A cautionary tale: could this be the next phase in our island’s history?

Just over a century ago there was a northern province of a small western island off the coast of Europe which threatened to cause mayhem for the powerful and far-flung empire of which it was an insignificant (although then economically important) part. It armed its young men and brought the province to the brink of civil war to prevent its incorporation into an independent state run by its ancient enemies in the rest of the island and dominated by an authoritarian Catholic church. In this it was supported by significant elements of the empire’s political establishment.

For over 50 years this northern province’s majority ran a one-party regime which discriminated against and repressed the Catholic minority who continued to hope and agitate (occasionally using violent means) for unity with the new ‘rest of the island’ state. That minority eventually mobilised behind a peaceful civil rights movement, modelled on the civil rights movement in the US. This was attacked by right-wing elements in the majority population who remained fiercely attached to their imperial motherland and Protestant religion. In response a ferocious and highly effective terrorist force emerged from the minority community which for nearly 30 years shot and bombed the hated local police, the imperial army and civilians whose loyalty was to the motherland. Pro-empire paramilitary groups, occasionally illicitly backed by the imperial army, hit back with equal terror methods.

In the end, with all sides weary of the squalid little conflict, and with the help of the United States and the European Union, a peace and political agreement was reached. This was an extraordinary outcome, bringing into government together the political party most fiercely attached to the imperial union and the political party of the former terrorist force, equally tigerishly attached to the notion of a united island. It helped greatly that the ‘rest of the island’ nation and the old imperial nation were now equal members of the European Union, had collaborated closely on drawing up the agreement, and that the border between the unsettled northern province and the ‘rest of the island’ state (now two regions of the EU) was becoming less and less economically important. There then followed 10 years of reluctant cooperation – based on the two parties sharing power to run the province – and relative peace and prosperity. Although the deep divisions remained, most people regarded this outcome as something of a miracle, and a miracle to be cherished and slowly built upon.

Then out of the blue, the people of the old imperial nation (despite the fact that there was little left of the empire) decided that they were sick of being told what to do by the European Union and being forced to allow foreigners to come and live in their country. They voted to leave the European Union, utterly indifferent to the opinion of people in their western island province, most of whom wanted to stay in the benign embrace of the EU, which had contributed generous funding to its farmers and to its peace process.

To the dismay of most sensible people, the border between the province and the ‘rest of the island’ state was then fully reinstated, although it was a high-tech version without obvious customs posts. The consequences for the northern province were disastrous, with unemployment soaring as its uncompetitive small economy was buffeted by the cold winds of unprotected international trade, and the imperial government cut back on its historically generous subsidies.

Meanwhile across the sea the northern part of the old imperial nation  – which had close ancestral links with the unsettled western island province – was now insisting that it too was a separate nation, and, after several referenda, declared its independence from the imperial motherland. The political party of the former terrorist force – pointing out that, because of population change, it now represented half the people of the western island province – also demanded a referendum on re-unifying the island. Again it took several referenda, but eventually the people of the province voted by the narrowest of margins to leave the motherland and join the ‘rest of the island’ state.

Unfortunately that state was neither particularly wealthy nor very well-organised, and its people had no notion that they were about to be lumbered with the warring and impecunious people of the unsettled northern province. The authorities there were utterly unprepared for this surprise re-unification (foreign ministry officials from the former imperial nation and the re-united island nation made several joint trips to Paris to find out how the French had managed their sudden exit from Algeria in 1962, including the chaotic return of 900,000 angry and frightened former colonists).

The ‘rest of the island’ state’s tiny army and ill-equipped police force first had to deal with a short campaign of terrorist violence from unhappy right-wing northerners who still hankered after the old link with the motherland. Most of these were poor and ill-educated, since large numbers of middle class people in that pro-empire community had upped and fled to the motherland after the unity referendum. In the event, the violence was relatively short-lived – a few hundred people killed compared to the more than three and a half thousand in the 30 years of conflict in the last century – largely because the paramilitary groups leading it, reflecting the rapid decline of the industrial working class from which they drew their membership, were only a shadow of their 20th century predecessors in terms of organisation and ferocity. On their own, without the old imperial army behind them, they had neither the stomach nor the capacity for a lengthy fight.

In the ‘rest of the island’ state, there was an entirely unrealistic belief that the former imperial nation would continue to subsidise the province for up to 30 years at a cost of 10 billion pounds a year. But with the motherland struggling with a range of dire economic problems caused by withdrawal from the European Union, this turned out to be for only five. The EU did its best to fill the gap, but it was faced with its own multiple problems of financial austerity and currency weakness, mass immigration from poorer countries, terrorist attacks, extreme nationalism and the threat of Russia. In the minds of the central European powerhouse nations, notably Germany, which increasingly ran the show, the small western island’s challenges did not loom large.

The result was a permanently sullen and alienated minority in the former imperial province, with occasional outbursts of renewed violence. There was a drastic increase in taxation in the new, unified island state (particularly affecting its southern part), and a small but significant reduction in its living standards, as budgets were cut to provide the higher quality health and education standards demanded by the former citizens of the northern province (which they had become used to in the old days of empire).  Multinational companies shied away from investing in the province, which continued to need major subsidies, although now from Dublin instead of London. There was a knock-on effect on the fragile, foreign investment dependent economy of the rest of the island. An appeal for volunteers from the rest of the island to go to the northern province to help revive and re-energise it – along the lines of the German volunteers who went east after reunification in the 1990s – fell largely on deaf ears. Nearly a century of living apart in a cosy, self-regarding ‘rest of the island’ state meant there was little feeling of solidarity there with the troublesome northerners.

