10 beautiful and interesting places off the Belfast to Dublin road (part two)

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last month I left you in the excellent Strandfield cafe just north of Dundalk, which was my fifth beautiful and interesting place just off the Belfast to Dublin Road.

This month I am starting six miles north-west of Dundalk at my sixth place of significant interest: the mighty keep of Roche Castle. This is one of the greatest and least-known Norman fortresses of the Pale. It is shamefully neglected: in the words of its main chronicler, local artist, archaeologist and historian Micheál McKeown, “it has been used as a cow byre for the last five and a half centuries.” In any other European country such a magnificent citadel would have been restored and refurbished as a national historic monument. In Ireland it doesn’t even rate a mention on the itineraries for Failte Ireland’s ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ marketing campaign.

I had been intrigued by this huge, well-preserved ruin close to the border for years, ever since I used to take a cross-country short cut on the way home to Dublin from my Armagh workplace to link up with the motorway. This gaunt structure on a rocky promontory was the northernmost limit of the Pale: the armed border which the Normans fortified against the native Irish whose land they had plundered. Barely two miles to the north-west, and across the modern frontier with Northern Ireland, lies Glasdrumman, the stronghold of the O’Neills of the Fews, kinsmen and descendants of the great O’Neill of Tyrone, and, like him, ferocious military leaders and fighters against the English in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Four centuries on some things don’t change. A mile and a half south of Glasdrumman and two miles west of Roche Castle lies Provisional IRA leader Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy’s farm at Ballinaby, neatly divided by the Armagh-Louth border. As the epicentre of IRA operations in South Armagh, this was in its time one of the most watched places in the world (not least from a British Army post on historic Glasdrumman hill). By the 1990s Murphy was judged by MI5 to be the single biggest domestic threat to the United Kingdom and the resources devoted to curtailing his military and smuggling activities were probably greater than those deployed against any single person in recent British and Irish history. For Murphy, a brutal, ruthless man and a brilliant military strategist, was also the inheritor of a centuries-old tradition of anti-British guerrilla warfare in this area.

For all these reasons I was interested in Roche Castle (Caislean Dhún Gall – or Castle of the Foreigners – in Irish). McKeown recounts the story of the castle’s first owner, Rohesia de Verdun, one of the most fascinating and notorious women in Irish history, who, like her castle, as been almost totally erased from its annals. Rois Mhor Ní Ghairbe (‘Big Rough Rose’) was born in Staffordshire around 1200, the grand-daughter of Bertram de Verdun, a powerful and wealthy Norman aristocrat who held high office under both Henry II and Richard I. He had accompanied the former to Ireland as his seneschal (responsible for provisioning the expedition) in 1171 and was given extensive lands in Louth for his trouble.

Rohesia was brought to Ireland at the age of eight. The legend attached to her is that she promised to marry the man who would build her the castle of her dreams. When Roche Castle was completed she took her newly wed husband to a window in the banqueting hall to point out all the land that was now his. As he stood in the window (since called the ‘murder window’), she pushed him to his death. In this way she gained a reputation as a cruel and tyrannical woman. Unfortunately for the legend, it is a drop of a mere 12 feet to the ground from this particular window!

Whatever about the legend, there are several unexplained deaths in Rohesia’s life. Her marriage to her second husband, Nicholas de Bellew, a marriage which did not find favour with the then monarch,’wicked’ King John, ended after he disappeared without trace. In 1225 she married Theobald de Butler, whose first wife had died mysteriously a few months earlier. McKeown thinks there is a distinct possibility that King Henry III, John’s successor, had this marriage annulled or even had de Bellew killed in order to consolidate the vast Irish estates of two great families, the de Bellews and the de Butlers. It is also possible that Rohesia herself had him murdered in order to maintain her standing at court. Whatever about such speculation, it is certain that Rohesia was that very rare example of a Norman woman who was powerful enough in those brutish times to retain her maiden name for herself and her children. At the height of her wealth and power she owned half a million acres in England, Ireland and the Welsh borderlands. 

Roche Castle was built in three phases between 1236 and 1270, with a Great Hall measuring 57 by 42 foot protected by an outer barbican and an inner defensive wall (or ‘bawn’). It was as good an example of a finely-furnished and well-fortified Norman castle as one would find anywhere in England, France or Italy. However by 1330 it had been abandoned. McKeown’s view is that it probably succumbed to a small band of Irish guerrillas who caused its demise by sneaking up to its walls at night and lobbing over torches or flaming arrows. It was the “war of the flea” six centuries before that term was invented.

I have written a little too much about this venerable redoubt, so my notes on my final four places of interest off the road to Dublin will have to be brief. Two years ago, when walking from Belfast to Dublin, I followed the Irish Sea coast south of Dundalk, along beaches and back lanes and across fields.

Probably the least known stretch of the whole eastern seaboard is the section between Annagassan and Clogherhead. Yet I doubt if there is a finer view in the country on a clear day than the one from Dunany Point, north of Clogherhead, across Dundalk Bay towards the Cooley and Mourne Mountains. On Dunany Point itself I clambered up into a large meadow and lay under a blue sky of towering cumulus clouds on a carpet of wild flowers: Bird’s Foot Treefoil, Lady’s Bedstraw, Buttercups, Meadowsweet, Willowherb and Vetch (plus a dozen more I couldn’t name). Heavenly peace is lying in a flower-covered field under an Irish summer sky!

14 miles further south, just outside Laytown, I visited Ireland’s national eco-centre, Sonairte. In any other Western European country this would be a ‘state of the art’ facility generously funded by an environmentally conscious state. But not in Ireland. I toured it with a friend, the environmental writer and journalist Paddy Woodworth, and it was clear to both of us that it was suffering badly from under-investment. Yet 30 years ago an idealistic and far-sighted local farmer, Luke van Doorslaer (orginally from Belgium), had, with enormous public spirit, donated his own farm as a place for the public to learn about the vital topic of how best to manage and preserve our precious earth.

