Now they’re going to be on the losing side again, is it time to be nice to the Unionists?

Writing this on 24 October, I forecast that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, despite parliamentary delays and perhaps a general election,  will eventually pass through the British parliament (the 30 vote Commons majority for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill deal earlier this week was an important straw in the wind) . That will mean the DUP, along with the bulk of the unionist community which supports them, will be on the losing side again.

Johnson’s deal will see Northern Ireland’s link with Britain, which they prize above all things, weakened in two important ways: from the end of 2020, there will be both a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, with the North covered by EU customs rules and closely aligned to the EU’s single market on goods regulations. It is inevitable that over time this will mean growing influence in the North’s affairs by Brussels and Dublin, and less by London.

Personally I believe this is as good a deal as Northern Ireland will get out of a British government absolutely determined to implement the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU. In my anxiety to be conciliatory to the unionists, I have probably been too critical of the Irish government’s steely line on the backstop in previous blogs. But in the end Dublin played a weak hand extremely well, with the importance of the NI peace process, and EU solidarity with Ireland as a member of the European family, being the key cards played by Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and their superb diplomats. Varadkar’s ingenious (and highly complex) proposal in Liverpool on 10 October that in return for no customs border in Ireland, Northern Ireland would be able leave the EU customs union along with the rest of the UK and thus benefit from any new British trade deals, seems to have been the breakthrough.

However I also recognise that this will be the latest defeat for unionism in the past 40 plus years. In Seamus Mallon’s words, most nationalists “have little or no concept of what has been done to the unionist psyche by a whole range of happenings in recent decades”: the killing of so many of their people by republican paramilitaries; the ‘betrayal’ of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement; the drastic reform or abolition of the RUC and UDR; IRA leaders like Martin McGuinness becoming cabinet ministers without a single IRA weapon being handed over; the DUP being put into the position of holding the balance of power at Westminster and then badly over-playing their hand.

And now this. The key thing that has to be remembered about the unionists is their politics is based on fear: they see conspiracies to drive or trick them into a united Ireland at every turn. That is why DUP politicians resort to such incendiary language when they sense trickery by Dublin or betrayal by London.

But it also needs to be remembered – and this is very difficult for southerners to accept – that unionists are sometimes right. They were right to point out that a customs border down the Irish Sea has been central to the Irish government’s backstop strategy since the beginning.

They were right to be furious when Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay belatedly revealed that not only would there be checks on east-to-west goods coming into Northern Ireland, but also Northern Ireland’s businesses would be forced to fill out export declaration forms when sending goods to Britain under Johnson’s deal. This is an extra blow for a small exposed economy which which is facing new checks on the three quarters of its imported goods which come from Britain.

They were right to call the backstop anti-democratic. The clearest explanation of this came from the London correspondent of the US news magazine The Atlantic, Tom McTague (no unionist he!): “Under the backstop’s provisions, Northern Ireland will be bound by EU law, without its ongoing democratic consent: no elected officials from Northern Ireland will be able to vote on new EU laws that will apply in Northern Ireland. It is regulation without representation. Whether this is a price worth paying for stability in Northern Ireland and an orderly Brexit is a different question than whether it is democratic, which it is not.”¹ That democratic deficit has now been partially covered by the agreement that the proposed arrangements can be changed by a simple majority vote at Stormont – although this will not happen until the end of 2024 (the DUP are right to say that this is in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement, although they don’t add that they never signed up to this accord in the first place).

I may be mistaken, but I don’t think I have ever seen the unionist position on this lack of democracy spelled out anywhere in an Irish newspaper or on RTE (except by Dan O’Brien and Eoghan Harris in their respective columns in Independent newspapers). There are plenty of highly articulate unionist politicians, academics and journalists – David Trimble, Jeffrey Donaldson, Professors Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, Alex Kane – who could have done this. It was left to Tony Blair’s former adviser, Jonathan Powell, to make it clear in the Irish Times that “at root the DUP fear is that this is the beginning of the slippery slope to a united Ireland which they cannot stop if the principle of the cross-community agreement is undermined” and that  “we should take their concerns seriously and do what we can to assuage them if we want to maintain the peace brought about by the Belfast Agreement.”²

One rarely sees or hears a Northern unionist on a southern TV or radio programme (although I am glad to see that recently Ben Lowry, deputy editor of the Belfast Newsletter, has appeared on a couple of radio discussions). Over 50 years ago Garret Fitzgerald, then a young senator, urged RTE to include unionists in its discussion programmes.   It is still not happening except in the most tokenistic way. We don’t understand unionists because we rarely if ever hear from them.

It is a problem I have referred to frequently in these blogs: the unwillingness south of the border to recognise that large numbers of unionists are sincere people with legitimate arguments. It is much easier to paint them all as prejudiced right-wing bigots (“antedeluvian troglodytes” in Jonathan Powell’s phrase), thus excusing southerners from facing up to the huge challenge of pondering seriously how these difficult people might one day be accommodated in some new and agreed Ireland.

Because, like it or not, there are something close to 900,000 people in Northern Ireland who feel passionately British – in exactly the same way as most people in nationalist Ireland feel passionately Irish. A significant few, such as rugby captain Rory Best and golfer Rory McIlroy, manage to feel at home in both worlds: British and Irish. Although some future constitutional recognition of this dualism is probably one of the ways forward to a new dispensation in Ireland, most people in the Republic simply do not understand it.

The failure to understand and respect northern unionists’ Britishness and legitimate opposition to Irish unity is a huge barrier to hopes for reconciliation throughout the island. My impression from conversations with southern friends and acquaintances from all social backgrounds is that because of Brexit ordinary people here have become more anti-British and more anti-DUP since 2016. It is as if the benign years of ‘live and let live’ following the Good Friday Agreement never happened.

