Griffin on engagement with Unionism and finding common ground

Recently one of the Vice President’s of Fianna Fáil, Arthur Griffin, spoke to the youth wing of the Ulster Unionists. Writing for Slugger he recalls his experience and what he took from it.

The jokes about going into the “Lion’s Den” were obvious in advance of the meeting. I was travelling with three friends from Dublin, fellow Fianna Fáil members. We were travelling to East Belfast to meet with members of the Young Unionists, the UUP’s youth wing.

At 28 I was going to be the oldest in our group and indeed, the only one old enough to remember the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. (It was signed on my twelfth birthday, I got a Man Utd jersey, with “Beckham” on the back). I remember a family member crying when Bono lifted David Trimble and John Hume’s hands in the air.

However, even all these years later there remains an air of mystery to parts of the North for many southerners; and East Belfast in particular holds with it certain connotations. This is the story about the experience of this Southern republican’s meeting with the Young Unionists.

In August of this year Ógra Fianna Fáil held their annual Summer School in Queens. On the Saturday afternoon, the final topic of the day was about “Modern Irish Republicanism”. When it was over and the questions & answers session concluded a very well dressed, serious looking, young man looked for the opportunity to speak. I now know that young man to be Cllr Alexander Redpath. Alexander very graciously welcomed us to Belfast and then made a comment that stuck with me: “Listening to Ógra today has given me a very different interpretation of what Irish Republicanism is”. When the event was over I introduced myself to Alexander and following a conversation we agreed to stay in touch.

Over the following months, Alexander introduced me to some of his fellow YU friends. I found our political debates as interesting and as cordial as any debate I would have with Fine Gael/Labour/Sinn Féin friends of mine. All of this debate precipitated a meeting of the YU in UUP HQ, where Ógra members in the North were invited to attend as I gave a lecture on the topic “The Real Meaning of Irish Republicanism”.

Now, here’s the thing, I am very proud to be Leas-Uactharán of my party. It is a role I take very seriously and I work hard at. I am conscious of the many great people who preceded me in the role and all they achieved. I work hard at trying to facilitate organisational improvement and to represent the members of the party at Árd Comhairle level. However, I rarely speak on behalf of Fianna Fáil publically. I have done various radio and newspaper interviews, but usually on the topic of party organisation, but as regards matters of party policy, I would always defer to the public representatives of the party to speak on it. Nonetheless, I was delighted to get the chance to try and defend the case of Irish Republicanism to the party of Carson!

Sat Nav on, down the M1, heading for East Belfast. One of the other 3 accompanying me from Dublin was the very impressive Briege MacOscar. A Tyrone-woman, Briege is Northern Organiser for Ógra; and was busy throughout the journey ensuring that we had members present at the meeting.

The Strandtown Hall offices are at the corner of a redbrick commercial row on Belmont Street. A large poster of Jim Nicholson MEP in the window let us know we were in the right place (and fortunately, there was a lovely parking space outside). One of our FF colleagues who had arrived ahead of us, volunteered to let us in.

Walking up the narrow & steep staircase, I couldn’t help but think about my late grandfather. When I was 8 he sat me down and taught me about the 1916 proclamation. When the Republic held the referendum on Articles 2&3 he sent me to the local library to bring back a copy of the proposed amendment. Due to his visual impairment, I had to read it out to him.

He passed away some 6 months after the signing of the GFA in 1998. I wondered could he have imagined, when teaching me about the great heroes of republicanism and nationalism, that one day I would be an invited guest here.

Entering the meeting-room, I was invited to the top table to sit beside the chairman Alexander. The room was set up as any other meeting room, with a top table facing a lecture all configuration of chairs. To my left an Ulster Unionist Council banner marking 100years of the Solemn League and Covenant, to my right a painted portrait of Carson looked down at me, in front of me around 30 young people from two communities waiting to hear what I had to say.

“A dhuine Uaisle”… Beginning in Irish I spoke for about a minute, my knowledge of the language, regrettably, only extending to pleasantries. “Ba mhaith liom cur buiochas go dtí an Comharleoir Redpath”. Blank faces staring back at me. I smiled. “No, I didn’t order yoghurt – curried or any other flavour”. That joke had been planned since I left my home in Thurles. It got the laugh I had hoped.

“Those here amongst the Unionist community who already know me, will know my philosophy to inter-community relations. I am unapologetically a 32 County Irish Nationalist; I believe that this North-Eastern part of the Island is as much a part of my country as is Dublin, Galway or Cork. There is nothing you can do to convince me otherwise and no point in your trying. I will always lobby aggressively but peacefully for a United Ireland.

You consider yourselves British, you believe that this part of the island is every much as part of the UK as England, Wales or Scotland. You will always believe this and there is no point in me trying to convince you otherwise.

