Rebecca Black was at Trinity College’s recent Northern Ireland debate. What she witnessed was a group of people simply going through the motions. It certainly seems to have failed to set Dublin alight with our more customary northern passion.By Rebecca Black
The annual Northern Ireland debate in TCD saw the Right Honourable Paul Murphy MP, Mark Durkan, leader of the SDLP, the Rev. Mervyn Gibson of the Orange Order and Daithí Doolan from Sinn Féin present opposing viewpoints in front of an audience of largely apathetic and largely northern Trinity students.
The motion for debate was “This house believes Politics has brought nothing but trouble to Northern Ireland”. Predictably the speakers to cause the biggest stir were Mervyn Gibson and Daithí Doolan. Councillor Doolan took the opportunity to fiercely attack the Secretary of State for the bugging of the Sinn Fein offices in Belfast.
Mark Durkan of the SDLP brought a laugh round the room at the start of the debate when he defined politics as “poly” meaning many and “tics” blood sucking creatures!
The Rev. Mervyn Gibson spoke outlining his position as an anti agreement unionist, as is usual with unionist speakers in Dublin his comments sank without trace, like lead balloons. The Trinity News reported a second year student commenting, “I was raging, ready to sign up for the Shinners right there”. Most of his comments brought gasps from the floor, gasps that seemed by the end increasingly stage-managed.
The Rev. Gibson suffered from the usual antipathy and misunderstanding that most unionist speakers face when speaking in the Irish Republic. When introduced as speaking on behalf of the Orange Order, most of the audience seemed to make up their minds about him and refused to listen to his arguments, which for the most part were well reasoned and perfectly understandable.
As a unionist living in Dublin I find this culture of pre-conceived ideas about individual unionists and unionism particularly challenging and sometimes infuriating. Looking around the room when the Rev Gibson was speaking, the faces looked bored and eyes were wandering around the room.
The Rev Gibson spoke about the Good Friday Agreement and the unionist perception of it, he spoke about how no real effort was made to convince the unionist people to support the agreement, he blamed this on the British Government and also on the Ulster Unionist Party.
It’s an interesting question to ponder: why are unionists so frequently not taken seriously in the republic of Ireland?
That this is even the case in the former bastion of unionism, Trinity College, is perhaps the more alarming. Hard line unionists are laughed at and the moderates are simply not taken seriously.
The reaction to Councillor Doolan of Sinn Fein was more light hearted – he drew sniggers from the audience. He spoke vehemently about 800 years of British oppression. And, despite the fact he is from Dublin and had only joined Sinn Fein in 1994, he spoke passionately about life in Belfast in the 1970s and defended the Republican’s right to defend themselves.
Where Councillor Doolan really came into his own was when he brought up the topic of the alleged bugging incident in Connolly House. He talked about how this had seriously damaged the trust between both sides in Northern Ireland. In the light of the findings of IMC report it seems that even if the British Government were bugging rooms in Connolly House they were perfectly justified.
The Secretary of State Paul Murphy talked about the reception of the people from his local constituency in Wales to his job in Northern Ireland. He made it clear that the people of Wales were very supportive of his role in Northern Ireland and frequently made a point of wishing him luck when he spoke to the people of his constituency.
After the debate it was clear that by a large majority the audience agreed politics has brought nothing but trouble to Northern Ireland. However it was equally clear that the topic of Northern Ireland in Dublin is an effective conversation killer.
Despite the fact that Trinity’s Historical Society organisea a Northern Ireland debate every October and have hosted high profile politicians like Martin McGuiness, Mo Mowlam, Jeffrey Donaldson, David Burnside and General John De Chastelin, it simply isn’t a topic that people take seriously. People just don’t engage with the problem here.
Rather like the attitude towards Sinn Fein in the Republic, people on the whole don’t take them seriously; especially problematic when it includes the majority party Fianna Fail. Will it only be when Sinn Fein becomes as big in the Republic as they have in Northern Ireland that people will start to recognise them as the serious political threat that they are?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty