Alex Kane: Blind spots block Northern Ireland progress

Republican and unionist takes on Barry McElduff’s video reveal scale of division

 Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff bearing a Kingsmill-branded loaf on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre. Photograph: Barry McElduff/Twitter/PA

Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff bearing a Kingsmill-branded loaf on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre. Photograph: Barry McElduff/Twitter/PA

 

“I can’t help it, when I hear Sinn Féin, or see Sinn Féin, or read a statement from Sinn Féin, all I hear, see and read is the IRA. I can’t separate the two. I’ll never be able to separate the two. So, when I listen to news about DUP/Sinn Féin negotiations, what I’m actually listening to is DUP/IRA and I want nothing to do with it.” Those were the words of someone who would be viewed as a “moderate” unionist; someone, moreover, who has no hang-ups at all about same-sex marriage, liberalising of abortion law and even recognising the cultural importance of the Irish language. When it comes to Sinn Féin he, like the vast majority of unionists, has a blind spot.

A few years ago – when I worked in the Northern Ireland Assembly – I got to know some Sinn Féin staffers reasonably well. We pushed each other on core beliefs and one of them told me: “When I look at unionists, even though I don’t hate them as such, I always see them as illegal occupiers of my country. I see them as people who were put here, and who are still sustained here, by a colonial power. For me it’s about unifying my country. It’s not about accommodating unionism in part of my country; it’s about accommodating them in all of my country. They have no right to prevent that unity. They never had that right.” That’s his blind spot – as it is with the vast majority of nationalists.

Ugly beam

It’s these blind spots which have made it so difficult to reach a stable, lasting understanding in Northern Ireland. We seem incapable of acknowledging, let alone accepting, that the “other side” may have a valid point of view or argument. We find it extraordinarily difficult to concede that “our side” may have inflicted great wrongs or great offence. The mote in our own eye is always a beauty spot compared to the monstrous, ugly beam in theirs.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his children, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” In a debate during the Belfast Agreement referendum in May 1998, I told a unionist audience that it was important to understand how republicans and nationalists viewed unionism. The reaction was unanimously hostile: “Why should we try to understand them? They don’t want Northern Ireland to exist. They don’t want unionism to exist. They just want to vote us out or bully us out of our own country.”

In another debate, with a mostly nationalist audience, the response to my view that they needed to understand unionism was a pretty similar one. They regarded unionists as insular, excluding and hostile: “You can’t reason with them. They’ve had almost 80 years and they’ve never done anything generous or welcoming. Everything nationalism has got has had to be forced out of them.”

I accept that the political/electoral representatives of unionism and nationalism don’t have to like each other. But if there isn’t even much in the way of basic civility, or recognising that there are always two sides to every debate, then how do you ever reach a point at which they can say – with honesty and enthusiasm – “Yes, we can work together for the common good.” The conclusion, so far, is that they can’t.

Offence and violence

The fallout from and reaction to the video of Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff balancing a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head (on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre) tells you everything you need to know about the scale and nature of our divisions here. Almost every unionist believes it was deliberately done and intended to cause offence. Almost every republican believes it was a genuine mistake, for which he has apologised and been punished (even though unionists don’t regard it as a punishment at all). And within a couple of days the debate had moved on – as it always does – to unionists highlighting a back catalogue of offence and violence from republicans, while republicans were flagging up past offences and violence from unionism. Meanwhile, the legacy dilemma is trampled over yet again.

The Brexit result and unionists losing their overall majority in the Assembly (for the first time since 1921) has upended the dynamics. Irish unity versus the UK status quo is going to dominate the political agenda for the next few years; up to and beyond Northern Ireland’s centenary in 2021. Both sides will have to talk. They will have to have some very uncomfortable conversations, because both face existential challenges. One way or another, in one place or another, we have to live with each other. But if we can’t overcome the problem of blind spots, though, it will all end very, very badly.

Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party

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