Time to Reach Out a Southern Hand to Unionists

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In a thought-provoking blog on the new 15 Years On site (http://15yearson.wordpress.com) this month, former Community Relations Council director Duncan Morrow lists all the promised reforms in Northern Ireland since 1998 which have not been realised: a Single Equality Bill, a Shared Future, the Review of Public Administration, Dealing with the Past, educational reform, youth work, parades, Irish language, flags, shared housing and cross-community development.

He warns that if politicians and people in Northern Ireland ‘can’t muster the energy’ to conjure a positive vision of a society that will begin to face up to the ‘bad relations’ of a deep and continuing sectarian divide, then ‘the prospect of a “scared future” played out before our eyes in recent weeks in Belfast will finally knock on the head the ridiculous notion that you can get on with promoting the new “golf and Titanic economy” without eliminating the risks to peace and stability.’

In a similarly provocative column in the Belfast Telegraph last month Malachi O’Doherty, also writing about the flag riots in Belfast, warned that ‘while we live on a fault line between two communities, it will always be possible for small groups to wedge their way in and create havoc that will resonate through the whole population’. He saw a real possibility that ‘the key vulnerability in this society, the estrangement of Protestant and Catholic communities and their anxieties about identity and respect’ could be exploited by such groups.

On the face of it these unfortunate events should have relatively little to do with relations between the governments in Belfast and Dublin, which appear to be as benign as ever. But they are happening at a time when interest in the North in the Republic – among politicians, media and public – is at an all-time low. The economic and financial crisis is everything there. To cite the words of one senior figure who knows both jurisdictions well: ‘there is no longer a constituency of the concerned in the South’.

So there is little or no pressure on anybody in Dublin to concern themselves about what is happening in the narrow and insecure world of Northern unionism and loyalism. This remains one of Western Europe’s most defensive and fearful communities. They watch the rise of a new Catholic middle class, with its confident politicians, senior civil servants and business leaders. They see Catholic majorities at every level in the education system. They see the demographic trends as reflected in the 2011 census moving against them. Too many of them – poorly led by their politicians – still insist on perceiving change as a push towards their ultimate nightmare of an eventual united Ireland.

Those of us who live in the Republic know that there is little or no appetite for such an outcome there. Almost nobody under 35 south of the border has a clue about the ‘Troubles’. Few have visited the North. Even fewer express any interest in a united Ireland. Like young people everywhere, they are far more interested in education and jobs and careers and the ‘good life’: in Ireland if possible; in England, North America or Australia if not. In the words of one Southerner who is a long-time resident of the North: ‘most people in the Republic see Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement as back as part of the UK.’

It is vital that Southern policy-makers and other key influencers start to build new relationships with the unionist community in the North, and to explain to them that what they want for the island of Ireland is a partnership, not a takeover. They should take a leaf out of Senator Martin McAleese’s book and reach out a new hand of friendship to these still beleaguered people. It is crucial that the North-South relationship, which up to now has been too often at the level of elite groups and institutions, finds a way to build a better understanding with ordinary unionists.

The alternative is indifference and willed ignorance. In the words of the young woman who confronted Martin McGuinness during the key television debate of the Irish presidential election campaign in October 2011: ‘As a young Irish person, I am curious as to why you have chosen to come down to this country, with all your baggage, your history, your controversy? And how do you feel you can represent me, as a young Irish person who knows nothing of the Troubles and doesn’t want to know anything about it?’ (emphasis by the speaker in italics).

Unfortunately, indifference seems increasingly to be the attitude at official level. After a period in the well-funded early 2000s when senior departmental civil servants in Dublin tried to follow Bertie Ahern’s exhortations to do as much North-South cooperation as possible, such work is now – with a few notable exceptions – very low on their agendas. Many of the officials who were genuinely committed have moved to other responsibilities. Others have gone back into their traditional single-jurisdiction silos. This leads to silly things like the exclusion of the all-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil – described by the Irish News as the ‘largest folk festival in the world’ – from the Discover Ireland 2013 calendar of events because it is in Derry, and therefore deemed to be the sole responsibility of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Andy Pollak

  • Morpheus

    “It is vital that Southern policy-makers and other key influencers start to build new relationships with the unionist community in the North, and to explain to them that what they want for the island of Ireland is a partnership, not a takeover.”

    Amen to that Andy.

    “Unfortunately, indifference seems increasingly to be the attitude at official level. “

    No change there then.

  • Ulster Press Centre

    Andy Pollack: …what is happening in the narrow and insecure world of Northern unionism and loyalism. This remains one of Western Europe’s most defensive and fearful communities. They watch the rise of a new Catholic middle class, with its confident politicians, senior civil servants and business leaders. They see Catholic majorities at every level in the education system.

