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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1  Irish Times, 14 April

2  RTE Drivetime. 4 April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Getting ready to be governed by Sinn Fein in the Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The DUP’s bigotry and incompetence bring the house down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What the North can teach the South about welcoming refugees

The Irish government seems to be finally and belatedly moving to make its small contribution to tackling the worst humanitarian crisis faced by Europe since the Second World War: the influx of millions of refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. 14 months ago – following the international outcry caused by the photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy who had drowned while crossing the Aegean with his family – it offered to accept up to 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017, with an emphasis on families and unaccompanied children, as part of a coordinated EU response to the crisis. Exactly a year later, at the end of September, it had taken in 300 of that number, of whom just one was an unaccompanied child. Department of Justice spokespersons blamed EU and Greek bureaucracies and legal blockages for the delays. I was one of those people who felt this was a convenient smokescreen for our political and civil service leaders’ shameful lack of interest in what many of us believe is simply the most important ethical/political issue of our generation.

Those numbers are now beginning to rise. Earlier this month the Department of Justice released figures showing that 507 refugees have arrived from  Lebanon and Jordan (with another 13 to come by the end of the year) and 109 have arrived from Greece (with another 215 to come).

I was at an excellent all-island conference earlier this month organised by a recently-formed network, Places of Sanctuary Ireland, which works to create “a culture of welcome and safety” for refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. Speakers there outlined the refugee reception situation in Portlaoise, Waterford and Belfast. I was particularly struck by the contrasts between the way things are done on either side of the border.

The people in Portlaoise appear to have done a superb job in welcoming and beginning to integrate 54 Syrian refugees who arrived in the town last year. The 12-month contract for their resettlement was put out to tender and was won by Doras Luimni, a voluntary organisation with 15 years experience of working with asylum seekers in direct provision and other migrants in Limerick.

The Portlaoise story is one of significant success, largely due to the enthusiastic engagement of local people and community groups, and some difficulties, caused mainly by the systems put in place (or not put in place) by the Department of Justice. The former consists of a wide range of integration activities: drop-in clinic, cafe befriending, language and homework support, intercultural women’s work, job skills training, family advocacy, cultural events, and the local people and the newcomers celebrating key Muslim festivals together. Laois County Council  and a committee of local statutory agencies were fully engaged, and once local people knew about the arrival of the Syrians, volunteers came forward in large numbers (“there are a lot of fantastic people in Portlaoise”, says one person involved with the project).  There is now a Laois Integration Network – at the moment run entirely by volunteers, since the 12 month resettlement contract ended in June – and a 2017 work programme in place, and EU funding is being sought for a worker. The Syrians have their own local organisation, Saturday language school and mosque.

On the other hand, those running the 2015-2016 resettlement project had to start from scratch with no template or model of good practice to work from. Other places like Monaghan and Carrick on Shannon may have taken earlier groups of refugees, but in true ad hoc Irish fashion, each had followed their own individual path (there is also good practice in Waterford, where a determined religious brother, originally from Pakistan, has brought together the statutory agencies, the churches and other groups into a particularly effective local committee). There is also no national integration strategy in place – it has been out for consultation for the past two years. Some places like Limerick have their own local strategy, while other towns likely to receive refugees have nothing.

The Department of Justice, notoriously reluctant to involve NGOs in its programmes, gave out no advance information to community groups or interested individuals in Portlaoise, even though the local council had been informed for over a year about the refugees’ impending arrival. There was no pre-arrival consultation by the Department with the local community.

The pre-settlement reception and induction period in Ireland sees the refugees from Syria and other conflict zones spending up to 12 weeks – and occasionally as long as eight months – in the entirely unsuitable surroundings of direct provision centres for asylum seekers in Balseskin (near Dublin airport) and Mosney in County Meath.

In Northern Ireland, things have been done very differently – and much better. The numbers are smaller, of course, but not a lot smaller. 284 Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon and Iraq have been received there in the past 12 months, as part of the 20,000 the British government has promised to accept during the life of the current parliament. Another group of up to 90 will arrive before Christmas.

The system in the North is far faster and more streamlined. The new arrivals spend five days in a well-equipped reception centre in Belfast (in normal times it is a community-run conference centre), where they undergo health screening, get their social benefits applications fast-tracked and learn about everything from their legal entitlements and duties to the cultural norms of their host society. They then are taken in charge by two NGOs – the children’s charity Barnardos and Extern, an all-island charity that works with everyone from young people at risk to homeless families – who provide key workers to accompany the refugees to their new homes in private rental accommodation (which has been vetted by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive) and give them a ‘housing starter pack’ of furniture, bedding and other household goods so they can start their new lives. These key workers also help them find schools and GPs, with English language classes, contacts with the local community and so on. Three groups have so far been settled in Belfast, Derry and the Newry/Armagh/Craigavon/Banbridge area. “Gold standard” is the description of this process by an NGO person involved in it.

The key to the success of the Northern system is threefold, says one person in the Belfast Law Centre who is part of the consortium of NGOs which works to receive and help integrate the refugees. Firstly there was political buy-in at the top of government, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness  making clear at the beginning of October 2015 that the Northern Ireland Executive wanted to play its full part in the process, and then being supported by First Minister Arlene Foster. Secondly, there were committed senior civil servants at the Department of Communities, which is in charge of the refugee programme – notably Deputy Secretary Ian Snowden – who made it clear they wanted it to work. Thirdly, the  civil servants quickly brought on board a consortium of knowledgeable NGOs: Bryson Intercultural, part of the Bryson Group, Northern Ireland’s largest charity, which has been working with asylum seekers for many years; the Red Cross, Barnardos, Extern, Belfast Law Centre, Save the Children and the Refugee and Asylum Forum. There are still problems, of course: one is the extremely strict visa regulations which all but forbid refugees in Northern Ireland crossing the border into the South, even for a visit.

The Northern model seems clear enough: supportive government leaders, committed senior officials and the early involvement of expert NGOs. Do we have any of these factors in the South? Could I suggest a day trip to Belfast by relevant people in the Department of Justice’s Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration to learn all about the not particularly difficult business – if the energies of ordinary citizens are harnessed – of providing a warm and effective welcome to small numbers of refugees. They could also do worse than come to a meeting of the City of Sanctuary Dublin group (, with which I am involved: the Red Cross and the Garda Racial Intercultural and Diversity Office have already recognised the value of this welcoming grass-roots organisation.

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Three positive things to make us feel good about Northern Ireland (and Ireland)

“Be positive, Andy” said the former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Tom Hartley, when I met him at ‘Amazing the Space’, a splendid Cooperation Ireland event on the old Maze prison site last month, which brought together 3,500 young people to talk, sing and dance about peace-building.

And he’s right. It’s so easy to be negative about Northern Ireland (especially for an old journalistic hack like me), even if it’s not the North’s fault sometimes these days: for example, being forced to accept Brexit when a clear majority there voted against it. So I’m going to pick out three positive, very different Northern Irish and North-South initiatives I have come across in recent weeks and highlight these for a change.

Firstly, there is the continuing quiet work going on behind the scenes in Belfast and elsewhere to sort out the toxic legacies of decades of conflict. At the end of September this led to the resolution of the three year old deadlock over Orangemen marching past Catholic Ardoyne every 12th July, thus effectively ending 21 years of often violent disputes associated with the Orange marching season. With the help of two facilitators, former Methodist president Harold Good and Derry businessman Jim Roddy, agreement was reached along the following lines: the Orangemen would be allowed to complete their evening march home to north Belfast on this occasion, but there would be a moratorium on future such marches unless the Ardoyne residents association agreed;  that association would not object to (or protest at) future 12th July morning marches to join the main Belfast parade (although of course, this being Belfast, there was a smaller, more extreme republican residents group which angrily dissented); and the Twaddell Avenue loyalist camp protesting the blocking of the march would be dismantled. At the same time an inter-community forum would be set up to open a dialogue which would be about more than just parading.

There are other things happening that would have been unheard of even a few years ago. Sinn Fein and the Orange Order shared a platform in Enniskillen recently to discuss the commemoration of 1916. Discussion panels at the West Belfast Festival and Queen’s University have seen PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Sinn Fein leaders Martin McGuinness and Eibhlin Glenholmes, and leading loyalist Winston Irvine exchanging honest arguments and friendly handshakes.

