I am a disillusioned disciple of the Good Friday Agreement

Disillusionment. That’s the feeling these days among many people like myself who have been the most passionate advocates of the Good Friday Agreement. When I hear Arlene Foster’s extraordinary choice of words (‘the red line is blood red’) in talking about the DUP resisting even the most common sense extra checks down the Irish Sea to keep Northern Ireland in regulatory and customs alignment with the EU, I wonder what has changed in unionism over the past 20 years.When I hear Sinn Fein describing the British government as the “main conflict protagonist” in the Northern Troubles, despite the IRA having killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined, I wonder what has changed in republicanism over the past 20 years. When I hear that Catholic police officers – those who came into the PSNI as part of the 1998 Agreement’s most successful element, policing reform – are once again not being posted to their home communities because of the dissident republican threat to them, I am close to despair.

Brexit, of course, is the main culprit. The voters of Britain barely spared a thought for the effect of their seismic 2016 vote on the sister island. Shockingly, a recent opinion poll appeared to show that the great majority of British Leave voters (along with their Northern unionist counterparts) even now believe that collapsing the Irish peace process is a price worth paying for leaving the EU. The result of that vote has been that the two Ulster tribes have returned to their traditional trenches with a vengeance.

In particular, Brexit has allowed the most fear-filled and eurosceptic elements in the DUP – led by its Westminster MPs – to take a hard-line anti-EU stance that is, while intrinsic to their psychological DNA, entirely at odds with the interests of the economically exposed province they purport to represent. In the longer-term, if a pro-EU Scotland eventually breaks away from the UK, it may also be seen to be at odds with their political interests. And do they not recognise that a hard Irish border following the UK crashing out of the EU is just the kind of development that will force moderate nationalists into the arms of Sinn Fein, and make the dissidents more attractive to disadvantaged young nationalists? It is very hard not to conclude that this is a classic example of ‘stupid unionism.’

For its part, Sinn Fein, in true Pavlovian fashion, has seized the opportunity to push for “accelerated reunification post-Brexit”. Just as the unionists are paranoid about the maintenance of the union, so republicans are obsessed with the holy grail of a politically united Ireland. The well-being of the people of Northern Ireland rarely comes into the reckoning for either side.

For me the major miracle of the 1998 Agreement was the effective removal of the Irish border, while Northern Ireland stayed constitutionally part of the United Kingdom (alongside the Single European Act which removed most of the EU’s trade borders). In my 14 years heading the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh (1999-2013)  I was conscious of being part of an extraordinary experiment in bringing people together through practical cooperation projects, many of them funded by the EU, in business, agriculture, transport, health, education, local government, planning, the environment, tourism, inland waterways, the marine and a dozen other areas. For a decade and a half there was a benign window of opportunity that might, just might, have begun the process of taking the poison out of centuries of bad relationships on this island simply through helping the people of the two jurisdictions to get to know each other by working, learning and enjoying common pursuits together.

It might have not have been big or fast enough for some of us, but it was an important step towards a genuinely reconciled Ireland. As that wise man Sir George Quigley said just before his death in 2013: “The North-South relationship has been transformed. Someone, indeed, has referred to its unprecedented ordinariness and normality today. We seem to have been able to resolve North-South tensions in a way which still too often escapes us as far as the traditional divisions within the Northern Ireland community itself are concerned.” Is all that good work now coming to an end?

And of course Brexit has poisoned the two relationships that were crucial to the drawing up of the Good Friday Agreement and to its relative success for many years. The decades of painstaking work to build good relations between the Irish and British governments, and between the former and the political representatives of unionism, appear to have come to naught. Relations between Dublin, London and Belfast are now frosty at best, toxic at worst. 20 years ago Ireland was led towards peace by genuinely courageous and visionary leaders (however flawed in other areas) such as Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, John Major, Albert Reynolds, Mo Mowlam, David Trimble, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness,  David Ervine and from the US, George Mitchell and Bill Clinton. Later they were joined, after ‘road to Damascus’ conversions, by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. If you think leadership doesn’t matter, compare these major figures with their picayune equivalents today.

But if one looks more closely, is it only Brexit? I have recently been reading the Belfast-based political analyst Robin Wilson’s 2010 book on the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation¹. Even given that Wilson was always a sceptic when it came to the Agreement, part of the school that thought it would institutionalise sectarianism, this provides some disturbing evidence for re-evaluation.

Wilson points out that the rot set in early, on the morning the Good Friday Agreement was signed, when Tony Blair gave David Trimble a side letter promising to review the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive six months after the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up if the IRA did not begin to decommission its arms. This was a promise Blair was unable or unwilling to fulfil, and it planted the seeds for the eventual implosion (and electoral collapse) of the Ulster Unionist Party because of the IRA’s failure to decommission, and its replacement by the DUP.

Even more importantly, there was a huge absence of trust there from the beginning: in the first few months of the new Executive the Ulster Unionists could not bring themselves even to speak to their Sinn Fein  colleagues. By the time the first UUP-SDLP led government collapsed in October 2002, the atmosphere around the cabinet table was described by one civil servant as “poisonous.” There was an almost complete absence of collective responsibility or joint decision making. Sustainable power-sharing government just can’t work like that.

As the late David Stevens of the Corrymeela Community  pointed out, there was a “deep paradox in this: you have a deeply distrustful society and for government to work people have to trust each other.” Yet MLAs being required to ‘designate’ themselves as unionist or nationalist, allied to the ultra-complex D’Hondt voting system, effectively institutionalised this distrust.

Thirdly there was little sense of collective loyalty to the common institutions and the common place the four sectarian parties were governing: Northern Ireland. As former Taoiseach John Bruton said: “The Agreement itself, and the institutions it creates, must become the focus of a new loyalty. The Agreement is not the means to some other end. It must be seen as an end in itself. Unless that happens, every ordinary proposal from one side will be seen by the other through a prism of suspicion.”  In their very different ways, David Trimble, Seamus Mallon, Martin McGuinness – and latterly Peter Robinson – tried their best to forge a fragile loyalty to a new shared dispensation. But once we got to Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill that noble aim had been all but abandoned.