As Paddy said: “If we were serious for a minute about Ireland’s green agriculture, it’s to places like this we should be turning, headed by serious ecological farmers like Luke and his gardener colleague Paddy Ryan. I had an interesting conversation with Luke in which he was very honest. Sonairte is open since 1988, yet he is saying ‘We are failing to get people to engage with us, to give us their time to come and help with the work here. Everybody who comes here says it’s wonderful, but that’s where it stops’. I’ve been in eco-centres like this before, where there’s a sense that the place has had a heyday. The bee exhibition was nice but it needs to be refurbished with things like touch-screen technology. There’s a wonderful organic vegetable garden which should be supplying more restaurants in the region.” He hoped that a new generation of younger people, personified by Nicola Winters, a young teacher, ecologist and human rights activist who was also with us at Sonairte, might work to revive this hugely innovative centre.

There are two final, very different stops before my journey’s end. In the grounds of that north Dublin landmark, the sprawling old St Ita’s mental hospital in Portrane, lies possibly the most picturesque soccer ground in the country (I am a lifelong soccer fan, and a travelling supporter with the Republic of Ireland team for much of the past 30 years). Perched above cliffs and ringed by fir trees, with the most spectacular views across to Howth Head, the Sugar Loaf and the Wicklow Mountains, this is the home of St Ita’s AFC. If anybody wants to visit this gorgeous spot, look at the team’s website for a match date, walk along Donabate strand, and tell the tough-looking Eastern European security guards on the hospital’s back gate you are going to watch a bit of soccer –  football fans all, they will certainly let you through.

And so, finally, to one of my favourite pubs in Dublin, Cleary’s of Amiens Street (my 10th interesting place on the road from Belfast to Dublin). Appropriately, given that I had done the journey entirely on foot two years ago and was literally gasping for a pint, this is situated under the railway bridge just opposite Connolly Station, once the headquarters of the Great Northern Railway. Apart from the Long Hall in South Great George’s Street (which is far better known), this old railwaymen’s pub is arguably the most handsome Victorian era bar in Dublin, with its cosy, wood-panelled snugs which are perfect for a private conversation. Michael Collins used to come here for very private conversations during the War of Independence (there is a wealth of photos from that period on the walls). If you’re nice to the publican, Des Hanlon, he might even show you the upstairs room – preserved as it was in 1919-1921 – where Collins used to hold secret Irish Volunteer meetings.

So that’s it for now: 10 fascinating glimpses of Irish landscape and history, from the Bronze Age to the War of Independence, spread out along the road between our two major cities. Try a visit to one or two of them this summer.

 

 

 

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10 beautiful and interesting places off the Belfast to Dublin road (part one)

The road and railway between Belfast and Dublin have been an important part of my life. Over the past 50 years I must have travelled between Ireland’s two major cities several thousand times. Given the millions of people who make this short journey every year, it is extraordinary how many of the beautiful and interesting places on either side of that main highway are completely unknown. Since it is the beginning of summer, and I am a bit weary of the Northern Irish politics I usually cover in this column (but also see Endnote 1 below for a comment on the amazing Repeal the Eighth referendum result), I am going to write about some of those places. All are within 10 miles of the main Belfast-Dublin road. I will write about five of them this month and five later in the summer.

A few miles south of Belfast, above Shaw’s Bridge on the river Lagan, is the Giant’s Ring, a favourite with the city’s day trippers. This big earthwork circle inside a 13 foot bank, roughly 200 metres in diameter and built over 4,700 years ago, is virtually unknown outside Northern Ireland, but is one of the most beautiful examples of a ‘henge’ monument in these islands (henges feature a ring bank and ditch, but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside, and therefore are not believed to have been defensive structures). In the middle is a massive tomb made of five upright stones and a large capstone, the bare frame of which was originally a chambered grave, covered with a cairn of stones and earth.

Excavations in the 1990s found charcoal in an enclosure adjoining the Giant’s Ring which was carbon-dated as going back to over 3,000 BC. This is over 200 years earlier than the great pyramids of Egypt, contemporary with the earlier phases of Stonehenge and 200 years later than Newgrange. Archaeologist Barrie Hartwell has concluded that this Bronze Age society was both well organised and socially coherent, with some imposed or inherited authority – and spiritual leadership – that was able to motivate or coerce the population into building these impressive monuments for a religious or ceremonial purpose.

This chimes with the view of the great Welsh geographer and archaeologist E. Estyn Evans, who wrote in the 1980s that at that time “this corner of Ireland was among the most advanced, culturally and technically and commercially, of all the regions not only in Ireland but in the British Isles.”  The archaeological evidence shows that this was because “people of different origins and cultures had learned to live together, to mix, to quicken each other. So Ulster, which is best known to the English today as a place of unrest and civil strife, is thought of by British archaeologists as the place where they had that brilliant Bronze Age.”

My second beautiful, unknown place on the road south is the Lackan Bog Walk, near the village of Moneyslane in deepest County Down. If you are seeking half an hour of complete and perfect tranquillity in the most magical sylvan setting, look for Dickson’s Hill Road just south of that village. There, around 600 metres on the right, if you look carefully, you will find a sign posting you across a field and along the tree-covered bog path. This crosses 83 hectares of wetland and raised bog covered with a thin living carpet of Sphagnum mosses, with colours ranging from brilliant green to ochre red. These mosses support a wealth of plants such as bogbean, bog myrtle, marsh cinquefoil and bottle sedge, growing above pools containing aquatic species such as the insect-catching bladderwort and sundew, duckweed and pond asphohel.

Lackan Bog is also one of the most important dragonfly sites in Ireland, with 13 out of a total Irish fauna of 22 resident here. Their names are like something out of a Seamus Heaney or Micheal Longley poem: the Irish damselfly, the ruddy and black darter, the hairy dragonfly, the common and brown hawker, the four-spotted chaser and the azure,blue-tailed, emerald and large red damselfly. You will be extremely unlucky if you meet one other human being on this mile-long path, which on the sunny July evening I walked it was a tiny glimpse into the nature of heaven on earth. But Northern Irish reality is there to greet you at the end of the walk with a sign proclaiming ‘Without Christ, without hope, lost in Hell’.

12 miles further on, south of Hilltown, is a very un-Northern Irish surprise: Santa Claus’s cottage in the Mourne Mountains! The Kilbroney River Glen is as lovely and remote a glaciated valley as you’ll find in any part of Ireland. When I walked this glen in the summer sunshine two years ago with my friends Eoin Magennis and Gerry Campbell, we came across a man with two full-sized reindeer outside a picture postcard whitewashed cottage. Its owner, Laurence Moore, a retired engineer from Warrenpoint, has devoted many years to converting this remote dwelling under Altataggart Mountain into the official Irish residence of Santa Claus.

