Soapbox: A “Northern Ireland which works” cannot be built in isolation….

Declan O’Loan is a Mid & East Antrim Borough Councillor and former MLA for the SDLP. Here he argues that the key to “making Northern Ireland work” is not simply pursuing internal changes which improve relations inside NI, but in finding ways the Irish dimension can be reinforced in a more focused way.

No one, looking at the history of the Assembly since 1998 can be sanguine about its future prospects.  Political divisions, there and in the wider community, are so intense that they put massive strain on a government structure which is necessarily based on power sharing.

The Executive is seriously underperforming.  Lack of cohesion means that major challenges in education, health and the economy are not being faced.  Many people are not voting.  What is missing is a common sense of purpose that commands broad support in the community.

How is this to be achieved when different constitutional aspirations lie at the heart of our divisions?

John Hume pointed out that it is not the island that is divided, it is the people that are divided.  This is a statement of utter simplicity and yet of profound depth.  Anything which does not work towards uniting the people will be a failure, as it has been in the past.

The people have responded to the democratic opportunity offered under the Good Friday Agreement by electing those that they see as the strongest champions of unionism and nationalism.  That is not uniting the people.  Some see a border poll as the way forward.

They are oblivious to the fact that a simple majority in favour of a united Ireland, even if it were to happen, would not unite the people.  The United Kingdom as an entity is under severe strain, and I find it hard to see how stable devolved arrangements can be constructed.

If Scotland leaves, the position of Northern Ireland will be very strange.  But no one should think that it will then be easy to roll over into a united Ireland, and our problems will be over.  That does not satisfy the “John Hume test” of uniting the people.

Does anyone suppose that in a new united Ireland the unionist political parties, flags, parades, bonfires, paramilitary groups, would all disappear.  Is it not more likely that the more unpleasant manifestations of unionist domination would intensify in local areas.

There is no alternative to the current structures, and what we have to do is make them work for the foreseeable future.  An opposition of a sort has been agreed for the Assembly.  Maybe that will achieve something, but I am not so sure.  Some have confidence that it will somehow “normalise” our politics, and that is a fantasy.

No, the only hope is to build up much more commonality of thinking within the existing structures.  What does this mean for unionism and nationalism?

Unionist wagons are still circled

For many years, it was the reluctance of unionism to engage that made it impossible to set up power sharing structures.  Those misgivings did not disappear  when the institutions were set up.

The repeated collapses of the Assembly, the defections to less moderate parties, the founding of a new party fundamentally opposed to the current structure (and its winning of significant public support) all testify to this.

The dynamic at Stormont is a curious mixture of teamwork at times, and at others deep separation and animosity, but it is the latter which is the stronger.  Unionism and nationalism have not fully entered into a spirit of partnership.  Unionism still gives every sign of being a reluctant player.

Unionist wagons are still circled and there remains an atmosphere of siege.  Any proposed change which reflects the nationalist tradition is seen as a challenge.  These attitudes repeat themselves in grassroots communities, indeed the two levels reinforce each other.

We observe widespread flag flying, bonfires, and parades, with a highly assertive attitude towards all of these.  Loyalist paramilitaries exert strong control in local areas.  If Stormont is going to work, there has to be a major softening of these unionist attitudes.

Nationalism too needs to change.

At a very deep level. nationalism has often failed to give legitimacy to the sense of Britishness felt by many in Northern Ireland.  The historic political power held by Britain over Ireland is seen as such a deep wrong that the entire right rests with those who wish to remove all vestiges of that power.

This is most clearly seen in the mindset of certain republicans who react with hatred towards British involvement here, and regard all steps, including violence of any degree, as morally justified in order to remove it.  The basic issue around legitimacy is much more widely felt.

If we are to establish common ground, nationalism will need to do more to recognise that Britishness is implicit in the background and tradition of many people here, and if it is expressed in a reasonable and tolerant fashion, it must be found a place in a broader concept of Irishness.