A senior Dublin official summed it up for Wilson in 2008, at a time when there was considerable optimism in the air after the resumption of power-sharing a year earlier. “I doubt if the current model is in the long term democratically desirable or a particularly good idea from an administrative point of view either. In other words, I would like to see the possibility in due course of evolution towards some form of voluntary coalition arrangement, with some sort of cross-community threshold of support. That would seem to me to make more sense in terms of accountability, the possibility of change, and avoidance of entrenchment of interests and corruption.” 10 years on what we have is a blatant lack of accountability shown by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal; the Assembly in suspension and thus deadlocked; sectarian ‘sharing out’ between DUP and Sinn Fein interests rather than genuine power-sharing as the main characteristic of the latter years of the Executive; and numerous examples of corruption, particularly on the DUP side of the house. It was little wonder that the Executive was so unloved by the people of the North at the end: at one meeting in West Belfast of broad nationalist opinion a year ago Sinn Fein could find only two people out of a crowd of over 150 to support them going back into that Executive.

Maybe the whole experiment was doomed once the reactionaries of the DUP became involved. The governments had decided to turn their backs on the middle ground sometime in the early 2000s, principally in order to get Sinn Fein and the IRA on board. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 this huge gamble appeared to have paid off. But as in Lebanon and other places where erstwhile bitter enemies go into government together, history has shown that it rarely lasts long. And the distinct impression now is that few people outside the two governments really want the North’s institutions to be restored. Certainly nobody in the British or Irish political establishments is prepared for the ferocious horse trading and painfully negotiated compromises that this will once again require.

The moral and political core of the Good Friday Agreement as an instrument for peace and reconciliation has been hollowed out. Nobody seems ready for the extremely hard graft needed to make a reconciled Northern Ireland work as the essential pre-requisite to what might happen next (in some medium-term future), whether it is a strengthening of the union with Britain (highly unlikely) or a move towards some kind of agreed Ireland. We are back again to the brutal binary choices that have blighted the North for the past century.

My personal hope (unrealistic as it may be) is that the non-unionist and non-nationalist ‘others’ whom the Belfast researcher Paul Nolan recently identified as by far the fastest growing social group in the region, might keep growing until they offer a significant centrist/leftist alternative in Northern society and politics. Bring them all on: atheists and agnostics, Alliance supporters, greens and socialists and People before Profit, foreign immigrants, hippies and gays and transgender people, sensible women of all persuasions, the alienated and marginalised and disabled and ‘plague on both your houses’ people.  Let Northern Ireland be taken over by oddballs and weirdos of every stripe. Nothing they could propose could be as stultifying and perilous as the drift towards the Border Poll that Sinn Fein are constantly demanding. For I believe that a 50% plus one vote for a (dis)united Ireland in such a poll will be just the thing to re-ignite the the ancient, bloody conflict.

ENDNOTE: I highly recommend Fintan O’Toole’s article in the Irish Times of 20th October on possible consequences of a worst case scenario after Brexit. Some of it is fanciful, some of is not. Be warned: we are entering dangerous times.


¹ The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: a Model for Export?


Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland | 3 Comments

A bloody Finnish cautionary tale for Irish Republicans

The independent presidential candidate Sean Gallagher has recently joined Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Sinn Fein among the growing list of people who have said they expect to see a united Ireland in their lifetime. The two new factors behind their confidence are, of course, the demographic trends which show that in the next few years Catholics will probably become the largest socio-religious group in Northern Ireland, and the cataclysm of Brexit.

Irish unity is an absolutely legitimate aspiration – I share it myself. However what these politicians never talk about, along with ordinary people in the Republic one hears voicing the same opinion in pubs and at parties, is how this unity is going to come about. The Good Friday Agreement says that once a bare 50% plus one majority for unity in a Border Poll (and it is unlikely to be much larger) is reached, the Westminster Parliament will legislate for British withdrawal and a united Ireland will result. But what will follow this seismic decision? What will be the governmental,  public finance and security arrangements in the fraught transitional period that it will set in motion? How will violence and disorder be dealt with? In the 45 years I have lived off and on in the Republic of Ireland, I have never heard or engaged in a single conversation about this fundamental issue. There seems to be an unspoken and utterly unthinking assumption that everything will turn out for the best.

However there remains the small issue of what to do about the something over 800,000 Unionists who want nothing to do with Irish unity. These difficult people are either  fiercely and proudly British; or, in the words of the distinguished political scientist and peacemaker Padraig O’Malley, what is ultimately important to them is “not their Protestantism nor their Britishness, but their unrelenting opposition to any form of association with the rest of Ireland, an opposition that transcends in its intensity and durability any possibility of accommodation.”

My belief, based on 23 years of living and working in the North, and regular conversations with unionist friends and relations, is that unless a very long drawn out transition to some form of unity is handled with enormous sensitivity and generosity, a small but significant proportion of those Unionists (and particularly the urban working class and rural Unionists who call themselves loyalists) will resist it by force.

Recently I have been reading the proceedings of the New Ireland Forum, the gathering of constitutional nationalist parties which came together in Dublin in 1983-1984 to discuss the question of unity. I was struck in particular by the contributions  of two thoughtful, moderate witnesses, one from a Catholic and one from a Protestant background. Bernard Cullen grew up as a Catholic in a Protestant working class area of Belfast and would go on to become professor of philosophy at Queen’s University. Asked about what would happen in the North if some day in the future there was ever the threat of a demographic nationalist majority for unity, he said the probability – given that there were loyalists willing to kill in order to resist what they saw as rampant Irish nationalism – was that there would be “a most terrible and horrific outcome, much greater in carnage and loss of life than anything we have seen so far.”

Similarly Robin Glendinning, a playwright and Alliance Party member from a liberal Protestant background, said that if a combination of the British government, the Irish government and the Northern Nationalist community were ever to tell the Unionists “your right to consent is now over, you would be in a very dangerous situation. I believe under those circumstances the Unionists would fight.”

I believe, despite Sinn Fein’s claims to the contrary, that little has changed in most Unionists’ attitudes since the 1980s. What will happen after Brexit is another matter, extremely difficult to predict. But I agree with Cullen and Glendinning that if there is a hair’s breadth majority for unity in a Border Poll in the foreseeable future, this island will be on the brink of renewed conflict. Loyalist paramilitary organisations, which have never gone away, will do what they do best: defend their areas against nationalist encroachment, which will involve killing Catholics. With so many Unionists having a knowledge of handling arms and military tactics through service in the RUC, the UDR and the paramilitary groups themselves, there will be plenty of murderous expertise to go around. The likelihood of attacks on Southern cities and towns would be considerable.

I foresee loyalists adopting two overlapping military strategies in such a situation. There are those who would attempt to create ‘facts on the ground’, securing unionist strongholds in largely Protestant areas like east Belfast, north Down, south and east Antrim and north Armagh. Others would proclaim a ‘backs to the wall’ resistance, appealing to Ulster’s long martial tradition of beating back the Southern hordes, from Cuchulainn to the Ulster Volunteers. Famous battles like the Boyne, Derry’s Walls, the Somme and Ulster-American hero Davy Crockett’s last stand at the Alamo would be invoked.