But the island was now politically united after over 100 years of being partitioned. That was the important thing. The northern province remained bitterly divided, divisions not helped by the fact that the party of the former terrorist force was now largely in charge there as part of a new if flimsy power-sharing arrangement. The economy of both parts of the island was stagnant because foreign investment had fallen off due to significant instability during the reunification period. Living standards fell in both parts of the island. As usual, it was the poorer people who suffered most, and the welfare state that had existed in the northern province for the best part of 80 years was increasingly run down. But apart from these minor matters, the people of the island lived more or less happily ever after. But did they?  I leave you, discerning readers, to make up your own minds.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments

Whatever happened to Northern working class Protestant radicalism?

There is an interesting conference taking place in Dublin this weekend (Saturday 6th May, 11 am-5.15 pm) entitled ‘The radical working class Protestant tradition in Northern Ireland’, which I am involved in organising, along with veteran inner-city Dublin community workers Mick Rafferty and Patricia McCarthy, who have been partnering working class loyalist communities in Belfast for many decades. It is sponsored by the trade union UNITE (in whose Middle Abbey Street premises it is taking place), the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I have written in this column before about the radical Presbyterian tradition of people like the United Irishmen Henry Joy McCracken, William Drennan and Jemmy Hope; the Tenant Right activists of the mid-19th century; Presbyterian Parnellite MPs like Isaac Nelson and John Ferguson; and 20th century socialists, trade unionists and feminists like Jack Beattie, Billy McMullen, Harry Midgley and Isabella Tod. This conference attempts to bring the story up to the present day and to ask the difficult question about whether this historic strain of Protestant freethinking continues to exist in the fearful, defensive and deeply conservative society that is unionist Northern Ireland today.

The conference will also see the launch of a new study of this largely ignored phenomenon – An Oral History of the Protestant Working Class – based on a series of interviews conducted in Belfast and Derry by Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty. A strong message coming through these interviews is that many working class Protestants feel that the trade union movement –  for years the most important bulwark against sectarianism both inside and outside the workplace – is no longer for them. Unfortunately they now feel this about many institutions in the North which their religious brand once dominated.

There was a time up to 40-50 years ago when the trade union movement, centred on the industrial powerhouse that was Belfast, was made up largely of Protestants, and the leadership of left-wing Protestants. This was reflected in politics. In 1945 Betty Sinclair of the Communist Party (and later the first chair of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association)  just failed to get elected to the Stormont parliament for East Belfast. In 1962 the Northern Ireland Labour Party won four seats at Stormont. As the poet John Hewitt later pointed out, they were prepared to act as a “constructive opposition” to the all-powerful Unionist Party, but “Terence O’Neill set out to smash them. Inevitably the Socialists were driven out of Northern politics. Good men driven away, I think, by despair. We, who tried so hard, live with despair.”

Today there is a different problem. It is summed up by trade union leader Peter Bunting, a valiant fighter for working class solidarity (while himself coming from a strong republican labour background), who says (in his interview with McCarthy and Rafferty) that “the Protestant working class has suffered a loss of identity and a loss of purpose which has percolated into the trade union movement.”  He believes that movement is not reaching out enough to Protestant workers with their pro-Union beliefs: “It is not sectarian to be a loyalist. But it seems it is not allowed to be a loyalist in the trade union movement although you can be a republican or a trotskyist.  This nonsense goes against the trade union ethos of freedom of expression, freedom to belong to any group you like as long as you are not engaged in violence or sectarianism. What’s wrong with having an aspiration to belong to the UK? It is no different from being a united Irelander. We must respect – not just tolerate – other people’s positions with dignity. We must get on with dealing with the issues that unite us as working people.”

Bunting goes on to describe how republicans took down Union jacks and put up Iraqi flags at a trade union conference during the war in Iraq, and how Protestant union members who had sons in the British army serving in that war resigned in protest. And how he got the leading band on a Belfast May Day march to play Killaloo, the anthem of the Royal Irish Regiment, leading to the first confused, then amused loyalist spectators taunting a banner-carrying republican contingent at the back of the march.”We were sending a message to every loyalist: this May Day march is not a Catholic thing. This is a cross-community parade.”

The left-wing historian and playwright Philip Orr, who is from a Presbyterian family, understands trade union leaders’ dilemma: “I suppose you can’t ask people from a republican background not to put up banners.  Loyalists have to carve out a left-wing perspective for themselves despite such risks, even though union militancy without betraying identity is difficult for them. And of course Protestants don’t want to be known as a ‘Lundy’ because in pressurised, uncertain situations like Northern Ireland the betrayer is always the ultimate enemy. As a community which has been living for centuries with this psychology, fear of the enemy within still goes very deep.”

He would like to see a play celebrating the experience of a Northern Protestant being in a trade union. “We are in a good space here, if we but knew it. We possess the English language, a free education system, a whole bunch of positive things people in other countries would die for. Loyalism should feel better about itself. Reclaiming the workplace history of being a ‘Prod’, both in its pain and its triumphs – that is an important part of it.”

Bobby Cosgrove, another lifelong trade unionist (and also an Orangeman), recalls how he first started to feel like a socialist as a 19 year old. “I was working in a Protestant area and this family came up the road from the 12th parade with four children. He was carrying bags of drink and she was carrying bags of bunting and flags. No sign of groceries or anything to eat and two of the children had no shoes on their feet. I said to myself, there is something radically wrong here. They were prioritising the 12th over their children’s welfare.”

