“When we discuss these issues with genuine mutual understanding..”

Former Ireland rugby international Hugo MacNeill, in the Irish Times [subs req], calls for a wider debate than the one previously suggested by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.. and leads the way into it by paraphrasing the oft-quoted poet John Hewitt

“Firstly, I am an Ulsterman steeped in the traditions of this place. Secondly, I am Irish, of this Ireland. Thirdly, I am British, and finally, in a more diffuse way, I am European. It may make it easier for you to understand if you remove one of those elements but if you do you are no longer describing who I am.”

Hugo MacNeill starts by describing his interest in the question of identity [subs req]

The question of the North has always fascinated me. So too has the relationship between Ireland and Britain. Why? It is a matter of who – and what – I am. Ancestors from Glenarm in Co Antrim; a family involved in Irish history; growing up in Dublin; at college in Trinity and Oxford; playing rugby for Ireland with my Ulster team-mates; living in England for nearly 20 years; and now back in Dublin but working in London two days a week for an international organisation.

And he ends with a call for a less narrowly defined, “new framework, a new language in which these issues are discussed”

There is now a relationship between Britain and Ireland that would have been unimaginable just over a decade ago. We no longer believe in the stereotypes: the mischievous, cunning Irish; the haughty arrogant English.

These changes bring fantastic opportunity on the one hand and great challenges on the other. In turn they demand changes in the way we think about many economic, social and cultural issues. They also demand changes in the way we think about the North and indeed the South.

We need a new framework, a new language in which these issues are discussed. We need to explicitly recognise the changed and changing context in which they play out, in all parts of our island and with our UK neighbours. Pursuing one path based on one set of beliefs or assumptions, whilst not recognising the wider set of changes, the views of the other parties, will lead to a narrow and increasingly divided society, principally in the North (where such matters do continue to be of daily importance), but also on the wider island.

When we discuss these issues with genuine mutual understanding we are more likely to build a better future for all the people on this island whilst continuing to strengthen the bonds with our neighbours across the Irish Sea. This will probably involve a richer, less black or white, more complex set of assumptions and relationships than have been discussed to date. However, it’s a big and worthy prize. Let’s go for it.

The paraphrasing by Hugo MacNeill is from a paragraph in this letter from John Hewitt to John Montague in 1964

I always maintained that our loyalties had an order to Ulster, to Ireland, to the British Archipelago, to Europe; and that anyone who skipped a step or missed a link falsified the total. The Unionists missed out Ireland: the Northern Nationalists (The Green Tories) couldn’t see the Ulster under their feet; the Republicans missed out both Ulster and the Archipelago; and none gave any heed to Europe at all. Now, perhaps, willy nilly bundled in the European rump of the Common Market, clearer ideas of our regional and national allegiances and responsibilities may emerge, or our whole sad stubborn conglomeration of nations may founder and disappear for ever.

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