Three things Sinn Fein need to do before I can trust them

I have been working hard to overcome my hostility to Sinn Fein, recognising that after last month’s election they are now the party with the largest popular vote in the republic (although still only 24.5% of first preferences). I take the point, voiced by unionists as well as nationalists, that it is complete hypocrisy for the Southern constitutional parties to insist that the unionist parties share power with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, while they refuse even to talk to them. However, before I can have any real trust in them I need Sinn Fein to do three things.

Firstly, I know the IRA army council has existed for nearly a hundred years and arrogates to itself (for many years claiming absurdly and obscenely to speak for the Irish people) the right to declare war or peace (usually with the help of a so-called ‘general army convention’). We know from both the PSNI and the Garda Siochana that this army council still exists. What is its role? Does it oversee and dictate to Sinn Fein? We don’t know. I notice, disturbingly, that one of the members of Sinn Fein’s delegation for inter-party talks is Belfast man Martin Lynch, who is widely believed in the North to be the current chief of staff of the IRA. What is he doing there among all those elected politicians?

Wouldn’t it be timely for Mary Lou McDonald to announce that the IRA army council has abolished itself, on the grounds that the need for any kind of republican ‘army’ has gone, now that Sinn Fein, in obedience to the new Article 3 of the Irish Constitution (supported by over 94% of voters in this republic in 1998), has dedicated itself to peaceful methods to achieve Irish unification – now and for ever more?

Secondly, I need to know before Sinn Fein become part of the government of this country, that they explicitly recognise and respect our Constitution, including that new Article 3: that Irish unity will come about “in harmony and friendship” and “only by peaceful means”.

Recognising the Constitution also involves recognising the name of the country: Ireland (in the English language). It would be grotesque if we were to be represented abroad by a government which could not bring itself to use the internationally recognised name of the state, insisting on meaningless appellations like the ‘South of Ireland’. Why can’t Sinn Fein end this misuse of language once and for all by announcing that their central aim is to bring about, by peaceful means, the unity of the two acknowledged jurisdictions that are currently called ‘Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’?

Thirdly, and most importantly, I need to hear the leaders of Sinn Fein express some genuine regret for the 3,600 deaths during the 1969-1998 Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. In an Irish Times podcast before the election Micheál Martin pointed to the party’s absolute lack of contrition: “Sinn Féin’s justification for the IRA’s war is a continuing one. There never has really been any contrition, and also to a large extent they want to shove down the throats of a new generation a narrative about the atrocities that were carried out which in my view serves to poison future generations.”¹

In a Dail speech on 20 February the Fianna Fail leader illustrated the Sinn Fein leadership’s ambivalence to IRA violence by citing the case of the current Northern Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, who was in the pub in the Belfast Markets area in 2005 when Robert McCartney was stabbed and beaten to death by a group of IRA men. She claimed “not to have noticed”: apparently she was one of the 70 people who saw nothing because they were in the toilet at the time!

The nearest Mary Lou McDonald comes to contrition is to say “the war is over.” I suspect there is little or no contrition or regret in Sinn Fein for the Provisional IRA’s ‘armed struggle’. I suspect Waterford TD David Cullinane’s triumphant election night shout of ‘Up the RA!” and his election agent’s claim that “we broke the bastards; we broke the Free State” are more likely to be the common, although now politically incorrect, sentiments in private party meetings up and down the country. When you’re winning electorally, under a skilled and attractive leader like McDonald (already universally and warmly known as Mary Lou), you don’t need the bloody militarism of the past any more.

My fear is the republican version of the North’s recent history – that all those deaths were unfortunate but necessary collateral damage in a ‘just war’ for a united Ireland – will over the years, as Sinn Fein moves into government and we move towards unity, become the accepted version. It is, after all, the winners of wars who write their history. It will be only too easy for republicans (as they have done for the past hundred years) to write unionists out of Irish history, and to claim that what happened in the North – where the IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined – was only the final episode in the age-old struggle between oppressed little Ireland and the bullying imperialist overlord next door.

This will not be helped by Brexit and the growth of English nationalism, which has fuelled a movement whose ultimate end will, I believe, be the break-up of the UK and a sharp move to the right in our neighbouring country. Nationalism always needs somebody to hate. The highly regarded left-wing English writer Paul Mason has warned that after Brexit “what [Boris] Johnson intends to deliver…is an intensified culture war, in which the EU and its institutions are depicted as the external, and migrants the internal, threat.”²

The external threat will presumably include Ireland. This is territory Sinn Fein feels comfortable in, and will return like with like. The belief that all the evil in Ireland comes from England (or Britain) has a long history, and the response over the past 150 years and more has often been “to burn everything English except its coal.”

However, this is not just about the past. If we are to manage the continuing problem that is the deeply divided North, we are going to have to work with the British, not against them. The most benign time in Anglo-Irish relations since independence was the 1998-2016 period – between the Good Friday Agreement and the Brexit referendum – when the two governments worked hand-in-hand to deal with the many problems thrown up by the difficult ‘stop-start’ implementation of that historic accord. That seeped down through the devolved institutions to the ordinary people. We had the Queen’s hugely successful visit to Ireland; the ‘chuckle brothers’ relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness; north-south cooperation at unprecedented levels; and the beginning of a slow thaw in the great iceberg of sectarianism that is community relations in the North. All that was brought to a halt by the tragedy of Brexit and the return of the Northern parties to their tribal trenches.

