Two Irish mistakes as we hurtle towards the Brexit cliff edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Northern nationalists in danger of becoming the Most Ungenerous People Ever (MUPE)?

Northern Ireland Protestants and unionists get a universally bad press. They are portrayed as narrow-minded, bigoted, right wing and often racist. They have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept the modern concepts of power-sharing democracy, social equality and parity of esteem. Much of this is true; some of it is the product of a world-class Irish republican propaganda machine.

Northern Catholics and nationalists, on the other hand, have usually been presented as being on the side of the angels: cut off from their fellow-Irish people by an arbitrary border drawn by British imperialists; discriminated against and downtrodden by their unionist rulers; struggling bravely for their civil rights. Much of this is also true, although it tends to leave out the support many of them gave to a ferocious 30-year-old terrorist campaign by the Provisional IRA against the Northern Ireland state, its defenders and many of its ordinary citizens.

So I was depressed – although not completely surprised – by the ungenerous reaction of leaders of that nationalist community to the generous offer by Seamus Mallon in his just-published book, A Shared Home Place (of which I was co-author) that Irish unity should wait until a majority, or at least a significant minority, of unionists could be persuaded to support it – ‘parallel consent’ he calls it. This was in striking contrast to the warm response the book received from nearly all quarters south of the border.

The rottweiler columnist of the nationalist Irish News, Brian Feeney (himself a former SDLP councillor), went for the jugular. He focused on pouring scorn on the mechanics of Mallon’s specific proposal of how ‘parallel consent’ might work in a referendum (admittedly one of the book’s weaker elements). This he dismissed as ‘absurd and ridiculous, damaging and daft.’ Mallon’s proposals, he said, are ‘carefully designed to make Irish unity a practical impossibility.’¹

There was no attempt to go beyond the jugular to the whole body of Mallon’s argument: that a premature Border Poll might deliver a narrow and completely unworkable majority for unity, reversing the historic situation of Northern Ireland so that a ‘united’ Ireland would capture a similarly sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority. He urged  political leaders to seek some better way to quantify consent so that it reflected true parity of esteem – one of the cornerstones of the Good Friday Agreement – between unionists and nationalists. This would require generosity from a Catholic and nationalist community whose growing numbers mean it is moving into the ascendant. This generosity could take two forms: first, by not pushing for unity until there is a wider and deeper acceptance of it among unionists; and second, by a willingness to put forward an arrangement more congenial to unionists that is some way short of a unitary state.

Brian Feeney is one of those extremely unwise nationalists who wants unity as soon as possible – and damn the consequences. He foresees a nationalist ‘voting majority’ in a mere four years², a contention that is totally unsupported by the demographic evidence.

Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is a shrewder observer. In his review of the book in the New York Irish Echo, he clearly understood Mallon’s main point, although, extraordinarily, he claimed that Mallon, far from being one of the main architects of the Good Friday Agreement, was ‘not a big fan’ of that historic accord.

He went on: ‘The thrust of Mr Mallon’s argument is that a united Ireland born out of a unity referendum with a narrow majority risks a re-run of the past with the boot placed on the other foot. That nationalists and republicans would do to unionists what was done to us for generations. His argument is spurious and offensive. I know of no nationalist or republican who believes for one instance that we are so stupid, so narrow-minded, so bigoted, so driven by hatred, as to do that.’³ A Northern Protestant response might be: that didn’t stop the republican movement killing many hundreds of Protestants, in uniform and out of it, during the 1968-1998 ‘Troubles’.

But the most dispiriting message following the publication of the book came from a Northern nationalist acquaintance whom I know to be a thoughtful and highly intelligent man. He said Mallon was ‘way out of touch’ with nationalist thinking. ‘He belongs to a kind of “cap doffing” era of nationalism where unionism impressed their opinions on doormat nationalism. They [nationalists] had to fight for the political crumbs.’

‘Not any more. For those in the nationalist community these days are long past that. They want the cake. There is a growing number, anecdotally at the very least,  which wants to know the logic of the argument that if 50% plus one is enough to maintain the union, why is it not enough to achieve a united Ireland?  Are nationalist votes of less importance than those of the unionist community?’

‘The DUP’s arrogance has changed moderate opinion. Most well educated nationalists are not “crocodiles”. They are pissed off by the DUP attitudes to Brexit, by its disrespect to the  Irish government and the Irish people, and so much more. You can feel it in everyday attitudes. Unionists can talk about their “precious union”, but nationalists talking about unity is threatening.’

