People of North must lead building of a new society

Thu, Nov 29, 2012, 00:00

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.

Reaching out

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?

The importance of the union is as strong as ever. Peter Robinson pointed to the survey showing only 33 per cent of Catholics aspiring to a united Ireland. Do many feel better off where they are? Or is it simply not a factor? How is Ulster viewed in the UK?

Anthony Kenny wrote that three things had traditionally bound Britain to Northern Ireland: sentiment, self-interest, and morality. He claimed that only the last remains true. In the case of the second, this has dramatically reversed given the requirements on the UK exchequer.

Moderate unionism has never had anyone who could argue their case in a positive inclusive way. For so long the face of unionism was Ian Paisley, who provoked a very negative reaction from the vast majority of his fellow members of the UK (at least until his mellowing of recent years). Edward Carson made the unionist case in London in an intellectual, non-sectarian way. Few, if any, have done it since. Indeed in a world of austerity this attitude of relative indifference may turn to something less benign. What about the implications of Scotland?

My purpose is not to undermine genuine beliefs and aspirations. Especially aspirations now pursued peacefully and democratically. Or to score cheap points or be gratuitously disrespectful. Rather it is to address what has often been simplistic thinking. The North has seen great suffering and heartbreak. Simple absolute statements seem inadequate.

There has been great change. Much remains to be done. Duncan Morrow and Trevor Ringland have spoken of deep remaining sectarian divisions . The letter but not the spirit of the Belfast Agreement had been achieved. A “shared out” rather than “shared” future. The same Life and Times survey showed that the priority for people was “improving cross-community relations”. (Only 1 per cent were recorded as being “very satisfied” with the performance of their MLAs and 22 per cent “fairly satisfied”).

Stability essential

A stable Northern Ireland is also an essential prerequisite for any closer constitutional relationship with the South. Without stability the people of the South have no interest.

Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others pursuing constitutional change have to build such a new society, respecting an “identifiably distinct people”. The South has to rethink its attitude to the North in a way that genuinely reflects today.

There has never been an integrated, independent united Ireland. This would not be a restoration after a “temporary” deviation such as that of east and west Germany. Essential elements of identity of all parties would need to be reflected. How would that be done? Do people prefer the status quo?

The people of Northern Ireland have to lead the building of a new society. Generosity of spirit from all is required for a better future – a shared future unlocking the tremendous potential of all its people.

The Ulster novelist Glenn Patterson said recently: “Things have changed for the better, but they haven’t changed for the best.” The people of Northern Ireland now deserve the best.


Hugo MacNeill is chairman of the Ireland Funds and vice chairman of the British Irish Association

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