Then there are the twin issues of the rapidly declining Protestant industrial workforce and the festering sore of sectarianism. Cosgrove remembers the building trade in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of the foremen and tradesmen were Protestants and all the labouring was done by Catholics. Different Belfast docks had different sectarian workforces. In Harland and Wolff shipyard you got work if your (Protestant) father had a certain number of ‘buttons’. In Shorts aircraft factory and Mackies textile machinery factory there used to be an informal ‘Catholic Protection Society’ – “almost like an underground union” – for the small number of Catholic workers. Protestant workers would parade through these plants around 12th July with smuggled in flags and drums. As recently as the 1980s there were industrial disputes over tiny Union jack logos on boiler suits and trainers. And all this was against the background of the vertiginous decline of Belfast as a major industrial city with, for example, the numbers employed in the shipyard falling from 35,000 during the Second World War to 200 today.

Is it any wonder that the trade union movement in the North did not flourish in these circumstances?  During the three decades of the ‘troubles’, unions had a proud record of working for peace and against violence and sectarianism in extremely difficult and intimidating circumstances. Throughout the civil disturbances, terrorist attacks and sectarian assassinations of the 1970s and 1980s the unions played a crucial role as one of the elements in Northern Irish society that prevented it slipping into outright civil war. Despite some of the silly incidents mentioned above, workplaces were largely free from  sectarian strife even in the worst of these years. As late as autumn 1993 a leading trade unionist, Joe Bowers, led a protest march by shipyard workers following the IRA’s Shankill Road fish shop bombing which served to defuse a very dangerous situation, and the Irish Congress of Trades Union’s NI Committee brought together 10,000 people in a peace demonstration in the centre of Belfast.

If anybody would like to hear more about this largely forgotten tradition of working class solidarity and Protestant radicalism in the North, come along to 55 Middle Abbey Street this Saturday. Among the speakers will be Peter Bunting, Philip Orr and the writer and People Before Profit activist Eamonn McCann. Admission is free.



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Are there really 150,000 unionists who are persuadable for a united Ireland?

Last month’s blog was based on a most interesting conversation with the widely-read unionist commentator Alex Kane, in which he estimated that there were now 150,000 ‘soft’ unionists who were persuadable of the merits of Irish unity,and that he expected to see this outcome in his lifetime (he is 61).

This month I am going to cast a cold eye on this surprising thesis and ask about Kane’s evidence for it. In an Irish Times article three weeks after that conversation, he wisely omitted any figures and the ‘unity in my lifetime’ comment.But he repeated that in a post-Brexit Border Poll, Remain-voting unionists “may conclude that a bigger broader union embracing Ireland and the European Union is preferable to a smaller, narrower union of the UK out on its own.” He said “the next five years will represent the biggest challenge to the union in my lifetime.”¹

So what is the evidence for the 150,000 unionists who may now be ‘soft’ on the idea of a united Ireland? The first thing I should say is that in nearly 40 years of living in and regularly travelling to the North, I have never met a single unionist who has told me s/he has changed her/his mind and is now in favour of unity. And as a Dublin-resident, northern-born Protestant (and proud Irish citizen), I regularly put that question to unionist friends and relatives.

I put it again to three moderate, thoughtful unionist friends in recent weeks. Trevor Ringland, Belfast solicitor, former international rugby player and worker for cross-community reconciliation, was unperturbed by the Brexit vote. He continues to believes that the present post-Belfast Agreement political structures,with some minor changes, are “probably the solution to the ‘Irish Question’ for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever. We should focus on building relationships in Northern Ireland and across this island and these islands, essentially uniting people first and foremost even if constitutionally we remain apart.”

David Campbell, farmer, Ulster Unionist Party grandee and David Trimble’s chief of staff in the talks which led to the Belfast Agreement, is equally unworried. For his community, Irish unity is “not on our radar screen at all. I don’t know a single unionist, including those who voted to remain in the EU, who would remotely consider a united Ireland.” He believes that if there was another Northern Assembly election (as opposed to a British general election) in the near future, there would be “a massive vote for the DUP to keep Sinn Fein out, and this would probably impact again negatively on the Ulster Unionists.”

Among the younger generation, Brian John Spencer, a 29 year old artist and video maker (who calls himself an Irish unionist and recently travelled through Ireland’s 32 counties in 32 days, doing a painting in each one), has a softer view. He thinks Irish unity might become more attractive to some unionists if its principal spokesman was not Gerry Adams. “He’s the worst front man a united Ireland could have. He conjurs up ancestral fear and loathing among Protestant unionists that is similar to Cromwell for Catholic nationalists. If the political leader making the argument was a balanced, cosmopolitan figure like Michael McDowell (who has said there is an “under appreciation” of the Orange tradition in Ireland)  – or Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin – the kind of middle-class, rugby-playing people I went to school with might find it more acceptable.”

I agree completely that Gerry Adams is a major blockage to persuading unionists of the merits of unity. He is somebody – unlike Martin McGuinness, I would suggest – who is utterly uninterested in reconciliation within Northern Ireland as a necessary precursor to all-Ireland reconciliation and unity. What motivates Adams is the realpolitik of demographic arithmetic, the persuasion of just enough Northern Protestants to join the growing Catholic nationalist population to vote for unity in a Border Poll, thus pushing the result over the fateful 50% mark in order to trigger the British government’s Belfast Agreement pledge to move towards unity. And damn the consequent unionist backlash.

This is the numbers game: traditional, ugly and unadorned. This is the republican aim of  Tiocfaidh ár La (‘Our Day will Come’) being achieved not through violence, but through nationalists outbreeding and outsmarting unionists. That wise commentator Olivia O’Leary, who knows the North well from her time covering it in the violent 1970s and 1980s, referred to this when commenting recently on the unionist parties losing their parliamentary majority in last month’s Assembly election for the first time since partition. “Catholics winning the population game” made her “deeply uncomfortable”, she said.² Agriculture Minister Michael Creed made the same point in a sharp radio exchange with Fianna Fail TD Niamh Smyth, who had welcomed the growth of the nationalist vote in the North,  commenting that he found “this sort of sectarian headcount approach profoundly depressing.”