This man said he got a call recently from a former SDLP councillor who called Mallon ‘a green unionist’. He concluded by stressing that he was ‘on the record as an admirer of Seamus Mallon.’

In a follow-up message he said: ‘The DUP arrogance and disrespect in regard to Brexit has been a game changer for many “civic nationalists”. At the Waterfront Hall in Belfast about four months ago “suit and tie” nationalists – solicitors, teachers, middle managers – gathered and the anger in the room was palpable. That has to be addressed in some way.’

A mixture of anger and entitlement is always a dangerous thing. Northern nationalists are angry, ‘they want the cake’ of Irish unity and won’t settle for anything less. That is a powerful and alarming message to Ulster unionists. It also reveals a striking lack of generosity and unwillingness to compromise with their unionist neighbours and fellow-citizens in order to help them come to terms with an eventual ‘new’ Ireland.

The slightly mocking epithet – MOPE (the Most Oppressed People Ever) – was invented by a Queen’s University Belfast historian, Liam Kennedy, to describe the deep and enduring sense of grievance felt  by Northern nationalists. Maybe MUPE – the Most Ungenerous People Ever – would be a more appropriate way of describing many in that community’s response to Seamus Mallon’s generous attempt to open up debate about the road to unity.

¹ ‘Mallon’s numbers game doesn’t add up’, Irish News, 29 May 2019.

² ‘Brexit lights touch paper for next firestorm – the push for Irish unity, Irish Times, 23 April 2019.

³ ‘Unity is about more than a numbers game’, Irish Echo, 23 May 2019.





Posted in General, Irish reunification | 1 Comment

The courage and generosity of Seamus Mallon: a book introduction

This is my abridged introduction to a new book, ‘A Shared Home Place’ by Seamus Mallon (with Andy Pollak) which is published today by Lilliput Press.

Courage and generosity: those are the two words that come to mind when I think of Seamus Mallon. Courage because for twenty-five years between the 1970s and 1990s he spoke out ceaselessly against violence from whatever quarter it came, republican or loyalist or state forces. As a result he suffered constant threats (including death threats); physical attacks on him, his family and his home; intimidation and vilification. He vowed that he would attend every funeral in his Armagh and Newry constituency, whether the victim was civilian, IRA or security force member, and frequently took face-to-face abuse from victims’ families for that brave stand. He publicly condemned every IRA and loyalist killing in the harshest terms.

At the same time he denounced collusion, harassment and sectarian bias by the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment, and demanded their reform or abolition. In the face of British government and unionist resistance and hostility, he demanded justice and equality in the actions of the police and the courts for the nationalist people of Northern Ireland, who had long been treated as second-class citizens at best and dangerous subversives at worst in their home place.

It is also often forgotten what an important role he played in the extremely difficult negotiations leading to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement. Garret FitzGerald, not his favourite Southern politician, said after the Agreement was signed that Mallon’s ‘will be amongst the names to which history will pay tribute. Throughout this negotiation his steadiness, clarity and rationality have won universal respect in complementing John Hume’s long-sighted vision.’ Senator George Mitchell noted that he was ‘an important and influential figure’ in those talks who was ‘liked and respected on all sides for his intelligence and integrity.’

However, he was the opposite of a soft touch. The loyalist leader David Ervine described his negotiating modus operandi: ‘He was skilful, incisive and brutal. He could take somebody’s scrotum and slice off their balls – it would be over in a second; they wouldn’t know it was done, such was his skill.’ Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, once said Mallon was the only politician he had ever met who could ‘make “Good Morning” sound like a threat.’

Sean Ó hUiginn, the senior Irish diplomat who was one of the architects of the 1990s peace process, summed up Mallon’s importance: ‘He personified the decent, put upon strand of Northern nationalism in a wonderfully attractive way. People in the Republic would say that if this good, honourable man is complaining, there must be something to his complaints. He thus had a very important and under-appreciated role in keeping the benign elements in the South engaged to some extent with the North during the Troubles, rather than falling back into the easy distancing mechanism that all Northerners were as bad as each other and were impossible people who could not be talked to or reasoned with.’