According to Moore, it has been recognised as such by an organisation called the ‘Greenland Denmark World Congress of Santas.’ It is open for just over a month before Christmas every year and for that month many thousands of people visit it, making a major tourist attraction in the area. I’m not sure I could handle the kitsch of a garishly lit Santa’s Cottage, complete with a pneumatic Santa, elves, grottoes and piped music in the heart of the Mournes in November and December, but in July it is a place of extraordinary beauty and peace. And at Christmas time it must be a fantasy come true for small children.

My fourth beautiful place is just across the border – but only just. On the banks of the Forkhill River, which marks the Armagh-Louth border, is the idyllic spot that is Urney graveyard, where the poet Peadar O Doirnín is buried. This spot, with its ancient graves surrounded by cypress trees and barley fields, is another peaceful haven unknown to the hordes who speed in their metal boxes up and down the M1 motorway a few miles to the east.

Peadar O Doirnín, poet and teacher, was probably born close to here in around 1700 and died in 1769. He was best known for his love poems, notably Úrchnoc Chéin mhic Cáinte (The Green Hill of Cian son of Cáinte) and Uillegán Dubh Ó (Dark Beautiful Maiden O), which were written to be sung. He was also a member of the famous band of Jacobite rapparees (or outlaws) led by Seamus McMurphy (Seamus Mór Mac Murchaidh) in the 1740s. McMurphy was eventually hung in Armagh city after being betrayed to the British authorities by a woman, and is buried in the historic Church of Ireland graveyard in nearby Creggan along with the descendants of the O’Neill chieftains.

Urney graveyard wasn’t always a place of tranquillity. For more than 30 years its border location meant that it was overlooked by a British Army watch tower. As I walked along the Forkill River I had passed a derilect farmhouse, plumb on the border, complete with abandoned crockery, gas canisters and bags of animal feed – it was easy to imagine an IRA active service unit holing up here for an attack on a passing army patrol.

My fifth place of interest is a cafe, one of Dundalk’s best kept secrets. On the town’s northern outskirts is Strandfield, a hidden gem which is by far the best place to stop for lunch, coffee or tea if you are driving between Belfast and Dublin. And I mean hidden. You take the turn-off to Carlingford from the M1, and 50 yards down that road on the right-hand side is an almost invisible sign. You drive down an undistinguished avenue into a farmyard. And there on your left is a garden centre in what looks like a large barn. Inside is Dundalk’s answer to Avoca, a large cafe cum florist cum eclectic goods shop offering tasty vegetarian cuisine, health foods and bakery products, teas and coffees and cakes and gifts of all shapes and sizes, all served by a friendly young staff from half a dozen countries.

I am running out of space so I will leave the final five beautiful and interesting places between Dundalk and Dublin until a column later this summer, starting with the magnificent and unjustly unknown Roche Castle to the west of the town.

ENDNOTE 1: I can’t finish without adding my two ‘ha’pence’ worth of comment on the overwhelming and historic majority in the 25 May referendum which changed the Irish Constitution so that women with difficult and dangerous pregnancies can for the first time obtain a safe and legal abortion in this country (they still can’t in Northern Ireland).

This was an utterly transformative event for contemporary Irish society, for so long stuck in the straitjacket of a profoundly conservative, male-dominated alliance between the Irish state and the Catholic Church. I will limit myself to reporting three comments of people I have great respect for. The first was from the eminent journalist and commentator Olivia O’Leary, who remembered with barely-concealed emotion that at the time of the 1983 referendum, which put the anti-abortion clause into the Constitution, her daughter was four months old. She said when the result came through this time  she “suddenly felt that I was a citizen of this country, and so did my daughter. Suddenly women’s lives matter, you don’t have to be at death’s door before they matter. …You have to be a woman to know how that feels – that new sense of the freedom, recognition and visibility of women”.

The second was from my former colleague on the 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission, Paul Burgess, now a university lecturer in Cork. He wrote on the day of the result: “I have lived in the Republic for 25 years now, arriving here with all the uncertainties and pre-conceptions of someone from a Belfast working class, loyalist background . May I say today that I am proud of my Irish citizenship, as the liberalisation and modernisation of this state continues unabated (sadly, shaming my beloved homeland in comparison).”

As someone who, like Burgess, is from a Northern Protestant background, I believe Ireland is now one of the most liberal and open-minded countries in Europe: with a liberal abortion regime and same sex marriage passed by large majorities in referenda; over 90% of people polled saying they want to remain part of the European Union; a gay, half-Indian prime minister; and, despite the huge and recent increase of foreign-born people in the country (11.6% of the population in 2016), not the remotest sign of the emergence of any kind of right wing, anti-immigration party. Irish democracy has showed itself to be a strong, vibrant plant at a time when (in Fintan O’Toole’s words) “a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.” O’Toole continues: “This is what patriotism really looks like: not flag-waving xenophobia but a real belief in the possibilities of a better Ireland.”¹

When I was young and naive I believed that the liberalisation of Irish society in such ways would bring the political unity of the island closer. The late Garret Fitzgerald once felt the same. In my mature years I am more realistic: my native North is not interested in liberalism, it is paralysed by reaction.

ENDNOTE 2: In early July I will once again be going on my annual cross-border summer walkabout, and trying to raise money for BCM (formerly Belfast Central Mission), who work with homeless and other vulnerable young people in Northern Ireland. This year I will be undertaking a ‘pilgrimage’ from Armagh to Croagh Patrick, walking through Monaghan, Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo across hills and along back lanes and abandoned railway lines. If anybody in the North or Britain would like to sponsor me, please see my funding page on https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1 . I will be coming to friends in the South with another walking appeal later in the summer!

¹ ‘A campaign won by a generation that had good reason to give up on Ireland’, Irish Times, 28 May

 

 

 

 

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In Prague: Memories of my Czech father and my Irish mother

My wife Doireann and I spent a long weekend in Prague earlier this month. For me, it was a sentimental journey into my family’s past. 71 years ago this month my Czech father Stephen and my Irish mother Eileen were married in the 12th century St Martin in the Wall church, a couple of hundred yards from the Old Town Square in that city’s most historic quarter. Last month my journalist daughter Sorcha, in the introduction to her book New to the Parish – about Ireland’s recent immigrants – wrote (and also spoke on radio) about how my father had arrived in Ireland in 1948 as a political refugee. I thought I would add some of my own memories.