In my area, I am very familiar with the stories of Rose Young, scholar of Irish, and Margaret Dobbs, one of the founders of the Glens Féis in 1904.  Both would have been instinctively unionist, but would have regarded it as absurd to suggest that they were not fully Irish.

The space for such thinking has been squeezed out by history, and we need to reclaim it.  Nor must we insist that every unionist go off to Irish classes before we can give them a full place in our concept of Irishness.

The place of violence in our history is the other area which must become a focus for examination within nationalism.  The idea that we can “unite the people” through force and at the cost of so many wrecked lives must be thoroughly rejected, as it has been by constitutional nationalists.

Many groups played their part in the violence of the last forty years, but it is asking a very great deal of unionists to place their trust in the political representatives of republicans who had a role of primacy and centrality in that violence, and have not yet come to recognise how wrong that campaign was.

The commemoration of 1916 also throws this issue into relief.  At this distance we can surely recognise that amongst the idealism and courage of the men and women of the Easter Rising, the modern concept of “uniting the people” was not their thinking.

The Proclamation refers to “differences carefully fostered by an alien government”, underestimating the difficulty of obtaining the “allegiance of every Irish man and Irish woman” to the new Republic.  As nationalists, we have tended to “blame” the unionists for partition.

We need to become aware of the contribution of nationalism to the disaster that partition has turned out to be, through failing to work for a solution which would “unite the people’.  We need a nationalism which acknowledges and accepts the sense of Britishness among many of our people, which says clearly that physical force will not be used on them, and ample space will be found for an outward looking and tolerant unionism.

We are once again at a moment of decision.  We need to implement the well established steps for dealing with the past.  That on its own will not be enough, nor will it even achieve implementation unless we enhance the trust levels.

We can continue the stop-start acrimonious character of the Assembly, or we can embark on a new journey.  A modern forward looking Northern Ireland can be constructed.  A “Northern Ireland which works” cannot be built in isolation.  The British connection is inbuilt through the funding mechanism and numerous legal links.

The Irish dimension must be reinforced in a more focused way.  People can make voting decisions based on champions for their own community, or we can get leadership towards a future with a common foundation, and support for that kind of leadership from the grassroots.

There is a responsibility on political leaders, and also on all of us.


  • Croiteir

    A very good piece from one of the few SDLP people who I have a degree of respect for.

    The issue of uniting the people is one I understand, but who are the people? From my perspective, a north east Antrim one like Declan, I see the people across the sea in Scotland as much the people as me. The concept of Irishness and Scottishness to me is a foreign concept, one born of conquest and division. Our people are not only divided in this island but across the entire nation. Now that does not mean that we should have one state, or indeed two, to reflect the need to administer the nation. We can have as many as we want or need that is efficient.

    The biggest obstacle to peace in Ireland is the border. There is no doubt about it. It blights us in that it is a real and tangible manifestation of our disagreements. It has to go before that will heal all it does is perpetuate and indeed intensify the problem. And I acknowledge it is a chicken and egg. The unionists just have to sit tight and not move. They have what they want constitutionally. They can see no reason to move. And I do not blame them. I would in all probability do the same if I were them.

    In the terms of this island we are divided as to our national and political allegiances, born as I say out of the conquests of the English over the centuries, This has been exasperated and consolidated largely by the divisions caused by the Deformation. To me it is really up to the nationalist population to remove this division.

    How to do it. Well you do not do it by refusing to accept the deep seated, by now, beliefs and attachment of unionists to those who conquered their forefathers, (remember north east Antrim perspective),in order to preserve their position. we need to do it example and persuasion.

    The example must come from Dublin. They need to create a society that clearly show that the unionist will not be treated any different than the nationalist, That to me has largely happened and I believe that many unionists, especially the more educated unionists accept that. As an aside I believe that many unionists still have an “Irishness” that is represented in rugby and equine events. There iis still an aspect of belonging to Ireland that appeals.