If you think this is far-fetched and alarmist, consider the experience of a peaceful EU member state on the far side of Europe. Who in Ireland has ever heard of the Finnish Civil War? This year the people of that highly civilised country are commemorating the centenary of that terrible conflict, in which 36,000 people were killed in just six months in 1918 (compare this with the 2,100 people who died in the 1916-1923 Irish War of Independence and Civil War).

This was a conflict between socialist and communist ‘Reds’ and right-wing ‘Whites’. Interestingly, most of the ‘Reds’ aimed to create nothing more revolutionary than a constitutional democratic nation-state on the Swiss model. Only a minority wanted a Finnish Soviet republic copied from Lenin’s Russia next door (Finland had been an autonomous region of the Russian empire until it declared effective independence in July 1917 after the fall of the Tsar four months earlier).But that was not how the Finnish right saw it: they saw a Bolshevik state in the making and brought in German troops to help put it down. The result was a civil war in which wide-scale terror was used by both sides.

Two key elements of this conflict are worth noting. Compared to Russia’s other autonomous regions, Finland was a relatively egalitarian society with equal political rights, a comparatively high level of education and opportunities for upward social mobility. And one of the tragic failures of the newly independent country’s rapid slide into civil war was that it had no working government, military or police force to maintain public order as parliamentary politics were replaced by warring paramilitary groups.

The result was a maelstrom. “The paramilitary nature of the conflict helps to explain the peculiar nature of its violence, which was unrestrained by international norms of warfare,” conclude two Finnish historians, Pertti Haapala and Marko Tikka, in a recent book chapter.¹ “What made violence possible was the gradual process of state collapse in 1917 and the government’s loss of control over the monopoly of force, a process that soon began to affect civil society, the economy and everyday life, and which eroded the belief in common values and norms. In that situation the step to violence was surprisingly short: the same young people who a year previously had been enthusiastically founding reading clubs, choirs and dance groups, were now organising small armed groups willing to annihilate the enemy.” It is striking that some of the worst atrocities were carried out by paramilitary units made up of very young volunteers, sometimes even 12-15 year old schoolboys and their teachers.

Paramilitaries? High levels of education? Political vacuum? Breakdown of law and order? It all sounds depressingly familiar. Parts of Northern Ireland were close to civil war several times between the 1970s and 1990s. If we blunder unthinkingly into a Border Poll without lengthy negotiations and meticulous consultation and preparation lasting (I would suggest) at least a generation, this kind of bloody madness could easily convulse our lovely island again.

¹ Pertti Haapala and Marko Tikka, ‘Revolution, Civil War and Terror in Finland in 1918’ in War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War (Robert Gerwarth and John Horne, editors), Oxford University Press 2012

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 4 Comments

Are parts of Europe coming to resemble Northern Ireland?

I imagine that few people outside Northern Ireland would disagree with the statement that the North is one of the most politically backward regions in Western Europe. The reasons are numerous and well-known: 30 years of destabilising and for a long time seemingly insoluble civil conflict; a politics largely determined by 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry and empire loyalism on one side, early 20th century irredentist nationalism on the other; the archaic militarism of Orange marches and republican hunger strike commemorations; little or no strategy for the social and economic improvement of its people, with high unemployment, low productivity and heavy dependence on subsidies from central government; and now the longest period without a coherent system of government of any European nation or region this century. Future historians will surely be dumbfounded at the failure to secure a working government over issues as marginal and eminently soluble as the Irish language and marriage equality.

My wife and I have just returned from a holiday in Catalonia, one of Europe’s most prosperous, progressive and sophisticated regions, with a capital, Barcelona, which is one of the world’s great cities, and a proud record of defending democracy against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. But I saw some worrying signs in that ancient civilised region (a rich province of the Roman empire 2000 years ago) of a society facing the danger of deepening divisions between nationalists and unionists: nationalists who want Catalan independence and unionists who want to remain part of Spain.

In our small Costa Brava seaside resort there were Catalan flags, posters demanding the release of political prisoners and yellow ribbons protesting their imprisonment on every surface: on balconies, park and seafront railings, beaches and in people’s lapels. The mayor, chairman of a group of pro-independence town mayors, had even proposed putting yellow crosses on the town’s beaches.

This pattern was repeated in the region’s major cities, Barcelona and Girona. While we were there, a woman whose children were removing yellow ribbons from railings in a Barcelona park was hit in the face and had her nose broken. In Girona people associated with the largest party in the Catalan parliament, the unionist Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), wore hoods to do the removing. This will not end well.

Catalan nationalism, unlike its Basque equivalent, has always prided itself on being completely peaceful, and in the past being more concerned with the independence of its culture and language rather than political independence. But the fierceness of the separatist language and the ubiquity of the pro-independence symbols were striking to the visitor this year (we have been holidaying in the same seaside resort for the past six years and like journalists on holiday everywhere, closely peruse the local papers).

The difference is what happened on 1st October last year. Then an outlawed and chaotic independence referendum was held with a 43% turn-out, in which over 90% of those voting opted for independence. The poll was marred by violent attacks on voters by the Spanish police, who blocked polling stations to try to prevent people voting. Earlier the Catalan parliament had stated that independence would be binding with a simple majority, without requiring a minimum turnout. However this was clearly illegal under Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, which requires a two thirds majority in that parliament for any change to the region’s status. It was also declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court following a request by the Spanish government. After an abortive declaration of independence, nine independence leaders were jailed to await trial on a range of charges, while five more, including then regional president Carles Puigdemont, fled into exile.

Since then there has been a regional election, which saw the pro-nationalist coalition returned with an increased 70 to 65 seat majority; a change of government in Madrid, with the more conciliatory socialists, led by Pedro Sanchez, re-opening a long stalled dialogue with the Catalan nationalists, but a new, even more hard-line anti-Spanish separatist leader, Quim Torra, in Barcelona. While the new government has offered a new referendum on improving Catalonia’s self-governing powers, Torra has insisted that only “a referendum on self-determination will resolve the conflict.”

