovator, community development worker, Gaelscoil campaigner and lover of the Connemara wilderness. He was a man of great courage and independence of spirit, with a generous heart and a huge social conscience, endlessly creative, imaginative, stubborn and funny. We will miss him enormously. Suaimhneas sioraí dó.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment

In evil times the rule of law does not matter

I fear we are living through evil times: climate catastrophe coming down the road; facing into a second winter surge of the Corona virus; the insanity of Brexit yet to hit home, and ultra-nationalist ‘strong men’ in charge of most of the world’s great nations – the USA, Russia, China, Brazil and India. Now Boris Johnson’s British government have decided that the rule of international law doesn’t apply to them any more, and they can casually announce they are going to break the solemn Withdrawal Treaty they entered into with the EU less than nine months ago. A final irony is that it was the anonymous Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, who will go down as a footnote in history as the man who made the announcement in the House of Commons.

The condemnations have come thick and fast, nationally and internationally, notably from the US – with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warning that there will be no trade deal with the UK if the Johnson government’s Internal Market Bill becomes law. Every living prime minister condemned the Bill. In the words of John Major and Tony Blair’s joint article in the Sunday Times:  “It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal – crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation…As the world looks on aghast at the UK – the word of which was once accepted as inviolable – this government’s action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation.”

Last week I heard the brilliant Queen’s University Belfast sociologist and Brexit expert, Professor Katy Hayward, calling the Bill  a “full frontal assault on devolution” and “the greatest threat to the Union in recent memory”. She particularly referenced the Bill’s extraordinary line that “certain provisions will have effect not notwithstanding inconsistency and incompatibility with international or other domestic law”. This, she said, went far beyond the constitutional question in Northern Ireland and pointed the way toward the breakdown of the rule of law in the UK as a whole.

She compared the direction 21st century Britain is taking under Johnson to the Republic of Siena in the 14th century, a time of constant strife and warfare between Italian city states. She referred to ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’, the famous series of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti adorning the walls of Siena’s council chamber , where the nine elected governing magistrates sat.

In this the virtues of good government are represented by six crowned female figures: Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice. The accompanying text reads: “Justice, where she rules, induces to unity the many souls [of citizens], and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good their Lord; and he [the leader], in order to govern the state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him.”

In a second fresco the effects of bad government are starkly outlined. Below a devilish figure representing Tyranny, Justice lies captive and bound, while the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division and War flank her, and above float Avarice, Pride and Vainglory. A third fresco shows a city in ruin, deserted streets, homes and businesses demolished, while outside in the countryside two armies advance towards each other. The probable break-up of the United Kingdom and the contempt for law, justice, prudence and expertise shown by what Fintan O’Toole calls the ‘toxic troika’ – Johnson, his seemingly all-powerful advisor, Dominic Cummings, and Michael Gove – are the contemporary bad government parallels which spring to mind.

On the other side, of course, are those great upholders of the rule of law: Sinn Fein. In early July the excellent Belfast News Letter journalist Sam McBride pointed to at least 10 breaches of the NI Executive’s Covid-19 regulations and guidelines during the Sinn Fein-organised funeral (and glorification) of the ‘terrifying’ former IRA Belfast commander Bobby Storey (I prefer writer Malachi O’Doherty’s description rather than the anodyne ‘veteran republican’ used by the Southern media).¹ And that’s not even to begin to mention the Provisional IRA’s  thousandfold violation of the most fundamental divine law: “thou shalt not kill”.

I recently came across an old-fashioned word which describes Sinn Fein well. A letter-writer to the Irish Times, writing in the aftermath of John Hume’s death to complain that any rethinking of nationalism in the South is only superficial, talked about the “revanchist tone” of so many republican and extreme nationalist contributions to the debate on Irish unity.

I had to go to the dictionary to look up ‘revanchism.’ According to Wikipedia, revanchism is “the political manifestation of the will to reverse territorial losses incurred by a country.” It originated in France in the 1870s in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war among nationalists who wanted to avenge France’s defeat and reclaim the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine; it engendered “a deep sense of bitterness, hatred and demand for revenge against Germany.” Revanchism mobilises “deep-rooted sentiments of ethnic nationalism, claiming territories outside the state where members of the ethnic group live, while using heavy-handed nationalism to mobilise support for their aims.” Sound familiar – the Northern Ireland conflict being about reclaiming the unjustly partitioned fourth green field?

This is a far cry from John Hume’s vision of uniting people rather than territory: “Ireland is not a romantic dream, it is not a flag, it is not just a piece of earth. It is four and a half million people divided into two powerful traditions and its problems can only be solved, if the solution is to be lasting and permanent, not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and partnership between both. The real division in Ireland is not a line on a map but is in the minds and hearts of its people.”

It is also fuelled by hatred. People in the South under-emphasise the strength of continuing inter-communal hatreds in the North at their peril. Sometimes the now politically respectable Sinn Fein mask shifts and the hatred underneath it is revealed. This happened last month when the Derry MLA (and former IRA bomber) Martina Anderson was forced to apologise after she tweeted that a government compensation scheme for Troubles victims (whose implementation had been delayed by Sinn Fein ministers in the Executive because it excluded IRA combatants) was mainly for those who took part in what she described as “Britain’s dirty war in Ireland,” and would go mostly to those involved in collusion and to British soldiers. One of those who had mounted a legal challenge against the delay was a woman who had lost both legs in a 1972 IRA bomb.

In the border region during the Troubles, the hatred was particularly virulent.  Unionists in Fermanagh recall IRA men cheering and firing their guns in the air as they left murder scenes and local republican youths blocking mourners at the funeral of a UDR man. Some republicans are good haters.

Mind you, when it comes to sectarian hatred, some loyalists are world champions. The wave of sectarian assassinations in Belfast between the 1970s and the 1990s was truly horrific.  The historian Marianne Elliott recalls a Catholic man telling a journalist that his daughter’s house ‘on the frontline’ in White City in north Belfast had been attacked 56 times by loyalists in one year (and that was after the Good Friday Agreement!).² Anybody who has walked up the loyalist Shankill Road and seen the numerous monuments commemorating IRA victims and anti-IRA/Sinn Fein wall murals will recognise the deep hatred that continues to exist.

Sinn Fein will be delighting in the British government’s current perfidies and follies, alongside the Irish government’s multiple problems of tackling Covid, negotiating Brexit and building an unlikely coalition. They must believe that all they have to do is wait while history plays into their hands. But they should be careful what they wish for. We are quite capable of creating chaos – bloody chaos – on this island without the British.

My fear is that in these evil and divisive times an Irish unity delivered by a tiny margin in a Border Poll, with Sinn Fein the leading beneficiary, will not be a victory. It will be another nightmare. Readers can dismiss that as the doom-laden ranting of an old man, or they can allow that this older man – a liberal Northern Protestant and moderate nationalist who has spent a significant part of his life wrestling with the conundrum of how to bring peace and reconciliation to Northern Ireland – might have gained a little wisdom in the process.

