Passing of time will continue to dilute Irish republicanism


OPINION:There is a realisation now that the notion of a united Ireland seems logistically impossible, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

I GREW up in the 1980s in Co Clare, and was educated by the Christian Brothers. I’m sure there was nothing more or less greener in my upbringing than many others of my generation.

One of the first poems I remember learning by heart was Pádraig Pearse’s The Mother, and, aside from a visit to a goat farm, the other school tour that stands out was a trip to Kilmainham Gaol, where I bought a collection of Pearse’s writing. I was 10 years old.

We learned our immediate history from the news through car bomb reports, sniper shootings or public rioting.

Certain families in the town were known to be “mad republican”, and while not quite revered they were certainly admired.

I was a nationalist in the sense that I received a version of history that contained a strong narrative of colonialism and occupation, and I, along with many in the South, wanted that to end without fully knowing why.

When news of a British soldier having been shot filtered through we became armchair republicans. We lacked full empathy for their human suffering and focused instead on the “ideal”.

I think there was a quiet complicity in the South in what the IRA was doing through most of the 1970s and 1980s, and our community in Clare, while not exactly on the front line, was no different in its sympathies.

My nationalism became more radicalised when I visited Northern Ireland for the first time on a sporting trip to Armagh and Derry with a local GAA club. The British army searched our bus as we crossed the Border, and we learned a rota of songs such as “IRA they’re okay, f--k the pigs and the UDA”.

Children of the families we were staying with walked up to British soldiers on the streets and spat in their faces, encouraging us to do the same.

I was 13 years old and held on to that biased form of aggressive republicanism until my late teens, when I grew disillusioned with republican dogma.

Perhaps then the greatest achievement of the likes of John Hume and Seamus Mallon was to show us how to be nationalists again. Bobby Sands might have attempted to teach us how to die as republicans, but Hume showed us how to live in a republic.

A few days ago I had the privilege of visiting Derry and delivering the William Dawson Memorial Lecture at the Guildhall.

I hadn’t visited the city in a decade, and it was also the first time in many years I discussed terms like republicanism or nationalism or a united Ireland with anyone.

I was struck by just how little national discourse there is now in the Republic around ideals that seemed so important only two decades ago.

For example, I can’t tell you when the last time the subject of Northern Ireland has come up for discussion among my peer group, and, unlike the 1980s and 1990s, it has never been a breakfast table topic in my home.

I spoke to Derry taxi drivers and tour guides, business owners and hotel waiters.

The majority of republicans I met sounded more and more like nationalists, and those few dissident republicans still intent on violence were referred to with almost universal anger and disgust.

One taxi driver told me his 14-year-old son heard a recent dissident car bomb go off last month and didn’t know what it was. He had never heard one before.

During previous visits to nationalist communities in the North I have always felt something of an inherent tension. Many felt abandoned by the South, and questioned how true our republican aspirations were.

I remember once being tackled for buying the Guardiannewspaper, and this from a republican sympathiser who never missed a Manchester United match on television.

This time, though, those tensions had eased. There was a realisation and acceptance from many I spoke to that the notion of a united Ireland, while still something of an obscure political ideal in the Republic, is logistically impossible now. It was refreshing to be able to have an honest dialogue without feeling pangs of guilt for not rowing in behind the green agenda.

The logistics of the post-1994 reality have caught up on century-old definitions of nationalism and republicanism. How many school yards now ring out to nationalist or republican songs like ours did?

I don’t think I have ever had a discussion with my 10-year-old son about the need for a united Ireland. His generation is far less insular and more connected to the wider world than we were.

However indifferent Northern nationalists and republicans feel the current generation is, wait until the next generation takes office and assesses its societal and political priorities.

The reality is that realpolitik will continue to dilute Irish republicanism, and the notion of a united Ireland is as unlikely now as at the time of partition.

Brian O’Connell is a journalist and author. Twitter: @oconnellbrian

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