My father was a Communist (although still only a candidate member of the Czech Communist Party) from a German-speaking Jewish background; my mother was a County Antrim Presbyterian. They had met three months earlier when my father, a journalist who spoke fluent English, had been asked to commentate on the Czechoslovakia versus USA game in the world ice hockey championship. At a post-match party he had met my rather beautiful young mother who, having spent the war years as a teacher in Bray, was avid for new experiences in some faraway European city, and ended up teaching English in Prague.

It was an unlikely match. My father had been badly wounded while fighting for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War; had travelled as a courier between underground Communist parties in the Balkans under a Canadian alias; and had been interned for four years as a Communist by the British in India. My mother came from a devout and conservative Presbyterian family outside Ballymena. But it was a love match. Within two months my father had proposed and on 17th May 1947 they were married, first in a civil ceremony, then in the Hussite church of St Martin (one of the centres of the pre-Lutheran Czech Reformation at the beginning of the 15th century).

My father had at first resisted my mother’s insistence on a church wedding. He found it difficult to “compromise with the principle of man determining his own fate without divine guidance and inspiration.” In the end, Czechoslovakia’s greatest journalist, Egon Erwin Kisch – himself a Communist – persuaded him that he could make my mother happy by marrying her in church without compromising in the slightest his own socialist commitment. “And if you want to convert her to our views, it would be a fatal mistake to impose upon her a principle which is merely one of the conclusions to which Socialism leads, and not in itself a fundamental part of our creed.”

In the end my mother’s Christianity lasted longer than my father’s Communism. My father had been working as the editor of a communist-leaning government journal (the Communists were the largest party in a four party coalition at the time). However he was also a patriotic Czech who believed that Czechoslovakia had a key role to play as a link between Soviet Russia and the West, and more particularly, in June 1947, that his country, like the rest of post-war Europe, should accept the bountiful offer of Marshall Aid from the USA.

When the Czech leadership was summoned to Moscow and was ordered to have nothing to do with this brazen act of  “American imperialism,” my father took a brave decision that would change the course of his life. He published an article in an independent Prague journal in which he attacked the emergence of a new wave of nationalism in both East and West; made fun of Soviet claims that all the great technological inventions of the previous 80 years were Russian, and of the new trend in Russia of condemning Western art and literature as ‘decadent’ He wrote afterwards: “I had no illusions that such an open attack on Soviet policy would place me beyond the pale in the eyes of every ‘disciplined and loyal’ Communist and would have the most serious consequences.”

And so it proved. On 24th February 1948 the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in a bloodless coup. That evening my father was informed that he had been sacked from his job. He decided that my mother, pregnant with me, should go back to the safety of Northern Ireland. He was visited by the security police who offered him a deal: become a spy for the Communist police or face the consequences of becoming ‘an enemy of the people’. He did neither: a short time later he walked under cover of night across the border into Austria and took a flight to London.

My father finished his 1951 memoir, Strange Land Behind Me, with the following words: “Some time after, the telephone in an empty flat in Bilkova Street must have rung peremptorily and persistently. My visitor probably drove along to the quiet old street opposite the Altneu Synagogue and, finding the place empty, made his report and then turned his attention to other men who had been foolish enough to oppose ‘the will of the people.”

We are all creatures of our backgrounds. In politics I am a social democrat and an Irish nationalist with as small an ‘n’ as you can find. In religion I am a Unitarian, from the kind of  liberal Presbyterian tradition the United Irishmen came from, which believes, above all, in freedom, reason and tolerance.  My father’s democratic socialism and my mother’s Presbyterianism have both greatly influenced me. I have supported left-wing causes and left-of-centre political parties all my life. I have also tried to follow my mother’s example of involvement in peace and reconciliation movements: in her late sixties she was one of the Greenham Common women who protested against nuclear weapons at that US military base outside London; in Northern Ireland she was active in the Corrymeela Community.

My family background – Presbyterian, Jewish, socialist – makes me very suspicious of extreme nationalism, of the kind I see espoused by many in Sinn Fein. It is ahistorical, idiotic and dangerous to believe that all the evil in Ireland comes from one source: Britain. We need to tread very carefully and very slowly when we contemplate the possibility that the old nationalist dream of Irish unity may become a real prospect in the not-so-distant future, albeit at the cost of trying to incorporate a large, deeply hostile Northern unionist community.

We would do well to remember what happened in Central and Eastern Europe when irredentist nationalism met the stubborn remnants of people who still believed in old empires and old religions. As Robert Gerwarth, Professor of Modern History at UCD and author of a highly-regarded book on the aftermath of the First World War  in Europe¹, wrote recently about that region in that period: “Populated by large, resentful minorities that felt oppressed by the new dominant majorities, most of the successor states [to the old pre-World War I empires] proved unstable and eventually gave way to an authoritarian dictatorship of one kind or another.”

¹ The Vanquished:Why the First World War Failed to End.

Posted in General, Views from abroad | 4 Comments

Time to face reality? A new hard(ish) border is on the cards

It is an outcome filled with deep dangers for this island, but I wonder if it is time to face the unpalatable reality that a new, hard(ish) Irish border is the most likely outcome of the current labyrinthine talks between the EU and the UK over Brexit.

On 20 April the Daily Telegraph’s lead story was that the British government’s plans for avoiding a hard border had been subjected to a “systematic and forensic annihilation” by EU officials. It quoted senior EU diplomatic sources as saying that “none of the UK’s customs options will work – none of them.” The always well-informed RTE Brussels correspondent, Tony Connelly, doubted whether the British had even got as far as tabling any new proposals. He suggested what had been rejected were reheated elements of the old UK package of proposals from last August, with its offer to collect EU import tariffs on Brussels’ behalf and its untested high-tech and ‘trusted trader’ customs solutions, which was dismissed then by the EU side as “magical thinking”.  The EU’s hard line stems from its anxiety that its ultra-strict trade rules will be enforced and will be seen to be enforced by the post-Brexit UK.