A smart and open-minded Northern unionist politician of my acquaintance last month recalled a recent conversation with a Fianna Fail senator about unionist reluctance to contemplate Irish unity. He told the senator: “You are asking me to give up my country. How would you respond if I demanded that you gave up your country?”

Are we prepared to welcome into our cosy little state Ulster unionists who may want to declare their primary allegiance to Britain, wave the Union flag, sing ‘God Save the Queen’ and even support Orange bands marching through some of our town centres? Gregory Campbell, not my favourite politician, has pointed out that in the UK there is cultural provision for both Britishness and Irishness, whereas in the Republic there is no equivalent provision for the expression of Britishness.

If we are not prepared at least to tolerate expressions of Britishness in the ‘new Ireland’, we have no business demanding that unionists accept unity. Politics, history and demography may not be on their side.  But we, citizens of this Republic, have to learn to treat them as equal fellow Irish people. They are not always an attractive bunch: a Northern friend of that persuasion says “there is an element of begrudgery about Northern Protestants, a lack of generosity, a lack of grace.” These faults arise largely from the fearful nature of their identity politics and Calvinistic religion, not helped by 30 years of being bombed and killed by the Provisional IRA.

It isn’t going to be easy. Mindsets have to be changed radically in both parts of the island. Wouldn’t it be nice for a change if these arguments in favour of treating unionists as people with legitimate political views were to come from somebody from a recognisably southern nationalist viewpoint, rather than from an Englishman like Jonathan Powell or a northern-born Protestant like me? That would be a small but important start.


² ‘Hard border in Irish Sea is a real problem for the DUP’, 19 October

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Republic of Ireland | 4 Comments

A pessimistic speech on the 20th anniversary of the Centre for Cross Border Studies

The Centre for Cross Border Studies celebrated its 20th anniversary in Dundalk last week with a conference reflecting on the Good Friday Agreement and cross-border cooperation. The importance of the Centre’s work was recognised by the keynote speakers, the three most senior civil servants in Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland: Sir Mark Sedwill, British Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service; Martin Fraser, Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach and Secretary General to the Irish Government; and David Sterling, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. 

I said in my short speech that I could not believe it was almost exactly 20 years ago that I walked into a dusty, half-decorated temporary office in the old Armagh City Hospital with my esteemed colleague, Mairead Hughes, to open the Centre.

I had to apologise that the tone of my remarks was less than celebratory. My hope back in 1999 had been that North-South cooperation, the so-called ‘strand two’ of the previous year’s Good Friday Agreement, would become one of the keys to a new peaceful dispensation in Ireland. This would be one in which the old battles over territorial sovereignty and national self-determination could be gradually replaced by a layered system of cooperation and governance on the island which would duplicate many of the better elements of the European Union: an economic single market, a strong element of multi-level cooperation – between governments, civil society actors and ordinary people – and eventually (this was my personal dream) moves towards some kind of confederation. And so it promised – in a limited but still hopeful fashion – in the years up to 2016.

Queens University Belfast sociologists Liam O’Dowd and Cathal McCall have argued that the distinctiveness of the EU’s contribution to Northern Ireland is “in the extent to which it seeks to de-territorialise the conflict, i.e. to build cross-border networks of cooperation around issues of common interest.” Human rights, the economy, the environment and new technologies were areas where it made obvious sense to co-operate through such transnational networks.

North-South cooperation as one of the keys to peace and reconciliation in Ireland was recognised as long ago as the 1960s by the then Taoiseach Sean Lemass and his visionary chief advisor Ken Whitaker. It was a central part of the short-lived 1974 power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, which included a strong all-island Council of Ireland: too strong, as it turned out, to be acceptable to the great majority of unionists who were deeply fearful about anything suggesting moves towards Irish political unity. It was one of the key ‘strands’ of the Good Friday Agreement, underpinning the establishment of the new North South Ministerial Council and inter-governmental North-South bodies in seven eminently practical areas ranging from trade and business development to tourism.

Such cooperation was recognised as one of the “quiet success stories” of the post-Good Friday Agreement period by senior Irish officials. Its practicality and lack of threat to anybody’s cherished identity enabled DUP First Minister Peter Robinson to state in 2009 that “the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has never been better than it is at the present time”. A small miracle appeared to be happening: moves towards all-Ireland economic unity, facilitated by the 1998 Agreement alongside the Single European Market, while retaining largely unchanged the forms of British and Irish political sovereignty.

With nearly €3 billion from a dedicated Peace Programme and the cross-border Interreg programme, the EU supported 24,000 cross-border and cross-community projects in a wide range of areas: in agriculture, business and trade, health, education (including the Centre for Cross Border Studies), the environment, tourism, justice, local government, community development and so on. It was a peace fund for a small, remote region of Europe whose generosity has never been equalled and will probably never be equalled again.

I believed this could have marked the beginning of the extremely difficult business of taking the poison out of centuries of bad relationships in Ireland. We in the Centre for Cross Border Studies added our two ha’pence worth (or maybe a bit more). In a 2011 article I listed the number of ‘firsts’ the Centre had achieved: the first North-South training courses for civil servants; the first citizens information website for people crossing the border to live and work, Border People; the first all-Ireland network of people involved in teacher education (SCoTENS), which its Oxford University evaluator called “an incredible achievement”; the first major initiative involving all Ireland’s nine universities working together (in this case to assist universities in Africa); the first North-South scholarship scheme for postgraduate students; the first in-depth study of how to regenerate the Border Region economy; the first Impact Assessment Toolkit for cross-border cooperation (the first of its kind in Europe); the first cross-border and all-island research projects across a wide range of subjects. I could go on and on.