We are still going to have to work with the British if we want any kind of slow, civilised, peaceful movement towards unity. One of the lessons of the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s is that when there is mutual mistrust and suspicion between Dublin and London, the poison deepens in the North. The alternative – not unattractive to more unthinking elements in the republican movement – would be a unilateral British withdrawal, with the deeply untrustworthy Johnson in the role of De Gaulle in Algeria in the early 1960s, and a return to widescale violence leading to a pied noirs-type flight of hundreds of thousands of bitter and abandoned Northern unionists to England and Scotland. Given the constitutional uncertainty now in prospect on the other side of the Irish Sea – notably the probable growth in post-Brexit support for Scottish independence – this is not necessarily a dystopian fantasy.

I have noticed among some Dublin friends a new hard-edged nationalism caused by successive British governments’ twists and turns over Brexit, culminating in the coming to power of the perfidious Boris. This, I believe, will only increase if Sinn Fein gets into power and such sentiments get official blessing.

For there is a xenophobic element in Irish republicanism too. I only hope the generous spirit of Leitrim TD Martin Kenny – who bravely stood out against protests at the impending arrival of a small number of asylum seekers in Ballinamore – will prevail over the weird ultra-nationalism of new Kildare TD, Réada Cronin, who had to apologise for a re-tweet echoing the old anti-Semitic canard that Hitler was a pawn of the Rothschild banking clan. Fintan O’Toole’s revelation that one of Mary Lou McDonald’s first outings as a Sinn Fein speaker was at a 2003 commemoration for Sean Russell, the 1940 IRA chief of staff and Nazi collaborator, wasn’t exactly reassuring in this context.³

I have to say I share the deep doubts about Sinn Fein voiced by Micheál Martin, a politician in an almost impossible position (if he wants to be Taoiseach), faced with the Hobson’s choice of the former party of the IRA or a discredited Fine Gael as his government partner. As an avid student of (and former participant in) Northern politics and history, he will remember several examples of bad faith by Sinn Fein (and the IRA) at key points in the peace process: notably at the end of 1999 when they totally undermined David Trimble by giving Senator George Mitchell the impression that the start of IRA arms decommissioning was imminent, when in fact it did not begin for another 21 months.

However, I have also met some generous, open-minded republicans in recent years: Martin McGuinness, a person with extraordinary human qualities of empathy and consideration for others; the former NI education minister John O’Dowd, now sidelined after challenging Michelle O’Neill for the Northern leadership; the former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley and the Donegal TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. As I said, I am trying my best to be less hostile to Sinn Fein…trying hard if not always succeeding.


² ‘With the UK’s European door closed, it’s open season for xenophobia’, Social Europe, 24 February 2020

³ ‘The enigma of Mary Lou McDonald’, Irish Times, 15 February 2020

Posted in General, Sinn Fein | 7 Comments

My plea to Irish voters: don’t put Sinn Fein close to power

We in the Republic have a general election in two days, and it looks as though Sinn Fein are going to do exceptionally well. The unhappiness of people – particularly young and poor people – with the shortcomings of Fine Gael, often supported by Fianna Fail, over the past four years, is plain to see. An appalling housing and homelessness crisis, exacerbated by Fine Gael’s ideological objections to the large-scale building of public housing, and a chronically under-providing and unfair two-tier health service, are the main grievances. The left-wing populists of Sinn Fein, with their skilful leader Mary Lou McDonald (also skilful at avoiding difficult questions to do with the ugly militarism of the past) and their extravagant promises, look as if they will be the beneficiaries.

I want to sound a warning. Sinn Fein are not a normal democratic party. They have still not cast off the habits ingrained by decades of slavishly supporting a violent secret army, the Provisional IRA and its all-powerful ‘army council’. I have read that McDonald has apologised for the ‘hurt’ caused to Northern Protestants by the IRA. But I have also been at a hunger strike commemoration where she has been the keynote speaker and watched as other speakers shamelessly glorified that IRA violence. Nobody in Sinn Fein has denied Belfast journalist Sam McBride’s account in his brilliant book on the RHI ‘cash for ash’ scandal of how NI Finance Minister, Sinn Fein’s Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, asked for instructions in 2017 from very senior former IRA figures before he closed that crazy scheme down.

There are still serious questions about Sinn Fein’s rationalisation of the horrific beating to death of young Paul Quinn by an IRA gang in south Armagh in 2007, despite local Sinn Fein MLA (and Stormont Finance Minister) Conor Murphy’s unconscionably late apology for having called him a criminal. A cynic would say that apology was forced out of him to minimise the damage to the party’s vote south of the border, after the campaigning Quinn family again raised their son’s murder very publicly in the past few days.

There is also a question about who in July 2018 forced McDonald back into line after her extremely brief conversion to postponing a Border Poll on unity until Brexit was resolved. Ex-Sinn Fein TD, Aontú leader Peadar Toibín, has talked about how the party’s TDs were constantly dictated to by unelected party officials, and observers have noted the culture of bullying which has led to the departure of many local councillors.

