McDonnell: reconciling ‘orange’ and ‘green’?

Henry Patterson has what looks like a punchy tome coming out in a few weeks. This morning on Tom McGurk’s programme, he described a failure of both Unionist and northern Nationalist elites to recognise the real underlying changes in the reality of life North and South. Alisdair McDonnell, unusually for a nationalist politician, struck a similar critical note on some within nationalism who insist on retaining ‘war time’ attitudes, and remain reluctant to move towards ‘a shared space’ at the recent MacGill summer school.By Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP

The theme of tonight’s discussion, “reconciling the orange and green” is a well worn one.

That often repeated rationale for our national flag – the reconciliation of the green and orange traditions on our island – has, unfortunately, become something of a cliché in northern nationalist politics. The treatment of the flag by a minority of nationalists over the last 40 years means that its promise as a symbol of hope and reconciliation has been damaged; but not, I hope, damaged beyond repair.

For while its symbolism may have been tarnished, and its rationale may have become clichéd, its aspiration is as relevant and powerful today as ever it was. As the representative of a constituency where we have people loyal to the boldest green and others loyal to the brightest orange. I know at first hand the importance of encouraging greater understanding between those two.

I know at first hand and have long been motivated by the enormous social potential that could be unleashed if they could finally be reconciled. The basic political philosophy that this motion is based on – that only through mutual respect and understanding can the people of this island live at peace together, has long been a cornerstone of the SDLP’s thinking. It is one of the greatest tragedies in Ireland’s history that it took others so long, and so many lives, to come to the same conclusion.

The awful violence inflicted upon the community as a whole by the militant fundamentalists on either side of the religious and constitutional political divide has had a terrible legacy. While some economic development across the North and a property boom continues to transform the physical element of that legacy, but the great pain and mistrust – the terrible emotional and sectarian legacy lives on.

But we are where we are, and those of us who have always stood by the aim of reconciling our people, of uniting catholic, protestant and dissenter in the fashion of Wolfe Tone have a greater responsibility than ever to use our influence and move that agenda forward. Now more than ever we must work to encourage and make progress on those things that already bring our people together and shine a light on those things that are used to keep us apart.

Over the next few minutes I’d like to talk briefly about each of these.

In some respects, the green and orange are closer together than ever. Working families from both traditions share the same hopes and fears for their children. The struggle to pay the mortgage, afford childcare, find enough quality time with a young family and bring up kids with self respect and opportunity is the same, difficult struggle in all corners of my constituency and in all corners of Northern Ireland.

Concerns about spiralling household rates and water bills, the environment, the state of our hospitals and the safety of our seniors are the same whether you live in Crossmaglen or Carrickfergus. In the most vulnerable and marginalised corners of the North, where paramilitary thugs of every hue encourage and feed off the worries and the fears of people struggling to improve their lives,
where small businesses are regularly shaken down mafia-style and where the victims of crime are asked to ‘sort it out’ through recourse to local godfathers, the desire for opportunity is the same,
the desire for accountable justice is the same, the need for hope is the same.

But alas, in many other respects the green and orange are further apart now than at any time in many decades.

The Economist last week for example reported that more than 97% of public housing in Northern Ireland is segregated. At the time of the first ceasefire there were nine peacelines in Belfast. At the last count there were nearly forty and the number is likely to grow further. There has been much analysis about why this is the case, as I’m sure there will be here tonight. Working in a constituency with some of the most marginalised single identity communities in the North, it’s a question I’ve thought a lot about.

There are, I believe, three major themes that underlie this increasing division. Three themes that remain as roadblocks to reconciliation between orange and green. They are the needs of VICTIMS, the lack of SHARED SPACE and, with apologies to Pat Spillane, the PUKE POLITICS that are the order of the day in Northern Ireland in July 2006.

The issue of victims and the concept of victimhood is an enormously sensitive and difficult subject, but it is also of central importance if there is to be any real reconciliation on this island. In basic, stark terms, insufficient attention was paid to the needs of those innocent people and families who were broken by violence.

They were asked to accept prisoner releases without any real empathy and have been virtually ignored by the Government ever since. They watched as some victims’ cases were elevated (often for very good reason) while the majority were ignored; they watch this year as monuments to the Hunger Strikers are erected in every nationalist town, village and housing estate, while the Provisional movement continues to evade its responsibilities to the many victims of their own violence .