Some of us might have thought the pace was too slow – but it was happening. Then, in June 2016, the British (or rather the English and Welsh) electorate – without a single thought for the impact on the Northern Irish peace process – voted to leave the EU. With the prospect of a return to the hardest of hard borders (the external frontier of the EU Single Market), that seems to me in my more pessimistic moments to mean the probable end – at least for the foreseeable future – of any vision of progress in Ireland based on cooperation between the British and Irish communities within Northern Ireland; between the North and the South on the island; and between the British and Irish governments as close cooperating partners (close and cooperating in a quite unprecedented way) in the European family of nations. Now, of course, we have a deep constitutional crisis in Brexit-bewitched Britain; an unyielding commitment to the backstop in Ireland; and Irish-British relations probably at their worst for more than 30 years.

Part of this multiple crisis was the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017. The most arresting moment at the Dundalk conference was NICS Head David Sterling’s impassioned plea for the Executive to be returned as soon as possible. “We are already at the limits of what civil servants can and cannot do”, he warned. He estimated that economic activity in the province would drop by 9% over the next decade in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The police assessment was that there could be public protest and civil unrest “perhaps leading to disruption of normal life.” When added to a sense of threat to people’s identity and increasing calls for a Border Poll, his assessment was that “the cumulative impact of all of this will be grave for Northern Ireland politically, economically and societally.” In pleading for greater diversity in that narrow and inward-looking society, he also revealed that 35,000 EU citizens had left Northern Ireland since 2016: “We would hope that whatever way Brexit plays out, we don’t become a place that is seen as a cold house for people from elsewhere.”

From this normally extremely cautious senior Northern Ireland civil servant, this was dramatic stuff. Both Mark Sedwill and Martin Fraser praised Sterling for his outspokenness; Fraser paying tribute to the “bravery and dignity” of his speech. I hope politicians in London and Dublin were listening very carefully.

PS  I was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies (1999-2013). Congratulations to acting CCBS director Anthony Soares and his colleagues Mairead Hughes, Annmarie O’Kane, Tricia Kelly and Mark McClatchey for organising such a splendid conference. God bless the cross-border work.

Posted in British-Irish relations, Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland | 2 Comments

Why don’t we have a competition to compose a new national anthem?

As a sports fan I find myself singing Amhrán na bhFiann quite a lot at this time of year: whether it is watching soccer or rugby internationals at the Aviva or (less frequently) all-Ireland finals at Croke Park. I belt it out with the best of them and feel mindlessly proud of being Irish as I do so.

However perhaps because I am a Northern-born Protestant, I don’t like its lyrics. I don’t like singing (in Irish) “mid cannon’s roar and rifle’s peal, we’ll chant a soldier’s song.” (It is usually forgotten that our national anthem was originally written by Peadar Kearney in English and was only translated into Irish in 1916.) I don’t think singing about cannons and rifles and soldiers is appropriate at a time when, in the words of the amended Constitution after the Good Friday Agreement, it is “the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland…only by peaceful means.”

I much prefer Ireland’s Call because I believe its words are more appropriate to the island we live in, divided politically but displaying a rare sense of unity when represented by our powerful national rugby team (an Irish team that, uniquely among all our sports teams, is currently ranked number one in the world). I feel genuine pride when I sing: “We have come to answer our country’s call from the four proud provinces of Ireland” or “Together, standing tall, shoulder to shoulder, we’ll answer Ireland’s call.” The lyrics may be artless, but I sing them with utter sincerity.

I do not understand the extraordinary antipathy that exists towards this simple reconciling song among so many people in the Republic of Ireland. Don’t nationalist people in this country realise that if they want Northern unionists to identify with Ireland – as many rugby fans from that tradition do – they will have to remove the militaristic and anti-British elements from key Irish symbols: the national anthem, the tricolour (which I believe the Provisional IRA has ruined for ever as a symbol of reconciliation), the Constitution? We are going to need new versions of all of these.

I firmly believe that unionists will never identify with a unitary Irish state and its traditional symbols. If we are ever going to live together with any kind of mutual fellow feeling and solidarity on this island, some much more complex constitutional structure will have to be devised which will adopt entirely new and inclusive symbols to recognise all the island’s peoples (“in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”, to quote the words of the amended Constitution again). Clearly the militaristic, nationalistic, early 20th century language of Amhrán na bhFiann will have to go.

Seamus Mallon recognised the need for complex new structures when he wrote about confederation in his book, A Shared Home Place: “The reason I am attracted to some kind of confederal arrangement is that I believe unionists will find it very difficult to feel any sense of loyalty to a unitary Irish state. Thus if the reassurance that their Britishness will be protected and cherished cannot be guaranteed through all-Ireland laws and institutions, it will have to be provided through new provisions and structures under a separate Northern administration, whether by that time they are still a narrow majority or a large minority in the region.”¹

Why don’t we make a start on amending our out-of-date structures and symbols by changing the national anthem to fit the third decade of the 21st century? Surely that would be a relatively uncontroversial place to start on the very difficult road of moving towards a reconciled ‘new Ireland’? Wouldn’t it be a suitably symbolic gesture to show that we want to make the second century of Irish nationhood more peaceful and inclusive than the first?

As the former international rugby star (and chairman of the British Irish Association) Hugo McNeill remarked earlier this month in an Irish Times article pleading for greater understanding of unionism: “For those who have problems with Ireland’s Call, wait until we get onto the real issues.”²

So here’s an idea for the upcoming anniversary of Irish independence and partition (of minds as well as territory). Why don’t we hold a national competition (Northerners could join in if they wanted) to compose a new national anthem? It would focus on the words of peace – cooperation, reconciliation, compassion, forgiveness, mutual understanding – rather than the words of war. It would emphasise what the two traditions have in common rather than what divides them: parliamentary democracy, our shared European identity (although perhaps that is now problematic after Brexit), a respect for people of all religions and none, a belief in protecting minorities, the English language.