One of the architects of the Northern peace process, Martin Mansergh, has spoken of “the perception that all the important decisions are taken by a kind of politburo”, a civilian version of the old IRA army council, so that Sinn Fein ministers sitting at the cabinet table  “wouldn’t actually have the power to make definitive and in principle irreversible decisions.”¹ This all adds up to a kind of communist-style ‘democratic centralism.’ At the 1917 Bolshevik party congress, one of the definitions of this Leninist term was “that all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and all Party members.”

Sinn Fein is also full of fantastical thinking. Their demand for a Border Poll in the next five years is utterly unrealistic, since there has not been a scintilla of discussion about how that process might be carried out, what would be the question put to the people, and what would happen in the highly unlikely event of Irish unity coming out of such a deeply divisive exercise (since the vote for nationalist parties in the North is currently running at less than 40%).

Even if there is a 50%+1 vote for unity in some future poll, there has not been the slightest consideration of how to cope with the 49.9%, made up of unionists who will remain bitterly opposed to that outcome. This is the key roadblock to unity (one ignored by Sinn Fein) that we have to find a way across if we are not to consign the next century in the North to a re-run of the last: with the two sides simply changing positions – nationalists in a majority in a ‘united’ Ireland and unionists the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority.

More immediately, Rory Montgomery, the senior Irish diplomat who was a key player in the the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, has pointed out that it is not up to the Irish government to decide the timing of a Border Poll – that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Montgomery warns that any pre-Border Poll discussion must be “low-key, non-partisan, deliberate, respectful and open-minded”.² If Sinn Fein leads that discussion, will it be any of those things?

Similarly on economics, the government’s Fiscal Advisory Council has estimated that there is around €11 billion of uncommitted resources available to the next government, but about half of that will be needed to fund demographic pressures and essential capital spending. What is Sinn Fein proposing to spend?An unbelievable and fantastically costed €22 billion.

Similarly on the environment, Micheál Martin was right to point out in the leaders debate this week that Sinn Fein’s opposition to an increased carbon tax – universally accepted as a key means of triggering behavioural change – is only the most startling element in a very thin and unoriginal policy on global warming (it’s an improvement on its 2016 manifesto, which contained just one tiny, passing mention of climate change).

Don’t all these considerations make Sinn Fein deeply untrustworthy? Apparently not. Certainly concerns about the party’s enthusiastic support for three decades of violence in the North seem to be ‘old hat’ for anyone under 40. “What is the political statute of limitations on atrocities?” asks Fintan O’Toole. “For those of us whose memories at are still scarred by La Mon and Claudy, by Birmingham and Enniskillen, there is none. But younger people are already giving their answer: it has expired.”³

To quote Rory Montgomery again: “I write as someone who very much wishes to see a united Ireland achieved one day, in the words of Article 3 of our Constitution, ‘in harmony and friendship'”. And, like Montgomery, I am unusual in this Republic in being a nationalist from a Northern Protestant background.

All this leaves me and many others with a serious dilemma. At what point do you allow a less than democratic party with a significant electoral mandate, and a recent history of political violence (many would call it terrorism), to enter a democratic government?

My left-wing instincts incline me to O’Toole’s view, that the parties of change – Sinn Fein, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit – will end up with close to 40% of the vote. “That’s a huge and potentially historic shift towards a democratic system that offers a genuine alternative to the centre-right. There is for the first time the possibility of a government that has social democratic and ecologically responsible policies at its core. Realising that possibility does not mean voting for Sinn Fein. But it does mean recognising the democratic legitimacy of those who do.”

On the other side is the warning by the renowned Austrian Jewish novelist, Stefan Zweig. Writing in the 1940s, Zweig looked back with bitter regret at his reaction to the explosion of support for the Nazis in the 1930 German election. Still oblivious at that point to what this popular upsurge might portend, Zweig had applauded the enthusiastic passion expressed in the elections. He had blamed the stuffiness of the country’s old-fashioned democrats for the Nazi victory, calling the results at the time “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics.’” [I should make clear that I am not at all comparing Sinn Fein with the Nazis – only pointing to how people can come to regret a youthful vote for a radical party with a violent past.]

My deepest instinct – maybe too influenced by my knowledge of Northern unionism  – is that the ruthless machine which is Sinn Fein, driving on to unity whatever the cost for the peace and harmony of this country, will lead us back to division and hatred and violence. So I’m asking people – and particularly young people – to think very hard before they tick the Sinn Fein box on the ballot paper, and then to vote for somebody else.

I will be voting for the Greens, acutely conscious that the endangered future of the planet – and the humans who live on it – is by a country mile the most important existential issue of the age. It makes our ‘narcissism of small differences’ on this island look lilliputian and idiotic.

And I will be hoping that Micheál Martin will lead the next government (although I don’t like a lot of the people in his party). He is simply the most thoughtful and knowledgeable Southern leader when it comes to the North, and one who has bravely and correctly resisted the pressures to join with Sinn Fein or to take Fianna Fail’s traditionally aggressive line on the ‘national question.’ I only hope he can continue to resist that pressure in the post-election negotiations to form a government.

