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.

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