If we can understand this and agree that we must disagree about the constitutional question of statehood, then we can perhaps begin to talk about where differences and similarities lie; and where friendships and inter-community relations can be built upon.”

I spoke about the declaration of United Irishmen and the 1916 Proclamation. (There were a few gasps and giggles when I produced a copy of said proclamation). I expressed the view that Irish Republicanism was based on the American and French Revolutions. I said that is my belief that Irish Republicanism is about Liberty, Brotherhood and Equality – with the added dimension of Unity. I said that such unity cannot only be the hoisting of a tricolour over Stormont, but rather an effort to unify the people. Then I quoted from the two documents previously mentioned:

We do call on, and most earnestly exhort, our countrymen in general to follow our example, and to form similar societies in every quarter of the kingdom for the promotion of constituitional knowledge, the abolition of bigotry in religion and politics, and the equal distribuition of the rights of men through all sects and denominations of Irishmen”. – Declaration of the United Irishmen, 1791.

“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past. – 1916 Proclamation.

It is my view that these two phrases, consistent with each other, are the basis for Irish Republicanism. I told the assembled crowd as much.

I differentiated, in my view, between ‘Provisionalism’ and ‘Republicanism’. “The use of the term ‘republican’ to describe the PIRA is one the things that greatly irritates Fianna Fáil members”. I criticised Sinn Fein, as the leader had done the day preciously in the Dáil, for expecting the British government to come clean on issues of the past, when they wouldn’t do so themselves. I said: “Don’t get me wrong, there were two or more sides committed acts of barbarity during the troubles, but Sinn Fein need to cut the double speak”.

Of course the DUP’s Gregory Campbell was in for a lash. I asked the assembled audience did the unionists present feel any less British for my use of Gaelige? I complained about the childish nature of his comments.

My real ire was directed at both of the major parties in the 6 counties. “Sinn Fein and the DUP thrive on the division of communities. The moderate parties such as Fianna Fáil, SDLP, Alliance and UUP must never allow themselves fall into the trap of succumbing to that divisive talk.”

My final comment was this:

A united Irish republic would not merely be a government from Dublin, nor would it be a tricolour over Stormont. A united Irish republic would be one where the rights of all the citizens regardless of tradition were respected.

There followed a Q&A session, I was surprised to hear the majority of questions were of the nature:

“What place would there be for “X” in a United Ireland?”

It was as if I had a crystal ball. Nonetheless, I was certain that the concerns raised, were not things that would cause a problem if partition ended.

I was glad to receive a gift of a tie and cuff links from the YU. I was glad to get to know these people and make friends. I was glad to come and represent my party’s members in the North; and I hope I did them proud. I was glad to see that members of both parties mixed easily and chatted. Honestly I was most glad that the 12 year old boy with the David Beckham Man Utd jersey grew up into this world.

Despite all the legacy issues that remain to be tackled, and despite all the stumbling blocks that lie ahead; Ireland (all of Ireland), can be proud with the progress that has been made.

The meeting adjourned and we went to the pub and then McDonalds…

Proving that we may have more in common, than we could have imagined.

, , ,

  • Ernekid

    I’ve encountered the Young Unionists before at QUB. They are as dry as a Camels backside. No craic about them at all.

  • Morpheus

    Sounds like FF are more organised in Northern Ireland than I thought – could make things very interesting if they took a foothold.

    Excellent read

  • Bryan Magee

    Very nice pen piece. These sort of exchanges are always very worthwhile. Nice of Alex Redpath to invite you – I think he looks like a promising young member of the UUP.

  • Turgon

    Much of Griffin’s problem can be summed up by the following quote “You consider yourselves British…” The bit afterwards qualifies the comment “you believe that this part of the island is every much as part of the UK as England, Wales or Scotland. You will always believe this and there is no point in me trying to convince you otherwise.”

    The problem is Griffin seems unable to admit “You are British” without the qualification of “consider”. Rather than “there is no point in me trying to convince you otherwise” he would need some variant of “I accept you are British and have no more desire to try to convince you otherwise than I would try to convince you that black is white as to try to do such would be a nonsense and disrespectful to you.”

    One is left with the strong impression that whatever the niceness and genuine desire for friendship Griffin cannot accept that truly the unionists in Northern Ireland are British full stop: not that they consider themselves British but that they are British: as British as the British people of Finchley.

