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Fintan O'Toole: We must defend our right to share the island

The unthinkable 20 years ago is becoming ordinary. Our fragile reality must not be destroyed

Harland & Wolff shipyard showing one of the twin cranes in the background. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

To get a sense of what has happened on the island of Ireland over the last 20 years, we could think about just two people. Both are involved in public life, though neither is a politician.

But in both cases, what they are doing was unimaginable in 1998 when the Belfast Agreement was signed. They are the unthinkable Susan Fitzgerald and the unthinkable Drew Harris.

Just to stop for a moment and contemplate who they are and the positions they now hold is to realise how the texture of life on the island has changed. It is to touch the delicate fabric that current events threaten to rip up.

The most visible icon of Protestant identity in Belfast is the looming yellow mass of the great gantry cranes that stand over the vast dry dock of the Harland & Wolff (H&W) shipyard.


The great citadel that once employed 35,000 men has shrunk to a workforce of 130

They are not that old (dating to the late 1960s and early 1970s) but they came to symbolise the great power and skill of the North’s heritage of engineering and heavy manufacturing.

And that heritage in turn symbolised the division between the industrial North and the agricultural South, a distinction that mapped roughly onto the sectarian divide between Protestant and Catholic. The identification of H&W with Protestantism was not, of course, accidental – it was created and maintained by violence and exclusion.

H&W went into administration on Tuesday. The remaining workers at H&W are now fighting for survival.

The great citadel that once employed 35,000 men has shrunk to a workforce of 130, but those jobs matter more than the mere numbers. They have a psychological importance that outweighs their economic significance. They embody an identity. The H&W workers have occupied the yard and they staged a protest last week when Boris Johnson visited Stormont.

But who is leading them and speaking for them? The regional organiser of their union, Unite, Susan Fitzgerald. You don’t have to listen to Fitzgerald for more than a few seconds to realise from her accent that she is a working-class Dubliner.

She’s a powerfully articulate and passionate voice for the H&W workers and her background shouldn’t be of any great interest. But it is – because it is not all that long ago that someone (even a man) with her accent would have been run out of the shipyard.

A Dublin woman speaking for the H&W workers would have seemed about as likely as Ian Paisley commentating on the All-Ireland hurling final – in Irish. Yet here she is fighting for a resonant part of Ulster Protestant culture, and by all accounts the H&W workers are very glad to have her on their side.

Think, then, of another highly symbolic institution, An Garda Síochána. It is a product of Irish revolutionary nationalism, and of the IRA’s war on its predecessor, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). And it is now headed by a product of the RIC’s own successor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Drew Harris’s father, Alwyn, was the RUC district superintendent in Lisburn. On October 8th, 1989, he and his wife were driving to the Harvest Thanksgiving service at their local Presbyterian church when a Semtex bomb planted on the car by the IRA exploded and killed him. He was mourned by many in the Catholic community.

Poor management

He was, for the IRA and its supporters North and South, a "legitimate target". But the civil rights activist Fr Denis Faul, who had worked with him to stop harassment of local families by British troops, said he was "exactly the kind of officer on whom a trustworthy police force could be built".

People who have watched the new Garda commissioner go about the job of trying to do exactly that south of Border would agree that Drew Harris is in that respect very much his father’s son. He seems set to make a huge contribution to public and civic life in the Republic by fixing a police force broken by years of poor management.

But even a few years ago he would never have got the chance to do so. It would have been unthinkable for a Presbyterian policeman from an RUC family, twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth, to be given arguably the single most sensitive job in the South with access to all of the State’s secrets. It would probably have been unthinkable for someone like Harris even to want the job.

Yet, as with Fitzgerald and the H&W workers, there is a widespread recognition that we are lucky to have him.

People have always been much more open and fluid than politics <br/>

This is what transformational change looks like: things that were unimaginable become real. Impossibilities are now facts. Fitzgerald and Harris exemplify a much larger dismantling of the small borders, the intimate hindrances of fear and prejudice.

Sectarianism is not dead – very far from it. We have not, in that great tautological cliché, simply put the past behind us. But the ground has shifted. The absence of violence has made movement possible. Some of this movement is literal: the occupants of the 45 million vehicles crossing the Border every year. But more of it is psychological. Mental barriers have not quite come down but they have become much more passable.

The idea of sharing the island has acquired a daily, ordinary substance. It is not a political manifesto or a constitutional claim. It is Irish life.

People have always been much more open and fluid than politics. Left to themselves, they fall in love with each other and make friendships and escape from tribal prisons. This is the natural state of affairs, the default setting of social life. If you want to stop it, you have it to use extreme weapons of bigotry and violence. As the floodwaters of enforced hostility have ebbed, we begin to see this basic human landscape once more. It looks wonderfully ordinary.

But like everything marvellous, this change is delicate and precarious. We all know that it is not complete, that it has not been going on long enough to be robust.

The very fact that the positions of Susan Fitzgerald and Drew Harris are worth remarking on highlights this fragility. The change will be secure when it is taken for granted – and that cannot yet be done. It needs to be protected and insisted on.

And really, we do have to insist. The already relentless campaign in the Tory press and its political wing to define the political developments that have made this change possible as nothing more than a plot against Brexit will become, in the next three months, ever nastier.

There are people who don’t know what has happened and who, even if they did know, would not care. We know, we care and we have a right to say that we should be left alone to get on with the long process of accepting each other.