In a recent article the new Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell, a former European Parliament president, warned that the drive for independence was dividing Catalan society into two halves with the increasing risk of a highly damaging confrontation. The pluralism of a society that was bilingual, culturally diverse and with multiple identities was in danger. He said a fundamentalist nationalism with undertones of xenophobia, which preached that Catalonia was an an oppressed colony of Spain, could lead to a ‘Kosovo solution’ in the region.¹

Kosovo is a disputed, corrupt and mainly Albanian state, which declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 2008, but still contains large pockets of Serbs who angrily proclaim their loyalty to Serbia. There re-partition is back on the negotiating table. While we were in Catalonia, there was a proposal from the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia that mostly Serb northern Kosovo would be returned to Belgrade’s rule but other Serb enclaves would remain part of Kosovo, while a mainly Albanian area of southern Serbia would be transferred to Kosovo. This is apparently aimed at helping the two countries establish normal relations after a bitter little war in 1998-1999 (complete with massacres of civilians by both sides), which is what they have to do if they are to have any chance of joining the European Union. However other senior Kosovan politicians have reacted with horrified astonishment, warning that such a re-partition would risk triggering the kind of terrible ethnic and border conflicts that convulsed the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

To Irish observers, all this is depressingly familiar. We too have a society in the North divided down the middle between unionists and nationalists, with changing an international border – if necessary by a hair’s breadth 50% + 1 vote – being proposed by one party as the deeply destabilising ‘solution’ to that division. “Accelerated reunification post-Brexit” is how I heard Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney describing it earlier this month. And of course the dreadful Brexit is driving a new wedge between the two communities there so that 20 years of hard toil to build a multiple identity and culturally diverse society is now in jeopardy.

Similar divisions based on fearful national identity and suspicion of the immigrant and the outsider are growing in countries as different as Italy and Sweden, Germany and Hungary. Is it too simplistic to see all this as akin to the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Europe?

ENDNOTE (1)  My experience is that even moderate Irish nationalists in the Republic find it difficult to be objective when the word ‘unionist’ is used. Their default position is that unionist equals bad. Please bear in mind that I am using ‘unionist’ in the above article in its Spanish-Catalan context, so don’t instinctively take the side of separatist Catalans simply because they are nationalist. [God knows how we’re going to cope if upwards of 800,000 of those ‘bad’ people become citizens of a united Ireland in a few decades or so!]

ENDNOTE (2):  In contradiction to my opening paragraph, I have to say that at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford earlier this month, I was hugely impressed by some of the civil society speakers from Northern Ireland. The panel on the second day on ‘bridging the gaps’ in the divided North consisted of Monica McWilliams, former leader of the Women’s Coalition, in the chair; Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, talking about the role of story-telling and drama; Judith Thompson, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors (who is originally from England), on those people still suffering from the legacy of the conflict; Bob Collins, former Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission (who is from the South) on the success so far of the 1916-1923 centenary commemorations; and Duncan Morrow, Director of Community Engagement at University of Ulster and former CEO of the Community Relations Council, who delivered a brilliant dissection of the failures of reconciliation and the shortcomings of the Good Friday Agreement. When a society has such leading citizens, there must still be real hope for its future. I wish the same could be said of the political speakers: the deeply unimpressive Secretary of State, Karen Bradley; the fervent Sinn Fein chairman, Declan Kearney (he must terrify the life out of unionists!) and the young stand-in for Arlene Foster (do DUP leaders ever turn up at events where people might disagree with them?), Christopher Stalford.

¹ ‘Lo peor aun puede estar por llegar’, El Periodico, 2 September 2018



Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Views from abroad | 1 Comment

My dream is of an economically united Ireland

When it comes to Northern Ireland many years of journalism and cross-border cooperation have taught me to be a hard-headed, cold-eyed realist. Any suggestion of movement towards Irish unity, whether it be a post-Brexit agreement to put border checks down the Irish Sea or demographic increases in the Catholic population, will be fiercely resisted, or wilfully ignored, by the great majority of people in the unionist community.

But I do have one dream. It is that the two parts of Ireland will come together slowly, with an increasing number of Northern unionists realising that a much closer association with the Republic makes huge sense for reasons of economic self-interest. In short, it is that the benefits of an economically united Ireland will over time start persuading them of the merits of a politically united Ireland. I know that Brexit may put paid to such highly optimistic ideas – but this is a dream we’re talking about!

Because when one digs down into the economic performance of the two Irish jurisdictions in recent times, the differences are both dramatic and dramatically in the Republic’s favour. I have been reading a report published last month by the island’s two business confederations, IBEC and CBI Northern Ireland, called Business on a Connected Island. This shows startling differences between economic activity, income, consumption and education levels between North and South.

For example, Gross Domestic Product per capita in 2016 was more than twice as high in the Republic as in the North (€58,800 to €27,400). Even given factors such as the distortion of the Irish economy by profit outflows to the large number of  multinational companies here, this is an extraordinary discrepancy. 

The export performance of Northern companies is simply pathetic when compared to the Republic’s booming economy. In 2016 the Republic (with goods sold overseas to the value of €119 billion)  exported more in one month than Northern Ireland did in the whole year (€9.5 billion).

In that year average hourly wages were substantially higher (Stg£21.47 to £13.87) in the Republic, although again this comparison has to be treated with some caution because of poorer and more expensive public services like health and education. The average weekly expenditure on consumption in the South in 2015 (excluding housing) was €614 compared to €527 in Northern Ireland.

Higher education qualifications, so vital for employment these days, are far more prevalent in the Republic than the North: 53% of 30-35 year olds have such qualifications in the former, compared to 35.5% in the latter.

The report’s authors observe that if you put the North and South together into one all-island economy, that would make it the third largest regional economy in the British Isles, behind only London and the English south-east. If one takes Northern Ireland on its own, it is easily the weakest regional economy in the UK. They conclude: “The opportunities offered by an all-island economy have  been used by a wide range of firms in both jurisdictions to grow their businesses and create new jobs. As a result, what was once merely a concept is now an economic reality.”

In a study published in April the Derry-based financial journalist Paul Gosling confirmed this picture of Southern economic strength and Northern weakness.¹ He calculated that since partition the two economies have gone in opposite directions. In 1920 80% of Irish industrial output was in and around Belfast, then the island’s largest city. Just under a hundred years later the economy of the Republic is four times larger than that of Northern Ireland, with industrial output 10 times larger.

According to a recent Economic Eye study from the accountancy firm EY, economic growth in 2017 in the Republic was 4.9% compared to 1.4% in Northern Ireland. In January the Irish Central Bank forecast the creation of nearly 90,000 new jobs this year and next, and that unemployment would decline to just over 5%: effectively full employment. Young people are flocking from all over the world to Ireland to seek employment opportunities in its dynamic IT, pharmaceutical, financial services, aircraft leasing and other sectors.

