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.

But there was nothing forced about the way he chatted to Mickey Harte and John McAreavey and to local GAA officials. He even took time to shake hands and banter with Gerry Adams and the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.

Shared pride

Indeed, sport – so important to people’s sense of themselves – plays an increasingly important role in helping society negotiate issues of identity. When the Ireland Olympic boxing medallists Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon returned to their native city of Belfast, most people were proud of their achievements. It was the same for the three local Team GB Olympic rowing medallists, brothers Richard and Peter Chambers and Alan Campbell, when they were paraded through the mainly Protestant town of Coleraine, in Co Derry.

I was in Coleraine observing from the edge of the huge crowd greeting them when two women went by. “The lads did well,” I said. “They were great, wonderful,” the women agreed. “But didn’t our boxers do well as well,” one was quick to add. Their attention to parity of congratulation told they were from the green side of the fence, but it was equally obvious they were happy for both sides. And that was the general view.

The soccer terraces can be raw places, but just at the end of last month the GAA and the Irish Football Association organised a joint “good relations forum” in Belfast to explore the impact of sport in building community links. All this is incremental, with much work to do, but throughout society important acts of leadership and reconciliation are taking place.

There is also evidence of people not only learning from history, but taking care that they don’t repeat it. At the end of August, for example, the Sinn Féin West Belfast MP, Paul Maskey, urged the Orange Order to reroute part of the contentious Ulster Covenant parade away from St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in central Belfast.

“Reroute” is a loaded word in Northern Ireland, to be used only with the greatest caution, if at all. It leads to places from which it can be difficult to retreat. Think of Drumcree. But barely had Maskey uttered the word than the nationalist residents of Carrick Hill, beside the church, made clear that they weren’t seeking a rerouting of any parades; they were simply seeking “respect”.

The Ulster Covenant parade passed off peacefully. That largely unremarked-on decision by the Carrick Hill people was a significant moment in ensuring there was no trouble; ordinary people knew what was at stake and realised unnecessarily upping the ante could have serious and unpredictable consequences.

It hardly signals that Northern Ireland has crossed the line into some brave new harmonious world – there are still running tensions over parades past the church – but it indicates good sense and a willingness to take a view from the other’s perspective and acknowledge the other’s identity. It deserves Orange Order reciprocation, and there are slow signs of that happening.

Game changer

In troubled economic times Northern Ireland has a lot going for it. Soon David Cameron must decide whether and under what conditions the North can reduce its corporation-tax rate to something in line with that of the Republic. It would be a game changer in terms of inward investment, according to Peter Robinson, and economists and commentators agree with him. With its link to a stronger sterling, this could also leave Northern Ireland in a better position than the Republic to begin economic recovery. As part of that economic and investment drive Robinson and McGuinness are on a trade mission to China.

There’s a lot happening otherwise, as well: people are streaming into the Belfast Titanic centre in their tens of thousands; each year there are great festivals, such as the recent 50th Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and the Happy Days Samuel Beckett festival in Enniskillen. Next year Derry will be the UK City of Culture.

Dissidents, who are strong in the city, will try to wreck or disrupt it, but let’s see if Derry people manage to resist that challenge.

Belfast looks great; it’s an architecturally refashioned city, the River Lagan getting the attention it has always deserved. Parts of the city centre that used to be dangerous and now teem with people on weekend nights.There is a new vibrancy about parts of the North. A cafe culture as well as a lively pub scene is developing. All of this makes people feel just that little bit better about themselves. People have a shared pride in place.

Could it all be blown apart? Possibly. From their point of view, the dissidents scored a success by gunning down the prison officer David Black on his way to work. Their satisfaction would have been greater had loyalists responded in like manner. It could have set in train an old pattern of tit-for-tat violence.

Thankfully, that has not happened. And that is also down to leadership, although there are also some incendiary social factors in loyalism that could be a cause of worry if not addressed.

Maintaining peaceful, positive evolution against purist republican violent revolution is down to security vigilance, to politicians thinking and acting in terms of the common good, and to the community asserting itself more vocally against the dissident threat. It’s down to people accepting that history can’t be gainsaid.

And accepting that there are two main identities in Northern Ireland but being comfortable with the occasions when they mingle in some form of Northern Irishness.

One must mention the usual caveat that at the back of people’s mind there is still a lingering concern about revisiting the past. But most people in Northern Ireland are moving away from misery. There is a new confidence and a growing openness, and a humanity that trumps the inhumanity the dissidents offer, a sign of positive transformation.

Which slowly but surely is what is happening in Northern Ireland.


'We are seeing political maturity'

Gavin Robinson DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast

There’s definitely a collective willingness to work for Northern Ireland’s true interest. Less and less you see people approaching issues from a parochial point of view, formed from a particular view of the past. There’s an emphasis on positive progression, both at Stormont and at council level.

