Partitionist mentality denying Northerners right to seek Presidency

Thu, Sep 25, 1997, 01:00

Partitionism is alive and well and living in this State. Readers of The Irish Times should not dispute this contention, to give but three examples on the possibility of John Hume standing for President:

"If we haven't got a hero ourselves to match John Hume, we shouldn't import one."

- Nuala O'Faolain . . . August 11th, 1997

"Being Northern or Southern is a primary mark, like being male or female, or young or old, or rural or urban, or black or white."

- Nuala O'Faolain . . . August 25th, 1997

"I have no wish to see anybody from Northern Ireland seeking the Presidency of the Republic of Ireland. It seems to me a deliberate and successful policy - orchestrated by whom? - for those people to infiltrate our public and private sector with RTE Radio and Television being like refugee camps with an undeclared agenda in mind."

- Michael Mac Coisdealbh of Goatstown . . . Letters to Editor, September 3rd, 1997

Thankfully, these views are not representative, since all opinion polls on the subject indicated that if Mr Hume had stood he would have been elected. On a personal note, this particular alien cannot complain, having been elected by the people of Dublin West on three occasions. Indeed, in the last presidential election, in circumstances where Fine Gael was at a low ebb, the party deeply divided and no one else willing to stand, my vote fairly accurately reflected the position of the party at the time.

I have had my anti-Northern experiences, of course, some of them from sources who would describe themselves as "Republican". There was the "go back" advice from the Fianna Fail benches shortly after I first entered the Dail. Then, during the 1990 presidential election campaign, the present Minister for Foreign Affairs and strong advocate of a united Ireland told an election rally in O'Connell Street: "Fine Gael had to go to Tyrone for a candidate."

And, of course, Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach indicated his strong nationalist inclination when, standing outside 10 Downing Street, he referred to "the mainland".

I understand how this partitionism has developed. Almost 80 years of separate political development has had its effect. The Provo murder campaign, unionist intransigence, the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and the sense of continuing vulnerability, the cost in financial terms, the threat to jobs and tourism, Northerners taking Southern jobs, the fact that not all Northerners are likeable people - is it surprising that some say to me they would like to see Northern Ireland towed to mid-Atlantic and sunk?

On the other hand I am comforted by the number of people from all walks of life, some of Northern origin, but the great majority not, who through all the horrors of the past almost 30 years have given consistent support to constitutional nationalists and have never lost the vision of the type of agreed Ireland they want.

They appreciate the achievement of the SDLP in holding the line for non-violence and the consequences for the whole island if the Provos had been able to claim a mandate from a majority of Northern nationalists.

Northern nationalists have been trapped by history and geography. We had to fight to be recognised as Irish. When my parents attempted to register the names of my brothers they were told: "There are no such names as Seamus and Sean in this country." To prevent Catholics from being employed in even low-paid jobs, such as repairing the roads and cleaning out drains, an oath of allegiance to his or her Britannic Majesty was required by law.

Is it any wonder that Northern nationalists fiercely defend their right to the symbols of their Irishness - citizenship, the passport - and the right to stand for President?

Indeed, there is a stronger argument, in the context of the diaspora as identified by Mary Robinson, for those living outside the State, including, of course, Northerners, to have a vote in the presidential election than in the elections for the Oireachtas.

The all-party talks just beginning at Stormont might be the opportunity for introducing such a proposal for greater accommodation of the nationalist tradition. What a pity Britain has not an elected head of state so that the British tradition of the unionists could be accommodated in like manner to the Irish tradition of the nationalists! Some other way will have to be found.

There are two "Northern" candidates in the Presidential election. I am not asking for anyone to vote for them because of that fact. But I certainly urge that they be not voted against because of being Northern.

I, of course, will be voting for Mary Banotti. Her 13 years in the European Parliament and the causes she has espoused are ample proof of the value she puts on inclusiveness and tolerance.

One final word. Those elements in this State who query the Irishness of Northern nationalists, who speak of their difference in almost racist terms, should seriously consider counselling. If they find Northern nationalists difficult, how will they accommodate to unionists? That challenge is not too distant.

Austin Currie is Fine Gael TD for Dublin West and was a presidential candidate in 1990