The response to Gerry Adam’s “seven goals” in Slugger shows that the union/ unification theme can still assert its old pull. This will no doubt be reinforced over the holiday by Martin McGuinness’s appeal to republicans to engage in “practical ways of giving expression to the unionist sense of Britishness within a united Ireland” and his earlier speech to the PSA in Belfast. These Easter orations can be seen partly as a response, conscious or otherwise, to Peter Robinson’s call for great engagement with nationalist traditions although they are also probably designed to help position Sinn Fein in the shifting polity of the Republic. What’s the beef in all this? The political tones may be getting softer but on the essentials, there’s no real change in treating the poles of continuing Union or Unity as a zero sum issue. Pace John Hume, territory finally matters. So is it all humbug? I think – hope – not.
Does anybody else sense that the warmer words on both sides suggest that the whole traditional topic that still gets so many of you going is beginning to acquire a sepia tinge and is being slowly consigned to history? In other words, that the frames of reference are starting to shake; and that the political leaders are beginning to sense this and are trying keep up with new as yet inchoate trends of opinion that are slowly leaving them behind? The forces on both sides that impelled agreement are imperfectly understood and should not be left to the parties alone to define. They began to lose their unique initiative when they closed the deal. Some sort of new future which neither of them by their very nature can define beckons. Its emergence depends on a different dynamic which power sharing itself may ever so slowly be creating. This is not to dismiss the need to give the remnants and other legacies of paramilitarism and dispossession on both sides of the community great care and attention. The “language of profound change” has not yet been embraced. At the same time, critical concepts like “managed sectarianism” and “continuing the war by other means” may still have force but are starting to feel a bit dated, even though the rough beast that may eventually supersede them has still to take shape.