Of course, there are still fault lines that people naturally fall into. But, particularly around sensitive discussions, such as those around the recent Ulster Covenant centenary, we are seeing political maturity.

I am still British, but I can see the benefit of talking up our part of the UK. It can be easier for people if they are able to talk about being Northern Irish rather than British or Irish; it can be a point of unity.

'Im not British or Irish, I'm a human being'

Daniel Jewesbury Artist and writer

I’m 40 this year, and I moved to Ireland when I was 19; I’ve now lived longer in Ireland than I ever did in Britain. But I am not and cannot become Irish, nor would I want to.

As someone half-Indian born in London, I was used to much greater fluidity and specificity of identity. I am often, in the lazy shorthand of these things, described as a “Northern Irish artist”, which amuses me a little. But I can’t bring myself to recognise the validity of any of these terms. My nationality is British, because that’s what it says on my passport: that’s a statement of legal fact, not an aspiration or a tribal marking. I wish that we could stop talking about Britishness, Irishness or Northern Irishness . . . I’m not British or Irish, I’m a human being.

'What I find difficult is the intense marketing'

Hugh Odling-Smee Director of Belfast Book Festival

The way we regard ourselves has changed, but the underlying nature is the same as it ever was.

Although I’ve lived here virtually all my life, I come from English parents, so in some ways I’ve always been an outsider, slightly at a remove. Do I feel Northern Irish? Yes, but not to the detriment of my Irishness. I feel Irish and Northern if that makes sense. There’s a lot I like about the North, not least the fact there are two cultures. I like the piss and vinegar, the harshness and the hardness. I don’t want to live somewhere that has ironed out all its narratives.

What I find difficult is the intense, PR-driven marketing of this place, both internally and externally. I don’t think we’re really like that.

'Will this be a place for children in the future'

Trevor Ringland Former Ireland rugby international; member of NI Conservatives

My question is whether Northern Ireland will be a place for our children in the future or will we pass on the mistakes we made in the past? We should be building relationships across the island, maximising our potential. We live in the most beautiful part of the world, we have a great people, but there is a dark side, too.

Without a genuinely shared future we will be failing our children. It’s time for a wake-up call to the politicians. All the issues – whether that’s identity, religion, education, socioeconomic problems – all of these can be addressed.

The Belfast Agreement said that you could be Irish, British or both. Many of us are quite comfortable moving between those identities.

'Northern Irish is my preferred identity'

Glenn Patterson Novelist

Things have changed for the better, but they haven’t changed for the best. I have concerns, fewer than I had a few years ago, but they are of the same order. I have always feared – and I do still – that far too much has been tolerated in arriving at this point. If this was where we wanted to get to, we didn’t have to put up with things like the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney.

The amount of equivocation there has been has made this a more difficult process for those who voted for it. I don’t agree that we had to tolerate all that to get here.

We equivocated and connived, and we were invited to do so in order that we would just get over the line. In many ways we let ourselves off the hook far too easily. It’s like tying yourself in knots and then expecting to be congratulated when you somehow untie yourself. I infinitely prefer the Northern Ireland I inhabit today to the one in which I grew up, but I hope for better still.

Northern Irish has been my preferred identity for a number of years. I think of it like a Venn diagram: the place where my identities overlap happens to be here. I believe my Northern Irishness would not be assailed, whatever the political future. I don’t imagine it will diminish. Whether the N is capitalised or lower case, it best expresses how I feel.

'No one wants us, the orphan of the isles'

Clare Bailey Green Party of Northern Ireland

It’s when I look at my children that I see how things have changed compared to how it was for me at the same age. They may be hanging out in town, just as I did, but their understanding is different. They’re bright and breezy, open in a way that we never were.

Whether there has been a real cultural or attitudinal change is another question. We’re getting a lot more visitors to Northern Ireland, and it’s becoming a more multicultural place. But I don’t think we’re shifting away from the old sectarian battles. In fact I despair that it’s all becoming more institutionalised.

I do call myself Northern Irish, but I think it’s a kind of invented, artificial identity. No one really wants us. We are isolated by everyone we are supposed to be connected to: an orphan of the isles.

'Belfast is a changed, confident city now'

Niall O’Donnghaile Sinn Féin

This place is changing for the better. That’s down to a lot of hard work and commitment. And there’s been a lot of sacrifices, a lot of compromises along the way. Many people have had to leave established views behind in order to make peace. Take Belfast as an example. It’s a changed, confident city, now known across Europe and the rest of the world for all the right reasons. We had the MTV awards, the ‘Titanic’ centenary, but all those cultural aspects are only possible because of the absence of conflict.

As a republican I take a broader view than just the six counties, and you can see how peace has brought benefits right across the island . . . things like increased co-operation across Border counties, co-operation between the Assembly and the Oireachtas.

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