    Thereafter there is all the usual, I am sure genuine, stuff from an RoI nationalist about friendship and rights in a putative united Ireland. However, they always seem to get stuck on having to qualify our Britishness. That is because in terms of a sovereign state it is a dichotomous variable. They can suggest us keeping British passports, special status for Stormont, Ireland joining the commonwealth: whatever. The problem remains that nationalists want Northern Ireland to cease to be part of the sovereign state of the UK and join a different sovereign state. Unionists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. Griffin wants to overthrow a (indeed the) fundamental tenant of unionism which politically is the same view as expressed by Sinn Fein or the IRA albeit I have no doubt he rejects violence.

  • ted hagan

    It’s about persuasion. Many who recently voted Yes for an independent Scotland would have been strong Labour supporters ten or so years ago but were persuaded to switch. The Young Unionists can’t guarantee the union will always exists in the same way that nationalists can’t guarantee there will be united Ireland. The word overthrow is very misleading as a change can only come about through the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland, as agreed by both sides.

  • Mister_Joe

    Aren’t you nitpicking with the “consider” word? I don’t know the man or anything about him but it didn’t seem to me that he was denying people’s Britishness.

  • Mister_Joe

    What were you thinking while you were testing that animal’s backside, presumably with your tongue? Shudders.

  • Turgon

    Mister Joe,
    I think not Joe. With the term “consider yourselves British” Griffin is clearly (whether consciously or not) contrasting the term “consider” (think of yourselves as) with the much simpler term are: as in “You are British”.

    It is redolent of the shocking racism we have had at times suggesting that British people of colour or with parents from outside Britain somehow cannot solely define as British but must qualify that statement (this in my view a serious calumny which has frequently been made on slugger especially by one commenter).

    To turn it the other way round: take our illustrious leader Mick Fealty. He was brought up in Holywood I believe and now lives in Dorset. It would be like me saying “He considers himself Irish”. Wrong: he is Irish. He was Irish when he was living in Holywood and he is Irish now he is living in Dorset. That is unless he Mick Fealty changes his nationality which is entirely but solely his right.

    ted hagan,
    I see your point but you miss mine. This is not about persuasion. Persuasion would be to say “You are British but I want you to become Irish” or “You are British but I want you to accept remaining British and accept Northern Ireland becoming part of the RoI” In contrast he is saying “You consider yourselves British”. The clear implication is that Griffin does not accept that in actual fact we are British. Subtle as it is and considered and reasonable as Griffin is trying to be his position is fundamentally arrogant and racist.

  • Redstar2014

    I love his idea that the UUP are moderates- easy to see how out of touch FF are

  • Mister_Joe

    Turgon, I take your point but I’m not sure. I’d be much more alarmed if someone said “You consider yourself British but you’re really Irish, you know” and some boors do say that.

  • Bryan Magee

    Indeed Mister Joe.

    I also take Turgon’s point, but I also think the “I respect what you consider yourself” construction could be a well meaning attempt at courtesy and diplomacy to respect a person’s self-definition. To say “You are British and I respect that” would actually be presumptious: perhaps the unionist in question does not see him or herself in such straightforward terms?

  • ted hagan

    Northern Ireland is such a clunky, ugly mouthful of a name, that’s the problem.
    I often hear people like Peter Robinson saying Northern Aaahland, as if saying the word Ireland would mean hell and damnation. And Ulster doesn’t work either, of course

  • New Yorker

    “we all are British actually. And Irish. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.” If people thought of themselves as both British and Irish they might not have the identity issue to fight over. I doubt either side would be happy with that state of affairs! Politicians would have to find issues to disagree on such as education, health, the environment and that’s too difficult for them, better green vs orange as far as SF and the DUP are concerned.

  • Nordie Northsider

    They have a big enough task ahead of them trying to establish a foothold in Dublin.

  • Tochais Siorai

    I agree that just accepting people with their British or Irish self designation would be a step forward & our FF friend shouldn’t have used the word ‘consider’. Aside from anything else, it would just raise the heckles of a Unionist audience.

    Anyway, Turgon, you and your fellow Unionists are British. We have noticed. But won’t your Britishness always be very different however from your Finchley counterpart (who probably puts his Englishness first these days but that’s another story)? You’re not from Britain & you don’t live in Britain. People there may not even consider you British. They don’t think you’re as British as them no matter how much you say you are. And they’ll probably jettison you some day from the UK when it suits them.

    And when they do you’ll still be British. But maybe your grandchildren won’t be.

  • Not clear on point. Britishness is not a construct of 19th Century romantic nationalism. Individuals in UK vary widely. From Southall to South Shields, from Chigwell to Chester. Difference is not an issue in Britishness. It is not ethno-centric, or culturally cohesive. Britishness is what the individual is, not based on race, religion or gender or particular location. It is not mutually exclusive to be Irish and British. Scots have recently committed to being British and Scottish. Who is waiting to jettison Scotland when it suits them? Or Wales?