    It’s not about fear. It’s about respect and sticking to your word.

    We agreed to a raft of confidence-building measures and concessions to the Nationalist community in return for their respecting the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. No other community in the western world would have accepted unrepentant religiously-motivated serial killers in their government and the early release of hundreds of dangerous criminals. We did in the hope of bringing peace to our little corner of the world.

    All we ask is the Nationalist community who received these concessions stick to their part of the deal – respect for NI’s place in the UK.

    They see the demographic trends as reflected in the 2011 census moving against them.

    The growth in the catholic community was solely down to immigration. Reduction in protestant numbers is down to increasingly-secular British society. The ‘tribal’ balance remains the same.

  • tacapall

    UPC what concessions did Unionism/Loyalism give the Nationalist community that they (Unionists/Loyalists) not already enjoy themselves ?

    Have you forgotten that unrepentant religiously-motivated serial killers from the loyalist community were also released early from long prison sentences handed out by British courts. Not in government, well not yet anyway as theres nothing stopping them.

  • Ulster Press Centre

    tacapall: UPC what concessions did Unionism/Loyalism give the Nationalist community that they (Unionists/Loyalists) not already enjoy themselves ?

    Do you need a history lesson on the GFA? Wise up.

  • tacapall

    No I dont need a history lesson but you tell me what concessions unionism give nationalism that you talked about above.

  • Morpheus

    @UPC

    You seem to have a misunderstanding of the Good Friday Agreement.

    Yes, the GFA acknowledged that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom BUT it also acknowledged that a “substantial section” of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland. Both of these views were acknowledged as being legitimate.

    The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice.

    The nationalist community, as you put it, are not squatters in Northern Ireland – this is their home as much as it is yours. Every man/women now has the same democratic rights as the next so if the majority decide that the Union remains then so be it. But that is equally true if the majority decides that a new Ireland is the way forward.

  • Ulster Press Centre

    Undemocratic assembly, release of convicted criminals, religious discrimination in police recruitment, role of foreign state in NI affairs, convicted religious serial killers in government, etc, etc.

    You know, the stuff anyone with half a brain already knows about.

    If you’re going to nitpick at every post I make I’ll have to stop humouring you.

  • Ulster Press Centre

    Morpheus: The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise.

    Exactly.

    This part is not being respected by those elected from the Nationalist community.

    Ripping down the national flag, refusing to even utter the state’s name, etc – that is not sticking to what was agreed in 1998.

    I’ll remind you that I was there when the document was being negotiated and when it was finally agreed. NI’s Nationalists are not sticking to their part of the deal so why should Unionists?

  • Obelisk

    UPC

    “We agreed to a raft of confidence-building measures and concessions to the Nationalist community in return for their respecting the constitutional status of Northern Ireland”

    Why do you persist in this fundamental misreading of what the GFA was? If you believe that is what we all signed up for, then you are as easily mislead as those Nationalists who believed it was a short stepping stone to a United Ireland.

    I respect the constitutional position as long as you have the votes to enforce it, but nowhere did we agree to stop agitating for change.

    Secondly, and much, much, more pertinently, what we are observing now is the logical outworkings of the GFA. The other community in the North is getting stronger all the time in terms of political power, economic clout and even sheer demographics. If we are to remain within this state for the foreseeable future, then we are going to reshape this state so that it reflects everyone, where previously it just reflected one grouping.

    The GFA was not a solution to drop the North and it’s society into the deep freeze with no changes taking place ever. Onto my now favourite line, you saved the Union for the time being, but it won’t be the Union you wanted to preserve. It’s up to you to reconcile to the new reality.

    Here’s a hint, calling a bunch of thuggish murderers counter-terrorists to somehow elevate them from the counterparts in the gutter pretty much cripples your credibility.

    Andy Pollack

    On your main topic, you highlight some examples of people who seem to have no conception that they share a nationality with people across an artificial line in a map.
    I would argue from my own experiences that young woman is very much the exception rather than the rule.

    That is not to say there are differences, nearly a hundred years of separation will do that, but by and large I don’t find anyone thinking of me as some kind of foreigner in my own land.

    By all means, the Southern Government should continue to extend a hand to Unionists. But they shouldn’t do it on the pretend platform that all the North and the South share on this island is a landmass. If the South has any long term interest in the north it is because of their compatriots who live there.

  • tacapall

    UPC now your getting cantankerous and and hypocritical over someone asking you to define views that you put up to be challenged.

    First of all it whats undemocratic about the assembly – were the politicians that sit in it not elected by the people knowing full well what the make up of the assembly was ?

    Weren’t loyalist prisoners released too. The British government is a foreign state in many eyes as well, see Irish history for reference, I dont know any religious serial killers in government but there are people who played a part in the past conflict involved in politics from both sides of the religious divide.