¹ In Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Fein, Deaglán de Breadún (2015)

² ‘Border Poll is not in Dublin’s gift’, Letters to the Editor, Irish Times, 5 February

³ ‘Time for Sinn Fein to come in from the cold’, Irish Times, 4 February

Posted in General, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 4 Comments

The Seamus Mallon I knew: a brave and generous Irish chieftain

My much-admired friend Seamus Mallon was buried yesterday. This was my tribute to him in yesterday’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’.

Courage and generosity: those are the two words that come to mind when I think of Seamus Mallon. Courage because for 25 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 felt passionately that the least he could do as a public representative in the middle of the bitter conflict which blighted County Armagh in those years was to stand alongside his neighbours – all his neighbours – in the face of the terror and counter-terror that threatened them.

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 UDR, and demanded their reform or abolition. In the face of government and unionist hostility, he demanded justice and equality in the actions of the security forces 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.

Generosity because he was always sensitive to the fears and needs of the unionist community among whom he grew up. I used to go for coffee with him in a Protestant-owned cafe in his native village of Markethill (a 90% Protestant village), where he sat comfortably surrounded by evangelical pamphlets and biblical verses on the wall. This made him unique among nationalist politicians, with the possible exception of Gerry Fitt (who never called himself a nationalist anyway). Seamus was always a proud nationalist who believed in the long run that only Irish unity could solve the deep historical divisions that have cursed Northern Ireland.

But he also believed that his unionist friends and neighbours around Markethill, personified by the farmer and murdered police reservist whom he called ‘Jack Adams’, had 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 believed his nationalist community, as they were moving into the ascendant, had to show the generosity to unionists that was sadly absent from the way in which they were treated by the unionists during 50 years of one-party rule at Stormont.

He lived through terrible times when County Armagh seemed on the brink of actual civil war. He wrote in his 2019 memoir, A Shared Home Place: “Neighbour killing neighbour has a putrid smell of evil that seeps into an entire community. Each murderous act begot its counterpart, until revenge almost became a duty to be fulfilled. It enveloped every crevice of life, spreading anger, suspicion, fear, hatred and ultimately despair. It left a dark cloud of deep suffering and loss that will endure for many decades.”

He was left with some haunting memories. The murder in January 1976 in their home of the three Reavey brothers, innocent young Catholics with absolutely no connection to any paramilitary group, by a UVF gang which included rogue policemen, hit him particularly hard. The Reavey family, ordinary hard-working country people, were good friends, and he called their mother Sadie “a saintly woman”.

The day after the Reaveys were killed the IRA shot dead 10 innocent Protestant workers at nearby Kingsmill. Seamus said he would never forget walking up a wintry street in Bessbrook to attend the funeral of one of those men. “I felt desperately alone as a nationalist politician among those grieving unionists; I could hear my own footsteps.”

He witnessed the death of a young policeman, Snowdon Corkey, another neighbour, who was shot in the middle of Markethill where Seamus was waiting for his 13 year old daughter Orla to come out of the chemists. He ran to the cattle truck under which Corkey had rolled and where the effluent from the cows was seeping down on top of him. “So there I was on my knees and the young policeman dying beside me. ‘Seamie’, he said. ‘Tell them all I love them”.

And then after all the heartache came the miracle of the peace process. Seamus was the SDLP’s lead negotiator in the 22 months of extremely difficult negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement. My favourite story was from the early hours of that Good Friday morning, when he and John Hume went down triumphantly to the Irish government’s room at Stormont to tell Bertie Ahern they had finally reached agreement with David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists.

As he was speaking, what appeared to be a sleep-walking Mo Mowlam came in, shoeless as usual, looking like Lady Macbeth. “She sat down beside me, put her head on my shoulder and went to sleep. I let her rest there and carried on speaking. A few minutes later she lifted her head and in pure schoolgirl English exclaimed “Fucking brill, Seamus’ and went back to sleep. I think I may have been in tears at that point.”

Seamus Mallon was quite simply a great Irishman – a “great Irish chieftain”, in the words of the eulogy by his close friend, the former Irish diplomat and first Southern Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council, Tim O’Connor, at his funeral. He was a doughty fighter for peace, reconciliation and justice in the most harrowing of circumstances.

Despite his sometimes dour self-presentation, it was difficult to find a Northern politician of any stripe to say a bad word about him. John Taylor called him “a good friend who will work for the good of Northern Ireland.” For Rita O’Hare of Sinn Fein, 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 Ken Maginnis.

Above all, he was a genuinely good man. Sean Ó hUiginn, the senior Irish diplomat who was one of the architects of the peace process, said: “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.” In 2001 he gave up the possibility of leading his beloved SDLP in order to stand down as deputy first minister to care for his even more beloved wife Gertrude, who was seriously ill with dementia.

They do not make politicians like Seamus Mallon these days. Northern Ireland will be lucky to see his like again.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 4 Comments

Fear of Irish nationalism is now the main obstacle to a united Ireland

Fear is the main obstacle to the age-old dream of a peaceful united Ireland becoming a reality: unionists’ fear of Irish nationalism. In the first week of what many nationalists hope will  be a momentous decade, marking major movement towards the reunification of the country, I am going to pour some cold water on the parade of unrealistic (sometimes even magical) thinking which informs that hope and expectation. I see my job in this blog in the coming years as trying in a tiny way to inject some realism into the debate – which has barely started – on how that new Ireland might come about and what it might look like.