  • Morpheus

    True. Even if they did try to get a foothold I would wager that they will be met with cries of “and where have you been for the past 100 years eh?”

  • Tochais Siorai

    Yes of course there’s a difference between all those places you mention. But there’s a far bigger difference as far as NI is concerned and there always will be i.e. NI is not in Britain. And my experience (& for what it’s worth I’m English born and have lived a good part of my life there) is that there is no emotional attachment among British people to Northern Ireland. None. It can go its own merry way in the morning and they’ll shrug their shoulders. Put it this way, if secession was imminent there wouldn’t be any NI flags flying in English public places in the way there were Scottish flags back in September
    As for Scotland, by the time the next indyref comes around, the grim reaper will have shredded the No vote. And I don’t get the feeling that any of the Yesses are changing their minds.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Teehee, I always think that Peter is trying on Brookborough’s accent for size, and it keeps falling of his shoulders!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    We had one on the committee in NICRA in 1968, Ernekid, as I remember. Decent crac from him, but he was still quite leery of the PD (not to mention us Anarchists!)

  • puffen

    Ernekid you sound like the sort of anorak most people would avoid,

  • Tochais Siorai

    Show me I’m wrong then.
    Or is it easier just to try to be a smartarse rather than actually contribute to the discussion?

  • Zeno3

    Good post.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    This is his attempt to do the distinctive nasal registers any Etonian manages effortlessly. Poor Peter finds North Down keeps butting in and letting him down in front of real people, God love him. Does anyone know where he was born? Wikipedia is unwilling to divulge this information, but it might help me to identify the unconscious gutterals that keep slipping through.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Tochais Siorai, what do you expect!? I’d really, sincerely like to hear a Unionist poster clearly and reasonably present their case without all these innuendos and wee digs. Or the assumption that they do not have to share the wee six with anyone else. Turgon is perfectly capable of this if he set himself to the discipline, and then we might have something serious to argue with.

    His last wee hint of Arthur Griffin with Balaclava and cocked armalite might just last me over Christmas, though. And, about overthrowing Unionism, as Blaise Pascal said about liking yourself, “what’s wrong with that?”

  • Tochais Siorai

    Nope. Apart from saying NI is not in Britain which is a fact I said what my experience is. From neighbours, friends, workmates, old school friends etc. etc. Not empirical but I’ll stand by it.
    Perhaps your own experience is different. Do you believe that people in England, Scotland & Wales would care if NI left the union?

  • Tochais Siorai

    Wouldn’t disagree with the gist of most of that tho’ I might use different terminology in places & you didn’t convince me that your fellow British people cared about NI’s place in the UK.
    Anyway, I think your last paragraph is naive, particularly in the event of Scotland leaving the UK. Or do you think England (& Wales) will continue pouring £11bn indefinitely every year into NI? When the UK as they knew it is gone?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Teehee, I use the term the “Wee Six” which I hope does not offend. It’s in contrast to the Thirty two of Victoria’s period, or the nine (or ten, Louth was part of Ulster in earlier times) created at the plantation. I think that to be strictly accurate you’d have to use ArmaghAntrimColeraineDown FermanaghTyrone, (all one word) but its a bit of a mouthful. Using the earliest name of “Stroke county” might confuse at first but then ArmaghAntrimColeraineDerry/LondonderryDown FermanaghTyrone is even more of a mouthful. Certainly Northern Ireland is ugly and pedantic, and Ulster is misleading (I have Monaghan/Louth roots). The simplist thing would be just to call it “Ireland”………..

    But when have we ever gone for simple answers?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As I think you, teehee, meant “or” not “of” I’d answer, like the greedy Lord Cantaloupe in Simon Raven’s book (regarding Port or Brandy) “BOTH”.

  • Kevin Breslin

    With the obvious commonality of the sort of Westminister style Parliament there are still loads of commonality between Unionist politics and Irish politics in general:

    1) Loving Farming and Parish pumping

    2) Hating Liberals and the Santimonious *****s in the Media.

    3) Milking Expenses and Stroke politics.

    4) An undeserving sense of purpose and custodianship, the electorate really didn’t vote for.

    5) Tribal adherence to the sort of arguments over half a century ago.

    May our long common political culture and common ground continue … well a few things probably can go.

  • Niall Chapman

    I’m sure there are plenty of Unionists who consider themselves ‘Northern’ Irish and British but a great deal less Nationalists who being born in the six counties consider themselves British, unless they need a quick passport

  • Niall Chapman

    I’m living outside of Ireland and its clear from the friends I have from Britain and the “Free State” that we are a different breed from both the “Free Staters” and the English, Scots and Welsh, we grow up obsessing about Nationality and the other side, when we are exactly the same only with an opposing ideology that is enforced by the narrative we grow up with