At the same time, as I have pointed out before, the Republic has become one of the most liberal and open-minded countries in Europe, with same sex marriage and a liberal abortion regime passed by large majorities in referenda; over 90% of people polled saying they want to remain part of the European Union; a gay, half-Indian prime minister; and, despite the huge and recent increase of foreign-born people in the country (11.6% of the population in 2016), not the remotest sign of the emergence of any kind of right wing, anti-immigration party. A poor health service and a scandalous lack of social housing remain major problems. But in the Irish Times and Guardian commentator Fintan O’Toole’s words, Irish democracy has showed itself to be “a strong, vibrant plant” at a time when “a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.”

What is there not to like in all this? Unfortunately for many unionists, the prospect of becoming part of an attractive and prosperous Irish society is always trumped by their deeply fearful brand of identity politics. For too many of them politics remains about one thing only: remaining British at all costs – even the hugely damaging cost of crashing out of the EU, seeing the break-up of the UK and becoming a second rate nation with a standard of living well below that of its former European partners.

The next part is pure fantasy on my part. Once the Brexit imbroglio is semi-resolved in the next few years, I would like to see Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coming together on a joint electoral platform of starting to get ready for an Irish unity based on economic performance and prosperity (they could add a comprehensive package to deal with the housing crisis). As part of this they would offer unionists a power-sharing regional Assembly in Belfast with all the safeguards enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement; Irish membership of the Commonwealth; an overhaul of the Constitution to remove any remaining elements influenced by 1930s nationalism and Catholicism, notably the preamble, and to recognise the British identity of Northern unionists; a new flag (I suggest St Patrick’s harp on a blue background as used in the presidential standard or the symbols of the four Irish provinces) and national anthem (perhaps Ireland’s Call); and new systems of state education (including an end to compulsory Irish) and healthcare without church involvement.

The Citizens Assembly could have a key role here. It was recently described by two distinguished UCD professors  as “a venue for calm, reflective deliberation that fed back into our representative system of politics [so that] Ireland is now seen (deservedly) as a world leader in the use of deliberative democracy.”² The Assembly could be convened in semi-permanent session over a number of years to discuss these proposals and how they might be implemented.

This dramatic démarche by the two largest Irish parties, working together, would have three impacts: it would marginalise Sinn Fein as the party of Irish unity; it would help moderate unionists (who would then, I believe, be facing into a post-Brexit economic meltdown) to begin to contemplate an Irish unity that would not be the creation of their arch-enemies in the republican movement (the political representatives of the organisation that spent 30 years killing and bombing them); and it would force Southern people to face for the first time the far reaching and socially disruptive implications of unity for their cosy little 26-county society.

Remember this is only my dream. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it started coming true?

¹ The Economic Effects of an All-Island Economy 2018

² Bryan Fanning and David Farrell, ‘Ireland cannot ignore threat of populism’, Irish Times, 17 August



Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 7 Comments

On this occasion it was a DUP politician who talked the most sense

Sometimes I despair of the poor understanding of the people of this Republic about what makes the Northern quarter of this island tick. It is not helped by poor reporting of what happens there.

We had another example of this earlier this month. Former Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson came to the Glenties Summer School in Donegal to make an important speech. However his message was almost completely lost because all the headlines were about a question he answered from a member of the audience to the effect that unionists should prepare for the possibility of Irish unity (even though he didn’t think it would happen) and should accept the result of a Border Poll if that was its outcome.

This is what both the Southern media and his unionist critics – obsessed in their very different ways with unity – seized upon.But this is not what he came to say, as the one journalist who realised the import of his speech, RTE Northern editor Tommie Gorman (who chaired the session he addressed) has pointed out in a thoughtful online article¹.

Robinson came to Glenties to say two very important things: firstly, that if at the end of the Brexit negotiations there is a worsening of UK-Ireland relations and unionist relations with Dublin, “the spill-over consequences on relationships within Northern Ireland are clear and alarming”; and secondly, to issue a call to the Northern parties – and this must mean the DUP and Sinn Fein above all – to get back into government as soon as possible; to accept that “no one’s position is weakened if parties were to return to Stormont while outstanding issues are resolved in parallel, under a strictly timetabled schedule.”

In a carefully considered and even-handed speech, the former DUP leader examined the various relationships that had been built since the Good Friday Agreement.  He praised the inter-governmental relationship between London and Dublin within the EU as “a common room where allies discussed common interests and almost always pursued common causes.” He stressed that the frequency of EU contacts between the two governments had created “a sense of friendship and conviviality” and a “comradeship of being part of the same team.”

However he forecast a post-Brexit scenario of resentment between the two nations as the Republic “takes up cudgels alongside the other EU states which are hostile to the United Kingdom’s interests.” He warned: “No matter how it is approached, at best the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland governments will struggle to maintain anything close to the warmth of their pre-Brexit affinity. At worst that relationship may become stony and staid and, in extreme circumstances, even perfunctory and fruitless.” Robinson said he already detected a view in London that “what they judge to be the rigid, if not antagonistic, negotiating posture adopted by Irish government ministers, has planted the seeds of regression in that association.”

Robinson warned sternly that “the harmonious and cordial co-existence between the two traditions on this island, upon which, I would suggest, peace and stability depends,cannot in the future be reliant or dependent on the safety net of the one-in-a-million possibility of a genial Brexit outcome that maintains British-Irish relations at pre-Brexit levels.”

He then moved on to North-South relationships. “Those who manipulate the UK’s exiting process to shift the balance – either by working towards a back-up option that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK or by pressing for a hard border that cuts off North-South interaction – clearly do not understand the importance of maintaining the balance which led – pre-Brexit – to Northern Ireland having its best ever rapport with the South and internally. More than that they are playing a dangerous stratagem, one that could destabilise Northern Ireland for years to come.”

“The network of arrangements, North-South, east-west and within Northern Ireland, have developed over a number of years and involved much give and take and hard work in getting the balance right. These arrangements have allowed unionists and nationalists to participate fully within a framework of relationships – and to do so in a manner with mutually beneficial outcomes. It worked and moreover no one felt threatened by it. But it is a carefully and finely tuned instrument, and events which disturb the balance will require measures to be taken to maintain the equilibrium. Correspondingly, efforts to tip the balance one way or the other must be resisted.”

He warned that from a unionist perspective there had been “a rapid deterioration in their estimation of the Irish government. Unionists believe Dublin has been completely self-serving and unnecessarily bellicose during this process…It would be a unionist view that the Republic’s government showed little interest and took no account of how they felt about any of the proposed Brexit solutions and still less about the impact of those proposals on future relationships.”

Finally he turned to inter-community relationships in the North. He recognised that nationalists and unionists had radically different views of the consequences of Brexit: the former fearing a new hard border and greater separation from the South; the latter “any deal that results in them being prised away from Great Britain and by treaty or regulation stapled to the Irish Republic.” Both of these are “notionally possible outcomes.”

