As the John Hewitt gets under way today, the summer school season had already been launched in Glenties. I spent a few days in the area the previous week so I missed out on this year’s Magill summer school which was as usual these days, highly political. On Brexit you can have too much of a good thing especially when Narin strand and Nancy’s bar down the road in Ardara are beckoning. The School will publish speakers’ papers shortly but the Irish Times covered the sessions pretty well.
My impressions of establishment Irish opinion on Brexit are those of abiding and unrelieved frustration with the UK over the whole idea and pessimism over the outcome, combined with a sense of near- impotence as Irish interests are in the hands of the Commission, as expressed by former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes and others. For the sake of balance and an opportunity for dialogue, the conference organisers might have cast an English Brexiteer such as former NI secretary Owen Paterson and an leading academic like Anand Menon of UK in a Changing Europe, to give a closer critique of the evolving British position.
On the Stormont stand-off, voices were united in putting pressure on Sinn Fein, apart of course from the two SF speakers . I didn’t notice any contribution from Fianna Fail, although the latest FF position will give SF little cause for comfort.
The consensual southern position was summed up magisterially by the ex- head of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Sean Donlon said Sinn Féin’s refusal to take its seven seats at Westminster was based on “impenetrably obscurantist and unintelligible” arguments.
Mr Donlon said that Sinn Féin has a “strong mandate and they can afford to be both brave and generous”. He said the party’s refusal to take its seats was based on an “obscure philosophical objection”.
This is their moment and I hope they use it.
Mr Donlon referred to how former SDLP leader, the late Gerry Fitt, succeeded as MP for West Belfast in “getting Northern Ireland back on the Westminster agenda” and of the role of former SDLP deputy first minister Seamus Mallon in advocating the interests of nationalists.
He added that abstentionism was not serving the interests of Northern Ireland and was “doing nothing to unlock unionist” opposition to a united Ireland. “Take your seats at Westminster,” Mr Donlon urged Sinn Féin.
He also said the party should tone down its commemoration of dead IRA members, repeating that such displays did not assist in unlocking unionist opposition to a united Ireland.
“Not all of us want to be reminded of the atrocities of 30 years of troubles. And if that is our view as nationalists how do you think unionists and other victims of the Troubles must feel when they see these commemorations and hear senior Sinn Féin people speak as they speak,” he said.
Mr Donlon also was critical of Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald, describing the current period as the “endgame” for partition. “Does she ever stop to think about unionist consent?” he asked.
“Harping on about the end of partition without any reference to consent…does not help to unlock unionists,” he said.
Mr Donlon also referred to the notion of unification “happening by numbers” which he said was “neither desirable nor is it achievable”.
“There is no attraction and no prospect, Brexit or otherwise, of unity without consent. Numbers ultimately will not decide the issue.”
Mr Donlon further called on Sinn Féin not to “weaponise” the Irish language. He said brought up in an Irish speaking household he shared the party’s commitment to Irish but added that “compulsion and legislation was not a total success in our jurisdiction.
“In the Northern Ireland context nothing is more important than the healing of the divisions. That is something that cannot happen without Sinn Féin taking a huge jump and putting flesh on Gerry Adams’s fine words. Sinn Féin is needed at Westminster and is needed in a devolved government in Northern Ireland. The time is now.
Dáithí Ó Ceallaigh, former ambassador to London, said he feared for the future in relation to the political stalemate in Northern Ireland. “The two communities are much further apart than they have been for many years,” he said.
He lamented the absence of leadership from the likes of Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the “sort of people who would reach out to other community” over the past 10 years.
There was a sharp contrast on the possible prospects for unity as a result of Brexit between Sinn Fein and the SDLP
“Just as Brexit quickly entered into our vocabulary today, it’s not beyond all probability to believe that, at its ultimate conclusion and as the term slowly begins to fade from popular usage, this demise will coincide with the emergence of a new language.
“A language which seeks to tear down the Border, to build bridges, not walls: a language of hope rather than one of fear,
Whereas from SDLP leader Colum Eastwood… “ Brexit is one of the most serious issues to confront this island since partition, yet the absence of our institutions means that we have been left voiceless,” he added.