Depressing or not, this is what we can expect from Sinn Fein for the foreseeable future. That’s why Adams and his little Tyrone henchwoman, Michelle O’Neill, are delighted with the prospect of another election on 8th June. With the unionists currently in some disarray and Sinn Fein’s popular vote only 1,200 behind the DUP, the more elections the better as far as they are concerned, until the day when their vote inches ahead of the DUP’s, and they can, with complete legitimacy, demand a Border Poll. That is also why I believe we will not see any quick return to a power-sharing Executive.  Adams and company have bigger all-Ireland fish in mind.

However Sinn Fein should not count those fishes too soon. I suggest that the figure for Northern Protestants – not unionists – deciding to vote for unity in a Border Poll is likely to be under 50,000. I arrive at this calculation by taking the non-voting children away from the 70,000 who declared themselves Protestant and nationalist in the 2011 Northern Ireland census, and adding a few thousand ‘change of mind’ unionists .  This is insufficient to push the vote over 50% (even assuming that the vast majority of Catholics and nationalists vote for unity, which is not a given).

One thing I do agree with Alex Kane about is that  Brexit will change everything. As he says in his Irish Times article, a post-Brexit  Border Poll would centre around the following question:  “Do you support a united Ireland (inside the European Union, protective of a multiplicity of identities and supported by the Republic’s political/business establishment) or do you support the union (outside the EU, possibly diminished by the departure of Scotland, and with the rise of a new form of English nationalism which will have no interest in the Celtic fringes)?

All this sudden talk of a united Ireland reminds me of the astonishment and unpreparedness of the great majority of German people at the prospect of immediate unity following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That will be nothing compared to the unpreparedness of the ‘switched off’ people of the Republic of Ireland  if unity with the deeply fractious, potentially violent and economically parasitical North suddenly appears on the horizon. Truly, powerful  outside events rather than unthinking inside opinion more often than not shape the fate of nations.

PS What is there fresh to say about Theresa May’s announcement of a British general election on 8th June? With customary total British insouciance towards its Northern Irish province, this shows the most abominable timing – as the North’s politicians are once again trying to cobble together a way to learn jointly to govern the place. It will be another bitter and divisive election, with huge pressure on the moderate elements in the two blocs, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, to go into pacts with the larger extreme parties to maximise the tribal vote. We have truly fallen back into the sectarian swamp since the hopeful days of renewed and improved consensus government following the last Stormont election just 12 short months ago.

1  Irish Times, 14 April

2  RTE Drivetime. 4 April

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The most interesting conversation I have had about Irish unity for a very long time

Last week I had the most interesting conversation about Irish unity that I have had for many long years. It was with Alex Kane, the North’s most widely-read unionist-minded columnist: he has opinion columns in both the Belfast Newsletter and the Irish News, is a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph,  and in a former life was director of communications of the Ulster Unionist Party. This most insightful of unionist commentators is rarely read or heard south of the border.

Kane believes, quite simply, that Brexit has radically changed the prospects for the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, and, quite dramatically, that “a significant section of unionism is now persuadable in terms of a possible united Ireland.”

His reasoning goes as follows. There are around 150,000 ‘soft’ unionists. These comprise overlapping categories such as secularised unionists (many of them younger people) who are unhappy with the religious bigotry and ultra-conservative sexual politics of many in the DUP; unionists who voted to stay in the EU, and middle-class unionists. After Brexit, he believes many of these people are “open to hear arguments about Irish unity in a way they wouldn’t have been before.” Many of them have probably not come out to vote since the 1998 referendum secured a majority for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Not surprisingly, there are also ‘soft’ nationalists  – around 50,000 of them, Kane estimates – who until the Brexit vote were relatively content with their lot in post-Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland as part of the UK, with the border all but gone and the comfort blanket of common EU membership.

Of course these people also need to hear the counter-arguments for Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom:about the UK being a strong and tolerant multi-identity state, the kind of arguments that defeated the Scottish nationalists in their 2014 referendum. However they are not hearing these from the DUP. That party’s response to unionism losing its majority in the Northern Ireland parliament for the first time in over 95 years earlier this month, rather than to ask the reasons why, was to fall back on the age-old Pavlovian call for unionist unity, ‘a circling of the wagons’ to keep out a newly resurgent Sinn Fein. It is clear that DUP leaders haven’t even begun to think seriously about the huge existential questions thrown up by Brexit.

Pointing out that we are four years away from the centenary of the foundation of the Northern Ireland state, Kane wants his community to be talking about the meaning of unionism in 2021. “When was the last time you heard any unionist leader giving a speech about what it means to be a unionist?” he asks.” What are we going to celebrate at the centenary of Northern Ireland, after the ending of the unionist majority in the Assembly, after Brexit, after the possible independence of Scotland, with a Border Poll on Irish unity inevitable sooner or later? And at a time when it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that unionists will become a minority in Northern Ireland over the next decade?”

He believes that “Brexit has changed the ground rules for a Border Poll.”  The stark choice when such a poll does happen may be between a united Ireland inside the EU and a rump United Kingdom with Scotland departed and probably ruled by a “hardline, right-wing English nationalist government in London that doesn’t give a damn about the Celtic fringe, and particularly doesn’t care about Northern Ireland.” And that could be in the aftermath of a Brexit deal with the EU that could be “horrendously bad” for Northern Ireland’s vulnerable and dependent economy.