How must it have felt, for example, for families of victims around Northern Ireland last week to hear the PIRA announce, 34 years after her disappearance, brutal torture and death that Jean McConville was a tout? Not an admittance of guilt and remorse on their part, but a statement 34 years after her disappearance, torture and death that they had been RIGHT to do what they did?

There are many many others cases of injustice and pain about which too little has been said. This very night 34 years ago Belfast was convulsed following 20 explosions and 9 murders – how many people here can name those victims? This night 25 years ago John Hazlett was shot and killed in Maghera – a case of ‘mistaken identity’ by the provisional movement. This night 4 years ago Gerard Lawlor, a young man of 19 years was shot and killed by the UDA on the Antrim Road as he returned from a GAA game. The list goes on and on.

Who, apart from their broken families and friends and neighbours is thinking of them tonight?

It is increasingly hard to argue with those who claim that there has emerged a hierarchy of victims. And that is a terrible thing. It is also the single most insidious and damaging barrier to any real reconciliation. The double vision, double standards, call it what you want, of the paramilitary gangs has long frustrated me.

The provisional movement knows well and exploits the power and emotion of ancient wrongs against the Irish people

* I recently received an email from the sinn fein bookshop offering me a DVD about the famine

* but they seem entirely unable to understand the awful effect of their own actions on their neighbours.

What they have done in the name of the green may have sparked generations of mistrust about the cause of Irish nationalism. It may have delayed the possibility of reunification of Our People by more than a generation.

Similarly, I watch loyalist bands march through Belfast incensed that anyone would dare question their commemoration of murderers like the UVF’s Brian Robinson or the Rathcoole Kill All Irish gang.

‘Why can nationalist residents not realise that these are historical figures and get over it?’ they ask, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the reason they are marching, the reason why thousands of them congregate around bonfires and burn tricolours and dishonour the memory of innocent victims like Michael McIlveen is to commemorate a battle that took place a short 316 years ago.

This disconnect – the sense of shared grievance about what was done upon you without any sense of what was done in the name of your community – adds to the dysfunction of Northern society and it needs to be confronted, it needs to be challenged. In the SDLP we recognise the role we played in supporting prisoner releases in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. But we also recognise that we must play a central role in taking up that challenge.

It is a challenge we embrace.

Our successful opposition to the ‘On The Runs’ legislation means that state and paramilitary killers must be held to account. Our opposition to the multimillion pound ransom payment to loyalist paramilitaries will seek to hold those gangs to account. Our questions about so-called Community Restorative Justice schemes will seek to make sure justice is held to account, And our support for the Office of the Victims Commissioner is to make sure that finally, the voices of all victims will be heard and will count.

The second of the roadblocks to reconciliation, as I see it, is the lack of shared space in Northern Ireland and the lack of cultural awareness that underpins this. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there is a gulf of understanding between both sides of our community – in addition to the violence I’ve already talked about, we have had a generation of segregated education, segregated housing, segregated sport, segregated life.

In dark times, we took comfort in the safety of our own traditions and stayed well clear of others. With communities at each other’s throats, there was little point in trying to understand or appreciate what was important to ‘the other side’.

But these are brighter days, and for them to become brighter still we must all begin to make an effort to understand each other a little better; we must make genuine accommodation for the needs of others we must try to make the idea of ‘shared space’ more than a just a bit of jargon, a handy government-approved soundbyte.

As a nationalist, I can put my hand on my heart and say that the beliefs of Orangeism have long been alien to me. I can say that for a very long time my gut reaction to what it was, or what I thought it was, was very negative.

Of course, that shoe fitted very often

* when Orangemen blocked roads and encouraged civil disorder rather than talk to residents,
* or when they offered weasel words rather than condemnation when people were killed in Orange-related disturbances for example.

But it can no longer be enough for nationalists to fall back on the old easy stereotypes. To talk about ‘sectarian coat trailing’ or describe the proposed ‘Orangefest’ as a ‘big-otfest’ as one Newry SF councillor did recently, might be comfortable and might raise an easy cheer, but does it do anything to reconcile our traditions?