¹ Belfast News Letter, 4 July 2020

² Hearthlands: A memoir of the White City housing estate in Belfast, p. 178

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Irish reunification, Sinn Fein | 1 Comment

Walking the Kerry Way to happiness

Earlier this month I took my annual long summer walk for five days along the Kerry Way. I left Killarney on a sunny Monday morning along the Old Kenmare Road and passed through the ancient, boulder-strewn oak forests above Derrycunnihy Church – like something out of The Lord of the Rings – and along the wooded western shore of the Upper Lake into the Black Valley. In that long-forgotten mountain glen (the last place in Ireland to get electricity) I enjoyed a surprise Thai meal courtesy of the proprietors of the Black Valley Lodge guest house, Limerick mountaineer Trevor Lysaght and his lovely Thai wife Nana.

On the following day I climbed the rocky pass under Carrauntoohil into the Bridia Valley – stopping for lunch at the amazing Cookie Monster café (surely the remotest café in Ireland) – and then up over another rainswept pass under Caher Mountain and down to Lough Acoose. While I stayed in Mary Healy’s cosy B&B, it rained hard for 18 hours, and the next day I crossed the Caragh River in terrifying spate at Blackstones Bridge. From there it was an easy walk over the Windy Gap in the Glenbeigh Hills, with breathtaking views of Dingle Bay, and into the pretty holiday village of the same name.

From Glenbeigh I headed inland again over Drung Hill, and criss-crossed glens and streams and farmland and past the splendid GAA ground at Foilmore to arrive in Cahersiveen by the ‘back door’, Daniel O’Connell’s birthplace at Carhan. I then took a day’s break with my wife Doireann Ní Bhriain on Valentia Island, and finished on the Saturday with a dramatic coastal walk from Waterville to Caherdaniel, guided by our friends, the poet Paddy Bushe and his wife Fíona, founder of the Tech Amergin Arts Centre in Waterville.

This must be one of the finest mountain and coastal walking routes in Europe, one which is surprisingly little known in Ireland. It is as well-signposted as any French Grande Randonnée or high Swiss Alpine route. Yet in my five days I encountered just four other people walking the Way: a man from Kildare, two young women from Belfast and a valiant Dublin primary teacher, Éadaoin Eusa , walking the whole 190 kilometres to raise money for motor neurone disease research. The café owner in the Bridia Valley, John Heppell, told me he usually sees 50-60 people coming through every day in the summer, the great majority of them from abroad, from Germany, France, the US and Britain – all missing this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Irish people just don’t seem interested in this most magnificent of Irish walks. What a marvellous experience they are missing – this is the unspoilt Irish wilderness at its most sublime.

And Kerry never ceases to surprise.  At the farthest, loneliest end of the Black Valley is a meticulously restored farmhouse which is the home of the European head of the Japanese construction machinery manufacturer Komatsu, whose family are originally from the valley. Locals say he keeps at least one helicopter in an adjoining large shed! At Kells Bay, west of Glenbeigh, the charming hotel is surrounded by 19th century gardens full of exotic tree ferns from the southern hemisphere which flourish in the area’s warm micro-climate, interspersed with fallen tree trunks sculpted into fearsome-looking dinosaurs by a Dutch artist, Pieter Konig. On Valentia Island we came across the ‘Tetropad trackway’, footprints of an amphibian creature left around 370 million years ago, discovered by a Swiss geology student in 1993. These tracks across a seaside rock represent a momentous leap forward in evolution: the oldest reliably dated evidence of a four legged vertebrate emerging from the sea onto the land.

On a summer’s day and with a heart lifted by nature and walking, it is easy to forget the poverty-stricken history and continuing problems of this remote and disadvantaged area. But the signs of a bleaker past are everywhere: the shattered gable ends of miserable long-abandoned cottages on the slopes of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks; the heart-breaking disappearance of the Irish language from so-called Gaeltacht areas like Ballinskelligs; the absence of children’s voices from rural townlands.

Kerry, like most beautiful places in the west, is full of contradictions. On the final day we walked past Derrynane House outside Caherdaniel, home of the ‘Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell. In the bright sunshine, the house, the garden, the sheltered harbour and the sandy ring of surrounding beaches make this one of the most heavenly places on the island – one can see why O’Connell pined endlessly to get back here from Dublin and London.

At the high point (900 feet above the sea) on the old ‘butter road’ (now the Kerry Way) between Waterville and Caherdaniel is Coomakista (Cúm a’ Chiste) where tradition has it that that O’Connell held a large, celebratory meeting in the summer of 1828 on his triumphant return from being elected as MP for Clare.  O’Connell had “signalled his intention to refuse to take the oath that had in effect made it impossible for a Catholic to take a seat in Westminister,” writes Paddy Bushe in a chapter about O’Connell in a forthcoming book about the relationship between landscape and the creative imagination in Iveragh. “It was a political earthquake that would lead to Catholic emancipation the following year, and the first step in the politicisation of the cosmhuintir (the lower orders), a step which still echoes in the corridors of power in Ireland and abroad.”

This was a favourite spot for O’Connell to go hunting, his preferred pastime when at home in Kerry. In The King of the Beggars, Sean Ó Faoláin describes both his  lordship over his home place and his impressive cosmopolitanism:

“There he was, as somebody said, like a petty German king, with his hounds, his early morning hunting, his red-coated men with their long staves hallooing from glen to glen. One would like to dally with him there, especially when we find him seated high up on the mountainside greeting the postman from Caherciveen who comes clambering up with his heavy postbag. He would breakfast on the hills, going quickly but intently through his letters, strewing the grass with the Times, the Universe, letters from France or America, reports from Dublin, the Oxford and Cambridge magazine that contains some article of interest to him, begging letters, appeals from poor folk in trouble…while, far beneath him, all Kerry sends its hills falling to the vast sea.”

His deep love for this place brought out the romantic poet in him. In a letter in 1833 he wrote:

“After nearly seven months of the most close and unremitting labour, I want the calm and quiet of my loved native hills – the bracing air, purified as it comes over ‘the world of waters’, the cheerful exercise, the majestic scenery of these awful mountains, whose wildest and most romantic glens are awakened by the enlivening cry of my merry beagles; whose deep notes, multiplied one million of times by the echoes, speak to my senses, as if it were the voice of magic powers commingling, as it does, with the eternal roar of the mighty Atlantic, that breaks and foams with impotent rage at the foot of our stupendous cliffs. Oh, these are scenes to revive all the forces of natural strength – to give new energy to the human mind, to raise the thoughts above the grovelling strife of individual interests – to elevate the sense of family affection into the purest, the most refined and the most constant love of country.”

Daniel O’Connell is, for me, simply the greatest Irish political leader of the past two centuries, not least for his commitment to entirely peaceful methods of parliamentary pressure and mass popular mobilisation to achieve his goals: Catholic emancipation and the end of the union with Britain. As the inscription on the stone tablet in the church in Rome where he is buried reads: “Who by his splendour of intellect, and extraordinary fluency of speech, preserved and fought for life, religion, civil rights and liberty.”