Because little has been done to lessen the existential fears of the 900,000 Northern unionists that their worst nightmare may soon be about to happen. I would say that border region unionists in the 1970s and 1980s, when the IRA campaign was at its height, were probably the most terrorised community in western Europe. Former members of the security forces – and there are tens of thousands of unionists who served in the RUC and the UDR – fear that retribution will be taken against them for that service. Many unionist farmers, particularly in the border region, fear that the land their ancestors seized four hundred years ago, will be taken away from them. Others worry that Britain’s once much admired National Health Service and other remnants of the post World War Two welfare state will become a thing of the past. Most importantly of all, a large part of the unionist community, passionately attached to the connection with Britain, fear for their political, cultural and religious identity if they are swallowed up into a united Irish state. In the poet Michael Longley’s words, they are “terrified of Irishness.” They don’t talk about it – they have never been good talkers – but they feel that fear deep in their being. Now, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointed out before Christmas, they have ended up as a minority in four elections in succession.  So the stars are against them – and that makes them even more fearful.

They see enemies everywhere: across the negotiating table they see Sinn Fein, whose military wing killed and bombed them for 30 years; in Dublin they see the Irish government, which they believe has tricked them into an economic border down the Irish Sea; in London they see Boris Johnson, the most untrustworthy British prime minister since the equally tricky Lloyd George a century ago; across the world they see friends of Irish nationalism everywhere, with few if any allies for the outdated, defensive, reactionary philosophy that is Ulster unionism. They see themselves being guided by weak and incompetent leaders, who have little aptitude for the art of compromise which is the essence of democratic politics, having little to offer other than the ‘no surrender’ battle cry of previous centuries.

People in the South, of course, who rarely if ever meet or talk to unionists, have little sense of this. Unfortunately, many people here see the North through a distorted lens which tells them that Irish nationalists and republicans are on the side of the angels – broad-minded, cultured and freedom loving people – whereas Ulster Unionists are narrow-minded, bigoted, uncultured and slavishly British. Such a view does not make for mutual respect and understanding.

There was an interesting exchange in the Irish Times over the Christmas period which was provoked by an article from the son of a former Ulster Unionist cabinet minister who had started to play the uileann pipes, but was put off by anti-British comments in the South and straight threats in nationalist Belfast.¹ In a long letter in response, a prominent Dublin piper argued convincingly that he was wrong and that piping in Ireland was open and welcoming to all (one of the finest pipers I have ever heard was Wilbert Garvin from Presbyterian County Antrim). However the Dublin piper’s argument was slightly undermined by his erroneous references to the unionist piper’s religion as ‘Church of England’. Even in the mind of Terry Moylan, that most generous and musical of men, is there an unconscious prejudice which conflates Englishness and Ulster unionism?

Having said that, this Northern Protestant with an English accent has never felt anything but a warm welcome in his 48 years of living mainly in the Republic. However I do not have to be converted to the cause of eventual Irish unity  (although I believe that to have any chance of working it must secure some significant element of unionist consent). I am passionately pro-Irish, something that cannot be said about the majority of my Northern co-religionists. It is those extremely difficult people who have to be attracted to and embraced by the coming ‘new Ireland.’ My impression of the attitude towards unionists here in middle-class Dublin is that it is very far from wanting to embrace them: indifference with occasional mild hostility is how I would characterise it.

I believe Sinn Fein can have little or no role in providing that embrace. Brian Barrington, the Dublin lawyer who was Seamus Mallon’s legal adviser when he was Deputy First Minister, has argued that in a united Ireland the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, and east-west arrangements to reflect and protect the British ties and identity of British people on this island, should continue just as they are (or will be again very soon, we hope, following resumed inter-party talks yesterday).

Barrington goes on: “Northern Ireland’s place in a united Ireland tomorrow would be very much like Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom now. That is what unionists on this island must be guaranteed. It ought not to be up to unionists to seek these reassurances. Rather it is the job of nationalists to provide them unilaterally and without quibble. With some opinion polls suggesting increasing numbers in the North in favour of unity, the urgency of constitutional nationalists making this clear is greater than ever. And it is not just about planning for a united Ireland that may never happen, but also about sending a message to both main communities now: whether in a united Ireland or a United Kingdom, the need for nationalists and unionists to live and govern together as neighbours and partners will remain. So let’s get on with it.

“It is also urgent that this message comes from constitutional nationalists, and especially the main Southern parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and that it comes now. Because uncertainty breeds fear and suspicion, and given the violent history of this island, unionists have reason to be afraid. Moreover promises from Sinn Fein hold no value for unionists; and if a future Irish government with Sinn Fein as part of it makes this commitment, it will be viewed with equal suspicion. Sinn Fein may see that as unfair, but it is the toxic legacy of the armed struggle that they enthusiastically supported for so long. The commitment will only have any value if it is given by the constitutional parties. It is they, not Sinn Fein, who must write the policy for the protection of British people on this island. And they should start doing it now.”²

I notice that in an editorial last month the unionist News Letter was suggesting that unionists should start cultivating relations with Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin.³ Martin is a clever and thoughtful politician with a deep interest in the North, who has been an outspoken critic of Sinn Fein, and in particular its call for an early Border Poll. Opening a line to the Cork man who may well be the next Taoiseach would be a good place to start.