    The persuasion has to come from both nationalists across the islands. What nationalists need to do is show that unionists really do not have anything to fear from us and that that there day to day activities and cultural pursuits will be treated with the same respect and reverence as nationalists ones. We need to be able to say that they will be able to preserve their cultural, religious and any other identity, and that those identities are as valid as ours, we need to be able to ensure that they suffer no unfair cultural bias. We need to show the orange on our flag means that they are equals in peace and prosperity with us. There can be no ambiguity about that.
    This do not mean that nationalists in any way have to compromise on their cultural identity. Instead we need to insist on it and only by taking our own cultural identity seriously can we convince anyone that we shall take theirs equally seriously. This is a different mindset as to what has went before – it is not dominance or a Kulturkampf. It is treating people seriously. We need to insist on issues such as an Irish Language Act is passed. We need to insist that Catholic schools get the same treatment, we need to insist that for the 12th there is a 15th. We also need to insist that a Protestant school gets support, we need to insist that union flags should be flown, we need to insist that the orange order get their place, we need to insist that the street names are reflective of the unionist and nationalist people. We need to insist that housing and such is a politically neutral issue. Once we show that we are serious in treating everyone fairly can the unionists trust increase and the objections to the border decrease.
    To me unionism has always been a triumphalist “stick it intae them” creed. That is why they need a border. We must make sure that we are not. It is not a zero sum game.

  • LiamÓhÉ

    It is no small thing that Unionists have come to accept, in the context of the greater interest, power-sharing with Sinn Féin and their primacy over areas of policy such as the education of NI’s children. This was noted in a piece by Gerry Moriarty today in the Irish Times. There is already much we can praise in terms of how far Unionists have come.

    As others have noted, part of the story of reconciling traditions by example. No matter how you look at it, much of the remaining antagonism is a legacy of sectarianism. As such, one thing that could be done more is for Protestants in the 26 counties to talk about life in the Republic of Ireland and inter-faith initiatives, whether it be joint services or social events in local churches.

    There are lots of healthy Christian congregations from the protestant tradition around the country, and outside of mass, you don’t really have occasion to talk about denominations because they are not important to everyday life. Yet, I wonder if there has ever been any outreach from protestants in the rest of Ireland on the evolution of the Free State / ROI and its bearings on a possible New Ireland? I mean substantial things, not just words on websites but actual meetings and tours and even documentaries.

  • Zig70

    After reading all this, at the third go, I still don’t know what the plan is? Where’s the road?

  • Greenflag 2

    Its all really very simple when push comes to shove . How can a British /British Irish/ Unionist Irish/ British Unionist / Loyalist British / or Ulster British /Scottish/Loyalist minority on this island fit into a United Ireland political entity .

    The simple answer is they can’t and the other simple answer is they can . The truthful answer is somewhere between both simple answers . Some will , some won’t –some will never accept a political UI .

    There won’t be any political shift from ‘unionism ‘ until such time as the demographics make it clearer than clear that the status quo is no longer tenable . To expect anything else is to expect a black swan event .

    As to Declan O’Loans

    ‘There is a responsibility on political leaders, and also on all of us.

    Mmmmmmmmmm well yes but you’d never think it in the middle of an ellection campaign in the Republic . I hear more about rotten banks and water charges than about any UI or NI issues . Most people just want NI to go away as an issue . Its old , stale and nothing good ever comes from it’s cantankerous, belligerent, and flag and parade obsessed inhabitants . That latter comment is of course a gross generalisation and unfair but yet it’s a perception of NI not just in the Republic but even in Finchley and Tunbridge Wells not to mention Edinburgh or Cardiff .

  • Greenflag 2

    Its the road to nowhere in ever decreasing spirals downward into a never ending cul de sac with the same amount of light to be seen at the bottom as you might see from listening to a Jehovah’s Witness or Televangelist for several hours 🙁

  • Greenflag 2

    “Many groups played their part in the violence of the last forty years, but it is asking a very great deal of unionists to place their trust in the political representatives of republicans who had a role of primacy and centrality in that violence, and have not yet come to recognise how wrong that campaign was.’

    With all due respect to Mr O’Loan this above piece from his quoted comment by soapbox shows a lack of knowledge of Irish political history which I suppose can be expected from those of a unionist background but not in those of Declan’s .

