DUP and Sinn Féin will never bridge North’s divisions

Joe O’Toole: The parties’ tribal politics exclude a huge block of moderate citizens

So the cards are being dealt out once again. The protagonists take their places around the table for the Stormont talks as Sinn Féin and the DUP restart their interminable game of political Snap. We know that game.

One plays the Gaeilge card and the other hammers it with Ulster Scots.

So we watch frustratedly, as Gaeilge is weaponised and politicised to the chagrin of lovers of the language.

Then one leads with the poppy and the other trumps it with the lily.


And so it goes shamrock versus the sash, Tricolour versus the union jack

Then the righteousness around Amhrán na bhFhiann and God Save the Queen as what were meant to be national anthems for all the people deteriorate into narrow nationalist anthems. Because nationalism will always divide.

And what about Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s recent statement.

“To the nationalist people of Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations and will continue to do so . . . and you will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.”

People might think they know exactly to whom Varadkar was talking but as the great granny of a friend would say “That spake of his could take a lot a parsing”. She just might be right because nationalism is not confined to Ireland. Indeed it has recently delivered to us an eclectic global gaggle of nationalists including, inter alia, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, UKIP, Marine Le Pen and of course the Brexiteers.

Considering that such developments prompted the UN Secretary General in his new year message to express his concern that “. . . Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise” then it surely is a strange time for Varadkar to single out and raise the flag for nationalism. But let’s mind our language here. Because of fudge, creative ambiguity and weasel words, language has been one of the collateral casualties of the Troubles.

Superiority and inflexibility

Nationalism is a nasty and uncomplicated, political philosophy characterised by superiority and inflexibility but it plays to packed houses on our little island.

Even though by definition nationalism by its nature can never unite either the country or its two tribes, that paradox is ignored by political leaders.

And if we are to call a spade a spade then the zealots of the DUP in their fanaticism for union with Britain are as nationalistic as any on the other end of the political spectrum.

Nationalism has divided our schools, our communities, our hospitals, our graveyards and more

It is also past time to revisit and dismantle the convenient convention that anyone who favours a United Ireland be branded a nationalist.

Apart from being clumsy and in many cases inaccurate this is also unfair.

It dismisses a huge block of reasonable and moderate citizens whether they favour union with Britain or a united Ireland, but who, in seeking to advance their objective, shun extremism. Such people who believe in parity of esteem, mutual respect and reasonable compromise would include the Social Democrats, Socialists, Greens, Communists, middle of the road unionists and the Alliance and SDLP parties .

In short, people who would prefer to share rather than impose their culture, history, language, customs and beliefs with those of a different persuasion and who are prepared to be enriched by such intercultural engagement. These are the people who personify the spirit of the Belfast Agreement but have little influence in the Stormont talks.

Instead the DUP and Sinn Féin continue with their brand of nationalism, a zero-sum game where the winner would establish a tribal state articulating the culture and perspective of just one group.

Groundhog Day

And so the drama continues as repetitive and predictable as Groundhog Day.

Nationalism has divided our schools, our communities, our hospitals, our graveyards and more. Of course any arrangement which keeps the tribes apart suits the political leadership and it continues.

Consider the latest proposal that new recruitment to the PSNI be strictly half-and-half Catholic and Protestant. As ever it is a perfect formula for maintaining difference and mistrust. The peace walls are perfect examples also. In the short-term they prevent violence but in the long-term they block normal social engagement and intermingling.

Any one of these developments on its own might seem reasonable and practical because “we are where we are” but how regressive are they in a modern developed democracy. The fact is that if we aspire to an island of tolerance where “Catholic, Protestant and dissenter” among others can not only live in harmony but be enriched by each other’s different cultures and traditions, then an investment of our hopes in nationalism is counter-productive.

Roundtable talks might divvy out responsibility for different blocks of government between two opposing tribes of nationalists and whereas that might bring uneasy peace and brittle government it will never bridge the cultural gaps that divide us.

Joe O’Toole is a former senator and president of Ictu