PS  I would like to add my short tribute to the wonderful human being and brilliant broadcaster who was Marian Finucane, whom I was privileged to call a friend. Marian had some deep sorrows in her life. But her courage and determination to overcome her own pain in order to use the powerful medium of radio and television to give voice to many voiceless people, and particularly women, was enormously impressive. I have a particularly vivid memory of something she did for a cross-border and international event I was organising at a very difficult time for her. She and her husband John Clarke did amazing work for children suffering and dying from AIDS in South Africa – and also gave the best parties in Ireland. Suaimhneas sioraí di.

¹  ‘Uileann pipes weren’t worth a kneecapping’ and ‘The pipes, the pipes are calling’, Irish Times, 27 December and 30 December (Letters to the Editor)

²  Seamus Mallon (with Andy Pollak), A Shared Home Place, pp.183-184

³ ‘Unionists should be cultivating relations with Micheál Martin’, News Letter, 23 December

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 4 Comments

Are the Unionists in the last chance saloon, or will Alliance come to the rescue?

I was delighted to see the centre ground, represented by the SDLP and Alliance, doing so well in last week’s British general election in Northern Ireland: the former giving Sinn Fein and the DUP a drubbing in Foyle and South Belfast respectively, and the latter increasing its vote by 9% and winning a seat in North Down. The DUP’s vote share dropped by 5.4% since the 2017 election, Sinn Fein’s by 6.8%.

This seems to confirm the rise of the ‘neithers’ – those people who are neither unionist nor nationalist – whom I wrote about last July.¹  In an interesting article in, the co-author of the research on which that blog was based, Queen’s University Belfast sociologist Katy Hayward, writes that these results mean there is more hope now than at any point in the past three years of success in the inter-party talks (which resumed yesterday) to restore the Stormont institutions.² The message from the electorate is clear: “Forget about the constitutional issues for the present – get back to Stormont together and govern us properly.”

This is vital because if Northern Ireland is to get through the next few rocky years, under an unpredictable right-wing government in London and with a Brexit deal that every party and economic interest in the North opposes, the region will need to have a properly functioning devolved government. This is for three reasons. Firstly, the complexities of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will certainly see new trade barriers in both directions on the Irish Sea (for just how extraordinarily complex read the excellent Tony Connelly’s latest blog).³

Secondly, Ulster unionism is going to feel increasingly insecure as Scotland pushes for another independence referendum and England focuses on its own interests. This is at a time when the DUP, and Ulster Unionism in general, is in an unprecedentedly weak position, holding a minority of seats both in the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly, and of NI seats in the House of Commons. Unionists can respond to this in two ways: with their traditional intransigence, or with some effort at moderation in order to persuade a significant element of nationalism that it is still worth their while to remain in the UK for the foreseeable future. Given the DUP’s isolation and alienation from their former friends in the Conservative Party, they have little choice but to compromise and do their damnedest to get Stormont up and running again. Fortuitously, it is in Sinn Fein’s interest to do the same, with their eye on showing themselves capable of government in time for next year’s election in the Republic.

Thirdly, the middle ground has voted. Despite Arlene Foster’s claim, this wasn’t a pan-nationalist front, says Hayward: “It was a result of middle ground voters deciding to make their vote count, almost in a desperate act of hope against fear. And the middle ground also cost Sinn Fein votes and a seat as well. Irish nationalism is also on the cusp of a new era, but it must listen to the views of the moderate, small ‘u’ unionists if it wishes to even begin to build a sure foundation for unity.” She concludes that the less unionists engage with their nationalist and non-aligned neighbours in the coming weeks and months, the more likely they are to fund themselves “outnumbered and outplanned” in a movement towards their worst nightmare, Irish unity.

I have to say I remain a pessimist. In recent weeks I have been reading News Letter journalist Sam McBride’s superb exposé of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, Burned. The light it shines on the DUP’s dysfunctionality and incompetence when in government is shocking. And the Northern Ireland civil service was not far behind.

It is a long and complex tale, so I am only going to pick out a few ‘lowlights’. Readers will remember that RHI was a scheme introduced by the Department of Trade and Industry (DETI) when Arlene Foster was its minister to give a 20 year subsidy to farmers, business owners and others to install environmentally friendly biomass boilers. The problem was that the subsidy was higher than the cost of the wood pellet fuel, so that “the more you burned, the more you earned” (hence “cash for ash”). After an unforgivably long period of averting their eyes from this crazy anomaly, DETI officials finally tried to cap the scheme and introduce cost controls. However they then ran into opposition from the DUP’s all-powerful ministerial advisers, the ‘spads’. This group of arrogant, aggressive and unaccountable young men – led by Foster’s own ‘spad’ – worked hard to delay the cap in order to allow late-comers to pile into the now hugely discredited scheme, which was costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.