Mr Eastwood said Ireland must remain immovable on the “bottom line” demand that there can be no hardening of the Border in Ireland. “The job ahead is to ensure that distant memories do not become new realities.”
“In truth, the main effect of the imposition of a hardened Border in Ireland would rip up and rip apart what has become the familiar pattern of life from Derry to Dundalk,” he said.
“It would bring a shuddering halt to the familiar, which we have all been living with since the beginning days of the peace process/2
The sole unionist speaker at Magill, Edwin Poots of the DUP made a constructive contribution which I find difficult to disagree with:
“There is little doubt that the personal willingness of someone like Martin McGuinness to seek that agreement played a very positive role on many occasions,” he said.
“The theory that we may not be in the political difficulties that are currently being experienced had Martin McGuinness still been present is one that has been put forward by a number of people, including my former party leader Peter Robinson, ” Mr Poots added. “It is not a theory that I find myself able to disagree very substantially with.
Mr Poots said that he was “personally fed up” at hearing the DUP parodied as being opposed to other cultures just because it says that its priorities at this time should be health, education, jobs and Brexit.
“Such criticism is especially irritating when it emanates from the mouths of members of a political party which means ‘Ourselves Alone’ and is utterly lacking in any understanding of what is at the ideological core of Protestants and unionists in Northern Ireland.”
n the Irish language, the main issue holding up agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin, Mr Poots said that in Co Donegal, unlike in Northern Ireland, the language was not politicised.
“Donegal is a county where the Irish language is very much alive. In this part of the world the Irish language is everything it ought to be. It isn’t threatening. It isn’t politicised. It isn’t used to exclude others. And it isn’t used as a weapon in a cultural war. It’s just a natural, normal part of everyday life.”
Mr Poots said that “anyone who speaks and loves the Irish language is as much a part of Northern Ireland life as a collaret-wearing Orangeman”.
“I want them to feel at home and feel respected and part of society,” he added. “What my party opposes is the introduction of Irish-language legislation that is more about developing a sense of national identity than it is about supporting the language itself.”
Concluding his speech, Mr Poots quoted an Irish proverb, “Maireann an chraobh ar an bhfál ach ní mhaireann an lámh do chuir,” or “the branch lives on the hedge though the hand that planted it be dead”.
“It’s an old Irish saying reminding us of our mortality and that our actions today will live long after we are gone. May we work together both north-south and east-west to ensure the best for all these British Isles,” he said.
Gaeltacht minister and Donegal Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh who shared a platform with DUP Assembly member Edwin Poots, said the Irish language which , one of the key issues holding up restoration of the Northern Executive, was not a threat.
“The sooner the institutions in Northern Ireland are re-instated, the better for everyone on this island. Relationship-building continues across a wide variety of areas but we need to continue it on the political front too,” he said.
“I know our Government position is that an Irish language act in Northern Ireland should be introduced. It was agreed at the St Andrew’s talks a decade ago,” he said.
It is not a political weapon and it should not be used as one. It is the same for Ulster-Scots. The Ulster-Scots Agency has an office in this constituency in Raphoe to further promote that part of our shared heritage, particularly here in Ulster.
“I’d be happy as Minister for the Irish language in this jurisdiction to meet and talk with any unionists who have any concerns about the Irish language and reassure them that people like me who have learned to love the language have no intention of doing anything other than speak it and share it with those who want to share in it.”
Mr McHugh said the Government managed to persuade the EU of Ireland’s unique circumstances in the Brexit process.
“I want to make it absolutely clear that the priority for me as a TD for Donegal and as someone who sits at the Cabinet table as Government chief whip, that we must protect the peace process. I am very, very conscious that it remains a peace process and that we have to continue to nurture it and ensure we never go back,” he said.
“I want the invisible border to remain. Furthermore I do not want an economic or physical border, and with my colleagues we are working for the retention of the common travel area and the closest possible trading relationship to continue between North and South and between east and west across the Irish Sea,” added Mr McHugh.
How any of this translates into firm proposals overt the next few weeks remains to be seen. The Magill speeches gave us no real clues.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London