Despite his sometimes dour self-presentation, it is difficult to find a Northern politician of any stripe to say a bad word about Mallon. Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor called him ‘a good friend who will work for the good of Northern Ireland’. For Rita O’Hare of Sinn Féin he was ‘a tough negotiator, a formidable opponent, but always honest and honourable.’ The surgeon and senator John Robb said his main strength was ‘his simple, absolute, complete integrity.’ ‘I would trust Seamus Mallon with my life. I wouldn’t say that about many other politicians on my side or the other side’, said Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis.

Unlike John Hume, who was to some extent insulated from the surrounding violence as the uncrowned king of nationalist Derry, Mallon had to live in and represent an area in which the murderous activities of republican and loyalist paramilitaries, along with rogue elements of the security forces, pushed the inhabitants of both communities into a savage internecine war mindset. In Armagh he personally witnessed the Northern conflict at its most depraved and sectarian.

Generosity because he has always been sensitive to the fears and needs of the unionist community among whom he grew up. Even today he sits comfortably sipping coffee in a Protestant-owned cafe in his native village of Markethill, surrounded by evangelical pamphlets and biblical verses on the wall. This makes him unique among Northern nationalist politicians, with the possible exception of Gerry Fitt (who never called himself a nationalist anyway). Mallon remains a proud nationalist who believes in the long run only Irish unity can solve the deep historical divisions that have blighted Northern Ireland.

But he believes with equal passion that his unionist friends and neighbours around Markethill, personified by the farmer and murdered police reservist whom he calls ‘Jack Adams’, have as much right to live in peace and without fear in Ireland as the community he led with such distinction over the years. And he believes his nationalist community, now they are moving into the ascendant, must show the generosity to unionists that was sadly absent from the way in which they were treated by the unionists during fifty years of one-party rule at Stormont.

Courage and generosity are there in abundance in Seamus Mallon’s central proposal in this book: that Irish unity must wait until there is a majority – or at least a substantial minority – in the Protestant and unionist community prepared to support it. This is what he calls ‘Parallel Consent’ for unity. He knows he will be damned from the heavens by most nationalists, who will say that just as the prospect of a numerical majority for unity – based largely on the demographic growth of the Northern Catholic community – is within sight, he has proposed moving the posts so that their long-dreamed-of goal of a united Ireland is pushed further into the future.

Equally, he knows there will be little welcome for his proposal in the fearful and begrudging minds of many unionists, who will see it as an excuse to dig their heels in for another generation rather than as a new and nobler way to come to terms with the medium-term prospect of unity by genuine consent. However, he believes that there is another unionist constituency, those who voted for the Good Friday Agreement and against Brexit, who are open to looking at unity, or at least a greater accommodation with the South, in a new way after nearly a century of division and conflict.

Above all, he stresses the importance of generosity between the Northern communities. After several centuries of the United Kingdom being a ‘cold house’ for Irish nationalists, the independent Irish state being feared as a ‘cold house’ for unionists, and Northern Ireland being a ‘cold house’ for Northern nationalists, he hopes his own community will demonstrate a new generosity to their unionist neighbours as the prospect of Irish unity becomes visible on the horizon. Thus he hopes (against hope, some might say) that unionists and nationalists can eventually be united, after centuries of fear and conflict, ‘in all the diversity of their identities and traditions’ in the ‘harmony and friendship’ of the post Good Friday Agreement amendment to the Irish Constitution.

At this late stage in his life Mallon is proposing this dramatic reconfiguration of the traditional nationalist demand because he knows that a simple majority for unity in a Border Poll in the foreseeable future can only be a narrow one: probably little more than the bare numerical majority laid down as a blunt instrument in the otherwise marvellously nuanced 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Unusually among nationalist leaders, he knows his unionist neighbours intimately; he knows what they are capable of when they feel coerced or threatened, and he knows this will probably mean a return to, and possibly an intensification of, the inter-communal violence of the 1968 to 1998 period.

He knows from his own experience of the darkest years of murder gangs and counter-murder gangs in Armagh in the 1970s and 1980s, and of being Deputy First Minister during the most terrifying Drumcree confrontation in 1998, that at times of political instability – and there can be no deeper instability than the period following a narrow vote for unity – Northern Ireland is always in danger of going over the edge into outright civil war. He has also seen the new and angry divisions opening up in Britain following a narrow Brexit referendum vote.