The belief in the DUP and the civil service (later proven to be mistaken) was that the Treasury in London (i.e. the British taxpayer) would pick up the whole bill for this fiasco. “To spend as much of London’s money as possible was deeply ingrained across the devolved political and administrative apparatus”, one senior official told the public inquiry tasked with investigating RHI (Foster’s ‘spad’ believed “we could fill out boots”with this free money). It was also one of the few things on which the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed.

Sinn Fein didn’t come out smelling of roses either: their Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was shown to have asked shadowy unelected republican figures with long links to the IRA whether they were ‘content’ for him to close down the scheme. However the RHI catastrophe played perfectly into their narrative that “Stormont can never work and only Irish unity is the answer.”

McBride concludes: “What Arlene Foster and the DUP have done with RHI has been recklessly detrimental to what they say they cherish above all: the union…In time RHI may be viewed as a warning to the leaders of unionism that if they do not learn from what has happened and change their ways, there is the potential for a far greater collapse: that of Northern Ireland itself.” Such a warning is even more powerful in that it comes from the political editor of the province’s most staunchly unionist daily newspaper.

To deepen the gloom, I’m going to add a personal anecdote. Last month I had dinner with a mixed group of Northern unionists and moderate Southern nationalists in a hotel just south of the border. I came away very dispirited at how little those unionists had learned or changed (even those who were open enough to cross the border to converse with Southerners) after 30 years of violence and more than 20 years of stuttering peace and cooperation. One man objected to my use of the phrase “for the benefit of the island of Ireland.” A second believed that Ireland would follow Britain out of the European Union. A third felt that if there was a narrow vote for Irish unity, the unionist response should be to demand re-partition. Re-partition so that Antrim (minus Belfast), the only county now with a unionist majority, along with bits of north Armagh and north Down, would remain as the rump of Northern Ireland! I was speechless.

To finish on a more optimistic (many would say impossibly optimistic) note, here is my personal dream for the years ahead, for what it’s worth. Alliance and the SDLP will continue to grow their vote as more people realise that moving to the centre in a deeply divided place like Northern Ireland makes sense. More unionists (this is the difficult bit) will realise that they have to find some way of learning to live with the other people on this island as Britain’s politicians put into practice Peter Brooke’s 1990 maxim that Britain has “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” Another way of putting that is: British (or rather English) people are utterly indifferent to Ireland, find Northern Ireland a huge pain, and want less and less to do with it. Johnson’s Brexit deal is only the latest manifestation of this sentiment.

For a period of many years Northern Ireland will be governed efficiently and even-handedly by a coalition of Alliance (who will represent a growing segment of pragmatic unionists, as well as non-aligned voters), the SDLP and Sinn Fein (who will split the nationalist vote between them). The first minister will be the impressive Alliance leader Naomi Long, with the equally impressive Claire Hanna of the SDLP as one of two deputy first ministers. In this way the province will be like Belfast City Council, which is run – and well-run for the most part – by a similar coalition. The DUP will be the eternal opposition, something that comes easily to them. Eventually, sometime after my time (I am 70), agreement will be reached on a kind of confederal system for the island, as the North largely continues to govern itself with a significant British dimension. And we will live, Irish-Irish and British-Irish, happily ever after. Dream on, says the sceptical journalistic side of my split personality!

¹ A bit more complexity in Northern Ireland: the rise of the ‘Neithers’




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

Is this the kind of ‘new conversation’ Northern Nationalists want?

Earlier this month 1,000 nationalists – although their spokesman claimed they are not nationalists – signed an open letter to the Taoiseach calling on the Irish government to set up a ‘citizens assembly’ to discuss reunification. In an advertisement listing the signatures in the Irish Times they claimed: “Discussion about reunification of Ireland has moved centre stage. Many citizens are already involved in formal and informal discussions about this…In recent years a conversation about Ireland’s future, and the place of Unionists in it, is publicly taking place among Unionists. This is a welcome development.”¹

I contacted half-a-dozen prominent liberal unionists I know to ask them if they had ever heard of this public conversation. None of them had. In the article accompanying the advertisement the spokesman for the group, which calls itself Ireland’s Future, Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy, clarifies that it is actually not a public conversation at all. Privately these conversations are happening (my italics), he says, “and whereas there might not be the confidence to articulate that out loud yet, we need to create a space where that can be done sensitively and constructively.”

When I pressed a member of the Ireland’s Future ‘core group’ about this, he could only cite one such unionist ‘conversation’: the public comments by the father of actor Jamie Dornan, medical consultant and academic Professor Jim Dornan, in favour of unity. I expressed surprised scepticism that this was the only example he could come up with.

I talk to unionists and loyalists regularly and I’m pretty certain that no significant group of them are talking about unity. However for the sake of argument, let us imagine what such a conversation might look like at the moment.

Nationalist: Let’s start a conversation about Irish unity. “Ultimately, in a new Ireland unionism is going to be there, they’re our neighbours, they own this place too, and they need to be accommodated. I would like to hear a warm embrace for the unionist tradition in an all-island constitutional entity” (These were Niall Murphy’s exact words in his Irish Times interview).