If the British haven’t come up with anything new in the past eight months to deal with the Irish border conundrum, one wonders how likely they are to do so in the two months before the next EU Council in June – a key target according to Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – or even in the six months before the effective final deadline for agreeing the overall Brexit treaty in October.

The Irish government has put a huge amount of steely determination into securing the so-called ‘backstop’ option. This is that, if all else fails, there will be alignment on the island of Ireland between the rules of the EU’s single market and customs union which “now or in the future support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Belfast] Agreement.” This will apply unless alternative proposals (from the British) are agreed. EU (with Irish) and UK officials are currently involved in intensive talks both to decide what those proposals might be and, in their absence, what this ambiguous and perhaps unworkable alignment might mean in practice.

Katy Hayward, the Queen’s University Belfast sociologist who (along with QUB political scientist David Phinnemore) has become the acknowledged expert on the Irish border and Brexit, thinks the Northern Ireland/Ireland issue is a litmus test for the UK’s whole approach to its future relationship with the EU. What it puts forward in terms of avoiding a hard Irish border demonstrates its grasp of the implications of leaving the single market and customs union.¹

She says British ministers’ focus on preventing a ‘hard’ Irish border by having checks and controls that are not physically at the border misses the main point. This is that if the UK is heading for a ‘hard Brexit’ – i.e. withdrawing from the arrangements that serve to make EU member state borders frictionless – this by definition means a hard Irish border.

She believes one likely outcome is that ‘specific solutions’ (to use a phrase from the 8 December ‘Joint Report’ EU-UK agreement) will be found for Northern Ireland. This is the very thing the DUP, with its paranoia about the slightest differentiation between Britain and the North, will fight tooth and nail – using its temporary hold on the balance of power in the House of Commons to do so. However these ‘specific solutions’ could bring about just that kind of different treatment for Northern Ireland: i.e. a ‘Canada-plus’ deal for the UK as a whole (leaving the customs union and the single market in the hope of getting some relatively generous future trade agreement) alongside a ‘European Economic Area-minus’ for the North  (Northern Ireland abiding by EU rules so that, for example, its goods have tariff-free access to the EU’s common market). A crucial requirement here would be the return of a fully functioning NI Executive to help manage the mechanisms to ensure that the North doesn’t lose out as the EU and UK go their separate ways in the period ahead. It all sounds fiendishly complicated and problematic.

Of course neither government really wants this ultra-complex and highly charged solution. On the British side the ‘backstop’ proposal was roundly condemned by Theresa May at the end of February when she saw the legal text of the draft Withdrawal Agreement promising “a common regulatory space” between both parts of Ireland on the grounds that it would create “a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea”. In the end she reluctantly went along with it before the March EU Council because the offending section in the colour-coded Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland was in white, meaning it had not yet been agreed.

For its part, the Irish government simply wants the whole of the UK to stay in the customs union, which would avoid any difficult, controversial special treatment for the North. This has led to right-wing Brexiteers claiming that there is an infernal alliance of British ‘remainers’, the Irish government and the EU which is using Northern Ireland and the Irish border as a weapon to force the UK to stay in the customs union.

Hayward notes that the ‘backstop’ option shows that the EU is holding true to its commitment to be “flexible and imaginative” on the issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  For in this option, the EU offers de facto European Economic Area membership to the sub-national region that is Northern Ireland, but to cover just one of the Union’s four freedoms (i.e. movement of goods). Avoiding a resulting economic border down the Irish Sea is the UK’s problem, its negotiators say.

The colour-coded version of the draft Protocol indicates that there is little which is currently agreed between the UK and the EU on Ireland/Northern Ireland. What has been agreed is the continuation of the Common Travel Area; the need to “maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation” across several areas (such as education, tourism, justice and security); Britain’s freedom to build on the Belfast Agreement (we’ll be waiting a long time for that!) and the creation of a specialised committee, probably involving both Irish and Northern Irish officials, for the implementation of this protocol.

The objectives of protecting Irish citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland, the rules on state aid for the North, and a Single Electricity Market are agreed, but the manner of their achievement is not. In the coming weeks, the UK and EU officials have to find agreement on a wide and complex range of issues for the two Irish jurisdictions, including free movement of goods across the border, agriculture and fisheries, the environment, and the application and enforcement of EU regulations in Northern Ireland.

Hayward believes that “a strong starting point would be if the UK comes out and clearly states that ‘specific solutions’ are necessary to meet the commitments it has made to Northern Ireland, both in the [8 December] Joint Report and in the Belfast Agreement.” Will Theresa May have the bottle to face down the DUP and Tory right to make such a statement? I doubt it.

However I agree with Hayward that, as things stand, there is a real risk that – far from enjoying the best of both worlds of continued UK sovereignty and tariff-free access to EU markets – Northern Ireland could fall between the rock of the EU’s determination not to bend its rules and the hard place of the UK’s refusal to allow it to have special treatment. And that will almost certainly lead, to the dismay and distress of the great majority of Irish people, north and south, to a hard border (or perhaps a hardish border with a ‘backstop’ protocol that is interpreted by the British in the most  minimalist manner possible) .

In the event of this outcome, I fear for the Good Friday Agreement. For despite its honeyed words, the current British government (like most of the British people) thinks or cares little about this miraculous, peace-bringing 20 year old accord, and the DUP (which never signed up to it in the first place) would be happy enough to see it fade away. In the words of a recent Guardian editorial, Brexiteers’ “pursuit of the ideological chimera of absolute trade sovereignty blinds them to the reality of a fragile peace treaty that demands respectful, judicious handling.” Not for the first time in our history, a major threat to the peace and well-being of Ireland may be about to happen as a result of British ignorance of and indifference to this island.

PS  I was delighted to see my home town of Ballymena, which too often makes headlines as a bastion of obscurantism, showing an enlightened side earlier this month. The DUP Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Paul Reid, hosted a special event in the town to celebrate Irish Language Week (Seachtain na Gaeilge). He singled out for particular praise the East Belfast language activist Linda Ervine, who he said had explored the links between the Protestant community and “one of the oldest and most historic written languages.” He was following the example of his party colleague Paul Hamill, Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey, who spoke Irish when welcoming guests to an Irish language event in a local theatre in March. There is hope for the DUP yet!