    “religious discrimination in police recruitment”

    I will stick that comment in my drawer marked practices by the old Unionist government of Stormont.

  • BarneyT

    There’s that “ripping the flag down” thing again. I was “taken” down with respect and probably fabreezed. Would it make UPC feel better if it was erected and actually ripped down?

  • Ruarai

    Andy,

    Perhaps – but what do you mean by “Time to Reach Out a Southern Hand to Unionists“?

    I constantly see examples of peace process type all-ireland delegations cycle through the US including senior pols and civil servants and young people. Assuming you consider these “elite” (the entry level to Ireland’s elite, north or south, is hardly steep, is it?), what do you have in mind?

    There are also countless cross-community style retreats, trips, programs, etc, open to anyone that fancies a jolly, including many hosted in the south or abroad that include southern participation.

    I’m personally not of the view that loyalist community that you write about above has as its biggest problem the failure of outsiders, north or south, to understand it. But regardless, if you don’t want more “elite” level engagement and we already have a plethora of local level exchanges, etc, can you outline what exactly you think:

    (a) should be happening, in detail?
    (b) why should it be happening?
    (c) what should be the appropriate impact metrics for measuring its value?

    As it stands, it’s hard to disagree or agree because the substance of your proposal is missing.

  • Morpheus

    Morpheus: The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise.

    UPC: Exactly. This part is not being respected by those elected from the Nationalist community.

    Eh? I don’t know how long I have been at this computer but I am pretty sure that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom as I type this.

    And purleeze don’t start with the ‘ripping down the flag’ nonsense.

    Answer me one simple question:
    Should Belfast City Hall be representative of the rate paying people of Belfast and be filled with historical relics showing the history of the City since the Bronze Age
    or
    Should Belfast City Hall ignore the demographics of the City and contain only relics from the last 100 years of Unionism?

    Times they are a-changin’ comrade

  • FDM

    There is a joke in there somewhere about Southern Hands and the Ulster flag, thats close to hand, but I just can’t put my finger on it.

    Facepalms in embarrassment.

  • Western Approaches

    “Almost nobody under 35 south of the border has a clue about the ‘Troubles’. Few have visited the North. Even fewer express any interest in a united Ireland.”

    I don’t find that this is not the case at all. In fact it, is the 30-35 age group who will become formative in shaping so-called ‘Southern’ attitudes to Northern Ireland in the near future. The Border nolonger exists, and familial, sporting, commercial, recreational, cultural and other ties between northerners and those living in the rest of the country are arguably closer than ever. Admittedly, this observation is based on anecdotal evidence, but I go out of my way to enquire. Where there is disinterest, it is usually a factor of ignorance.

    The problem today is that the Republic’s mainstream political parties are not interested in engaging with their members or the wider electorate on the national question. Similarly, I see little approach from mainstream unionism to people resident in the 26 Counties.

    For such a small polity, Ireland has a rich mixture of political creeds and attitudes, and I often suspect an all-island consultative body with elected citizen participation would not be the ‘cold-house’ most Unionists seem to envisage.
    Where is the Belfast Agreement’s North/South Consultative Forum?

    It would be a crying shame if all the mechanisms – even those flawed – contained within the GFA weren’t implemented and at least tried out. The list of unfulfilled-yet-promised reforms on the 15 Years On blog makes for a disheartening read.

  • Western Approaches

    Typo:
    I FIND that this is not the case at all!

  • Reader

    Western Approaches: Where is the Belfast Agreement’s North/South Consultative Forum?
    It is attracting the finest minds and most energetic administrators on the whole island. I am sure they are cooking up something truly spectacular.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North/South_Consultative_Forum
    Personally, however, I expect to be at the garden centre that day.

  • Submariner

    @ Obelisk

    Here’s a hint, calling a bunch of thuggish murderers counter-terrorists to somehow elevate them from the counterparts in the gutter pretty much cripples your credibility.

    Nail on the head commet

  • derrydave

    Andy, you claim that there is ‘no appetite’ for a united Ireland down south, and that those under 35 have no idea about the troubles, and most have never visited the north. I would disagree fundamentally on all of that. As a northerner who lived in the south for over 10 years (in three different parts of the south), I have found that to be absolutely not the case. More and more people from the south have travelled to the North for various reasons (shopping, weekend trips to Belfast etc), and it seems to me from anecdotal evidence anyway, that southerners are attending University in the north in greater numbers. I’ve never felt like or been seen by others in the south as a foreigner, but instead as a fellow Irishman.
    There is no doubt that people are not expecting any change in the constitutional status quo any time soon, and are focused on the economic difficulties at present, however I’ve always found there to be a deeply felt nationalism in the people I have known and worked with south of the border – something which will not go away, and which will come to the fore when the constitutional questions actually comes into play in the next 20 years in the form of a border poll.
    My final point is on the young woman you quote from the presidential debate – her input was almost universally criticised and derided at the time, and so for you to bring up her ridiculous contribution (without this context) in order to try to illustrate your arguement really just illustrates the weakness in your arguement..