South of the border he points to a recent rash of speeches and statements from establishment leaders, notably Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin, indicating that Irish unity is back on their agenda for the first time for many years. He thinks that if such leaders started to spell out carefully and sensitively what a united Ireland would look like in 20 or 30 or 40 years, how unionist concerns might be satisfied and how they could become partners in that new dispensation, there might be a surprising response from ‘soft’ unionism.

Sinn Fein has noticed this new movement in unionism. Its leaders are now constantly reaching out verbally to unionists, following the example of the late Martin McGuinness. Typical of this emollient language was Gerry Adams’ words at McGuinness’s funeral last week: “Let us learn to like each other, to be friends, to celebrate and enjoy our differences and to do so on the basis of common sense, respect and tolerance for each other and everyone else – as equals.” At the same time he appealed to republicans and nationalists: “Do nothing to disrespect our unionist neighbours or anyone else. Stand against bigotry, against sectarianism, but respect our unionist neighbours. Reach out to them.”

Most unionists still deeply distrust such republican appeals. Even liberal unionists I know still consider Sinn Fein the party of the IRA that bombed and killed them for 30 years, and ask why so many nationalists are prepared to vote for those who state that the murder of their unionist neighbours and security force members, albeit regrettable, was justified.

Several thoughtful unionists I spoke to in Belfast last week seemed unperturbed by Brexit, the prospect of Scottish independence or even Sinn Fein coming with a hair’s breadth of displacing the DUP as the North’s largest party. “Sanguine” is the word Kane uses for such people: “They continue to believe it will be all right on the night”. It was striking that at the DUP’s annual conference last November Brexit went almost totally unmentioned. At a Centre for Cross Border Studies conference I attended in Armagh last month on the impact of Brexit on Ireland, north and south, there were seven politicians and officials from the Scottish government, but just one unionist, the business-oriented MLA Steve Aiken. At the most recent meeting of the Loyalist Communities Council, which brings together the three main loyalist paramilitary organisations, the re-emergence of Irish unity as a real possibility was not even raised, although the SDLP’s resurrection of joint authority was (surely a classic example of missing the bigger picture!). I would describe unionist attitudes to Brexit and the other existential challenges to the North coming down the line more as “heads in the sand” than sanguine.

Kane also wonders about the symbolic impact of a sizeable number of unionists obtaining Irish passports in anticipation of a British withdrawal from the EU, “thus taking on half of another identity.” He notes that Sherlock Holmes described his method as “founded upon the observation of trifles.”

If Kane is right, and the unionist monolith is beginning to move, it will come as a surprise to most knowledgeable observers of the North. Brexit is the huge imponderable. After Brexit, Kane says that unionist politicians have to get ready for “the unexpected and the inexplicable. It has happened in the past – be prepared for it to happen again.” As for himself, this most unionist of commentators, now in his early sixties, believes that “Irish unity will be the last big political story in my active writing lifetime.”

PS That excellent commentator, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy – who is far better informed about such things than I am – disagrees with the analysis in my February blog that Fianna Fail will have to do a deal with Sinn Fein to enter government in the South after the next election. He writes:”Micheál Martin will rule out coalition with Sinn Fein during the election campaign, and will stick to that, I expect. He will not want to cede leadership of the opposition to them, even if Fianna Fail were to be the bigger party in a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition. So I guess his best plan is for a minority Fianna Fail government – not ideal, but probably his most likely route to government now. The Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition will probably come. Just not yet, I think.”


Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 2 Comments

Getting ready to be governed by Sinn Fein in the Republic

Politics is a strange business. One word and one man’s name that were almost entirely unknown a few years ago now look as if they are going to change modern Irish politics and history: they are ‘Brexit’ and ‘Maurice McCabe’. The British exit from the EU is the new and deeply unsettling reality that will dominate the politics and economics of this island, north and south, for many years to come. And more immediately, the ramifications of the nauseating campaign by senior echelons of the Garda Siochana to destroy the life and career of an honest, whistle-blowing police sergeant (if this turns out to be true) will soon end the long career of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and bring us closer than ever before to a mould-breaking general election in the Republic.

The breaking of the mould, I believe, will be the entry for the first time of Sinn Fein into government in the Republic as a minority partner. Mary Lou McDonald, the favourite to succeed Gerry Adams as leader of the party in the South, has said it is now open to this option. And the electoral arithmetic points to a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition as the most likely outcome of an election in the near future. Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has so far set his face against such an outcome, determined that an alliance with Sinn Fein would not see his constitutional republican party suffer the same fate as the SDLP in the North. But if Sinn Fein forecasts are right, and the next election sees Fianna Fail winning around 55 seats (compared to 44 now) and Sinn Fein around 30 (compared to 23 now), this shrewd and pragmatic politician – knowing that the numbers won’t add up to a coalition with Labour or the Independents, and that his membership won’t allow him to coalesce with Fine Gael – will almost certainly have to hold his nose and go into government with the former political wing of the Provisional IRA.

Sinn Fein now has the smartest electoral machine in the Republic. It has some of the smartest, youngest, brightest and most hardworking candidates. The disillusion with parliamentary politics that has seen the decline of left-of-centre parties throughout Europe has not affected Sinn Fein. Since the 2011 election its star has been in the ascendant, with 2014 in particular seeing it pick up three European Parliament seats and treble the number of its local councillors. It was slightly disappointed at last year’s election results, but still increased its number of Dail seats from 14 in 2011 and a mere four in 2007. There is no reason to believe that after a year of  faltering coalition between Fine Gael and Independents, and with health, housing and water supply (that toxic issue) still in crisis, Sinn Fein won’t continue to pick up votes. Ironically and unfairly the country’s strong and continuing economic recovery, which Fine Gael can take most credit for, will probably not be a determining factor, just as it wasn’t in last year’s election.