Are there big-ots in the Orange Order? Unfortunately, yes.

Are there decent men in the Orange Order? Fortunately, yes.

If as nationalists we believe the unification of the people of Ireland and the Island of Ireland is a worthy goal, when are we going to come to grips with the fact that Orangeism is part of this island’s life? When are we going to take up the challenge posed by accommodating this minority right? While there is no parallel with Orangeism in the nationalist side of cultural life, there is within Unionism and Loyalism a similar ignorance and intolerance about cultural activities important to nationalist people.

We need only look as far as the long list of murders of GAA people and attacks on GAA premises to see how little militant loyalism understands the work and life of that Association or the values and attitudes of ordinary Gaels.

Until more is done to build understanding about each other’s lives; unless political representatives do more to lead and shape attitudes, rather than always looking for the lowest common denominator; unless as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we learn to ‘be subject to one another’, there will be no shared space. There will only be a growing chasm between orange and green and an endless cycle of resentment, bitterness and recrimination about which side gets what.

Those who doubt this prognosis would be well advised to spend an hour or two with me and other colleagues at the Preparation for Government Committee currently sitting at Stormont. When RTÉ pundit Pat Spillane sought for a phrase to sum up what he perceived as the cynicism and negative tactics in Tyrone and Armagh football, he called it Puke Football; while I do not agree with the Spillane analysis of the Armagh or Tyrone teams, when I sought for a phrase to sum up the approach of the largest parties to the current impasse in the North, his analysis came to mind.

What is practiced today by the majority parties, the DUP and SF in Stormont and across the North is Puke Politics.

When I gave my maiden speech at the House of Commons I said that when the Provisionals and the Paisleyites were in the driving seat, everyone would suffer. That was 14 months ago and I’m sorry to say that unfortunately I have been proven right. The real injustice to the people who suffer – the ordinary working families trying to get on with their lives – is that these Puke Politics are being actively encouraged by Peter Hain and the Northern Ireland Office. We’ve seen it in the side deals with Sinn Fein, we’ve seen it in the gymnastics performed by Peter Hain every time the DUP demand more ‘confidence building’ measures.

The problem with pandering to Puke Politics is that brings out the worst in the people who practice that game and gets us nowhere good, fast. The cynicism, the ‘strokes’ serve only the narrow short term political interests of the parties who manipulate the process – not the process itself and certainly not the people it was designed to serve.

In the context of this discussion tonight, Puke Politics setting the agenda means that the balkanisation of Northern Ireland warned of by my colleague Seamus Mallon continues, greater understanding between our traditions is avoided at all costs and the great promise of the Irish flag remains unfulfilled. It’s sometimes hard to shake the feeling that that’s part of the point.

So what is going to happen on 25th November?

It is easy and popular to say: Wind the whole Stormont circus up, shut it down, pay them off. But look at what we are facing. If the policitians can’t share power, then how can we expect the people to share society?

The DUP has got to stop messing around on power-sharing, and Sinn Fein has got to stop messing around on its commitment to a lawful society. And they both need to be up front about the cost of failure. After 25th November, while we might have the British and Irish governments working together, all that we would really have in the way of political institutions would be seven balkanised super-councils: three green ones in the West and three Orange ones in the East, plus a mottled one in Belfast.

We still have no legal guarantees that there would be cross-community power-sharing. They are sleep-walking us into disaster.

Ladies, gentlemen and friends you have listened to me for long enough. Before I go I leave you with a couple of thoughts.

My former leader, and great friend of this summer school John Hume often talked about his experience of standing on that bridge in Strasbourg. He marvelled that the people of Germany and France who had done so much bad to each other could come together again to work for a common good. While John may have moved off the political stage, that message and image is as relevant today as it was when he first challenged the status quo.

While it may be unrealistic to talk about a full reconciliation between orange and green in the short term; while only the most ambitious optimists can imagine full partnership between the two any time soon, surely those of us who can see what unites us, despise what divides us and still believe in the promise of the tricolour, surely we can be subject to one another and reclaim the agenda from those who profit from division and whose narrow agenda ultimately serves no one – not even themselves if they had the wit to recognise it.

Surely we can come together again and work for a common good.

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