Mallon is careful to position his proposal to require the Parallel Consent of the two Northern communities for unity firmly in the context of a pre-Border Poll Review of the Good Friday Agreement, insisting it should be seen as an evolution of that Agreement. He also proposes a new version of the 1992-93 Opsahl Commission to initiate a wider public discussion on whether and how Irish unity can be brought about as peacefully and consensually as possible. He believes this double process should lead to the redefinition of the simple majority consent principle contained in the Good Friday Agreement, so that an eventual referendum on unity can gain as wide a measure of consent as possible.

Such a deliberative process should also work to resolve the hard questions that will be raised in the event of such a vote for unity, and which are almost completely absent from political and public discourse in today’s Republic of Ireland. How and over what period of time will the British element in the governance of Northern Ireland be replaced by an Irish one? Is some kind of joint authority or joint sovereignty feasible during a transitional period? What parliamentary, consultative, public administration and public finance structures will be put in place both during and after that transitional phase? How would justice, law and order be guaranteed during the probable breakdown of law and order that too precipitate a transition could cause, with the danger that revived loyalist paramilitaries would violently resist it and revived republican paramilitaries seek to enforce it? What guarantees will be put in place so that the proud British identity of the unionists will be protected, cherished and incorporated into the institutions, ethos and symbols of the new state? Would that identity be better protected under a separate Northern regional administration? What kind of continuing British government involvement will this require?

All these issues need to be thrashed out in as mutually respectful and open-minded a manner as possible. It will take a considerable time. The peace process that started with the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, whose high point was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and which dragged on until the devolution of policing and justice in 2010, lasted almost seventeen years; or twenty-two years if one dates its beginning from the first Hume-Adams talks in 1988. Mallon suggests it could take even longer to prepare for the complex and potentially destabilising consequences of a Border Poll that might lead to unity.

Because of the growth of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, the theoretical possibility of a narrow majority for unity in a Border Poll is perhaps only twenty to thirty years away. Now is the time to begin thinking deeply about the consequences of this huge change for the happiness and harmony of the people of Ireland. Sinn Féin, fiercely dogmatic in their demand for ‘accelerated reunification post-Brexit’ – in party chairman Declan Kearney’s words – are incapable of leading that thinking. We can only hope that wiser and more generous nationalist leaders in the Seamus Mallon mould will emerge to engage in meaningful and empathetic negotiation with unionism.

In the meantime the wisdom of Mallon’s words about the two traditions learning to share their common home place, Northern Ireland, should be listened to. That is the only way forward to a new Ireland based on the twenty-first century challenge of how to bring together diverse peoples, with all the major complications that implies, rather than the nineteenth century nationalist obsession with the unity of territory.

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland | 3 Comments

On local election day give the DUP and Sinn Fein a bloody nose: vote for someone else

This blog is not in the business of telling people how to vote. But after the utterly predictable responses by the DUP and Sinn Fein to the two governments’ announcement of new talks to try to restore Stormont (following priest Martin Magill’s anguished plea at Lyra McKee’s funeral last week for the politicians to take urgent action to work to that end), I believe it’s time to teach them a lesson. And today’s local elections, about the bread-and-butter issues that affect ordinary voters the most, are just the place to do it.

Of course the tribal politicians in Northern Ireland don’t ‘do’ bread-and-butter issues. How depressing it is to hear Arlene Foster’s wearily familiar warning about unionist divisions in these elections leading to the danger of strengthened republican demands for a Border Poll. And how dispiriting to hear Mary Lou McDonald and other senior Sinn Fein figures repeating endlessly that ‘now is the time to talk about unity.’ The ultimate hypocrisy is Sinn Fein’s demand, failing agreement with the DUP, for the Westminster parliament to legislate for their so-called ‘equality’ agenda – abortion rights, same sex marriage and an Irish Language Act – when they absolutely refuse to take their seats in that legislature.

Today is not the time to talk about Irish unity or Brexit or any of the other major obstacles to peace and political progress in the North. Today is the time to talk about community relations and poverty and planning and the environment and housing and health and education and all the other issues that local authorities are struggling with (even though in many of these areas they have few if any powers) in the absence of a devolved Executive and Assembly.