The main barrier to increasing Sinn Fein’s vote in the Republic is its leader, Gerry Adams. The old warlord is deeply distrusted by large sections of the Southern electorate, particularly in more middle-class areas. Party insiders say Mary Lou McDonald will take over sooner rather than later. And with Michelle O’Neill’s unexpected coronation in the North, it is easy to see where Sinn Fein is positioning itself: as a young, idealistic party headed by two women and largely rid of its paramilitary past, which is eager to be in government in both Irish jurisdictions. And it will certainly make it more attractive to a wider constituency: a retired senior Dublin banker told me recently that if Adams was gone he would consider voting  Sinn Fein for the first time.

In the North they will eventually have to go back into deeply uncomfortable coalition with what they hope will be a DUP weakened by the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal and other corruption allegations. The prize then for Sinn Fein is that their ministers on both sides of the border will be able to meet in the North South Ministerial Council and portray it as some form of united Irish administration in embryo, while pressuring Micheál Martin to take a more aggressive line with the British over a Border Poll and other supposed steps towards unity.

The DUP only have themselves to blame if they find that rather than dealing with Enda Kenny and Martin McGuinness – both strong believers in reaching out to unionists – they are in future facing the much tougher combination of a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition in Dublin (although Micheál Martin will wish to continue reaching out) and a harder line leadership of the untried Michelle O’Neill with Adams pulling the strings  in the North. Sinn Fein is thinking of a return to a  ‘pan-nationalist front’ along the lines of the Albert Reynolds/ John Hume/Gerry Adams tie-up in the early 1990s. And  if there is one thing the unionists are right about it is that Adams, along with the likes of Conor Murphy, Gerry Kelly and Declan Kearney, will continue to be the power behind the republican throne in Northern Ireland.

Readers of this column will know that I am no fan of Sinn Fein. But I am a believer in facing up to reality and trying to make the best of it, unlike too many unionists, who often seem like the Bourbon monarchs of old: learning nothing and forgetting nothing (or perhaps that should be forgiving nothing). As the late great historian of modern Europe Tony Judt used to say, probably misquoting John Maynard Keynes: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

Meanwhile hanging like a very dark and large cloud over all these political proceedings will be the likelihood of a hard Brexit. This is the real game changer for Ireland, north and south. And it is likely that it will be played out in an increasingly all-island arena. Already the main forum for discussing this existential issue is the Irish government-convened All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit, which has no equivalent in the North and which is attended by the Alliance Party and most significant northern business, farming and civil society bodies (this is surely the North-South Consultative Forum promised by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements, but never delivered, in another shape). It is striking how often these days our very un-republican Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, cites the need for the island to deal together with the common threat posed by Brexit and warns that any UK-EU treaty must include a clause allowing the North automatic entry to the EU in the eventuality of a united Ireland. “We will seek all-island solutions to our many challenges,” he said in his opening address to the second Civic Dialogue on Brexit conference in Dublin on 17th Febuary. At the same event the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, stressed the “right of the people of Northern Ireland to be Irish and therefore to be EU citizens.” The chair of the NI Community Relations Council, Peter Osborne, warned that if “a pole with a camera on it” was erected as part of a new Irish customs border, it would inevitably become a target for dissident republicans.

This is what terrifies Sinn Fein and makes them increase the volume of their all-Ireland rhetoric. Senior republicans are genuinely worried that young northern nationalists, in particular, will accuse them of betraying a Good Friday Agreement which promised (and delivered) a very significant lowering of the border, but which is now being overruled by a Brexit vote by the people of the UK (but not the people of Northern Ireland). In these circumstances, the potential for dissidents to attract such young people is considerable, and some argue that it is already happening in places like Derry. The threat of Brexit to the peace process is not negligible.

I haven’t even mentioned the threat posed to the Union by another probable vote on Scottish independence. But whether unionists with their narrow vision like it or not, much of post-Brexit politics is likely to be played on an all-Ireland pitch.  I fear that the economic impact of a hard Brexit on a low-productivity economy like Northern Ireland’s, which will be losing  its nearest and most vital tariff-free export market across the border, will be very damaging. Meanwhile the forces arguing for Irish unity in the South, largely dormant in recent years as the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement focused successfully on low-key North-South cooperation for mutual benefit, will certainly see a comeback if Sinn Fein go into government. Southern Sinn Feiners are full of optimism, citing the “clear and present danger” of Brexit as a reason for Irish people to come together. It would be an extreme irony if a vote by the British people that completely ignored Ireland does more to push Northern Ireland in the direction of Irish unity than 30 years of killing and bombing by the IRA.



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

The DUP’s bigotry and incompetence bring the house down

In last month’s blog I wrote that Northern Ireland was now “a modern region with a power-sharing government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence.” I was wrong. A fortnight later the Stormont Executive collapsed when Martin McGuinness resigned after failing to persuade Arlene Foster to step aside temporarily as First Minister to allow a full inquiry into the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) fiasco.

I don’t always – or even often – believe Sinn Fein: they are usually playing a machiavellian long game aimed at weakening the North’s links with Britain. But on this issue I’m with them. It was clear from McGuinness’s resignation statement that this was not only – or even mainly – about RHI.  The Deputy First Minister accused Foster of “deep seated arrogance” and the DUP of rejecting his attempts to reach out to unionists, “shameful disrespect” to women, gay people and ethnic minorities and “crude and crass bigotry” to Irish language speakers. In a follow-up RTE interview he said there were many people in the DUP who “hate anything to do with Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism.”

As somebody who began studying the DUP over 30 years ago – in the course of researching a biography of Rev. Ian Paisley – I recognise the truth in all these charges. I had hoped that the ugly, antiquated prejudices they describe would have started to diminish as the realisation that they had to share their divided little society with their nationalist neighbours started to dawn on unionists in a new century.