We would ask the people of Ireland to submit tunes and lyrics. The competition would be judged by a panel of musicians (and the odd poet) chaired by a musician of international repute from overseas. How does that sound? Bono and Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor and Mary Black and Michael Longley and Eavan Boland and Rita Ann Higgins and Mebdh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon and Christy Moore and Paul Brady and James Galway and Barry Douglas and the Chieftains (with Bob Dylan in the chair) choosing our new national anthem (how would we ever get that lot to agree!?). Apart from anything else, it would add to the gaiety of the nation at a time of difficult centenary commemorations; and remind us that good music has a habit of bringing people together, whereas war and bad politics drive them apart.

¹ A Shared Home Place, p. 185

² ‘Mutual respect a key ingredient for united Ireland’, 6 September

Posted in General, Irish reunification | 4 Comments

Two Irish mistakes as we hurtle towards the Brexit cliff edge

Readers of this blog will know that I have been a voice in the wilderness when it comes to querying the wisdom of the Irish government’s ‘backstop’ strategy to avoid a hard border on the island following the UK’s exit from the EU. A handful of journalists and one academic have also raised these doubts: the others being the economist and Irish Independent columnist Dan O’Brien, the former Irish Times political editor Stephen Collins, the Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris, Daniel McConnell in the Irish Examiner, Deaglán de Breadún in the Irish News and the London-based Irish law professor, Ronan McCrea.

The rest of the ‘chattering classes’ (politicians, journalists and academics) have enthusiastically donned the green jersey and supported Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney’s backstop policy to the hilt as Britain has hurtled towards the Brexit cliff edge, dragging Ireland in its wake. I have found the near-unanimity of this support quite astonishing in this normally argumentative country. I wonder how much of it is down to our traditional gut antagonism to Britain (or rather England). I asked a senior Eurocrat recently why the 26 other EU nations had lined up so solidly with us on the issue of the Irish border, something which is of little concern or interest to most of them. “Dislike of the British”, she said.

The problem, of course, is this: a strategy which was supposed to prevent a hard border could end up bringing about just that  dreaded outcome on 31 October. That would represent a colossal political failure by our government.[It is a measure of how out of touch with reality many Irish people are that Irish Times commentators are still suggesting that the failing backstop policy could be an asset for Fine Gael in any forthcoming election!]

I believe it is probably too late to prevent such an outcome at this very advanced stage – 10 weeks away from the deadline – and with the mendacious mock-Churchillian charlatan, Boris Johnson, and his grim crew of ultra-hard Brexiteers in charge in London. His government has binned the backstop in toto, and to find any way back now would surely involve the EU and Ireland in an impossibly humiliating climbdown.

We may well be nostalgic for the early months of this year when the hapless but honest Theresa May was trying her best to persuade Brussels and Dublin to adapt the backstop slightly (perhaps by incorporating a time limit) to help her get her Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons. She was a poor negotiator (“What negotiator in their right mind would say in the middle of a tough negotiation that a ‘no deal’ was off the table?” one very senior Irish trade unionist asked me incredulously last spring), but she was slowly reducing the majority against her deal as the months went by between January and March.

And what did Brussels and Dublin do to help her? Precious little, except to reject the time limit idea (which could have been for as long as seven-nine years) with the dismissive single line:”a backstop with a time limit is not a backstop.”

Make no mistake about it: we in Ireland are facing into the abyss at the end of October. The dire economic consequences have been spelt out by people more knowledgeable than me, so I am going to focus on the political impact in the place I know best: Northern Ireland. As that wise journalist Dearbhail McDonald wrote in the Guardian earlier this month¹, Johnson and his new breed of ‘Brexit Ultras’ could “deliberately pursue a no-deal EU exit at the expense of  a volatile Irish peace.” Two-thirds of Conservative Party members in opinion polls now say they would rather sacrifice the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland than abandon Brexit.

McDonald wrote that in the North Brexit has meant that Irish unity, which was “once an entirely fringe aspiration for nationalists, and a dreaded fear for unionists – each side comforted by the thought that the conversation about unification was decades away” – has “become an urgent debate for all” (although I would correct her by stressing that while Sinn Feiners are living in a cloud cuckoo land of a Border Poll leading to unity within a few short years, most unionists are in total denial, preferring not even to think about their ultimate nightmare).

McDonald went on: “Contrary to anti-Irish tropes that the backstop is a Trojan horse in order to secure a united Ireland, the truth is that both communities in Northern Ireland – as well as citizens across the island of Ireland – are fearful of what a botched, rushed conversation about unification might yield. That fear is that the birth of a united Ireland would be accompanied by violence and upheaval.”

“Unification without the support of unionists, whose traditions and identity must be protected as part of any shared future, cannot be pursued as a zero-sum game. Otherwise we risk repeating history: the Troubles in reverse. Northern Ireland could not, in its current perilous state, survive either a hard Brexit or a united Ireland. Its communities are suspended in an in-between space, in which they have enjoyed 21 years without violence, but have not yet progressed to a positive peace or meaningful integration – a process that takes time and effort to heal wounds.” Here she was echoing Seamus Mallon’s central thesis in his recent book, A Shared Home Place, and was echoed in her turn by Fintan O’Toole in this week’s Irish Times  (“The lesson both from Brexit and from the traumas of partition and civil war is: avoid botched exits”).²

McDonald concluded: “What many people in the UK  [and I would add, the Republic of Ireland] forget or are indifferent to is the fact that, for all the successes of the Good Friday Agreement – a vital edifice that allows us to identify as British, Irish or both – peace is not fully won.” That message was reinforced by a dissident IRA bomb aimed at the PSNI on the Fermanagh border earlier this week, the fifth time this year such groups have tried to murder members of the police. The Irish News’ well-informed security correspondent, Allison Morris, said that, unlike the opening  “big bang” of the Troubles, the August 1969 ‘Battle of the Bogside’, there was now “a very real danger of several smaller events leading to a larger security crisis” after 31st October.