It was his tragedy – and Ireland’s – that his legacy was overtaken first by the Famine and then by the violent Fenian tradition, which saw ‘physical force’ as the sole means of achieving the goal of independence, leading to the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and Civil War, and the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. That tradition remains powerfully present two centuries on: its inheritors, Sinn Fein, will probably be the largest party in the Republic of Ireland after the next election.

O’Connell was also an internationalist and a champion of human rights. The great American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass said his voice was “enough to calm the most violent passion, even though it were already manifesting itself in a mob. There is a sweet persuasiveness to it, beyond any voice I ever heard. His power over an audience is perfect.” The French writer Honoré de Balzac said on his death in 1847 that for 20 years his name had filled the press of Europe as no man since Napoleon. The young William Gladstone described him as “the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen.” In contrast, he was virtually written out of Irish history for many decades as post-independence official Ireland canonised lesser revolutionary republican leaders like Padraig Pearse and Michael Collins.

But enough of politics. We get plenty of that in the other 11 months of the year. Let me finish with an exhortation: if you want to cleanse your soul of the urban clutter (and Covid-19 anxieties) of daily life in Dublin or Belfast, take yourself to the Kerry mountains and coast, and in particular to the wondrous beauty of the Kerry Way – because that way lies happiness. I am no rock climber, but as I watched the sun chasing the showers in the rocky passes below Carrauntoohill, I had a glimpse of what climber friends have told me about: that feeling of being totally and blissfully alive and at one with nature on a vertiginous Alpine ascent.

Posted in General, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 2 Comments

Unionists – listen to the Professor of Consociation and Confederation

Brendan O’Leary is an extraordinary man.  Born in Cork and brought up in Nigeria and unionist County Antrim, he was a professor of politics at the London School of Economics and for the past 18 years has been Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a political adviser to both the British and Irish governments, to Tony Blair’s British Labour Party in the years up to the Good Friday Agreement, to the United Nations (notably on the Darfur peace process in Sudan) and to the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq. He spends a  part of every year in Northern Ireland where he is ‘World Leading Researcher Visiting Professor of Political Science’ (he wouldn’t want that title to go to his head!) at Queen’s University Belfast.

All this means that he is a one-man brains trust when it comes to the deep political and historical divisions of the North. This is impressively apparent from his magisterial A Treatise on Northern Ireland, of which the third volume, ‘Consociation and Confederation’ was published last year. The fact that he has spent the great bulk of his distinguished professional life outside Ireland is probably the reason he is not better known here.

O’Leary knows his own worth. He is one of the world’s foremost proponents of ‘consociation’: the academic term for the kind of power-sharing system that has just about managed to run Northern Ireland (and, more importantly, keep it largely peaceful) for the past 22 years. He argues that the work of expert political advisers in negotiations – whether in support of governments or rebel parties – is important because “it’s easier to have good bridges and good hospitals if you have decent government”.

In the preface to the last volume of A Treatise on Northern Ireland he looks forward to the day when “an Ireland that has prepared its constitution and its institutions with proper, prudent and consultative foresight may be able to reunify with its lost counties with minimal threat to any human life. Though other malign vistas cannot be excluded – including those that start with premises based on Albion’s record of treaty-breaking – the one just briefly sketched seems far likelier than at any previous time in this author’s life.” In a recent interview he said that if it comes to a Border Poll-type vote: “I hope to contribute to clarifying the terms of any possible Irish unification.”

With such words O’Leary, despite his stated commitment to objectivity, sets out his stall as an unashamed nationalist. However, it would be a pity if intelligent unionists were to use this to dismiss what he writes about possible ways forward for Ireland. Because he puts forward some very interesting ideas, in particular about confederation, which should be of interest to thoughtful unionists who realise that the unequal and unstable status quo of the past 100 years cannot be a basis for a peaceful and cooperative future on the island.

O’Leary defines confederation as follows: “Confederal relations exist when political units voluntarily delegate powers and functions [my italics] to bodies that can exercise power across their jurisdictions.” This is somewhat different from federalism: “Federal relationships exist when there are least two separate tiers of government over the same territory and neither tier can unilaterally alter the constitutional capacities of the other.”

The North South Ministerial Council set up under the Belfast Agreement is a good example of a confederal relationship, says O’Leary. It works on an equal North-South basis in areas where there is a “mutual cross-border and all-island benefit.” The NSMC cannot function without the Northern Ireland Assembly (which had a unionist majority when it was set up) and vice versa, and the Irish constitution was changed by referendum to ensure that the NSMC and its delegated implementation bodies “would be able to exercise island-wide jurisdiction in those functional activities where unionists were willing to cooperate.” The NSMC functions like the EU Council of Ministers, with Ministers having considerable discretion to reach decisions but remaining ultimately accountable to their respective legislatures.¹

O’Leary writes: “If the implementation of the (Belfast) Agreement succeeded, currently a moot point, economic and sociological developments apparent in the 2000s would have underpinned the NSMC as the potential vanguard of a new constitutional confederal tendency. The Republic’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy meant that Northern Ireland’s ministers and citizens, of whatever background, saw increasing benefits from North-South cooperation. And, had the EU continued to integrate, there would have been pressure for both parts of Ireland to enhance their cooperation, given their shared peripheral geographical position, and similar interests in functional activities such as agriculture and tourism.”As we know, Brexit put paid to that benign scenario that for the present.

He goes on: “A second, currently weaker, possible confederal relationship was established by the Agreement, affecting all the islands of Britain and Ireland. In the new British-Irish Council (BIC), the two governments of the sovereign states and all the devolved governments of the UK, and the neighbouring insular dependent territories of the UK, can meet and agree to delegate functions, and may agree common policies. This proposal met unionists’ concerns for reciprocity in linkages, and provided a mechanism through which they might in future be linked to the UK, even if Northern Ireland became part of the Republic.” It is a great pity that the potential of the British-Irish Council to provide a framework for close constitutional and other relations among these islands has remained almost totally neglected and unexplored.

O’Leary continues: “The development of the BIC into a possible confederal relationship institution has been stunted by an Irish reluctance to engage in a forum where it is outnumbered by seven other UK-based governments – Westminster,  Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man – and by a British reluctance to delegate any authority to bodies not controlled by Westminster.” He concludes: “But perhaps the real significance of the BIC lies in the future: in its potential role in a model of double protection [i.e for the unionists – AP] if Ireland ever reunifies.”²

Elsewhere in the book he outlines the federal and confederal possibilities enabled by the Good Friday Agreement. “A confederation is a union of states that delegate their revocable sovereignty to shared confederal institutions, and that retain the right of secession. The North South Ministerial Council, though it has not been the site of major initiatives and activities, could still prove a stepping stone towards a confederal Ireland. The British-Irish Council…could still become the vehicle to  provide unionists with institutional links to the entire Isles in the event of Irish reunification.”

