Time to Reach Out a Southern Hand to Unionists

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