A panel of Irish and British historians and political scientists at the West Cork History Festival 10 days ago, while they were deeply divided over Brexit, largely agreed with McDonald’s analysis. They were asked by an audience member if they thought a hard Brexit would bring Irish unity any closer. The distinguished Cambridge University historian of Europe, Brendan Simms (a Dubliner), who is strongly pro-Brexit, said it would result in “a prolonged confrontation between the UK and the EU, with the Irish government on the EU side, leading to deeper divides between Britain and Ireland, North and South.” The UCC political scientist Mary C. Murphy, who has written extensively about the North and Brexit, said it would “risk upsetting the already destabilised communities in Northern Ireland. Its combination of economic turmoil and political instability would open up a very difficult and challenging conversation about unity that would have been inconceivable even five years ago. It would be very hard to keep a lid on what might transpire in such a situation…the delicate peace there could be fundamentally shattered in the months ahead.”

For me, the Irish government has made two fundamental mistakes in its unyielding insistence on the backstop (and nothing but the backstop) – whether it was for Northern Ireland or the UK as a whole. Firstly, there was its refusal to compromise one iota during the early part of this year when the House of Commons was slowly moving toward a grudging acceptance of an agreement that would have been a ‘win-win’ for both parts of Ireland.

Secondly, it failed to keep open vital lines of communication with the DUP, lines which earlier taoisigh like Bertie Ahern had sweated blood to build. The DUP are difficult at the best of times, especially when it comes to dealing with anybody Irish. However, in the rush to demonise them it is often forgotten that the hard-line unionist party welcomed the arrival of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach, seeing him as a pragmatic politician unburdened by republican baggage (and invited Simon Coveney to become the first ever Southern politician to address a DUP conference meeting).

They too have their pragmatists: for example, Jeffrey Donaldson, a self-declared supporter of greater North-South cooperation. The government should have understood unionist sensitivities about what looked like a proposed new border down the Irish Sea and gone out of its way to assure Donaldson and his like that a few extra east-west customs and regulatory checks were a small price to pay for an agreement many economists said represented the best of all possible worlds for the North’s small exposed economy, and that Brussels and Dublin were fully committed to the UK’s constitutional integrity. That case went by default in the war of words unleashed by Sammy Wilson and his ideological bedfellows on the far right of the Tory party.

I see Professor McCrea is now suggesting even at this very late hour that a compromise solution to the backstop impasse could be found by postponing the Irish border issue to the second phase of negotiations on an EU-UK trade deal instead of insisting that it must be agreed as part of the first phase Article 50 negotiations.³

This would extend the transition period during which the border would remain unchanged, and, because of the complexities of negotiating such a trade deal, would see this transition lasting five years at least. That would push any possible ‘crash-out’ by the UK into the mid-2020s, which would surely be far better than seeing it happen at the end of October. The humiliating loss of face by the EU (and therefore the Irish) side might be too much for our political leaders to bear, and probably British politics is currently too poisonous for a Johnson-led government to accept such a compromise after his ferocious ‘do or die’ rhetoric about leaving on 31st October. But for all our sakes – Irish and British – wouldn’t that be a small price to pay for avoiding the catastrophe of a hard border and the almost certain return to violence in the North as a consequence?

PS: I will be taking part in the third Glencree Peace Walk along the Wicklow Way on Sunday 22nd September to raise much-needed funds for the work of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconcilation to help build peace in the North, peace which is more in peril now than at any time during the past 21 years. If any generously-inclined reader of this blog would like to sponsor me with a small donation, please go to, and follow the simple instructions. Many thanks.

¹ ‘Irish peace is too precious to be squandered by the Brexit ultras’, The Guardian, 2 August

² ‘We need to start talking about how we share the island’, The Irish Times, 20 August

³ ‘A few red faces over the backstop might save us in the long run’, Sunday Business Post, 11 August

Posted in British-Irish relations, General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland | 3 Comments

A walk through Ireland’s bloody history in Wicklow’s peaceful mountains

Last month I went on my annual longish summer walk through the Irish hills and countryside. This year I decided, as a change from my usual cross-border itineraries, to go far away from the North to the deep south-east. I walked for three days along the less-frequented southern section of the Wicklow Way, from Glenmalure – my favourite glacial valley in the country – to Clonegal, a gentler landscape where counties Wicklow, Wexford and Carlow meet. This is a marvellous walking route, unusually well signposted (for Ireland), and starting to become well-known internationally (I met walkers from the US, Canada, France, Belgium and Holland along the way).

South of Glenmalure, across Slieve Maan and Carrickashane, must be one of the most remote areas in the whole island (despite its relative proximity to Dublin), a bleak upland wilderness of bog, heather and Sitka spruce. It did not help that I chose probably the rainiest day of the summer to walk its 22 kilometres. It was one of those classic Irish days when the walker, however well protected, gets thoroughly soaked in the first half an hour and remains soaked for the following six. I met one person in the entire day: a woman from Quebec doing the same mountain traverse. I was never so grateful for my arrival in Margaret Coogan’s hospitable and comfortable (with superb drying facilities!) Kyle farmhouse in Moyne, near Tinahely.