¹ For a fuller exposition of Dr Hayward’s arguments, see  http://qpol.qub.ac.uk/author/qpol_hayward/  ‘Avoiding a hard Irish border: Time to move from magical thinking to specific solutions.’

 

 

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

Sadly, rugby is one of the few things that unites all Irish people

I was intending to write about Brexit again this month, but the dreadful conundrum of Brexit and the Irish border is going to be with us for some time, so I am going to turn to a far cheerier and more immediate subject: our magnificent all-Ireland rugby team.

On St Patrick’s Day in Quinn’s bar in Newcastle, Co Down, I watched the demolition of a powerful English fifteen by the finest Irish team I have ever seen (I attended my first England-Ireland rugby international in 1962). Judging by the number of tricolours in the pub I was among a largely nationalist crowd. But Irish Times reporter Amanda Ferguson quoted unionists in Belfast pubs saying adamantly that there was no contradiction in people from their background cheering for the Irish team. “I’m Irish first, British second. I don’t see why anyone would find that strange. I support Ireland,” was a typical comment.

As Trevor Ringland – former international winger, Ulster Unionist parliamentary candidate and reconciliation activist – puts it: “We in Northern Ireland are able to move between different identities. I support Ulster rugby, all nine Ulster GAA counties, Northern Ireland football, Ireland rugby, the British and Irish Lions and Europe’s Ryder Cup team.” It’s a sporting version of what the poet John Hewitt said over 40 years ago: “I’m an Ulsterman of planter stock. I was born on the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago are offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”

There is a real richness and reconciliation in these overlapping and multiple identities. One of my happiest sporting memories was watching Ulster rugby fans, the great majority of them from a Protestant (and therefore unionist) background, being warmly congratulated and embraced by people on the streets of Dublin after their province had become the first Irish team to win the Heineken Cup European championship at Lansdowne Road in January 1999, nine months after the Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish rugby anthem, Ireland’s Call, is another example of this. Ken Blaney, a Belfast businessman, introduced himself to Amanda Ferguson as an “Irish-British person from a working class unionist background,” adding that Irish rugby, unlike GAA and soccer, transcended the North’s political divide. “I find Ireland’s Call emotional: rugby gets everyone together, it galvanises everyone.”

Again I agree. As a proud Irishman, I sing my national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, even though I consider it a 19th century dirge with outdated and vainglorious militaristic lyrics. On the other hand I sing “We have come to answer our country’s call from the four proud provinces of Ireland”, by Phil Coulter, with enormous enthusiasm. I believe its inclusive words would make it an ideal anthem for his fellow Derry man John Hume’s dreamed-of “agreed Ireland” (whenever that might happen). I get really cross when smart assed Irish Times sports writers, utterly indifferent to the need to find new symbols to help overcome this country’s deep historical divisions, launch inane attacks on the IRFU’s unifying all-Ireland song.

Look at the pluralism of this wonderful team, now close to the almighty All Blacks as the second best in the world.  It features three Ulsterman: captain and County Armagh farmer Rory Best; the rampaging Belfast beanpole Iain Henderson; and the record-breaking young try-scorer Jacob Stockdale, son of an evangelical Protestant prison chaplain. It also has two contrasting imported stars: C.J.Stander, a strong candidate to be the world’s finest Number 8, who is a white South African, and Bundee Aki, the Connacht centre who is the son of a poor Samoan family from South Auckland in New Zealand. Add in 10 ‘ordinary’ Irishmen from Leinster and Munster, and can anyone think of a better symbol of the open, pluralist, multi-cultural and successful country that 21st century Ireland has become than this team?

But here comes the sad bit. Can anyone think of any other institution, event or symbol around which all Irish people – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, men and women, native and foreign born, black and white – can unite? As somebody who has spent a lot of time working to bring Irish people, north and south, together through practical cross-border cooperation, I can’t (apart, maybe, from St Patrick’s Day itself). Indeed one of my great disappointments is that in the 14 years I worked as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh – during what some would see as a post-1998, EU-funded  ‘golden age’ of peace and cooperation – I saw very few new all-island organisations and structures emerging. We in the Centre were instrumental, with others, in bringing together those involved in training teachers, running universities and spatial planning into new all-Ireland networks. But I’m hard pushed to think of any other examples from that largely hopeful and fruitful period – now, I fear, ending with the collapse of the Stormont institutions.

There are others, of course, left over from pre-partition years. Groups as different as accountants, traditional musicians and lifeboat crews have stayed together through the bleak 20th century, practising their arts and crafts and professions as if the border didn’t exist. Smaller sports like cricket and hockey and boxing have done the same. But they are relatively few and far between. So let’s celebrate our marvellous rugby team and congratulate the Irish Rugby Football Union for its determination to uphold sport’s ability to transcend the tragic barriers of our history. Let’s not forget that while the IRA were blowing up international rugby players on the road to Belfast (prematurely ending the international career of one potentially world-class player, Nigel Carr), the IRFU, with the assistance of an Garda Siochana, were making sure that at least one RUC man was protected at the height of the ‘troubles’ to come south to represent his country.

My vision of Ireland – as a pluralist, consensual and world-beating combination – is closer to the IRFU’s than Sinn Fein’s. If that makes me irredeemably Dublin middle class, so be it. When I put the joy people have experienced this year – and for several years – because of the exploits of our rugby team, beside the murder and misery inflicted on Irish people for 30 years by the Provisional IRA, I am unapologetic.

PS  Talking of Sinn Fein, do I detect a cosying up by that most middle class and non-republican of political parties, Fine Gael, to the party of the Provisionals?  I have noted in previous blogs the surprisingly ‘green’ recent declarations of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein agreed on the use of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to take over Stormont’s powers if there was no agreement between the Northern parties on a return of power-sharing. Then this week I was erroneously copied into an email from the Taoiseach’s adviser on the North, former senator Jim D’Arcy, in which he commiserated with Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney on having to suspend Senator Máire Devine for re-tweeting an ugly remark about Brian Stack, the Irish prison officer murdered by the IRA. D’Arcy emailed: “Tough day for you, Declan. You did well! Sorry for your girl…A nice person!”