O’Leary advocates two Border Polls: a first vote in the North, and if this results in a majority for reunification, a second vote in the South, with an interval for preliminary negotiations (he doesn’t go into what violent response there might be from elements of loyalism during the interregnum!). He then asks: “Does the Dublin government negotiate the details of reunification with the Northern executive before or after the people of the existing Republic vote to endorse reunification?”

He goes on: “If the key negotiations occur before the Southern referendum, then that may increase the likelihood of an Irish confederation – namely, the formation of a new political system in which two sovereign states are joined together in a common state, jointly establishing a confederal government with delegated authority over both of them for specific functions. This process would necessarily involve the recognition of Northern Ireland as a state  proper. The confederation would represent Ireland in the EU and internationally; it would have  all-island institutions, which would certainly include a common court, but could also include an army with constituent territorial units, and, probably, a confederal police, devoted to serious crime, although its powers could be delegated to a joint body. All such institutions would have to be negotiated, and some presumably could build on the NSMC.”

O’Leary says such a confederation could be both incremental and reversible, through granting Northern Ireland the status of a state. “The confederal treaty could include the right of secession after a specified interval – enabling a majority in Northern Ireland to leave the confederation if the experience proved negative – and it might also be a mechanism to provide British dimensions for unionists and loyalists – for example, membership of the Commonwealth.”

He notes that confederations bringing together two states have a poor track record of survival. He foresees that “the confederal waystation” may therefore be brief, “facilitating the negotiation of deeper reunification” or “a fairly rapid reversal” to an independent Northern Ireland. This is where I would part company with him: believing that the only (outside) chance of persuading a significant element of unionism to follow this path is to reassure them that confederation, with continuing strong British links, would be the final destination.

“Voices within the Dublin and Belfast governments may well prefer con/federal paths,” he goes on. “Northern Ireland and the Republic’s core forms, territories, institutions and buildings will have existed for a century or more; and institutional formats of all kinds have their own inertia. Unionists are deeply attached to Northern Ireland…and there are those with a Northern Irish identity who are neither unionists nor Protestants.”

O’Leary gives the example of confederal, two-community Belgium as a relative success story. “It is tough for formerly dominant groups to grant parity to a group that was once inferior. Belgium is a rare case in which two constituent peoples have traded places in relative size, wealth and status and yet have managed to stay together, so far. They have developed parity, while the proportions of Flemish and Walloons have changed.”³

I know most of this is completely unpalatable to the great majority of unionists. But is there not even a little food for thought for them here? If I were a thoughtful unionist, I would be quietly developing a negotiating position in the realisation that a Border Poll is only a matter of time away: a negotiating position that would emphasise the importance of maintaining a strong British dimension in the 50/50 British-Irish society that is Northern Ireland today – perhaps through the recognition of a separate state in the North; perhaps through the establishment of a new Irish confederation; perhaps through a much beefed-up British-Irish Council – or perhaps through all three.

The real challenge may be persuading the British government to re-engage in a post-Brexit world where it will have multiple other problems. As Seamus Mallon said in his 2019 memoir, A Shared Home Place:”one can only hope that the British can be persuaded to commit to another complex, long drawn-out diplomatic process in Ireland in the interest of the stability of these islands.” Prime ministers as different as Edward Health, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have engaged imaginatively with Ireland over the past 50 years. Is it too much to hope that another leader might emerge in London in the next 30 to put the final benign piece in the fiendishly complex jigsaw that is the 800-year-old British-Irish relationship?

PS  I probably owe Professor O’Leary an apology for selectively quoting from his multi-faceted book to highlight the passages on confederalism. However, I am unapologetic about using his insights to try to persuade at least some unionists to reconsider their position.

  1. A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Volume 3, Consociation and Confederation, p. 207
  2. Ibid. ps. 209-210
  3. Ibid. ps. 312-315 and 329


Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Micheál Martin

Dear Taoiseach

Congratulations on your election last Saturday. We have known each other for 23 years, since you were the rookie Fianna Fail education spokesman (soon to become Minister for Education) and I was the rookie Irish Times education correspondent. I know you as somebody with pragmatic social democratic values, who believes in social justice, fairness and as much equality as a free market capitalist society will allow, with a strong sense of politics as public service.

I know you as a courageous man, who as Fianna Fail leader went against the conservatism of many – perhaps most – in your party to support same sex marriage and the Repeal the Eighth campaign for abortion reform.  I know you as an extremely hard-working government minister who introduced important reforms in education (in early childhood education, skills shortages and the use of IT); overcame powerful vested interests to introduce the smoking ban as health minister; and correctly prioritised research and innovation as enterprise minister. When you were Minister for Foreign Affairs you were a strong advocate of practical North-South cooperation for mutual benefit as a crucial tool in helping to bring about reconciliation on this island, which was the core philosophy of my work at the Centre for Cross Border Studies.

I know you share my deep suspicion of Sinn Fein’s attempts to rewrite history to try to make people believe that the Provisional IRA’s murderous campaign was the inevitable extension of the 1960s movement for civil and human rights in Northern Ireland. In the Dail you have strongly criticised that party for its absolute lack of contrition for the nearly 1,800 deaths – many of them of innocent people – at the hands of its paramilitary ‘sister’ organisation. You have resisted efforts, led by people like Eamon Ó Cuív and Senator Mark Daly, to line the party up alongside Sinn Fein in a new, pan-nationalist coalition to drive towards a deeply destabilising form of Irish ‘unity’ through a narrow victory in an early Border Poll.

So I am glad to see you elected as Taoiseach of this country. You probably face a more difficult task than any leader since William T. Cosgrave led the fledgeling Irish Free State out of civil war. You face the reality of 900,000 people left unemployed in the aftermath of the corona virus crisis; a probable €30 billion budget deficit this year; many companies, big and small, facing collapse; the safety valve of emigration cut off by even deeper crises in the UK and the US; and a Sinn Fein-led opposition baying for blood at the slightest sign of cutting back on generous pandemic unemployment payments and wage subsidies, which they will inevitably and opportunistically condemn as ‘austerity’ (without putting forward any realistic alternative).

One key thing that worries me greatly is the weakness of the housing section in the Programme for Government, and the choice of the inexperienced Darragh O’Brien (totally overshadowed in opposition by Sinn Fein’s impressive Eoin Ó Broin) as housing minister. If there was a single issue which did for Fine Gael in the February election, it was its timid, unfeeling and ineffective housing policy. When out canvassing for the Green Party, this was the issue that came up endlessly on the doorsteps: the inability of young people and people of modest means to access social and affordable housing, and the inability (or unwillingness – because of its ideological reliance on the private sector) of the last government to do anything significant to deal with this.