However even in the rain Wicklow is beautiful. I saw the strange, almost sacramental rings tramped out by sheep on the side of Croaghanmoira; tantalising glimpses of eastern Ireland’s highest mountain, Lugnaquilla, through gaps in the deluge; and several of those marvellously-tended green meadows carved out of the mountainside by the herculean efforts of generations of hill-farmers (the most picturesque of them surrounded by purple rhododendron hedges). And the soft, windless rain of an Irish summer doesn’t disturb the deep peace of the mountains.

On the second day I walked the ring of hills surrounding the pretty town of Tinahely; stopped for a drink in one of Ireland’s quaintest country pubs, ‘The Dying Cow’ at Stranakelly (so-called because when gardai arrived to find the then owner serving locals on a Good Friday in the 1920s,  she pleaded “sure you wouldn’t summons an old woman – these men were only helping me with a dying cow”); and walked onto the ‘big house’ village of Shillelagh.

This is a glimpse into Ireland’s colonial past in all its antedeluvian grandeur. For this was the home of the Earls Fitzwilliam, who once owned an estate of over 90,000 acres, a fifth of County Wicklow. One ancestor was Thomas Wentworth,  Charles I’s effective but ruthless Lord Deputy in Ireland, who became the king’s chief counsellor and whose execution in 1641 was one of the events which precipitated the English Civil War. Another was the liberal Viceroy Earl Fitzwilliam, whose sacking after only two months in 1795 dismayed those who were seeking Catholic emancipation and turned many of them towards the revolutionary methods of the United Irishmen. [A modern relative by marriage is the oddball far-right MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson’s Leader of the House of Commons.]

Here Irish history trumped any effort to get away from my obsession with the difficult North for a few summer days. Because it is a relatively little known fact that this beautiful wilderness area of south Wicklow saw some of the bloodiest confrontations of the 1798 rebellion: they were often confrontations between Irish republicans and British loyalists; and some of the fiercest of those loyalists were in this part of south Wicklow.

Wicklow was possibly the most violently disturbed county in Ireland during that revolutionary year, and certainly the one where the rebellion lasted longest.¹ The country’s untypically large loyalist community  faced 14,000 United Irishmen, the biggest force (although not all of them turned out) in Leinster. When the early phase of the Wexford rebellion drew to a close after the defeats at Vinegar Hill in June and Ballygullen in July, the rump of the rebels retreated to the mountains and waged one of Europe’s first guerrilla campaigns. Their remote stronghold was the area around the Lugnaquilla massif I had just walked across, and their commander-in-chief was a Protestant small farmer and builder from near Roundwood, Joseph Holt.

Wicklow had the largest Protestant community outside Ulster (over 20% of the population) who were well integrated into local society. A significant small number of the rebellion’s leaders (and followers) in that county were Protestants: small farmers, miners, textile workers and army deserters. Holt has been unjustly written out of the history books, partly because of a posthumous and disingenuous 1838 autobiography saying he had been forced to become a rebel, and partly because he was overshadowed by Michael Dwyer from the Glen of Imaal, who fought on until 1803 and whose life was dramatised in a colourful but inaccurate work of fiction in the 1850s.

However the presence of several Protestant United Irish leaders should not blind us to the fact that in Wicklow, as in Wexford, the conflict was in danger at some points of turning into a Catholic ‘peasants revolt’, targetting loyalists and landlords in particular. This was often provoked by the violent loyalism of many of the locally recruited yeomanry units. The tolerant and effective British General John Moore (later to gain fame in the Peninsular War in Spain), who worked hard to curb the excesses of extreme loyalists and to offer amnesties to the rebels, said it was their “harshness and ill-treatment that in great measure drove the peasants and farmers to revolt.” The Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis, while recognising their role in defeating the rebellion, lamented that they had taken “the lead in rapine and murder and every kind of atrocity.”

There were several massacres of rebel prisoners by the Wicklow yeomanry, notably at Dunlavin on 24 May on the first day of the rebellion, when at least 43 men were taken from the jail, bound together on the fair green and shot dead. This incident was mentioned as one of the justifications for the notorious burning to death of around 120 loyalist prisoners at Scullabogue in Wexford on 5 June.

Joseph Holt’s surrender on 10 November effectively ended the rebellion, although Michael Dwyer was to fight on in the mountains with a tiny band of men for several more years. The previous July Holt had taken command of the last serious rebel force in the field, at least 300-400 insurgents, at remote Baravore in Glenmalure, vowing to fight on until the arrival of the French (who landed the following month hopelessly far away in Mayo).

The Wicklow rebellion in 1798 was largely Irish fighting Irish, sometimes heroic, often savage, and ultimately futile given the hugely superior British forces. But I would argue that it was distinctly less tribal and sectarian – despite occasional excesses – than its Provisional republican equivalent nearly 200 years later in the North. One could make the case that on every front the United Irishmen were led by Protestants: Henry Joy McCracken in Antrim, Henry Munro in Down; Bagenal Harvey in Wexford; Joseph Holt in Wicklow; William Aylmer in Kildare (a descendant is chair of my Dublin Unitarian Church) and Bartholomew Teeling in Mayo.

Contrast this with the Provisional IRA and its counterpart groups in modern times. In the 35 years I spent (off and on) in Northern Ireland as a journalist and a promoter of cross-border cooperation, I came across precisely three active Protestant republicans: an IRA man from Portadown whom I prefer not to name for obvious reasons; Ronnie Bunting, a Belfast INLA activist killed by the UDA in 1980, and Sinn Fein councillor and MLA Billy Leonard from Coleraine.