Much of the polarisation between the parties which had resulted from “Brexit hysteria” was avoidable, he believed, “but an absence of the political cohesion that a functioning Executive has provided in the past has intensified the division.” He warned that “each tradition will almost certainly echo the position of the government with which they most closely identify, and without the task of governing and the responsibilities that accompany being in government, a blame game and justification philosophy will prevail.”

He then turned to his key message: “Central to protecting the helpful and cordial set of relationships that have been built up over many years is the rebirth and smooth operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive, along with the North-South and east-west institutions. Without each and all of those parts being in place, and working, relationships will suffer – perhaps drastically. The absence of the complete network of connections leaves us all vulnerable to a downward spiral which may lead to toxicity.”

“It remains my strong and settled opinion that the deadlock in Northern Ireland must be broken…It is intolerable that there are politicians who appear to have turned their backs on the will and needs of the community they are elected to serve.”

Robinson demanded – a call surely aimed at the two governments –  “an injection of urgency to get the process moving.” “Over the past generation we have, bit by bit, created a unique construct bringing together diverse traditions and distinctive cultures…I contend that the revival of the Assembly and Executive is an imperative in a post-Brexit era. It represents our best hope of peace, stability and reconciliation.” Nobody had “come forward with a better plan for Northern Ireland than the one we operated successfully for over a decade – one that was capable of attracting the support of both sections of our community. It was worth the risks and hardships to put those arrangements in place, and it’s still worth fighting to see them return.”

I agree with Peter Robinson that the past 20 years has showed us one thing above all: when the British and Irish governments work closely together, peaceful progress and an element of togetherness are possible in the deeply divided place that is Northern Ireland. A good relationship between the Irish government and the DUP has also been part of that benevolent cocktail, a relationship that Bertie Ahern, in particular, worked tirelessly to build and foster.

In the wake of Brexit, both governments have taken their eye off that crucial ball. Dublin-London-Belfast relations are now worse than at any time since the Northern peace process started in the 1990s. As an Irish person, I hold my own government – and  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – particularly to blame. Last December I was a lone voice cautioning against the deterioration of relations between Dublin and London, and between Dublin and the DUP, after the diplomatic sleight of hand that led to what is now known as the ‘backstop’, aimed at avoiding a post-Brexit hard border.² There was far too much facile green jersey wearing and anti-British schadenfreude in Dublin as Theresa May’s hapless government floundered from crisis to crisis. And the total breakdown in relations with the largest unionist party was unforgivable from a government that is supposed to be one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

Dublin’s unyielding insistence on the backstop and nothing short of the backstop has continued ever since, while relations with London and Belfast have worsened by the month. Is it in Ireland’s interest that the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal? Is it in Ireland’s interest that relations with the British Government and the DUP turn from frosty to toxic? Is it in Ireland’s interest that efforts to revive the power-sharing Executive seem to be seen in Dublin as something that will happen only after the Brexit problem is resolved?

Peter Robinson, that wise old unionist owl, has challenged the two governments, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to wake out of their torpor, and once again work night and day to give the miraculous accord that was the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions one more chance. It may be our last chance before crude demographic arithmetic and sectarian polarisation move us back once again to the ancient and malignant stalemate that is non-politics in the North.

ENDNOTE 1: Two pictures in the Irish Times of 6th August symbolised for me two contrasting visions of a future Ireland. On the front page were our women’s hockey team, surprise World Cup silver medallists, a harmonious collective punching brilliantly above their weight, with their joyous faces and exuberant rendition of Ireland’s Call. Using my well-honed sectarian antennae (I have spent too many years in the North!), I can identify their religious/social backgrounds as follows: one Northern Catholic (their camogie playing captain Katie Mullan); eight Southern Catholics; five Northern Protestants and four Southern Protestants. What about that for a successful united Ireland combination that’s both equal and diverse?

On page of 7 of the paper is a picture of a very different Ireland: the 37th annual National Hunger Strike Commemoration march in Castlewellan, County Down, complete with paramilitary-style marching men and women, grimly determined all, tricolours and starry ploughs aloft, and pictures of the dead IRA and INLA Maze Prison hunger strikers everywhere (with an address by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald). Do we really want to go back to that dark place? Or do we want to go forward instead to the happy, peaceful, pluralist country personified by our wonderful women’s hockey team?

ENDNOTE 2: On Sunday 23 September I will be taking part in the second Glencree Peace Walk (10k) through the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains to raise money for the work of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Glencree played a key role in the Northern peace process, bringing the warring sides together for key confidential face-to-face meetings. Now we work with people suffering from the legacy of that conflict, women in conflict areas, refugees and young Muslims. I am particularly appealing to friends in the Republic (having asked my Northern friends to support another charity walk earlier this summer) to help me with a donation, however small. Please donate via the following crowd-funding site: https://glencree-peace-walk.everydayhero.com/ie/glencree-peace-walk-2018

¹ https://www.rte.ie/news/analysis-and-comment/2018/0803/982974-dup-robinson-glenties/

² December 2017 blog: Northern institutions crumbling as Leo rides high in Europe [https://2irelands2gether.com/2017/12/]

Posted in British-Irish relations, General, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

Leitrim lessons from the great John McGahern

John McGahern is known, in Ireland and beyond, as a marvellous teller of stories about ordinary rural people’s lives. His most famous novels – The Dark, Amongst Women, That They May Face the Rising Sun – are set in his native Leitrim (and the Roscommon of his teenage years), where he returned to live, farm and write for 30 years before his death in 2006.

He grew up in Ireland in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when two near-theocracies snarled at or ignored each other across a high border wall of mutual loathing and incomprehension. He lost his teaching job in the mid-1960s for writing a ‘dirty’ book – The Dark, which was compared by reviewers to the early Joyce and Mauriac – and, according to his trade union representative, for marrying a Finnish woman. It was the all-powerful Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who ordered his dismissal.

He was scathing of the Irish state of that period. “In that country, individual thought and speech were discouraged…By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclamation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand… The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarean section, presumably because it was considered more ‘natural’. Minorities were deprived of the right to divorce. Learning Irish was seen as a means of keeping much foreign corrupting influence out.”¹ Meanwhile the country was so impoverished that in the 1950s half a million people were forced to emigrate, most of them to England.

In an irony beyond irony, this was precisely the time the Irish government chose to mount an utterly futile international campaign to end partition. Little wonder that Northern Protestants, snug in their own bigoted, anti-Catholic statelet, scoffed at this attempt to incorporate them into such a Catholic-run dystopia.