However the legacy of a violent past is still a major issue blocking moves towards greater mutual understanding and reconciliation. The complex interlocking institutions of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which were meant to begin to deal with that legacy – the Historical Investigations Unit,the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, the Implementation and Reconciliation Group and the Oral History Archive – appear stillborn while the governments and parties try to untangle the Gordian knot between criminal investigation, protecting national security, and uncovering the truth of past violent acts by all sides. Journalist Brian Rowan, who has been involved in several civil society initiatives in this area and has written a book about legacy issues called Unfinished Peace, believes such top-down initiatives may not be what are required and that  “we need to be honest about what is really achievable in terms of the truth”. He thinks a non-political Oral History Archive would be an important initiative to progress on its own, a real opportunity for the families of people who have been killed or injured to tell their stories.

Art and theatre have an important role to play here, Rowan believes. He points to the phenomenal success of the Colin Davidson exhibition of portraits of ordinary people who lost loved ones during the ‘troubles’, which was visited by around 80,000 people in the Ulster Museum and has since transferred to Paris and New York. And to a new play, Green and Blue, by former IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown, based on 40 stories of the conflict in the border region taken from serving RUC officers and gardai. “I was trusted with these stories and my goal was to remain faithful to them,” says the former IRA man-turned-playwright.

Secondly – in the economic area – there is a visionary initiative by the two business confederations, Ibec in the South and CBI in the North, which largely slipped under the radar when it was launched in July due to the post-Brexit furore. This is the All-Island Investment Project’s proposal¹ for a comprehensive motorway and dual carriageway network to serve a projected island population of 8.25 million by 2040. The island currently has a population of 6.6 million, 4.76 million of whom live in the Republic. This has grown by 30% in the last 20 years, and Ireland now has the youngest and fastest growing population (bar tiny Luxembourg) in the EU. So we are not far away from the more than eight million people who lived in Ireland before the Great Famine in the 1840s (amazingly, England had a population of less than 15 million in 1841, compared to 53 million today).

If you think about it, planning our roads together to move the rapidly increasing number of people and goods around the island is plain common sense. The Ibec-CBI proposal says the time to begin doing this is now, when the cost of borrowing large amounts of money for major infrastructure projects has never been cheaper. Their paper contains striking maps of the island’s railway network in 1920 when no town was more than 10 miles from a station. The rail network in 2016 is a poor, shrunken thing compared to a century ago, and since replacing even some of those lost lines is simply not viable – due to Irish Rail’s desperate financial situation –  we must plan seriously for a 21st century all-island road network instead.

The Ibec-CBI argument is that if we don’t want the island’s dramatically increased population over the next 25 years to be squeezed into the east coast ‘corridor’, with all the problems of overcrowding and bottlenecks this will lead to, we absolutely must develop the western seaboard from Derry to Cork. The two business confederations’ most radical proposal is for what they call a ‘C ring road’ around the entire coastline, particularly through the north-west, west and south –  from Belfast through Derry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford – which are not well-served by a radial road network centring on Dublin. They also argue that a new era of ‘low emissions’ road transport is emerging with the development of driverless cars, electric vehicles, car sharing and improved fuel technologies.

“Brexit won’t take away from the need to have this modern infrastructure in both jurisdictions in the future”, says project leader Michael D’Arcy. He believes the Irish government should argue strongly for a relaxation of the EU’s fiscal rules to allow spending on such a strategic project for a uniquely fast-growing population, and this should be part of its special case for Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

The third initiative is much smaller and is already happening. Earlier this month I went to a marvellous conference at which Ireland’s leading historians looked back at how the centennial commemorations of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme were carried out over the past year. 240 people turned up at Dublin’s Mansion House to hear the likes of Professors Roy Foster, Diarmaid Ferriter, Gearóid O Tuathaigh,  Fearghal McGarry, John Horne and Lucy McDiarmid talk about the “sober, sensitive and mature way” –  in Horne’s words  – in which those commemorations had been handled. They singled out for special mention the role of the committee of historians set up by the Irish Government to advise on the commemorations, which had allowed for a suitably nuanced retelling of the complicated and contested foundation myths of both states on this island, and about the extraordinary people involved in them.

The event was organised by Universities Ireland, the all-island body which brings together its university presidents and vice-chancellors, and which is administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies. This was the fifth annual conference to examine the 1912-1923 period and there are plans for seven more up to 2023.

¹ Connected: A prosperous island of 10 million people. Ibec/CBI

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