What now for nationalism? Chris Donnelly & panel at Lighthouse Summer School, Killough

The Future of Nationalism - Lighthouse Summer School, Killough The inaugural Lighthouse Summer School was a first step in John Manley’s dream of bringing more people into Killough to discover the delights of the coastal village he calls home. If he continues the practice of serving home made loaf and buns, the summer school is sure to be a long-term success!

Today’s event brought together local South Down residents, politicians, and a few political nerds to listen to different perspectives on the future of nationalism in across Ireland. Given the topic, perhaps it was quite appropriate that the walls of the community hall room were painted two shades of green!

IMG_2145Chris Donnelly gave his view of a number of different nationalist perspectives and challenges. His half hour talk led into the later panel discussion and Q&A. [Click on the images to see larger versions.]

He began by suggesting that while some people believe that a united Ireland has never been further away, he prefers to think that a united Ireland has never been closer, albeit neither particularly close nor inevitable.

IMG_2146He argued that we’ve been living through a halcyon era of northern nationalism. A northern nationalist Mary McAleese was elected to serve as Irish President for fourteen years.

While the SDLP has had “a lean existence” since the Good Friday Agreement, they did significantly win – and have since held – the Belfast South seat at Westminster. Even the success of Ulster GAA teams can have the effect of improving the northern nationalist psyche.

IMG_2147Putting a positive spin on current conditions in Northern Ireland – a “glass half full” interpretation – Chris noted the increasingly equal state and society, as well as the dismantling of the “Orange state”.

He also spoke about the evolution of an independent Irish state (politically and economically) and the emergence of all-Ireland political parties.

IMG_2153Demographic realities and the potential for UK constitutional change around Scotland also give hope. In a society which has had a long-running close bond between religious and political allegiance, the changing population cannot be ignored.

However, disconnection is casting many shadows over nationalism.

There’s a political malaise in the north, with increasing voter apathy and a feeling of disconnection from political processes.

IMG_2152The “rudderless state of Unionism” is a distraction from shortcomings in nationalism.

Southern politics are not engaged with the unity project.

The formidable economic, political and constitutional barriers need to be recognised and confronted, along with the absence of any discernible plans for unity.

IMG_2154He finished with a set of open questions for nationalism.

  • Can a tangible vision be presented to move Irish unity beyond aspiration and create something more concrete?
  • How can an all-Ireland vision be promoted effectively inside and outside institutions?
  • How can the economic barrier to unity in both the north and the south be tackled?

Chris argued that it was important to address the rights of northern unionists who would want to remain British in a united Ireland? Could the Irish constitution be frontloaded, sooner rather than later, to promise to safeguard the rights of the unionist community in a future united Ireland. The political and constitutional architecture needs to allow a unionist minority to continue to contest the settlement, and be seen to do so well in advance of any poll.

When Chris finished, the assembled panel responded.

IMG_2197Irish News controversialist columnist Tom Kelly agreed there was a lack of a coherent message of what a united Ireland would offer.

Darren O’Rourke (Sinn Féin councillor for Meath East … and a late replacement for Senator Kathryn Reilly) emphasised his party’s top priority of working towards a united Ireland and their programmes and practices to boost internal party cross-border cooperation. He asked “how you keep your game on your toes” if you don’t have strong opposition at Stormont?

FullSizeRender 14Thomas Byrne (Fianna Fáil senator for Meath) felt that highlighting NI census demographic figures for religion and extending to political allegiance is a turn off for southern voters. He hoped that there would be a border poll at some stage, but felt that running Catalonia-style unofficial mini-border polls in majority republican areas was laughable and would not win over support.

After lunch, the debate was opened up to the audience and there was discussion around:

  • how the centenary of 1916 might affect people’s views on Ireland and unity;
  • why hasn’t an independent group of experts been set up (independent of parties) to report on the level of London’s subvention to Northern Ireland and explain the potential for all-island savings;
  • would a united Ireland adopt a Swiss canton approach; [Ed – hardly a perfect model with a minority French-speaking cantons pitched against the majority German cantons!]
  • the need to sell the economic, historical, cultural, identity reasons for unification;
  • why is the debate framed around 1916 rather than the reality of is the debate framed around what nationalism in NI looks like post-Scottish independence;
  • what southern symbols might have to be changed in light of a united Ireland;
  • would Ireland in the Commonwealth be a confidence-boosting measure for unionists;
  • Thomas Byrne challenged Sinn Féin’s position on abstentionism at Westminster (he’d be happy if Fianna Fáil won seats and sat in the House of Commons);
  • how to open up more cost effective and convenient shared services in border areas, particularly around health and education.

After Darren O’Rourke departed, local MLA Chris Hazzard took his place on the panel and was unafraid to explain how John Hume had been one of his early political heroes and a great contributor to Ireland.

While a compact and bijou affair, it was the first rational discussion about a new Ireland I’ve heard since interviewing Conall McDevitt about the topic in February 2013!

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.