¹ Details of 1798 events (and quotes) are taken from Ruan O’Donnell, The Rebellion in Wicklow 1798 (Irish Academic Press, 1998)

Posted in General, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 8 Comments

A bit more complexity in Northern Ireland: the rise of the ‘Neithers’

In last month’s blog I was complaining about the simplistic views of many people in the Republic on the complexity of demographic change in Northern Ireland. Too many of them insist on holding to the ill-informed belief that when Northern Catholics outnumber Northern Protestants, we will move rapidly towards a Border Poll leading to Irish unity (mistakenly equating being Catholic with being Nationalist). This month I am going to add to that complexity.

I have been reading an academic article by the superb Brexit researcher, Dr Katy Hayward, and her Queen’s University Belfast colleague, Dr Cathal McManus, on what they call the ‘Neithers’: those people in the North who do not feel either Unionist or Nationalist.¹ Their research into the findings of the 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey, conducted annually by Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, shows in that year 45% of those surveyed did not identify as being part of one of the traditional political blocks in the North. In the comparable 2018 survey this had risen to 50%.

Think of it: half of a representative sample of people in the North told this authoritative opinion poll they did not consider themselves either Unionist or Nationalist! That seems to fly in the face of all received knowledge about the ‘tribal’ politics of a region which often seems trapped in immutable sectarian blocks represented by the parties of (formerly) armed republicanism and reactionary unionism.

So who are these ‘Neithers’? According to Hayward and McManus: “The ‘typical’ person identifying as Neither is more likely than either Unionists or Nationalists to be young, female, of both British and Irish identity, to have lived outside Northern Ireland, to have some qualification (especially at the highest levels), to have gone to a mixed school, to be in paid employment and to have a high income.” In other words, they appear to be the North’s more educated and middle class people; 61% of them are women.

Looking in detail at these people who “conscientiously say that have neither Unionist nor Nationalist identities, reveals above all else, the complexity of Northern Ireland society and the inadequacy of the ‘two communities’ thesis,” the researchers conclude. It is notable that the largest category for national identity among the ‘Neithers’ is “equally British and Irish.” Similarly, devolution within the United Kingdom is the favoured constitutional option for ‘Neithers’, generally three times more so than Irish reunification.

Does this mean the non-sectarian Alliance Party’s time has come? Alliance leader Naomi Long’s unprecedented 18.5% first preference vote in the recent European elections might suggest its time is at least beginning. But Hayward and McManus warn that the explanation for the rise of the ‘Neithers’ may lie elsewhere. For it is not only in Northern Ireland when political institutions do not appear to people to be reflective of the social and economic reality of their lives, that political apathy sets in. This may be the case in the North, with its cycle of endlessly suspended institutions, failed government interventions, repetitive ‘agreements’ that run into the sand, and corruption and impropriety by local politicians. Hayward and McManus believe the ‘Neithers’ are “not turning away from politics entirely, but merely [showing] a frustration with the current state of the political system in Northern Ireland.”

However the statistical picture is even more complicated. Firstly, despite what some poorly informed commentators might assume, there is a trend since 1998 for Catholics to increasingly identify as ‘Neither’. “The data from 2017 indicate that almost a half of Catholics now identify as Neither, compared with just under one in every three Protestants.”

Another assumption is that younger people are most likely to say ‘a plague on both your houses’. However the data also shows that “Neithers predominate among the middle aged. The age group 45-54 constitutes a larger portion of support for Neither than it does for either unionist or nationalist designation.”

Another striking NILT finding is that between 2017 and 2018 the percentage of Protestants identifying themselves as ‘Neither’ leapt from 31% to 42%. In contrast, the proportion of ‘Neithers’ among Catholics and those declaring themselves to have no religion barely changed. Does this mean that since Brexit Protestants are becoming disillusioned with unionism? A Nationalist with rose-tinted glasses (or tunnel vision) might think so. The Southern media tend to seize on such figures to come to this conclusion.

But wait a minute. The NI Ireland Life and Times survey also shows that between 2016 and 2018 the proportion of Protestants who considered themselves ‘British not Irish’ grew from 41% to 53%. This appears to contradict hearsay evidence that the chaos over Brexit is making some Protestants doubt the UK union, and thus feel less British. Could it be rather that while many Northern Protestants feel more British than ever, they feel less traditionally unionist because of the traditionalist DUP’s hard line over both Brexit and liberal social issues such as marriage equality and abortion?

Of course, nothing is ever simple when it comes to people’s responses to opinion polls. Survey data may be an accurate representation of what people say in response to a particular question, but what they actually do when faced with an electoral or referendum ballot paper can be very different. After the inaccurate predictions of the pollsters in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential election, opinion polls have to be taken with a tonne of salt.

However if they serve to make nationalists think twice about Sinn Fein’s headlong drive towards unity as soon as possible, they will serve a purpose. Perhaps even supporters of that party are having second thoughts about the wisdom of this. I was at a seminar recently when a young Northern woman who introduced herself as “a Republican and an activist” expressed doubts about how an effective health service would work in a united Ireland, given the contrast between the almost dysfunctional HSE in the Republic and the much fairer and more efficient NHS (even if it is being cut back) in the North.

Speaking of Sinn Fein, I fear that the inter-party talks at Stormont are doomed once Boris Johnson steps into 10 Downing Street. He has pledged to take Britain out of the EU by 31st October if he does not get the Irish backstop removed from the Withdrawal Agreement – which the EU have made clear won’t happen. That will mean the Irish border will become the external frontier of the EU, a true ‘hard border’ enclosing the European Single Market. So are Sinn Fein going to go back into government in Belfast in order to implement what one Northern business acquaintance has called “the second partition of Ireland”? I very much doubt it.