Despite his experience at the hands of the Church, McGahern continued to value the Catholicism he had inherited as a child from his beloved mother, who died when he was nine, leaving him and his sisters and brother to be brought up by his brutal police sergeant father “in near starvation and violence and slavery”. He wrote: “I had affection still and gratitude for my upbringing in the Church: it was the sacred weather of my early life, and I could no more turn against it than I could turn on any deep part of my life. Through work and reading and reflection I had come to separate morals and religion, to see morals as simply our relationship with other people and the creatures of the earth and air, and religion as our relationship with our total environment, the all that surrounds our little lives. I had come to see the story of Jesus as a story among other sacred stories that sought to explain and make palatable the inexplicable.”²

Of all Irish novelists, John McGahern strikes the deepest chord with me: whether it is his courageous and unapologetic independence of mind; his love of the overgrown rural lanes where he grew up (I loved the County Antrim lanes of my childhood holidays in a similar way); or his insistence that good manners and neighbourliness are the only way to conduct affairs between civilised human beings.

He is not a political writer, although circumstances – driven out of a job and into exile by a pusillanimous state – sometimes forced him to be. He wrote mainly about the trials and joys of country people, and the pain and pleasure of family life. His most memorable characters ranged from the lovable to the monstrous: from Jamesie in That They May Face the Rising Sun, whose “intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement” to the child-beating Mahoney in The Dark, an archetype of the vain and violent father who appears in several of McGahern’s novels.

So it was no accident that when I did my annual cross-border and cross-country walk (this year from Armagh to Sligo) last month, I made sure I passed through McGahern’s country in Leitrim around Ballinamore. I visited his and his mother’s grave at Aughawillan church; passed the old school where his mother taught, and walked the mile or so they used to walk every day to Corramahon where they lived in a poor, rickety house in the middle of a field. All that is left from those times 75 years ago is a rusty gate in a prickly hedge and an empty, rushy meadow. It is extraordinary to think that out of this remote and unpromising place came a great writer and literature of world renown.

I also identify strongly with McGahern’s views on violence, the North and the ‘national question.’ In a memorable passage in That They May Face the Rising Sun, a thinly disguised version of himself, Joe Ruttledge, met a local IRA leader, a thinly disguised version of John Joe McGirl (who is described as a “plain and decent” man who would only shoot you “if you stood in the way of the Cause”).

The McGirl character, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, said: “You don’t seem to have any interest in our cause?” “No” said Ruttledge, “I don’t like violence.” “You don’t believe in freedom, then?” “Our country is free.” “A part of it is not free.” “That is a matter for that other part. I don’t think it is any of our business.” “I think differently. I believe it is all our business.” Ruttledge knew that as he was neither a follower nor a leader he must look useless or worse than useless to this man of commitment and action. As far as Jimmy Joe was concerned he might as well be listening to the birds like an eejit on the far side of the lake, and he made no further attempt at speech.’

I would not go as far as McGahern in saying that the North is none of the Republic’s business. I think it is primarily the business of the politicians and people of Northern Ireland to work out their deep-seated problems, but unfortunately history has taught us that they are incapable of doing that without strong involvement from the Irish and British governments, working together.

But I agree absolutely with him about the utter impossibility of moving towards reconciliation and mutual understanding in Ireland through people killing and hating each other. In a 2010 article the novelist Colm Toibín wrote: “It hardly needs saying that McGahern viewed this inter-tribal hatred and disgust with horror. The idea for him of attacking your own neighbours was a very shocking idea. He would say that if only people in Northern Ireland could improve their manners, then they might stop shooting each other, or when that stopped, hating each other or disliking each other in ways that caused pain or the slightest form of civil disturbance.”³

The Northern Protestant character in That They May Face the Rising Sun, the anglicised advertising executive Robert Booth, also spoke the truth when he said: “If it came to an all-out conflict our people would render a very bloody account of themselves, but they would probably lose.”

John McGahern, like all great writers, was a truth-teller. In his 2010 article Colm Toibín said he wished he had been able to introduce McGahern to Bob Bain, the pastor of the Darkley gospel hall in south Armagh, whose Sunday evening service was machine gunned by the INLA in November 1983, killing three worshippers and injuring many others. Toibín had been greatly taken with Bain’s charm, resilience and independence of spirit. Meeting him was “one of those moments when the partition of Ireland seemed to me immensely sad: my community in the South had been deprived of the presence of men like Bob Bain as a living, vibrant, fully accepted part of our religious and civic life. We could have been nourished by the sheer difference.”

Toibín finished with the following words: “In their loneliness and their fierce dignity, I wanted to invoke both John McGahern and Pastor Bain as two figures who in one way lived close to the border, a place others might have called home – but in a better way, in an exemplary way, they lived deeply and truthfully within themselves. It is as much as any of us can hope for.”

ENDNOTE. From a great writer to a great educationalist: I would like to pay tribute to my admired friend and colleague John Coolahan, former professor of education at Maynooth University, who died in June. John’s central role in the reform and modernisation of the Irish education system has been written about elsewhere. What is not so well-known was his huge commitment to increasing mutual understanding on this island through North-South educational cooperation. He was the main mover behind the setting up of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) in 2003 to bring together all those involved in teacher training and education in Ireland through joint research, conference and exchange projects. He himself said that the formation and development of this all-island network, which is still going strong (administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies), was his proudest achievement in a lifetime of high achievement. It is only a pity that such an outstanding example of cross-border networking was not followed by other key sectors and professions.

¹ Memoir, Faber and Faber paperback, p. 210

² Memoir, p. 222

³ ‘Along the Catalan and Irish borders: politics of memory and progress through good manners’. The Journal of Cross Border Studies, spring 2010.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment

In praise of Irish villages (under the summer sun)

Earlier this month I spent a week walking along back roads and across hills through a relatively unknown part of the rural north and west of Ireland. I started at the village of Tynan, west of Armagh city; walked across north Monaghan and the Upper Lough Erne lakeland district in Fermanagh; into west Cavan and down through Leitrim to Carrick on Shannon; and then westwards as far as the village of Coolaney under the Ox Mountains in Sligo. I had intended to continue across Mayo to Ballintubber Abbey and Croagh Patrick, but because of an injury (not serious) was forced to stop there. I will return to complete the walk later in the summer.