In a recent opinion piece UCD housing expert, Professor Orla Hegarty, was extremely  critical of the outgoing government’s policy of buying “half a million euro” social homes on the market, at a time when a two-bedroomed apartment could be developed by local authorities for less than €250,000. And she said there was no sign in the Programme for Government of the kind of “visionary housing programme” that “could give citizens a realistic aspiration of owning their own homes in sustainable communities.”¹

I am not surprised that one of your first actions this week is to visit Northern Ireland. You are one of the Republic’s very few senior politicians with a serious interest in and knowledge of the North. I have heard you on several occasions condemn the Fine Gael-led governments of the past  nine years for their neglect of North-South cooperation, in particular. I welcome some of the innovations in the Programme for Government in this area: notably the setting up of a unit in the Department of the Taoiseach “to work towards consensus on a shared island” and to “examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions  are mutually respected.”

This is very far from a Sinn Fein-led headlong rush towards an early Border Poll. It needs to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity, and focus in the first instance on those areas of clear mutual benefit that are least threatening to unionists (and which are in the Programme for Government):  the all-island economy; North-South cooperation on infrastructure, the environment, energy and climate change; combatting crime together; working with young people; joint research projects between the universities; promoting cross-border initiatives in civil society and the arts; and so on. These are all areas which promised great things in the early years after the Good Friday Agreement, but which, since Fine Gael came into power in 2011, have often dropped way down policy agendas, and since the UK Brexit referendum in 2016 have fallen away to almost nothing.

This practical North-South agenda needs to to be completely re-energised, in the first place by an early high-level meeting between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through the convening of the North South Ministerial Council, which has not met for three and a half years. No better man than you to lead this initiative.

However there is something else the new ‘shared island’ unit needs to begin working on. Now that the two major constitutional parties in the Republic have come together in government, they must start seriously thinking about an alternative to Sinn Fein’s policy of driving on to Irish unity in the near future regardless of the consequences for peace and social harmony on the island. For far too long Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s policies in this area have been watered down versions of Sinn Fein’s: a kind of vague, unworked out aspiration to see a united Ireland one day. But has anyone come up with any new ideas about how the 800-900,000 unionists who remain bitterly opposed to this outcome are to be accommodated in it? Not a bit of it – and that includes Sinn Fein.

As former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt (a man at the most liberal end of the unionist spectrum) has put it: “What I haven’t really heard from nationalists is: ‘We want you in this new dispensation and here’s why’. Most unionists are Brits. So somebody has to explain to me why we’ve gone from ‘Brits out’ to ‘Brits in.”

Trevor Ringland, the former rugby international and another very liberal unionist who has won prizes for his work in reconcilation through sport, says that to him Sinn Fein’s message to unionists appears to be “assimilate or leave. While they talk of inclusion for those of a British-Irish identity, there is little evidence of them or the greener wing of political nationalism being able to create an Ireland that genuinely includes us. So I say ‘there is no space in Sinn Fein’s Ireland for me’. ‘Me’ is the British-Irish tradition as well as me personally. A significant group of people who murdered people such as me and still feel such actions were right, justified and necessary is a problem going forward, but one we will just have to work through. I will work with them on the basis that ‘we can disagree on the past as long as you are prepared to work together for the benefit of all the people of this island in the future’  – which is what I said to Martin McGuinness when I first met him.”

Ringland believes “there are plenty of others on the island whom I can build a constructive relationship with, and they are prepared to focus on building relationships first and foremost and leave the constitutional question to future generations.”

I suggest the new Taoiseach should start to put out feelers to open-minded unionists like Nesbitt and Ringland – and when you start looking, their numbers are not insignificant – about what they might look for in return for closer constitutional relationships on this island (and what continuing links with Britain they would demand). As the Belfast unionist columnist Alex Kane has pointed out, the English nationalist ‘exceptionalism’ which has driven the UK to leave the European Union, and which may still lead to a hugely damaging ‘crash out’ with no trade agreement at the end of this transition year, is convincing at least some unionists to re-consider their relations with their closest EU neighbour on the island.

One idea might be some kind of Irish confederation with continuing strong British aspects in the North. One of Ireland’s most eminent political scientists, Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania – while no lover of unionism – has outlined some possible confederal futures in his magisterial 2019 book, A Treatise on Northern Ireland (Volume 3): Consociation and Confederation. These pages (notably 207-214 and 290-316) should be required reading for officials in the Taoiseach’s new unit. I will return to some of O’Leary’s ideas in my next blog.

¹ ‘Programme for government wrong to put faith in private builders’, Irish Times, 24th June

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 7 Comments

Is the future green (saving the planet) or green (driving on to Irish unity)?

We in the Republic of Ireland have two prospects when it comes to the colour of the next government (and indeed the one after that), I would suggest. Those prospects have little to do with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. They are all about the policies being offered by the Green Party and Sinn Fein, and both are, in their strikingly different ways, revolutionary. And both are, in their strikingly different ways, green.¹

In an excellent long article on 16th May the Irish Times environment editor Kevin O’Sullivan explained in 20 ways how Greens in government would radically change Irish life and society. The Green Party wants a 7% cut in annual carbon emissions averaged over the next decade. This is in line with the global requirement laid down by the 2015 Paris Agreement, which Ireland and 196 other countries signed up to. If Ireland under the joint stewardship of the Greens were to reach this 7% target, we would move from being the second worst carbon reduction offender in Europe (after coal-producing Poland) to the top table of Sweden, Portugal and France.

The Green Party’s 17 demands, which the party published prior to entering inter-party talks, would require a real revolution in how we in Ireland live our lives (whether Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, the big farmers, the fossil fuel industries and other powerful corporate interests will allow that to happen is another issue!). Here are some of them:

  • The government would make an unambiguous declaration that Ireland was getting out of fossil fuels (with the possible exception of natural gas) and focusing almost entirely on renewable gases, biofuels, hydrogen, sustainable biomass and carbon capture and storage to power heating and transport.
  • The carbon tax on on fossil fuels (currently €26 per tonne) would rise to €80 per tonne.
  • Most new road-building schemes would be scrapped in favour of funding public transport, cycling and walking in urban areas in order to move away from choked-up car commuting routes.
  • Farmers would be offered incentives to move away from beef and dairy towards cereals, family farm supports and environmental actions aligned to CAP reform (how the bigger farmers and food co-ops will react will be key here). Policy makers will remember the head of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt’s suggestion that a 5% reduction in herd numbers would deliver more greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade than delivery of the entire energy efficiency component of the government’s 2019 climate plan.
  • That energy efficiency plan under the Greens would be far more ambitious, involving the deep retrofitting of 700,000 houses that are poorly heated and rely on fossil fuels at a cost of around €2 billion a year over the next decade.
  • There would be a massive programme of building public housing on public land, along with innovations like Austrian-style cost-rental housing, with tenants paying rent at a level which covers the cost of constructing and maintaining the properties. These last two policies together would provide employment for large numbers of construction, electrical and plumbing workers and help the country emerge from the post-Covid-19 economic recession.

Compare this far-reaching and society-changing programme (apart from housing) with the climate action offering in the Sinn Fein election manifesto. Of course they had to include more than the tiny, derisory mention of climate change in their 2016 manifesto. They wouldn’t be a populist party desperate to get into power if they hadn’t.