    10 years not 40 years after the Civil War in Ireland in 1923 the representatives of then ‘republicanism’ who ‘started ‘ the civil war were elected to government as FF . The previous Free State government did’nt like it but they accepted the democratic rights of the Irish people . De Valera never apologised for the Civil War but he did regret it ever happened . As for how wrong the campaign was ? I would instead ask why such a campaign was ever necessary and why it got the people’s support and why SF today get twice as many if not more votes than the SDLP ?

    Unionists don’t like it and neither does the SDLP and neither does FF or FG or Labour but SF get the votes from people who believe rightly or wrongly that the established political parties are going nowhere -not in Northern Ireland or the Republic or the UK or the USA .

    Simply put our established politicians have to get their heads out of their rear ends if they are not to become totally irrelevant to those sections of western society who don’t vote for them or who don’t vote at all or who have come to believe that our elected politicians are mere powerless and almost extinct bank tellers to the ‘banksters ‘ who rule the City of London , Wall St etc .

    Not that SF have all or any of the answers but they are asking the right questions which is a help as are some of our independents like Shane Ross among others .

  • Greenflag 2

    ” because they are not important to everyday life.’

    As a rule Protestants in the Republic just like Catholics and non religious people of all and no denominations prefer to make money rather than concern themselves with NI any more than they are forced to by ‘events’ in NI that impinge on Irish affairs . Why bang your head against stone walls when a bulldozer will do the job anyway in time ?

    The word ‘outreach ‘ was coined in NI if I’m not mistaken by a Unionist or SF politician . It has too much of a messianic or even a last straw drowning man clutching ring to it that is offputting for most people in the Republic . We have more than enough messiahs and it’s the ‘drowning effers’ own fault anyway would be the usual perception for voters.

  • Reader

    Croiteir: From my perspective, a north east Antrim one like Declan, I see the people across the sea in Scotland as much the people as me.
    Croiteir: The biggest obstacle to peace in Ireland is the border.
    You want a border between Antrim and Scotland instead?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “SF get the votes from people who believe rightly or wrongly that the established political parties are going nowhere”

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Lots that was good in there and thanks Declan for the thoughtful and measured piece. One major flaw of course though (apart from the claim unionists were not amenable to agreement, while the nationalists always were – hmmm – just not correct), which is:
    “John Hume pointed out that it is not the island that is divided, it is the people that are divided. This is a statement of utter simplicity and yet of profound depth. Anything which does not work towards uniting the people will be a failure, as it has been in the past.”
    There’s a big non-sequitur there. The first statement is correct of course – the people on the island are divided. It’s why we have an international border running through it and two nationalities. But the final sentence is a strangely negative assertion, which does not follow at all – that “anything which does not work towards uniting the people [of the island] will be a failure …” Why though? People want Northern Ireland to work as it is now, within the UK – why does Declan insist it has to be a “disaster”? Why not try and make it work?

    If you are determined for it to fail, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be careful though – your future united Ireland could equally fail on the same basis. If you want it to have a chance of working, you need to do your best to make the current choice of the people work. What goes around comes around.

    The people who need bringing together more are the people of Northern Ireland. There isn’t a problem in the Republic and there isn’t a problem on the British mainland. It’s us. So please, spend less time thinking about how to subsume the British on the island into a new Irish identity we don’t hugely want and more about how British, Irish and neither can live side by side, and accept each other’s different national identities in Northern Ireland so we can get on better. Seeking some ultimate “Ireland only” solution doesn’t actually help foster trust between the communities, it’s a source of much of the tension. The united Ireland aspiration is fine but it needs to be on the back burner now. It is not wanted in NI now or any time soon – that is the reality. The more it is treated as if it were a live issue, the more the Good Friday Agreement is undermined.

  • Greenflag 2

    25% of the British electorate voted for the Tories in the last election and slightly less than that for Labour . In the USA its the same with President’s being elected with about 25% of the electorate vote . IN Ireland FF and FG together can’t make 50% of the vote as per polls to date . In brief the established political parties in all of the above govern with 75% of the electorate voting against them or not bothering .