Even when they were in power for 10 years the two big tribal parties failed to pump the money required for health, education and job training into Northern Ireland’s poorest urban areas, typified by the Creggan in Derry where Lyra McKee was shot dead. As Eamonn McCann has pointed out, 54% of people in that area have low or no qualifications. 40% of them don’t even bother to register for welfare benefits. They are ‘literally a lost generation’, says McCann, young no-hopers who are perfect cannon fodder for the murderous fanatics of dissident republicanism.¹

So if you’re going out to cast your vote in the local elections today, show your disgust at the inertia and bloody-mindedness of the two main parties and give your vote to another party. If I were still in the North, as an old social democrat and moderate nationalist I might be voting SDLP. However, if you are protesting against the stalemate of tribal politics, I suggest you give your vote to Alliance or People before Profit (depending on your ideological preference), or even to the Greens.

As climate change and environmental sustainability start to dominate so much political debate internationally, the tiny Green Party in the North is getting more ambitious. They already have two out of 90 members of the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly (a higher proportion than the Southern Greens, with two out of 158 TDs). They only have four local council representatives at the moment, but are putting up 26 candidates, with the aim of tripling their number of seats. In West Belfast they are running Ireland’s first transgender candidate, Ellen Murray.

The Green Party leader, Clare Bailey, shows a face of Northern Ireland which we in the South rarely see. Born into a ‘two up, two down’ house in Belfast’s Falls Road, her family moved to Antrim when she was seven. In 1981 – a year when the republican prison hunger strike pushed the North close to civil war – she and her sister were among the first entry of 28 pupils to the North’s first integrated secondary school, Lagan College, on the outskirts of east Belfast, requiring a three hour round trip every day. She jokes about being ‘almost bilingual’ because of the amount of time she spent accompanying her mother as part of a reconciliation group taking children from divided and deprived areas to Holland to get a holiday away from the Troubles.

She strongly rejects accusations that the Greens, with their strongest bases in South Belfast (which she represents in the Assembly) and North Down, are a middle-class party. She tells of canvassing in Belfast’s loyalist housing estates in the Village and Belvoir, and seeing a 5% rise in the Green vote in the latter after a particularly effective canvass in 2017. She says that as somebody who started life with no bathroom and an outside toilet, and who had been homeless and a single parent, she identifies strongly with disadvantaged people and passionately wants to represent them. ‘The Green Party is not just about climate issues; the environment to me is also about the well-being of communities. It is about creating a space for young people, in particular, to develop and expand into a new kind of politics that is relevant to their needs. Young people take seriously the International Panel on Climate Change’s dire warnings about catastrophic climate change in 11 years. We should be future-proofing our social and economic policies rather than bringing up the bogeyman of Irish unity and other historic obsessions at every election.’

Bailey emphasises her party’s commitment to community development. She sees it as a sign of hope that Belfast City Council has recently appointed a Resilience Commissioner to plan for future crises in areas like over-stretched infrastructure, climate change and cyber-security, which the city – in common with cities throughout the world – will face in coming years. She identifies problems like lack of clean water, green spaces and good schools in the city at a time when the council is trying to attract back tens of thousands of people who left it largely because of the Troubles. Air pollution is another issue she highlights, with childhood asthma a growing problem. She talks about the lack of action to deal with the mental health crisis which has seen more people committing suicide in the 21 years since the Good Friday Agreement than in the 30 years of the Troubles.

As a former campaigner for abortion rights, she is also strong on equality and human rights issues. The Greens were campaigning for marriage equality before Sinn Fein discovered it as an issue; they were joined by that party in introducing the first Assembly motion calling for such equality in 2012. When out canvassing Bailey says she finds a surprisingly high proportion of DUP voters who are in favour of both abortion rights and gay marriage.

She believes in North-South cooperation in the environmental area. ‘If we’ve got 11 years before we arrive at the point of irreversible climate change, then I don’t care about Brexit or Border Polls or people’s constitutional identity because change is coming and it’s not coming in the way they think. It’s called climate catastrophe and it will force us to renegotiate all our relationships on this island and in these islands. Because those floods and storms and food and pollution crises are not going to stop at any border.’

This impressive youngish woman – she is in her forties – could be one of the bright new faces of politics in Northern Ireland. In her office I met two equally impressive young Green candidates in the Belfast elections, Áine Groogan and Brian Smyth. If you live in Belfast, give them a vote today. Vote for the future, not the past.

¹ ‘Everybody knew there was going to be bother’, Irish Times, 27 April

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, The island environment | 3 Comments