People of North must lead building of a new society
Opinion:Gerry Adams said recently that a referendum on a united Ireland was inevitable. Martin McGuinness shook hands with the queen. Peter Robinson speaks of the union being more secure than ever. The killing has largely stopped, yet deep divisions remain, with more peace walls than when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998.
While it is clear that Northern Ireland has finally emerged from conflict and horrendous suffering, the two main traditions have to move forward on a journey together. Determining where the journey will end may stop the journey progressing.
I would respectfully suggest that the key priority for its people and politicians is building a better Northern Ireland from within, to fulfil its enormous unfulfilled potential for all its people, supported and encouraged from its Government in London and the Government and people of the Republic.
This is a worthy goal in itself.However, it is also an absolute prerequisite to any change (small or significant) in terms of its relationship with the rest of the island, and to creating more positive engagement from the rest of the UK towards Northern Ireland. Andy Pollak wrote recently of the little interest in the North from the South (or indeed the UK ). Hardly surprising, maybe, given the economic crisis, but perhaps also true beforehand. It reflects the fact that the two parts of the island have developed in different ways, often with little or no impact on the other.
The “North” has always been important to me. Many or most southerners rarely if ever visit. When the lady on the RTÉ Frontline presidential debate told Martin McGuinness to go home and “leave us alone”, he criticised her “partitionist attitude”. She was simply reflecting her reality. David Adams wrote: “It has become crystal clear during this campaign that people ‘down here’ don’t like us Northerners very much. Not in any individual sense but in an abstract way. We’re seen as outsiders poking our noses into none of our business.”
That may be very hard on Northern nationalists. They feel their Irishness deeply, having endured decades of discrimination and worse.
Historians have highlighted that none of the nationalist Irish leaders appeared to understand the Ulster unionist identity, what Peter Robinson described as an “identifiably distinct people”. The dominant nationalist figure of the 20th century, Éamon de Valera, suggested: “People who are opposed to unity and who do not want to be Irish, could be transferred out of Ireland if they preferred to be British rather than Irish.” Not a lot of empathy there.
Does the South really comprehend this “identifiably distinct people”, this idea of being British as well as Irish? Our school history is a tortuous journey to an independent Ireland. Independent meant definitively non-British.
Can they be British and Irish? Mary Lou McDonald welcomed Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the queen but referred pointedly to the “queen of England”. Declan Kearney speaks of reaching out to unionists. For the thousands of unionists lining the streets during the queen’s jubilee, the handshake was not the main event. It was seeing their queen. Do Martin, Mary Lou and Declan acknowledge her as their queen?