However, the most striking absence is still the refusal to support a decent carbon tax, internationally recognised as the way to make carbon too costly to exploit and a key means of making people understand that they have to pay more taxes if they want to save the planet (and much of the humanity that lives on it). The manifesto says bluntly: “The carbon tax will make people poorer, but it will not make the state greener or cleaner. It is a regressive tax, the sole purpose of which is to raise funds.”

The other Sinn Fein manifesto commitments are vague, standard left-of-centre stuff. After describing climate justice as “synonymous with justice for workers and working class enclaves”, it goes on to list binding emissions targets for “specific industries” (none specified); defending workers’ rights during the ‘just transition’ to a green workforce; divestment from the fossil fuel sector; the ESB and Bord na Mona to take the lead in developing renewable energies; expansion of the state-owned offshore wind network; more (unspecified) retro-fitting of houses, and so on.

I would suggest that Sinn Fein are simply not very interested in serious climate action (except to the extent that it doesn’t affect ordinary people’s pockets). Who has ever heard of Brian Stanley, the party’s spokesperson on climate action and the environment? When was the last time he made a significant intervention on climate change? The last time I can find is January 2013, when Sinn Fein introduced a climate change bill in the Dail, which disappeared soon afterwards when the Fine Gael-led government introduced its own extremely weak legislation.

What Sinn Fein is really interested in is not the environmental greening of the planet, but the political ‘greening’ of the island through Irish unity. That is overwhelmingly their fundamental core value: they are Irish republicans from the physical force tradition now using politics as the main plank in their strategy to gain that 100-year-old goal. If and when they get into government, that is what they will expend their energy on – pressuring the British government into an early Border Poll – rather than anything to do with the catastrophic threat to the planet (and the island of Ireland as part of it).

This is important because I believe they will probably get into government no later than 2025. Indeed, Sinn Fein are now well-placed to lead the government after next, in five years time, if not sooner. The next government – most likely a rickety coalition of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens – is going to have to take some appallingly difficult decisions as Ireland and the world goes into deep recession, or even depression, after the Corona virus pandemic. None of these are going to be popular with the Irish electorate, and particularly those younger and poorer sections who voted strongly for Sinn Fein in February. As Una Mullally said rather cruelly in the Irish Times last week: it is “looking like one of the most unpopular governments in memory before it’s even formed.”² My belief is that Sinn Fein will happily snipe from the Opposition benches for several years in preparation for moving into power as the largest party after the next election.

They will then, in their relentless way, focus on getting a Border Poll ASAP in order to gain the narrowest of narrow majorities for unity. If they do not win in the first such poll, they will be relying on demographic change in the North to ensure victory in the second or third poll seven or 14 years later. Then the old Irish republican drive for victory over the ancient British and unionist enemy will be complete. And the 900,000 unionists who will remain bitterly opposed to this outcome? Well, they will soon be the ‘national minority’ on the island (as they have always been in republican eyes), so they’ll just have to suck it up – a case of tháinig ár lá or “now, after nine centuries of oppression, the boot is on the other foot”. I believe that will be ‘revolutionary’ in the worst possible way, because it will re-ignite the age-old conflict that is never far from the surface in the North.

2025 will also be five years away from 2030, which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned will be the tipping point beyond which global warming (if it is allowed to go above 1.5C) will lead to greatly increased droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people worldwide . Will we as a nation want to spend that five year period driving on to what I believe will be a deeply destabilising form of Irish ‘unity’? Or will we want to concentrate on doing our best, through a combination of decarbonisation, renewable energies and mass retrofitting, both to kick-start a ‘Green New Deal’ economy and to do our bit to help save the planet?

¹ I must declare an interest here – I recently became a Green Party member.

² ‘Young people will rebuild Ireland from ashes – again’, Irish Times, 25 May

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein, The island environment | 2 Comments

How Covid-19 brought solidarity and kindness to Northern Ireland

This latest blog consists largely of a letter from my good friend Paul Nolan, the prominent Belfast social researcher, who portrays a Northern Ireland working hard to overcome its divisions in order to defeat the Corona virus, a picture one rarely sees in the media here in the Republic. Nolan writes:

“There are masked faces on the wall murals in Belfast, but they are not the usual paramilitaries. Instead they are the front line workers of the National Health Service, and their images have become the new popular icons in the current crisis. They first went up in Protestant areas, sometimes with a discreet or not so discreet union flag in the background – evidence of an understandable pride in the British National Health Service.

“More surprising has been the appearance of very similar murals in strongly republican areas, most particularly the Free Derry wall in the Bogside and the famous International Wall on the Falls Road, where the murals have traditionally been of national liberation movements around the world. There are of course no union flags in the nationalist areas, and that slightly problematic word ‘National’ is not used, just the letters NHS and the slogan ‘Supporting our front line workers.”

“There is no doubt though that it is the same message and no doubt that the social solidarity on display has managed to eclipse any community division. Elsewhere, that might be taken for granted. In a crisis it is only to be expected that people will come together. But Northern Ireland is, famously or infamously, a divided community. There is no occasion in Northern Ireland when people stand together to salute one flag, or experience themselves as one people.

“Until now, that is. Each Thursday night people come out to their front
doors, open their windows or stand on their balconies to clap their hands or bang saucepans to show their appreciation for front line workers. There are no orange and green versions of the rainbows the children post up in their windows, no Protestant or Catholic way to wrap coloured wool around a tree, no sectarian way to hand paint a message of hope on a pebble. It’s a strange thing to say, but Northern Ireland is experiencing an outbreak of kindness.

“Take the scene in Holy Cross School in Ardoyne in north Belfast. Back in 2001 this small primary school achieved notoriety when children as young as four, accompanied by their frightened parents, had to face a gauntlet from loyalists as they made their way to class every morning, and it required a highly militarised police escort to hold back the inflamed mob. The images were thought to be redolent of Alabama in the 1960s. Last week more than 500 volunteers from the cross community North Belfast Food Bank were using the empty school building to get food parcels out to both communities.

“The Orange Order has cancelled its 12th July procession and its members are busy raising funds to supply hospitals with PPE kit. In Larne the Craigy Hill Bonfire Committee has scrapped its bonfire plans and is using the money saved to send out food and toiletries to those in need.

“A metric to gauge this new mood came last week with the publication of a new report by Amnesty International. It showed that two thirds of people across Northern Ireland have taken part in the ‘Clap for Carers’ which takes place every Thursday evening. It showed that people were often talking to neighbours and helping strangers for the first time. Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland
director, said: “This is us at our very best…In the midst of difficult times, people here are responding with huge compassion and solidarity towards their neighbours and to those on the front line.”