Maybe I was being naive. But it is disappointing that the deep anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry of so many DUP-supporting unionists appears still to play a significant role in Northern life and politics. Back in 1986 I wrote about the people who followed Paisley half-a-century ago as follows: “They believed they were inherently superior to their Roman Catholic neighbours because of their religion. They were ‘born again’ Christians, living in the ‘light’ of pure Protestantism, free men who communed with God without the interference of priests or man-made rituals. Catholics, on the other hand, were benighted and ignorant souls who were enslaved by the ‘darkness’ of Roman superstition, the idolatry of the Mass, and the rule of the papal antichrist. Such a view tallied perfectly with the superiority they felt anyway as the descendants of the people who had ‘civilised’ Ulster…Thus the underprivileged position of Northern Catholics was nothing to do with injustice: quite the opposite – it was living proof of God’s justice in rewarding those who followed the true religion.”¹ I wonder how many Northern unionists of the DUP persuasion still hold such appalling, near-racist views. Too many, I suspect – although friends tell me that thankfully such bigotry is far less prevalent among younger DUP members (and I have at least one young DUP councillor acquaintance who bears that out).

Then there is their anti-Irishness. This sometimes borders on the pathological. Some may recall Gregory Campbell’s nasty mocking of the Irish language (and Peter Robinson’s defence of his colleague) at the 2014 DUP annual conference and the amused response of the delegates. Andrew Crawford,  the former special adviser to Arlene Foster who was forced to resign after the top civil servant in the Department of the Economy ‘outed’ him for his dubious role in the Renewable Heat Initiative, used to go through reports from one North-South body removing the phrase ‘all-Ireland.’ Communities Minister Paul Givan’s scrapping two days before Christmas of a tiny grant scheme to allow Northern Irish language students to study in the Donegal Gaeltacht seems to have been the final insult for many ordinary nationalists.

I worked to promote practical, non-threatening North-South cooperation for 14 years. In a chapter on this topic in a new book on Irish politics published this month² I quoted a senior Northern Ireland civil servant observing: “The DUP’s default setting is that all North-South structures are a bad thing – it takes very little for the DUP to kick them into the long grass.” He said there had been no softening of DUP attitudes towards these institutions, with organising meetings of the largely powerless North South Ministerial Council sometimes “like pulling hen’s teeth.”

However there has also been evidence of some striking and welcome changes in unionist attitudes during this controversy. Anybody who heard Ian Paisley Junior generously offering “humble and honest thanks” to Martin McGuinness both on BBC and RTE would have  been astonished. “I think it is important that we actually do reflect on the fact that we would not be where we are in Northern Ireland in terms of having stability, peace and the opportunity to rebuild our country if it hadn’t been for the work that he put in,” he said.

Similarly it was notable that the province’s leading unionist-minded commentators did not mince their words when placing the responsibility for the RHI controversy and the collapse of the Executive firmly at Arlene Foster’s door. Alex Kane, the North’s most widely-read columnist, writing in the Belfast News Letter, called her behaviour “imperious, petulant, personal and petty – at a time when leadership and humility was required, she opted for hubris and provocation.” He said the public perception had grown that “she is incapable of owning up to the fact fact that the story involves monumental ineptitude, serial stupidity, administrative blindness and gold-plated recklessness when it comes to the public purse.” While stressing there was not a shred of evidence of corruption on her part, he called on her to resign permanently as First Minister.

In the Irish Times, Newton Emerson paid tribute to McGuinness and listed the putdowns he had suffered in his efforts to safeguard power-sharing and reach out to the DUP. He noted that after the May 2016 Stormont election the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition, freed of the encumbrance of the three smaller parties, seemed to promise a period of “unprecedented stability” for the North. That’s certainly how senior civil servants I spoke to at the time saw it. However what followed was “a relentless DUP pushback on just about every issue imaginable.”

Maybe the DUP, always at risk of arrogance and sectarian condescension, believed after they had maintained their number of seats in that election (while Sinn Fein had lost two) and then seen the UK follow the Brexit route which they as ‘little Britishers’ so passionately advocated, that they were untouchable. For despite their intense provincialism they were not immune from the feeling that events elsewhere were moving in their hard-right direction, with Brexit followed by the Trump victory in the US.

More perceptive commentators might point out that with the departure of Scotland and the break-up of the UK a real possibility in the wake of a ‘hard’ Brexit, other currents may be moving against them and in favour of those who argue for Irish unity. As Newton Emerson concluded: “Once again, unionists are about to be taught the lesson they never learn: deal with nationalism now, or get a worse deal later.”³

¹ Paisley, Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak, pp. 219-220

² Dynamics of Political Change in Ireland: Making and Breaking a Divided Island, Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Katy Hayward and Elizabeth Meehan (eds.)

³ News Letter, 9 January 2017; Irish Times, 10 January 2017

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

A Presbyterian republican Ulsterwoman and the ‘sister states’ of Ireland

For the second year running my politician of the year is a Protestant Ulsterwoman. This year it is Heather Humphreys, Irish Minister for Arts, Culture, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, a Monaghan Presbyterian whose grandfather signed the 1912 Ulster Covenant and who calls herself a republican. And the reason? In her low key way she was the person who oversaw the success of the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Enda Kenny paid an indirect tribute to her when he wrote in the Irish Times earlier this month   “any fears that the centenary would plunge us into regressive nationalism proved unfounded…as we commemorated the iconic event of our modern nationhood, we became more outward-looking, less insular and more compassionate.” And how did we do that?  “The transformative potential of arts, culture and heritage” and “broad cultural participation” are the reasons, says the Taoiseach¹. In other words, much of the success of the year was down to the central role played by writers, artists, musicians and historians, and by ordinary people engaging in cultural rather than p0litical activities.