¹ Katy Hayward and Cathal McManus, ‘Neither/Nor: The rejection of Unionist and Nationalist identities in post-Agreement Northern Ireland’, Capital & Class, 1-17, 2018

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

The simplistic engagement of people in the Republic with the complexity of the North

Earlier this month I attended a session of the Dalkey Book Festival entitled ‘Who’s afraid of a united Ireland?’ It may be difficult to credit, but in nearly 40 years of living (mainly) in the Republic, this was the first time I had ever come across a public, non-party meeting to discuss Irish unity (and as readers of this blog will attest, this is a subject in which I have a burning, if sometimes unorthodox, interest – in traditional Irish republican parlance, I am definitely not ‘sound on the national question’!).

The speakers were the eminent UCD historian and Irish Times columnist Diarmaid Ferriter, the Northern novelists Eoin McNamee and Martina Devlin, with (as moderator) the Northern Ireland-born British TV presenter and journalist Andrea Catherwood. It was poor stuff – one distinguished audience member with an intimate knowledge of both Irish jurisdictions called it ‘an ungenerous, badly chaired shambles’. The lack of a unionist voice (while Catherwood is from that background, she is now every inch the cosmopolitan British media personality) weakened the panel from the off. Devlin and McNamee adhered to the traditional nationalist view that unity was the solution; Seamus Mallon’s proposal to wait until there was broader unionist support for unity was wrong; its cost was greatly exaggerated, and the unionists could be won over by gestures like changing the flag, anthem and other symbols.

Ferriter talked truthfully about the past century of disengagement of politicians and people in the Republic from the North. I would say it is not exactly disengagement, but rather very limited and ignorant engagement based on old nationalist verities and shibboleths that are utterly unhelpful in the present difficult climate of Brexit and political deadlock in Belfast. An example of this was the round of applause from the large, mainly elderly audience for Devlin when she told the well-worn story of her young parents being denied the vote in Northern Ireland local elections in the 1960s  because of the ratepayer requirement – an injustice that was remedied in 1972. Catherwood wondered if anybody other than Sinn Fein had a worked-out plan for moving towards unity (Do Sinn Fein have such a plan? It’s certainly not in their latest 2016 discussion document Towards a United Ireland).

It’s a pity that my friend, the well-regarded Belfast social researcher Paul Nolan, was not on the panel. He would have provided a complex but necessary antidote to the simplistic solutions being voiced by these writers and journalists. In an article in last week’s Belfast Telegraph,¹ Nolan outlined in some detail why Northern nationalists’ belief that demographic trends are leading inexorably towards a nationalist majority in the North and thus Irish unity through a Border Poll is based on flimsy premises.

He noted that the latest Northern Ireland Labour Force Religion Survey, published in January, showed that the Protestant/Catholic balance continues to tilt towards the latter community, with the proportion of Protestants over 16 in the labour force dropping dramatically from 56% to 42% between 1990 and 2017 while the proportion of Catholics rose from 38% to 41%. ‘It now looks like the Catholic community will be the larger community by the time of the next census [2021], but that’s not the same as being a majority, if by majority we mean over 50%.’

The real growth, he pointed out, has been in another category, ‘those who do not self-identify as either Catholic or Protestant’. The proportion of the population classified as ‘other/non-determined’ has nearly trebled, from 6% to 17% over this period, and in the 16-24 age group it has more than trebled, from 7% to 22%. ‘If this trend were to continue it may block the Catholic community from crossing the 50% line; Catholics may emerge as the largest of the three main population groups, but still not be a majority.’

Nolan then went on to point to ‘a dangerous elision’ that is often overlooked in self-serving forecasts of inevitable nationalist majorities (even the Dalkey Book Festival website claimed that ‘demographics point to a Catholic/nationalist majority in the next decade’). He was at pains to stress that ‘not all Catholics are nationalists’ (my italics).’If past voting patterns provide any guide to future electoral behaviour, then despite the increased number of Catholics, a nationalist majority is very far off indeed. ‘

‘The long-term trend shows little or no growth. In June 1998, in that optimistic period immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, the combined nationalist vote (i.e. the SDLP and Sinn Fein vote taken together) stood at 39.7%. In the most recent Assembly elections in March 2017 that percentage had remained more or less static at 39.8%, and in the local government elections last month the total nationalist vote, including both the new Aontú party and independent nationalist candidates, dipped to 37.7%. In fact, over the past 21 years the nationalist vote has only occasionally tipped over the 40% line, and seems unlikely to exceed the magical 50% in the foreseeable future.’

Add to this Alliance and the Green Party’s surge in the local elections and Alliance leader Naomi Long’s nearly 19% vote in the European elections, and suddenly the Northern political landscape looks a lot less binary. The growth of a moderate, centrist constituency – anti-Brexit and wanting, above all, a return to power-sharing government at Stormont – appears to undermine the absolutist positions of both the DUP and Sinn Fein: that there is no solution between a seamless maintenance of the union with Britain and rapid movement, via a Border Poll, towards a united Ireland. We have to start looking again at new and complicated models of governance and sovereignty for Northern Ireland which are not the simplistic options offered by the two main parties.

Let us pray that this is among the subjects for discussion between the two governments and the parties in the current all-party talks. I hope my government, in particular, are not so totally taken up with Brexit that they can use the considerable intellectual resources of the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs to come up with some imaginative new ideas. But I am not at all optimistic about this.

However I am cheered that the Institute of British Irish Studies at University College Dublin, whose former directors include wise political scientists like Professors John Coakley and Jennifer Todd, people with a deep understanding of Northern Ireland, have initiated an ambitious three-year research project, in collaboration with a number of UK universities, called ‘Constitutional Futures after Brexit’. This will explore constitutional and political change in Ireland and the UK, including possible outcomes such as Irish unity, the break-up of the UK, and other ‘in between’ futures.

¹ ‘So are we going to have a border poll or not?’ 17 June

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