“By a coincidence the Amnesty report appeared at the same time as a book called Humankind: A Hopeful History, by the Dutch author Rutger Bregman. The book, which has attracted much media attention, argues that despite the evidence of increased ethnic tensions and the rise of aggressive nationalist movements across the world, people are basically good and we should remain optimistic that Enlightenment ideals will triumph. Northern Ireland does not feature in the book, but in its current mood it could be taken as an illustration of that core thesis.

“How long can it last? A mood that was born out of a crisis may dissipate quickly when the crisis passes. It may even collapse before that. The cohesion at community level is not reflected within the power-sharing Executive. There are regular reports of tension around the Executive table. This in itself is not surprising; in fact it would be surprising if there were not tensions.

“The complex constitutional engineering of the Good Friday Agreement means that five parties have somehow to find agreement on all key policy issues. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are united in the view that it would be impossible to share power with Sinn Fein, but that is what four northern parties actually do on a daily basis. As in every other country dealing with Covid-19, there is a split between conservative parties which wish to see the economy protected and left-of-centre parties which want to put people first. The difference is that in Northern Ireland they are yoked together in government.

“On top of that is layered another divide. Unionist parties do not want to break with the overall direction of government in the UK (particularly when that government will be asked to support the North’s devastated economy). Nationalists feel that the island of Ireland is clearly one epidemiological unit and want public health policies aligned on an all-island basis.The magnetic pulls of London and Dublin are always in danger of reopening the historic divide. Despite that, this week all five political parties united behind a plan for ending the lockdown. This meant the DUP breaking with Boris Johnson, and the nationalist parties accepting less of an alignment with the South than they would have liked. For this perhaps brief moment, the politicians and people of Northern Ireland want to face this existential threat together.”

There is a terribly lazy tendency here in the Republic to portray everything in the North as going wrong, and Northerners as difficult people incapable of running their affairs in any coherent and equitable way. But it is sometimes we in the South who get things wrong. A classic example was the ‘Irish Times’ front page lead story on 28th April, headlined ‘Covid-19 cases soar in Border areas.’  Despite the assertion from the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, that it was unlikely this was due to a ‘spillover’ of infection from Northern Ireland, the article went on to quote the eminent British public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally (who is originally from Newry) contradicting him by saying that the “most reasonable explanation” for this growth “has to be the fact they are Border counties.” Scally said he believed the incidence of the disease was higher in the North and condemned the North’s official data as “very limited.”.

What this story left out was that while Cavan had passed out Dublin as the Southern county with the most Covid-19 cases relative to population, neighbouring Fermanagh had the lowest incidence of any county in Northern Ireland (and far below the level in Cavan). And, as I pointed out in a letter to the ‘Irish Times’ on the same day, according to my calculations (not contradicted in any subsequent letter or report), the number of deaths in the North at that point was actually slightly lower than in the Republic.

We in the Republic always need to be wary of the nationalist ‘confirmation bias’ (the tendency for people to interpret new evidence as confirmation of their existing beliefs) that is never very far from the surface in our view of and dealings with Northern Ireland.

P.S. Further to my blog earlier this month on the Irish language, I have been reading a book called Protestants and the Irish Language,¹ by Ian Malcolm, who is that rare and wonderful person: a passionate Irish speaker who is also a unionist. He writes about a Gael-Linn ‘enrichment programme in Gaelic studies’ which was put on in 19 state (i.e. majority Protestant) and integrated secondary schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s (that benign moment in our history). In 1998-99 nearly 700 16-17 year olds, the great majority of them Protestants, took this course – which included an introduction to the Irish language – and evaluations showed that most of them enjoyed it.

However, in the inevitable way of things in Northern Ireland, changing British regulations soon put a stop to this fascinating experiment. A new examination, AS Level, was introduced in 2000 for this age group, and the optional Gaelic Studies course was inevitably dropped by most schools as the extra exam pressure took its toll. But it shows what can be done with goodwill and innovative and unsectarian thinking.

¹ Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language, Blackstaff Press, 2009

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

Could the Irish language be a tool for reconciliation in Northern Ireland?

Tá beagán Gaeilge agam. Tá me ag foghlaim. Is teanga an-deachair í ach tá rún daingean agam leanúint ar aghaidh. I have been learning Irish for two and a half years, and finding it tough going at my relatively advanced age, but I am discovering a new appreciation of its beauty and expressiveness (“elegant and copious”, the 17th century Church of Ireland Primate and scholar Archbishop Ussher, called it).

Inevitably, because I am a Northern Protestant by background, it makes me think about the role of the language in our centuries-old political, religious and cultural conflicts. And I have been listening to and reading Northerners from different traditions – Linda Ervine, Aodán Mac Póilin, Roger Blaney and Jim Stothers – who have wrestled with this conundrum: how can something that is so central to the identity of Irish-Irish people be made attractive to those of the British-Irish tradition, many (perhaps most) of whom see it as just another weapon in the arsenal of an Irish republicanism intent on their absorption into an alien nation and culture?

Linda Ervine, sister-in-law of the Progressive Unionist Party leader, the late David Ervine, is a remarkable woman. In the past seven years she has brought the teaching of the language into the heart of loyalist Belfast, the Methodist East Belfast Mission (the Skainos Centre) on the Newtownards Road. An early school-leaver and thus a late starter in education, she began learning Irish after curiosity had impelled her to try a six week ‘taster’ course. She found her reaction was: “I want to have that, I want to say it’s mine. I felt I’d been denied the language because of the tradition I come from.”

When she started to organise classes, she was surprised at the level of interest. People would approach her and and say: “I’m a Protestant, I’m a unionist. The Orange Order says I can’t learn Irish. What time does your class begin?” Some loyalist paramilitary members were attracted because they saw it as “Ulster Gaelic.” The Turas group she founded proclaims its belief that “the language belongs to everyone and can be a mechanism of reconciliation,” and its website has as its first aim “promoting the languages, culture and heritage of Ulster” (ag cur Gaeilige, cultúr agus oidhreacht Chúige Uladh chun tosaigh). Turas now runs Irish classes for over 200 people.

Ervine believes strongly that the Irish language can build bridges between the divided communities, emphasising that it is part of the shared history and heritage of both unionists and nationalists. Personally she doesn’t go out of her way to identify as a political unionist (her father was a communist), but goes on:”I wouldn’t lose sleep over a united Ireland, but I would lose sleep over losing links with the rest of the UK – that would be an issue for me.”

She believes the key to attracting Northern unionists to the language is to emphasise that it is part of a family of languages throughout the British Isles, along with Scots Gaelic, Manx (both of which emerged out of Old Irish) and Welsh. She tells of the Scottish Labour MP – a unionist, Presbyterian, Gaelic speaker and Rangers supporter – who pointed out to her that the British passport featured wording in Welsh and Scots Gaelic. Many speakers of Gaelic are Presbyterians from the Hebrides, and many of the mainly Presbyterian Scots who came to settle in Ulster in the 17th century spoke Gaelic.

“There is an onus on the Irish language community in Northern Ireland to talk more to unionists,” she says, “to show them that this is not about politics. It’s bigger than Sinn Fein and nationalism; it’s about ordinary people who love their language and are passionate about protecting and developing this minority language surrounded, as it is, by the tsunami of English.”