 

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 3 Comments

Progressive Belfast shows the quarrelsome North a way forward

Depression over the latest failure by the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree a formula for the return of power sharing in the North has been my dominant emotion over the past fortnight. However I was not at all surprised, having been told by a leading unionist commentator and several former loyalist paramilitary leaders on the day after Theresa May and Leo Varadkar’s pointless visit to Belfast on 12th February that the negotiations were about to fail, largely over the proposed Irish Language Act – they duly collapsed a few hours later.  How on earth the Irish government was “taken completely by surprise” (the Irish Times quoting”senior sources”) by the DUP’s decision to pull out of those talks baffles me. As an ordinary, if well-informed citizen, I knew about this 24 hours before my government.

This month, for a change, I am going to tell a rare political good news story from the North: how Belfast City Council has learned to run its affairs through the kind of relatively harmonious inter-party relationships that appear to be almost completely absent from the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly’s mistrust-fuelled proceedings.

In the 1980s, when I was an Irish Times reporter in the city, Belfast City Council’s meetings were notorious for sectarian squabbling and hate-mongering: for endless DUP calls to ban Sinn Fein; Sinn Fein descriptions of the Union flag as the ‘butcher’s apron’; proceedings sometimes having to be suspended for fear of physical violence; and even one DUP councillor, George Seawright (afterwards expelled from the party and later killed by a fringe republican group), calling for the ‘incineration’ of Catholics who objected to the British national anthem. At one meeting in 1985 I listened to that arch-Brexiteer and climate change denier Sammy Wilson, soon to become the DUP’s first Lord Mayor (and, astonishingly, now also a member of the Queen’s Privy Council), condemning the council’s project to build a concert hall (which turned out to be its most inspired public investment of the past 30 years) as “a fraud, a white elephant, with no prospect of enriching this city.”

As late as 1993 the SDLP were saying in their local election manifesto that “Belfast has become a by-word for sectarian, obstructionist politics of a kind that most of us, of whatever political persuasion, hoped we had seen the last of 20 years ago.”

Fast forward a quarter of a century to Belfast City Council today. What a transformation!  No single party – or, more important, coalition of unionist or nationalist parties – has a majority. Sinn Fein holds 19 of the 60 seats, the DUP 13 and Alliance 8. Smaller numbers are held by the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, the left-of-centre Progressive Unionist Party, the Greens and People Before Profit.

This multiplicity of parties has put deal-making at the heart of the council’s business, a process which as often as not involves the more centrist parties, and is reflected in the compromise decisions which are the stuff of the city’s politics. At its two most powerful committees – the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee and the City Growth and Regeneration Committee – officials work hard to persuade the councillors to reach agreement by consensus. 80% of the time they succeed and decisions do not have to go to a vote of the full council.

One senior official says that some time in the past 15-20 years most councillors, including those from the DUP and Sinn Fein, realised that the best way to provide efficient public services to Belfast’s citizens was by agreement. They use a Party Leaders Forum and other informal working groups, where the politicians and city officials have preliminary discussions and try to iron out any difficult issues.  “They realise they will get nothing done if they vote on purely tribal lines,” says this man. He says Belfast has been blessed with very effective chief executives over the past two decades, notably Peter McNaney and the current chief executive Suzanne Wylie, backed up by excellent staff. He pays tribute to the councillors, most of whom live in the communities they represent, for a common “willingness to compromise to get things done for those communities”.

Unlike in the past, committee memberships, committee chairs and other post of responsibility, and council appointments to outside public bodies, are decided by extremely complex and ultra-fair European voting systems like D’Hondt and Sainte-Lague. The days of the Ulster Unionist monolith automatically handing out jobs to their cronies are a bad and distant memory. Unlike in the Northern Ireland Assembly, no councillor is required to define herself or himself in sectarian terms as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’. There are no petitions of concern to stymie decision making. For most of the time councillors’ minds are focused on practical services to their constituents, rather than divisive national or tribal issues like flags and language and legacies of the past. The wave of loyalist violence following the council’s 2012 decision to fly the Union flag on only 17 days a year – in line with practice elsewhere in the UK – gave the council an entirely unfair image of continued deep division over such issues.

What seems to have happened rather is that the overall politics of Belfast City Council have become more progressive and less conservative in the past decade or so. There is a greater degree of agreement – sometimes in united opposition to the DUP – among the majority of the parties: whether they’re republican or social democratic or progressive (e.g. Alliance and the small Progressive Unionist Party). For example in 2015 the council voted in support of marriage equality. Another crucial change is that the council now has more women (over a third compared to under 10% 20 years ago) and more younger members.

The council has set up the Shared City Partnership to involve business, trade union, church, voluntary sector, social care and housing groups in advising it on taking forward its Good Relations (i.e. relations between Protestant, Catholic and other communities) policies for Belfast. It has worked hard – if not always entirely successfully – to keep the problem of 11th July bonfires in loyalist areas under control. It has persuaded loyalist groups, in particular, to replace intimidating paramilitary murals with more muted representations of that culture and community.

In all this, the Alliance Party, as the third largest on the council (with eight out of 60 seats, compared with eight out of 90 in the Northern Ireland Assembly) has played a key role. One of its younger councillors, Emmet McDonough-Brown, puts it like this:

“Our view is that the broader the consensus between the parties, and the wider the civic conversation among the people of Belfast, the more stable any agreement, and the more effective and long-lasting any outcome, will be.

“No party has overall control of the council so Sinn Fein and the DUP can achieve nothing on their own: they have to engage with the other parties. Alliance often finds it is holding the balance of power: a strong and privileged position. We will work with both the DUP and Sinn Fein depending on the issue. That gives us a chance to advance our core aim: to build a shared and reconciled city.”

“Sinn Fein and the DUP are still the largest parties, but there are lots of people in the city – young people, women, minority ethnic groups in particular – who fall outside that duopoly.  We are committed to giving those people a voice. In our view anybody who chooses to make Belfast their home is an equal citizen. It’s a good position to be in – that there are people coming in from outside who want to make Belfast their home. It’s not so long ago that large numbers of people just wanted to get out of it. We are now perceived as being more generous and attractive than we would have thought.”