    Once upon a time the divine right of KIngs to rule was the status quo until more enlightened times arrived . Today the not so divine rule of the banksters is coming increasingly under fire and our established politicians are struck dumb . .Meanwhile the ‘angry ‘ voters are looking elsewhere for solutions having given up on the ‘established ‘ parties . How this will effect the Irish election or the USA Presidential remains to be seen but it’s not looking good for FG , Labour or FF or the establishment presidential candidates in the USA .

  • MainlandUlsterman

    to clarify, I’m not disputing that the traditional big parties have drifted into quite a dangerous disconnect with voters. Just that it’s relative – they may be in crisis but that doesn’t fully explain why anyone would do something as thoughtless and destructive as to vote for extremist ultra-nationalist parties like the BNP or SF, no matter how well they window-dress themselves. We all know who and what they are. So mainstream parties failing yes, but not *that* much. There are other less positive explanations for people turning to hardcore nationalism. There are deeper cultural problems that need to be addressed.

  • Greenflag 2

    I don’t regard SF as ultra nationalist I’d say more ultra republican , Unlike the BNP they do get a lot of votes in NI and now probably almost the same percentage in the Republic . I could regard the DUP as ultra British nationalist but that too would be not entirely accurate . SF are the party of disenchantment and alienation from the status quo in the Republic together with many independents . In NI the DUP is a bit like the old FF in the Republic a ‘catch all ‘ party at least of those those under the broad Unionist umbrella .So not quite Tory yet also not Labour -pig in the middle as it were which would be simple politics if it were not for the constitutional issue from which NI internal politics is unable to escape
    from and to which indeed it is condemned to for as long as it continues to exist in it’s present format..
    Wishing it were otherwise is to ignore history and political and economic reality .

    As to people voting /governing thoughtlessly ? It happens . In extremis it can lead to totalitarianism , revolution , war , civil war , public disorder and worse -i.e blood on the streets .

    Unionist governments in NI governed thoughtlessly decades and got away with it as a majority of unionist voters preferred that kind of government . Eventually it imploded due to the inherent contradictions which had built up over decades . Even now remnants of old style unionist thinking and attitudes continue to exist and surface occasionally to embarass the s*** out of dare I say it more ‘progressive unionists .

    The deeper cultural problems to which you may be referring are just a mask, a Potemkin village if you like behind which the very real economics of making NI work as a democracy are largely hidden or not debated by the ruling parties . Yes they have their ideological bases and political preferences for right or left or centre but which of them has actual answers to , and this is just a current example the Bombardier job losses? More public spending from SF more cuts from the DUP and from the rest largely silence .
    This is not just an NI phenomenon .

    Thoughtlessness comes from the top down as anybody who has studied the 2007/2008 financial meltdown would know . It would be good to know and think that our governments have taken the necessary steps and passed the legislation needed to prevent or minimise the chances of a recurrence .

    Sadly they haven’t . Dig out last weekend’s Wall St Journal and have a read of Charles Murray’s article on Trump’s America or Peggy Noonan’s opinion column on the upcoming election and take another look at NI politics or indeed the Republic’s or the UK’s through clear glass with some harsh truths for our ‘establishments ‘

    As to we all know ? We don’t . We hear the media refrain and respond to our like minded fellows with positive reenforcement of -it’s all nonsense let them eat cake . The way to the modern political guillotine is paved with ostrich feathers. As an elderly Jew in Nazi Germany once commented – he ( Hitler ) doesn’t really mean what he’s saying he’s not that crazy ! He did and he was , but it took 55 million dead for the point to be fully understood by thoughtless people and even thoughtless governments the world over .

    Take away the paraphernalia of flags , racism , and mass rallies and substitute them with corporate control of what’s left of democracy and it’s Weimar Republic time again except it’s now in the USA and coming soon to the UK 🙁 There may be time yet to avoid the worst but don’t expect the answers to come from either international finance or established politicians of the right or left .