As the clamour increases for the rolling of heads, even from those who find themselves within the proverbial glasshouse, it’s important to see what can be salvaged from the mess which is rapidly escalating on the Hill of Stormont. The disintegration is underlined by the bellicose line from Arlene Foster who is trying to distract attention from her own mishandling of the RHI scheme and, in particular, the latest fall out, with bogus claims of ‘misogyny’ and a rather feeble attempt to turn it into a sectarian shamfight with talk of ‘not rolling’ over to Sinn Féin. She also claimed rather crassly that Sinn Féin was in ‘turmoil’ as Martin McGuinness was unwell.
“For Sinn Fein this is all about more than RHI. 2016 was a very good year for us in the DUP. We made good ministerial appointments and are in a good position as regards unionism. I believe Sinn Fein is not in a good position. They seem to be in inner turmoil. The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is not well and there seems to be some jockeying for position internally.
“They think this is an opportunity to weaken unionism, but speaking to ordinary unionists across the province they tell me we are the party that speaks for them.”
For all that, she doesn’t appear to see the irony of talking about the turmoil of others as, first, the colleague who was first to sign her nomination papers for the post of DUP leader voices his disquiet and now what would appear to lay (non DUP) observers like myself is that the DUP is beginning to fray. If SF is in turmoil, this is a lifeline to them. The best case scenario is that the DUP has company in turmoil.
As an Irish speaker, I see this unravelling as a potential opportunity for many like myself. For as sure as there is a crisis, there will have to be a resolution. The resolution may not be any better than the current coalition but in the negotiation Irish speakers will no longer be happy or satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the table – like the necessary return of the €50,000 pick-pocketed cynically from the Líofa scheme – but the full package promised in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, a comprehensive and practically beneficial (rather than merely symbolic) Irish Language Act and a strategy to support the language’s use in public life in the north.
No longer will I – and I believe many others of the North’s increasing number of Irish speakers – be content with what appears to be the ‘Mair a chapall agus gheobhair féar/Live horse get grass!’ approach of at least one governing party and the ‘Curry My Yoghurt ‘ disdain and contempt of the other.
The situation of Irish speakers typifies that of many groups and sectors who overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement and happily welcomed the St Andrew’s accord on the understanding that things would get better for all. A rising tide did lift all boats for a brief spell back at the time when hope and history did momentarily rhyme but the good will it generated quickly dissipated. This has been converted to suspicion, cynicism and outright contempt by the latest series of scandals – NAMA/Project Eagle, SIF and, now, RHI, where it appears some preferred clients, cronies and donors(?) were getting their troughs filled with milk and honey whilst others were being told to make do with gruel.
If the DUP and other unionist parties are genuine about making Northern Ireland a better place for all they should cast away their anti-Irish mindset and aim to accommodate those of us who want to live an ‘Irish’ life – Saol Trí Ghaeilge Atá Uainn – as much as possible, attending GAA matches, following the Republic of Ireland footballers or the Ireland rugby players, listening to Irish music, speaking the Irish language, viewing RTE etc. There’s much more to it than that – but they’re the headlines. It’s perfectly harmless. We don’t want to go around waving tricolours all the hours of the day and night and have absolutely no interest in armed rebellion.
The corollary of that is that Sinn Féin and all nationalists need to advocate for a United Ireland which makes economic, cultural and political sense to all on this island. The unionist identity/tradition can be celebrated – we can live together. If their primary loyalty is to the British Royal Family – it’s not my business. If someone interferes with that, however, I will not stand idly by. I will defend their right to express their cultural/political identity because I would expect the same of them if I were threatened. The arguments for a United Ireland have not been made well enough yet – and I believe in a United Ireland. If there’s any lesson we need to learn from the debacle of Brexit it is that we need to define what we actually want before we dream of voting for it.
Andy Pollak had an interesting article on this very topic in the Belfast Telegraph recently in which he argued that nationalists should treat Northern Ireland as an equally legitimate sister state.
That last phrase caught my eye. Why shouldn’t we in the Republic start treating our fellow Irish people in the north as citizens of a legitimate and equal “sister state”?
After all, this is not the bigoted, discriminatory Orange statelet of 50 years ago. It is a modern region, with a power-sharing Government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence at all levels of society and the economy. Its smartest political leaders are nationalists, as are some of its top civil society and business leaders. Its health and education systems are in many ways superior to ours in the Republic.
As long as the unionist political establishment continues to treat the Irish identity in the north as something unfortunate it walks into now and again, progress towards Pollak’s ideal is not likely to be made. His option is not my preferred option but it’s an interesting and essential point to base a discussion around. How are unionists going to be treated in a United Ireland – will they feel they have any stake in working towards its success? If we can’t convince them that the answer to those questions should be positive and yes, we’re going nowhere either.
When I moved to Belfast first back in 1996, I cottoned on quickly that ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ had no real meaning beyond being useful labels to put on people who had no meaningful religious affiliation. The same is becoming increasingly true for me in terms of my national identity. What does Irishness mean to me?
I stated it above. It’s the culture, language, media I consume and express. It’s less about flags and symbols and borders than ever it was. In his article Andy Pollak quotes playwright Sian Ní Mhuirí:
I would suggest that there is one. In October, I read an Irish Times article by the young playwright Sian Ni Mhuiri, in which she wrote: “I’m not nationalistic, but Ireland is my home and I love the communities here. ‘Irishness’ has little meaning in itself; it has value when people who are sharing this island come together and build communities that tackle the problems we have and create a more inclusive, fair and equitable place for everyone in the Republic and our sister state of Northern Ireland.”
That says it well enough for me with a few already expressed caveats. I’d like to be part of an inclusive, fair and equitable United Ireland. I’d like to be part of an Ireland where people come together and build communities that tackle problems, rather than build walls which divide communities.
That brings me to what Leonard Cohen wrote in a song:
There’s a crack in everything,
It’s how the light gets in
And how the heat gets out.