There is a lesson here for the British and Irish governments. Instead of relying on the two old enemies, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to settle their probably irreconcilable differences, they should learn from Belfast’s experience and more fully include the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance – and maybe even the Greens and People Before Profit – in future Stormont talks.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

Why demography is no way to solve the Northern Ireland problem

We need to talk about demography. In an Irish Times article last month the economist David McWilliams reminded us of some basic facts.¹ As we all know, the Protestant population of Northern Ireland is falling while the Catholic population is rising. But as McWilliams pointed out, it’s a bit more dramatic than that. He compared the oldest and the youngest cohorts in the 2011 census and found that in the over-90s category Protestants outnumbered Catholics by 70% to 28%, while in the under-fives the proportions were starkly reversed, with 49% Catholic and just over 36% Protestant. Extrapolating from the census figures, he calculated that Catholics will become the absolute majority in Northern Ireland around 2036: that is, just 18 years away.

There are other official figures which confirm these data. In 2015, according to the NI Labour Force Survey Religion report, 46% of the working age population was Catholic, 40% Protestant. The Protestant proportion of the 16-24 age group had declined between 1990 and 2015 from 49% to 36%, while the Catholic proportion had risen from 44% to 51% (with ‘others’ growing from 7% to 13%).²

All this has drastically different implications for the two groups in the North. For nationalists and republicans, it means that the long dreamed of united Ireland may now be within reach – although interestingly in the 2011 census only 25% of the population identified as Irish when asked about their national identity (45% said they were Catholic), compared to 40% British and a surprising 21% Northern Irish. For unionists – or at least the more reflective among them who try to imagine what the future might hold – it means they must urgently begin thinking about one of two things: either how to reach a compromise (while they still have a narrow majority) with their Catholic and nationalist fellow-citizens which is generous enough to persuade a significant number of them that it is worth their while remaining in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future; or how to begin planning for the advent of their ultimate nightmare – fight or flight?

Because let me make one thing clear to my nationalist and republican friends (those who don’t know it already). If what Sinn Fein wants comes to pass, and sometime in the next 20 years there is a Border Poll that results in a wafer thin majority for Irish unity, we will see a return to large-scale violence. In a response to an edited version of my December blog which appeared in the Irish Times³, a Belfast reader (who should know better) said my prophesy of “a bloody maelstrom” in the event of a narrow Border Poll vote in favour of unity was “a unionist trope which is traceable to 19th century Home Rule politics.”

He could not be more wrong. The unionists are a martial people, fiercely proud of their service to the British Army and the British Empire: when their backs are against the wall against the ancient Irish enemy, they will fight. Has he forgotten the mass unionist mobilisation of the 1912 Ulster Covenant and the original Ulster Volunteer Force; the bloody anti-Catholic pogroms in Belfast and elsewhere in the early 1920s; the burning of Bombay Street in 1969; the Ulster Workers Council strike against the 1974 power-sharing Executive and Council of Ireland (described by political scientist Tom Nairn as “without doubt the most successful political action carried out by any European working class since the Second World War”) ; the Glenanne gang of loyalist paramilitaries, RUC and UDR men in County Armagh, which bombed Dublin and Monaghan in the same year; the loyalist assassination campaign against Catholics from the 1970s to the 1990s? Some middle class unionists may reluctantly come around to the inevitability of Irish unity, but working class and rural loyalists, led by the UDA and the UVF, will quickly and bloodily adopt their favourite role as Protestant Ulster’s defenders.

The violence may be relatively short-lived, largely because the paramilitary groups leading it, reflecting the rapid decline of the industrial working class from which they draw their membership, are only a shadow of their 20th century predecessors in terms of organisation and ferocity, and probably won’t have the stomach or capacity for a long drawn out campaign. And they won’t have the British security forces to fall back on this time. But major violence there will be: of that there is no doubt. And what a bitter, hate-filled place Ireland will be after that renewed bloodletting.

Because there will also be a violent response from the other side. Anybody who has looked at the North’s republican commemoration websites (I recommend the County Down Republican Commemoration Committee’s site in what is often regarded as the ‘softest’ nationalist county in the North) will find there an utterly unrepentant glorifying of the young IRA members who died in the squalid internecine violence of the 30 years of the ‘troubles’, revering them as noble martyrs in the tradition of the rebels of 1916 and the War of Independence. A new generation of young republicans brought up on such a diet of uncritical hero worship will be only too eager to fight to defend their newly won unity. They will certainly not heed the warning of the distinguished public servant, Maurice Hayes, whose recent death robbed Northern Ireland of a wise, moderate nationalist voice: “One thing that should not be allowed is the glorification in song or story of what was mean and nasty and dirty.”

So if we don’t want a return to bloody mayhem in the North, what is the alternative? It is what is once again happening – with excruciating difficulty – in Belfast at the moment: an attempt to put back together the power-sharing Executive, in the most inauspicious post Brexit circumstances, as part of the complex three-stranded architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. It doesn’t help that the DUP and Sinn Fein are so poorly led by Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill: the former the personification of anti-Irish unionist arrogance (and probably not in control of her own party), the latter a kind of party line quoting republican automaton (and certainly not in control of her own party).

Maybe that is too unkind. Foster was trying in her limited way to adopt a conciliatory tone at the Killarney economic conference last month, with her friendly rhetoric about the two parts  of Ireland being “tied together and part of the same neighbourhood and what happens on one side of the fence inevitably has an impact on the  other”. And maybe O’Neill will have learned something from the damaging fiasco of the Barry McElduff affair.

One thing that Foster did say in Killarney is worth noting. She praised the progress of cross-border interaction since her childhood and the “unimaginably positive relations between our two states.” I am like a cracked record saying it, but I believe this is the way forward: careful, painstaking, mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation until the barriers of history start slowly to come down – not any reckless and premature movement towards a fear-inducing Border Poll. Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen had it right on this: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney should take note. For those of us who would like to see the unity of the Irish people one far-off day, this is the priority: to work courageously and unceasingly to soften what Yeats called the “fanatic heart” by dispelling the “great hatred, little room” that has maimed our beloved island for centuries.

¹ http://www.davidmcwilliams.ie/2017/12/05/northern-ireland-and-the-trip-advisor-index-of-economic-vibrancy

² https://www.executiveoffice-ni.gov.uk/publications/labour-force-survey-religion-report-2015

³  https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/varadkar-and-coveney-may-regret-wrapping-themselves-in-green-flag-1.3336810

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | Leave a comment