  • http://www.crossborder.ie/ Andy Pollak

    Derrydave
    For the record, Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that the proportion of undergraduates from the Republic of Ireland at Northern Ireland universities fell from 10.45% (3110) of the total undergraduate population in 1996-97 to 4.4% (1690) in 2009-10. Andy

  • derrydave

    Surprised by that Andy – would be interested in seeing the trend over the past 20 years – there’s no doubt that there have been monumental changes in the South over the last few years which could account for a sudden drop in recent years if that’s what this is. FYI I left Ireland a few years ago and would be interested in seeing what the rates were at the time as they certainly appeared to me to be increasing.

  • Barnshee

    The ROI student used to get a free ride (under EU law) along with the locals When fees were introduced for all the loss of the free ride hit home — Magee and Coleraine still attatch largely on convenience to the NW of the ROI

    “Time to Reach Out a Southern Hand to Unionists ” code for more Nothsouthery waste of public money

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    DerryDave,

    I have a distant cousin from NI who is a unionist. In the 1990s he got an Irish passport because he was an air traffic controller training as a pilot and having a second passport gave him some advantages. But this did not prevent him from occasionally voting for the DUP. He later moved to the British mainland. This is I think quite typical of many middle class unionists who have a pragmatic rather than an emotional outlook on the conflict.

    Re the border polls, the attitude of ROI residents is irrelevant as they won’t be voting in the polls.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    @Andy Pollak,

    Please email me at tom_mitchell57@hotmail.com.

    I want to get your opinion as a one-time Paisley biographer on the reasons for Ian Paisley’s conversion to power sharing in 2005. This wasn’t what you and Ed Moloney predicted in 1986 in the first edition of your biography. I’m thinking of applying to the U.S. Institute of Peace to do research in NI on Paisley’s conversion and possible applications to the Likud leadership in Israel.

  • http://None Eamon Corbett

    57 , this is my first ever posting on this forum, so bear with me , Paisley was given two options at St Andrews ,share power with SF or accept a form of imposed joint authority with the Republic ,being a pragmatic man he opted for the former so as not to have his legacy show that he failed to become NIs FM . To this day there are two schools of thought as to whether he made the right choice but in the end he had very limited options .

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Andy,
    I agree with the need for friendly relations between NI and the ROI of course – however, I’m not sure the lack of involvement from Southerners in NI is such a bad thing. If NI Protestants have a disengaged British mainland standing quietly behind them giving little or no support, it creates an imbalance when NI Catholics have an active Irish Republic pushing their interests.

    Stand-offish attitudes in the Republic to mirror mainland British attitudes is I’d think rather a good thing for inter-communal relations in NI, which is what really matters. The last thing NI needs is outside partisan input even if the partisanship is more muted these days. However softened, the Republic can’t pretend to be a truly neutral outsider and its influence on NI has big potential to destabilise.

  • SK

    If NI Protestants have a disengaged British mainland standing quietly behind them giving little or no support, it creates an imbalance when NI Catholics have an active Irish Republic pushing their interests.

    _____

    Unrequited love. It’s a terrible thing.

    But, alas, Britain is a democracy, and the approach of the British government towards Northern Ireland- ie, utter indifference- is perfectly in tune with the attitudes of the British people.

    Meanwhile, the Republic is also a democracy. The Irish government’s desire for closer relations with the North is simply a reflection of what people down here want.

    That is how democracy works. And the days of democracy going out the window whenever a unionist feels hard-done by are long gone.

  • Reader

    SK Unrequited love. It’s a terrible thing.
    Um, yes – in reply to a post where Mainland Ulsterman said
    : “I’m not sure the lack of involvement from Southerners in NI is such a bad thing.” and “Stand-offish attitudes in the Republic to mirror mainland British attitudes is I’d think rather a good thing for inter-communal relations in NI”.
    In fact, it looks like both sides here are going to have to make a go at getting along with each other.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Reader,
    Indeed – the important stuff is staring us in the face – it’s about getting along with each other in NI stupid – the north-south and east-west angles are there but are way, way, way down the scale of importance when it comes to improving life in NI. The mainland UK realises it, the Republic of Ireland realises it but sometimes people in NI itself are the last to grasp it – there is no answer anywhere else. Both tribes are part of wider cultures but neither can look to those for answers to our politics – it has to be sorted out locally.