Unionist: But I don’t want to talk about an all-island constitutional entity. That would be my worst nightmare. That is what I, my father and my grandfather have been fighting – politically and occasionally taking up arms – to prevent for the past 100 years and more.

Nationalist: But after Brexit – with its 56% vote for staying in the EU – and with Catholics probably becoming the largest social group in the 2021 Northern census, you’re going to  have to start talking about the constitutional future of the North of Ireland some time soon.

Unionist: Talking about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland is one thing. But your language about embracing “the unionist tradition in an all-island constitutional entity” sounds to me like you have already decided the outcome of our conversation – and it is a unitary all-Ireland state. Is “an all-island constitutional entity” the only future option for unionists, in your view?

Nationalist: It could be a federal Ireland with powers in the North devolved from Dublin to a Stormont-type Assembly and Executive, as is done presently from London under the Good Friday Agreement.

Unionist: But does it have to be solely within an all-Ireland framework? Why couldn’t it be the continuation of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK with a power-sharing government in Belfast and a significant Irish dimension, as at present?

Nationalist: No – that has shown itself not to be workable. The power-sharing Executive was shown to be unworkable, largely because of the arrogance, bigotry and corruption of the DUP, and the refusal of the British Government to confront them because they needed their votes in Westminster. We have to move towards an all-island solution.

Republican: And anyway the Northern state was always illegitimate because it was carved out undemocratically after Ireland as a whole voted for independence in the 1918 election – it then systematically oppressed and discriminated against Northern nationalists.

Unionist: I’m not going to talk to you. Your IRA killed members of my family in the Enniskillen and other bombings. After that I want nothing to do with your hypocritical, self-serving arguments. Until you express remorse for the murderous campaign of the IRA, I won’t be discussing anything with you, let alone the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

And anyway, what makes you think that a 50%+1 vote in a Border Poll for unity, leading to a large alienated unionist minority in a so-called ‘united’ Ireland, is going to make for a stable society any more than a large alienated nationalist minority did in Northern Ireland?

Nationalist: The probable break-up of the UK after Brexit (with Scotland voting eventually for independence), means you are going to have to talk about some form of Irish unity one of these days. British politicians and people have made it clear they do not want you to be part of the future United Kingdom. In a YouGov poll last month more than four out of 10 British people questioned said they would not be concerned if the North of Ireland left the UK; the same proportion said they cared “little or not at all” about the North of Ireland, and a majority of both Leave and Remain voters said they would rather have their preferred Brexit outcome than see the North stay in the UK.

Unionist: I see very little sign of people south of the border saying they want us, the unionists, in their cosy little state. Yet you’re asking me to give up my country, the place where my home is, the place I feel I belong. What would your response be if I demanded that you gave up your country?

Nationalist: The two questions are not comparable. You are part of the Irish nation, and always have been, whether you like it or not. This island has been divided for too long by the British – in Wolfe Tone’s words, it is time to substitute “the common name of Irishman (and Irishwoman) in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter”. We will do our best to be generous to you in a united Ireland, changing our symbols – our flag, anthem and constitution – to accommodate you.

Unionist: It seems to me that this is not an equal conversation at all. You are demanding that I sign up to an all-Ireland state, which is against everything I stand for. All you are prepared to discuss and negotiate is the form of that all-Ireland state. You are not prepared to discuss any kind of compromise short of that: something that would see both you and I suffering some pain for the sake of peace and reconciliation on this island, i.e. some in-between outcome which sees you postponing your dream of constitutional unity in return for me agreeing to reduce my 100% adherence to the United Kingdom.

Moderate unionist and moderate nationalist together: It’s a pity you didn’t think about that when you supported the UK leaving the EU. Until the 2016 Brexit referendum, we were precisely in that in-between territory, the Good Friday Agreement and the Single European Market allowing us to move towards a kind of economic unity while the constitutional forms remained essentially the same.

Extreme unionist: I want to make clear that in the event of a 50.1% vote for Irish unity, we will do all in our power (including the use of force) to prevent that happening in the areas we control (and the areas which have voted against unity).

Republican: And I want to make clear that if a majority, however slim, votes in favour of unity in a Border Poll, we will do all in our power (including the use of force) to implement that democratic decision.

US facilitator: I think we should stop there. We are not getting anywhere with this line of argument. It seems to me that far from being a ‘new conversation’, this is turning into the traditional dialogue of the deaf.

In case this ends on an overly negative note, I should make clear that I too am in favour of a ‘new conversation’ about the future of Ireland.  But it should be an entirely open-ended one, not led by governments or political parties, and with no pre-determined outcome, not least because that will be the only way any significant element of unionism can be persuaded to take part. The 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission ‘citizens inquiry’ into ways forward for Northern Ireland, which I organised, is one model. And it was a successful one – we persuaded 3,000 people representing all elements in Northern society, and senior members of all the political parties with the exception of the DUP, to take part.

¹ ‘Letter to Taoiseach calls for ‘new conversation’ on Ireland’, Irish Times, 4 November (p.1); ‘Dialogue on reunification now ‘centre stage’ (p.8); advertisement on page 3

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¹ A Shared Home Place, p. 185

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

Posted in General, Irish reunification | 4 Comments

Two Irish mistakes as we hurtle towards the Brexit cliff edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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