Linda Ervine is an idealist. She wants to see an Irish medium integrated primary and secondary school in east Belfast. She would like to see the day when the children going to those schools would not be identifiable by their families’ politics or religion.  She is also an idealist politically, with a vision for Ireland and Britain which is based on reconciliation: “If I had a magic wand, I would create a federation of the islands, with London no longer in charge (because the union is no longer working for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). Thus we would be both separating a little from the UK – whether as Northern Ireland or a united Ireland – but also bringing the rest of Ireland into a relationship of closer ties with Britain. That’s what I’d like to see: some mutually respectful integration of these islands.”

Aodán Mac Póilin was a passionate Irish language activist and one of the wisest and most generous people I met in my years in Belfast. He became one of the leaders of a remarkable group of people who set up Ireland’s first successful urban Gaeltacht, Pobal Feirste,  in the Shaw’s Road in west Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s (followed by Northern Ireland’s first Irish medium primary school). As Director of the ULTACH Trust he laid much of the groundwork for cross-community engagement with Irish in the 1990s. His early death in 2016 was a tragic loss to the causes of both the Irish language and inter-community reconciliation.

Mac Póilin represented that open-minded section of the language movement who never gave up on the idea – however unlikely – of Irish becoming a healing element between the North’s divided communities. He was thus at the opposite end of the spectrum from Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, then head of Sinn Fein’s Cultural Department, who in 1984 said: “We see the armed struggle as the highest point of the cultural revival…I see no difference between fighting imperialist political control with guns on the street, and fighting imperialist cultural control through this department.” In fairness, I imagine the Máirtín Ó Muilleoir who became Lord Mayor of Belfast and Stormont Finance Minister in a power-sharing government, would probably now regret that youthful statement.

In his brilliant posthumously-published  book of essays, Our Tangled Speech,¹ Mac Póilin asked the question: “Now that the language movement appears set for a period of intense politicisation, where is the space for those of us engaged with the language and genuinely committed to making it available to the entire community?” There is no point, he stressed, “in engaging in denial, or playing the game that [Douglas] Hyde condemned – and of which he himself was to an extent guilty: ‘that obliquity of vision, amounting almost to a disease, a kink of the mind’, the tendency to claim that the language movement is non-political, while at the same time pursuing what is really a political agenda. This will not be believed. Nor is there any point in trying to use Irish culture, or arguments for adopting an Irish cultural identity, to sugar the pill of Irish nationalism.  Political antennae in Northern Ireland are too acute. On the other hand, cries to ‘depoliticise’ the language are usually disguised (political) attacks on nationalism, and a nationalist perspective on the language is just as valid as a unionist one.”

Mac Póilin went on: “It would be foolish to underestimate the difficulties of creating a neutral space for the language in our ideology-ridden society, and it is unrealistic to expect that the entire Irish language movement will break the mould that has now been established for the best part of a century. The challenge facing the Irish-speaking community is whether or not enough people can be found within it with the generosity, the courage and the restraint to allow those of the unionist tradition to engage in the language on their own terms, as unionists. I believe, however, that there are enough Irish-speakers with the breadth of vision that would make such a development possible,and that there are enough unionists with a similar generosity of spirit to make it meaningful.”

Maybe what Mac Póilin says is the “surprisingly large minority” of unionists who today show an interest in the Irish language, is rooted in the crisis of identity which is now affecting that community in the aftermath of  30 years of violent ‘troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and Boris Johnson’s agreement with the EU to put a customs and regulatory barrier down the Irish Sea. Some of them, rather than denying their Irishness, are looking towards the 19th century “when it was both possible and fashionable for unionists to be interested in the language.”

There was no shortage of passionate unionist Irish speakers in Belfast in the mid-19th century (when, of course, the union was not under threat). Probably the best-known of them was Robert McAdam, iron foundry owner, who collected, compiled and translated songs, folktales and manuscripts throughout the north and west of Ireland; wrote an Irish grammar for use in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (then, as now, one of the city’s leading Protestant schools); devised banners and slogans in Irish for Queen Victoria’s visit to Belfast in 1849; put together a 1400 page English-Irish dictionary; and was co-secretary or secretary of the Ulster Gaelic Society from its foundation in 1828 until not long before his death in 1895. In his dictionary’s foreword he wrote in Irish that his reason for undertaking it was ‘my great love for my native country and my passion for the language’.

There is a long list of distinguished Irish-speaking Presbyterians in Roger Blaney’s 1996 book Presbyterians and the Irish Language.²  In the 20th century these included Sir William McArthur, a distinguished and much-decorated doctor, who founded the Queen’s University Gaelic Society in 1906 and went on to become Director-General of the British Army’s Medical Services; Charles Dickson, who became Chief Medical Officer to the Irish civil service in 1923; Rose Young (Róis Ní Ógáin), editor of a celebrated three-volume collection of Irish poetry, who came from a staunchly unionist family near Ballymena; Robert Lynd, the nationalist journalist and essayist; the Sinn Fein leader and Cumann na nGael government minister Ernest Blythe; the social justice activist and Trinity College Dublin academic Rev Terence McCaughey; and my favourite (because my mother was a Gaston), Hugh Walter Gaston MacMillan, who specialised in stories from Rathlin Island and wrote under the name Aoidhmín Mac Gréagóir.

Last Sunday I listened on RTE to a service in Irish and English from Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast’s university area, conducted by Rev. Jim Stothers, who as Deputy Clerk of the General Assembly is one of the leading figures in Presbyterianism on this island. The sermon in Irish was given by Rev. Patricia McBride of Scarva and Loughbrickland, a famously unionist area  in County Down.  Stothers recalled times in the 17th and 18th century when large numbers of Presbyterians spoke either Irish or Scots Gaelic and “people were at ease with the language.” He remembered Rev. William Neilson, who in 1808 published a celebrated Introduction to the Irish Language (based on the version spoken in his native County Down), and who, when he was appointed minister in Dundalk 20 years earlier, had to fulfil the essential requirement of being able to preach in Irish. He spoke of the 19th century when Presbyterian ministers learned Irish in order (often controversially) to ‘evangelise’ Irish-speaking areas (‘proselytise’ was the word used by the Catholic inhabitants of those areas). And he said: “Nationalists who claim the Irish language as their own property have no right to do so, and unionists who label Irish a foreign language don’t know their own history.”

Knowing the unionist community as I do, I am always a hard-headed realist when it comes to the possibility of any kind of political or cultural change in Northern Ireland. Reconciliation between the divided communities there must remain the priority for the foreseeable future. Could the unlikely proposition that the Irish language might play a part here be a surprising element in this? I hope and pray it may be so.

¹ Our Tangled Speech, Ulster Historical Foundation/ULTACH Trust, 2018

² Presbyterians and the Irish Language,  Ulster Historical Foundatin/ULTACH Trust, 1996

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