What struck me again and again during this walk was how lovely so many Irish villages looked in the brilliant summer sunshine. This is not a fashionable or wealthy part of the country; the opposite, in fact. But is it clear from the ‘Pride of Place’ signs (the all-island competition run by Cooperation Ireland), flower bedecked modern houses,  manicured gardens, neat streets and squares and ubiquitous public notice-boards explaining the history and natural environments of even the tiniest of places, that their inhabitants are genuinely proud of their small communities. It is a very far cry from the picturesque scruffiness, miserable housing and widespread rural poverty that I first witnessed when cycling around Ireland as a teenager in the mid-1960s. For me, this is a sign of a genuinely successful country: when ordinary people in humble places traditionally neglected by the metropolis are clearly living in comfort and prosperity.

I am going to take four examples from my walk: Tydavnet in north Monaghan, Bawnboy in west Cavan, Leitrim village and Coolaney in west Sligo. Three of these villages are genuinely off the beaten track. Walking along back roads between Glaslough (an outstandingly pretty heritage village just south of the border) and Tydavnet, I immediately noted how smart the farmhouses and bungalows were, with their white-painted walls, perfectly tended gardens, children’s swings and bouncing castles. One may not particularly like the derivative building styles: mock-Georgian, mock-traditional farmhouse, mock-Irish cottage. One may not approve of less than well-planned ribbon development or numerous battery henhouses. But knowing the history of this poor, marginalised, and occasionally violent wedge of the Republic sticking up into Northern Ireland, it gladdened my heart to see it looking so peaceful and prosperous on a gorgeous summer afternoon.

Tydavnet itself is a tiny place, but archaeologically and religiously significant. It was the location of the famous Tydavnet Gold Discs, now in the National Museum, which are the largest and most sophisticated Bronze Age gold artefacts ever found in Ireland. It is named after St Dympna, a seventh century saint who was said to have stopped in the village while fleeing to Belgium to escape the attentions of her incestuous father (who would eventually follow and murder her). She is known as the patron saint of the mentally ill and her shrine at Geel in Belgium (with which Tydavnet is twinned) is a place of international pilgrimage – Geel first adopted a community-based model of caring for psychiatric patients as long ago as the 13th century.

Today Tydavnet’s little main street is as neat as a new pin, with its church, two pubs, guest house and public wildlife garden. It has refurbished a derilect former national school as a centre for ceili dancing and storytelling, and has clubs for GAA, soccer, tug of war, cycling and rambling. My host in Tydavnet was Breege Lenihan of the County Monaghan Community Network, who has worked tirelessly over the years to build cross-border and cross-community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Monaghan and Armagh.

Further west I walked out of Fermanagh across Slieve Rushen, with its concentration of windmills, and down into Bawnboy in Cavan. This is another very small place. Here I stayed in the charming, spotless Keepers Arms pub and guest house, a 165 year old bar which has been turned into a wonderfully cosy village hotel. The village itself boasts a handsome GAA complex, completed in 2005, where I watched the senior team train in the luminous evening. It is in outwardly insignificant places like these, not obviously heartlands of Gaelic sporting excellence, where the GAA’s generous investment is most admirable.

Beside the GAA ground is a relic of a grimmer past, the old Bawnboy Workhouse, looking remarkably unchanged (as least from the outside) from its Victorian beginnings. A mile out the road is the Jampa Ling Buddhist Centre, presided over by Panchen Ötrul Rimpoche, a close associate of the Dalai Lama, who sent him from India to the West to spread the teachings of the Buddha. The Irish countryside is full of surprises.

Leitrim village is an altogether livelier and more cosmopolitan place. It is blessed by its location at the point where the River Shannon meets the Shannon-Erne waterway, with the result that it is a major hub for summer boat traffic. It also benefits from being close to the boom town of Carrick on Shannon, with weekend hen and stag parties, and many other visitors, spilling over into its hotel, restaurants, bars and campsites. Its modern housing estates and apartment complexes were bright and clean and fully occupied when I walked through. The waterside campsite beside Beirnes pub restaurant at Battlebridge (complete with pods and tree houses) looked particularly idyllic in the bright sunshine, as families barbecued and children splashed in the river. I met a developer who has ambitious plans to develop walking tourism in the largely unknown Sliabh an Iarainn to the north of here.

However probably my favourite village of the walk was Coolaney in west Sligo. Who in Dublin or Belfast has even heard of this small place under the Ox Mountains?  Yet seven miles before the village, outside Collooney, I ran into no fewer than a thousand people completing the ‘Sligo Camino’, a cross-county walk from Dromahair, 22 miles away on the Leitrim border, now in its fifth year. This major logistical exercise was being run entirely by volunteers from community groups in Coolaney. There were marshals slowing down the traffic, drink stalls outside back lane bungalows, and a full meal provided at the finish by Sligo’s only community-run café.

Coolaney is a harmonious combination of the old and new. Its traditional main street is tree-lined and whitewashed, but its new estates – not a ghost estate anywhere – speak of the relative proximity of the bustling regional centre and employment hub that is Sligo town. Across the border the flags flying from the lamp-posts would have been those of the historically warring Northern Irish tribes. Here, in this outstanding example of an outward-looking ‘new Irish’ village, they were of the 32 nations competing in soccer’s World Cup finals. Among the people serving meals to the Sligo Camino walkers as they arrived were children with beautiful Indian and Filipino faces. Leaflets were being handed out advertising an ‘international morning’ at the tiniest of tiny neighbouring places – the hamlet of Beltra – with a Russian folk group, Spanish tapas, Surinam snacks and ‘world food from the global kitchen’. As an Irishman with plenty of foreign blood in my veins, it made me feel right at home.

These villages may have looked deceptively alluring in the marvellous summer weather, but I couldn’t help thinking that their glowing well-being and extraordinary community spirit meant we are doing something right in rural Ireland.

I must be careful not be be a  complete Pollyanna. A priest friend who I had dinner with in Coolaney warned me that neighbouring Roscommon towns like Boyle and Ballaghaderreen were full of boarded-up shops, and during a drive through East Mayo a few days later I spotted several still empty and derilect estates. But where there are towns that are doing well – like Carrick on Shannon, Sligo and Ballyconnell in Cavan (where Sean Quinn’s astonishing former empire of cement plants, hotels, building supplies and insurance firms still appears to be largely intact) – once remote and disadvantaged villages in their vicinity are thriving.

My final thought – as so often in these blogs – goes back to Northern Ireland, where I started my walk. Why would anybody in their right mind want to disrupt this green and pleasant republic by forcibly trying to unite it with the deeply fractious and economically parasitical North? The violence in Belfast and Derry during my walk through the peaceful countryside was only the latest reminder of this.

PS I am still accepting donations in support of my Armagh to Sligo walk to the Belfast charity BCM for their work with young homeless people in Northern Ireland at https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1. Many thanks to those who have already donated.



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