However for the purposes of this column I am going to suggest a radical political way in which the Republic’s leaders might break down the barriers on the island even further. For nearly a century every single political party in the Republic has held as an article of faith the belief in Irish unity. And nearly a century after the island was divided we are no nearer that utopian goal. Indeed I would argue strongly that the IRA’s campaign of violence to undo Northern Ireland’s connection with Britain – and thus against the unionist population which is fiercely attached to that connection – has only served to push it further away than ever. Talk to any liberal unionist who loves Ireland and that is what they will tell you.

50 years ago Sean Lemass was already stressing that there would be no Irish unity without a significant element of unionist consent. That requirement was written into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. However there is not a snowball’s chance in hell of unionist consent  happening any time soon, despite Sinn Fein’s posturing about pro-EU majorities and Border Polls. Short of hundreds of thousands of unionists deciding to pack up and leave the North, it will not happen in the foreseeable future  – certainly not in my lifetime (I am in my sixties).

So why don’t the South’s political leaders try something different for a change? At the moment Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s policies on the ‘national question’ are a  watered down version of Sinn Fein’s: Irish reunification to be achieved with as much or as little unionist consent as is necessary to push it over the line. My personal opinion is that Sinn Fein – the only party that has any kind of strategy for driving towards unity – sees this happening by it taking over as the largest party north of the border and growing its Dail representation in the South to the point where it holds the balance of power there, and then pressuring the British into some kind of weakening of the union. One could argue that both these targets have flatlined in recent years.

But why should the two largest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail,  continue to be paler versions of Sinn Fein on this fundamental issue? For those of us who are not unionists – but who believe that a wafer-thin majority for unity in a Border Poll is a recipe for a return to violent conflict – are there any alternatives? I would suggest that there is one. In October I read an article on commemorating 1916 by the young playwright and theatre director, Sian Ní Mhuiri, in which she wrote: “I’m not nationalistic, but Ireland is my home and I love the communities here. ‘Irishness’ has little meaning in itself; it has value when people who are sharing this island come together and build communities that tackle the problems we have and create a more inclusive, fair and equitable place for everyone in the Republic and our sister state of Northern Ireland (my italics).”²

That phrase caught my eye: “our sister state of Northern Ireland.” Why shouldn’t we in the Republic start treating our fellow Irish people in the North as citizens of a legitimate and equal ‘sister state’? After all this is not the bigoted, discriminatory Orange statelet of 50 years ago. It is a modern region with a power-sharing government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence at all levels of society and the economy. Its smartest political leaders are nationalists, as are some of its top civil society and business leaders. Its health and education systems are in many ways superior to ours in the Republic. It even has a dash of incompetence and corruption – as shown by the ‘cash for ash’ controversy – that should make people south of the border feel at home!

So here’s my suggestion for 2017. Fine Gael and/or Fianna Fail should start treating Northern Ireland as an equal rather than a failed and unreformable state. ‘Parity of esteem’, first proposed for the two communities in the North by the Opsahl Commission over 23 years ago, should be extended to the two states on the island. This should help to remove the sense of threat that most unionists suffer so grievously from. It would also make a change from the ‘parity of contempt’ that has been practiced by most politicians and people in the two jurisdictions for most of the past century: Northern unionists treating Southerners as benighted and ignorant bogmen, Southerners treating Northerners – and particularly Northern unionists – as bigoted and violent extremists. In many ways this has already started to happen since the Good Friday Agreement: I believe it’s time to take it a step further by one of the major Southern parties taking the courageous step of adopting it as an explicit policy.

It doesn’t mean giving up on Irish unity. Rather it moves the emphasis from unity coming about by the North being assimilated into the Irish state, to real unity of people coming closer together in a relationship of mutual aid and understanding and even – perhaps one distant day – affection. This may sound utterly utopian, but is it any more outlandish than believing that unionists will roll over and accept unity in the relatively near future, which is what many republicans appear to believe? And isn’t it more realistic to begin to talk about how we can work together as ‘sister states’ with important interests in common at the precise moment when external events are conspiring to raise a higher post-Brexit border between us that we will have to learn to overcome in imaginative new ways? More and more cooperation for mutual benefit between equal partners across that border until we find we have much more in common  – that should be the rallying cry.

Such a new policy turn may not lead to unity as we have traditionally understood it. But it could move us towards a more realistic ultimate goal: some form of confederation.  I incline to the view of the late Sir George Quigley, one of the North’s most insightful thinkers, who believed that before there can be any future constitutional coming together on the island of Ireland, there must be a recognition that there are “two mutually opposed ‘principles of legitimacy’ which are strongly held – one nationalist and one unionist – and some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus.” He saw the model most likely to secure such consent as a confederal one, which he called  the “most persuasively argued” of the three options in the 1984 New Ireland Forum report. “On this basis the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between North and South, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies to be specifically delegated to confederal level determined jointly by representatives from North and South.”

Quigley quoted the 1984 Report’s comment that “based on the existing identities, North and South, [a confederal solution] would reflect the political and administrative realities of the past 60 [now 95] years and would entrench a measure of autonomy for both parts of Ireland within an all-island framework. While protecting and fostering the identities and ethos of the two traditions, it would enable them to work together in the common interest.”³

Is it time to revisit the New Ireland Forum Report? A joint equal venture between sister states – could this be the basis for beginning a discussion on a new formulation of the tired old ‘national question’?

 ¹The Irish Times, 12 December 2016, p. 12

² The Irish Times, The Centenary Conversations special report, 29 October 2016, p.8

³ The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, No.8, Spring 2013, pp.27-28

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment