Northern Ireland's quiet revolution
THE NEW NORTHERN IRELAND:The North hasn’t quite crossed the line to some brave, new, harmonious world, but there is hope, and people are moving on
A quiet evolution is under way in Northern Ireland. When the golfer and Co Down Catholic Rory McIlroy earlier this year indicated he would declare for Team Great Britain rather than Ireland for the next Olympics it made headlines – to such an extent that he put his decision on hold.
But, oddly, almost nobody in Northern Ireland got mad. Leave the guy alone was the basic message, as reflected by comments from Martin McGuinness, who, sidestepping the identity hurdle, said McIlroy would “bring a lot of credit to the place where he was born”.
Then on the other side of the religious divide you had his fellow golf major winner Graeme McDowell, a sportsman innately conscious of the pitfalls that await those who don’t pay attention to people’s conflicting sense of identity in Northern Ireland. At the Irish Open in Portrush this summer an affable GMac, his distinctive accent somewhere between Boston and Ballymena, diplomatically referred to both “Northern Ireland” and “Ireland” players, and was generous about all of them.
Perhaps the solution for the Olympics will be McDowell competing for Ireland, McIlroy for Team GB and, as McGuinness said, everybody wishing them well.
Northern Ireland is an improved and improving place. This is brought home to people – consciously or subconsciously – every time they wake up, click on BBC Radio Ulster or their local station, and tune in to the early news. It’s not the old litany of murder, bombing, mayhem and political deadlock any more. It’s ordinary news, mainly, with a little of the bad old stuff occasionally surfacing.
The terrible dissident murder of the prison officer David Black, other dissident actions and sectarianism – the last big social problem to be confronted – do not contradict that fact.
Northern Ireland is a place apart on these islands. Say what you like, and regardless of Margaret Thatcher’s assertion, Northern Ireland is different from Finchley, but different, too, from Dublin, Galway and Cork. It’s not a homogenous place such as generally is the case in the Republic and, to a lesser extent, in Britain.
There are two main tribes here, with opposing nationalist and unionist aspirations, so identity is a big issue. That was wryly demonstrated by a recent speech from First Minister Peter Robinson. He suggested that surely it would be not too much for people – ie nationalists – “to refer to the country they live in by its name”. He said it was an “act of denial and disrespect to assiduously avoid using the proper title Northern Ireland”.
The following day’s nationalist Irish News had the front-page headline: “Robinson demands nationalists stop calling the north, the north”. The First Minister was voicing his frustration at the way some nationalists persist with the phrase the “North of Ireland” or the “six counties”, and the Irish News was putting him in his place. But even here there was a softening of tone; the response more tongue-in-cheek funny than hostile.
And the fact is, from simple observation, most nationalists naturally and interchangeably use the terms Northern Ireland and the North, just as many unionists naturally say Derry as well as Londonderry – except, of course, when they are politicians appearing on radio and TV.
Yet, irrespective of these complications in nomenclature, there is a real sense of a changing Northern Ireland, that there are people here who have resolved or are resolving within themselves the nationalistic conundrums that for centuries caused trouble and discord. Are they Irish, British or Northern Irish? Some people can manage the trinity of allegiances, some two, some one.
It doesn’t mean people have altered at a fundamental level. As the Belfast poet and Presbyterian minister WR Rodgers noted, unionists still can be an “abrupt” and “angular people” contrasting with the “round gift of the gab” of nationalists – Robinson and McGuinness reflect these respective characteristics rather well.
And it doesn’t mean that there is a postconflict amnesia in Northern Ireland. That can’t happen: almost 4,000 families are bereaved by the Troubles; 30,000 are still carrying injuries, physical and mental.
As people move on they are also mindful of that suffering and mindful, too, that there are people out there with purist republican mentalities allied to criminal and psychopathological tendencies. They would love to bring the structure crashing down. And some unreconstructed loyalists would be happy enough to abet such a nihilistic exercise. But most people want to move on.
At a softer level neither does it mean Northern Ireland has abandoned its cryptic social interchanges. At all levels of society there can be a studied wariness of the other; an instinctive need to be able to place people in their correct political or religious boxes; an attention to surnames, where one went to school, or who is or isn’t wearing the Remembrance Day poppy, an ear to the Catholic-pronounced haitch or the Protestant aitch.
But while these degrees of separation probably always will be with us, the place doesn’t seem as bitter any more. The shades of orange and green seem more muted. There are differences of identity but some cross-fertilisation too: people can hold to their nationalist or unionist convictions but at times stand comfortably in the other’s space or in shared spaces.
Symbolism is important. Acts of good standing and leadership help. Local GAA pall-bearers handing over the coffin of Constable Ronan Kerr to the murdered officer’s PSNI colleagues last year was a simple but powerful message, a shared shouldering of grief.
And people understood a bridge was being crossed when, in 2009, Martin McGuinness described the dissident killers of Constable Stephen Carroll and the British soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey as traitors to Ireland.
McGuinness’s meeting Queen Elizabeth and attending a soccer game at Windsor Park also made an impact on the public consciousness.
A similar effect was achieved when Peter Robinson attended the funeral Mass for Michaela Harte and when, earlier this month, he turned up at Casement Park in Belfast for the Michaela Foundation Gaelic football game between Ulster and Donegal.
Robinson has quite a bit of that abrupt angularity referred to by WR Rodgers, but at Casement Park he appeared at ease, although he excused himself before the national anthem was played. Even in the new Northern Ireland there must be limits to gestures of cross-community goodwill.