This Saturday I attended an event organized by representatives from the Irish News and Slugger O’Toole which took place in Killough Youth and Community Hall titled, ‘Six into 32? Finding a place for Northern Ireland in a United Ireland’. This was apparently part of the Killough ‘Lighthouse Summer School’ but with blustery winds outside and a rough sea pelting the nearby coast it felt decidedly autumnal.
I had initially deliberated over whether or not to go- “What if it’s all hardline political types in the audience and I end up in a photo alongside them?” being one of my concerns. In the end though, curiosity had its way and so I set out with an open mind.
Well, let’s stop there because that’s not really true is it? Being born and bred in Northern Ireland means that very few of us start out with an open mind when approaching any political discourse. The tribal moulds of our families, communities and segregated school system have seen to that. A more accurate description would be that I set out trying to maintain an open mind.
At this point I would like to state that I am not writing this as someone who is trained in political science or journalism, but simply as a citizen. I also do not intend to produce an in-depth analysis of the discussion or comb over the finer details; I’ll leave that to the experts. Instead, I offer only my thoughts and opinions on some of today’s talking points.
Firstly, due to the make-up of the panel (i.e. No actual representatives from a Unionist party) this wasn’t so much a debate about Irish Unity but more a debate about the best way of achieving Irish unity. Maybe I didn’t read the title closely enough or maybe this was never meant to be a cross-community debate. The only pro-union sentiment from the panel came from the Alliance representative, Kellie Armstrong. The Strangford MLA argued that Irish unity would be disastrous from an economic perspective. A position which was inevitably challenged by Sinn Fein MP for South Down, Chris Hazzard and some members of the audience.
It was at this point that a problem became apparent. With the mention of the economy, GDP, the cost of the health service (North and South), road conditions and the flippant use of figures in “billions’’ I switched off. I was suddenly overwhelmed by memories of watching endless Question Time debates on the lead up to Brexit. These debates featured lots of facts and figures (including the infamous £350m per week for the NHS) but arguably lacked any actual truths. Anyone can throw out figures that suit his or her argument during the debate. The problem with this, however, is that these figures can’t be checked at the time, requiring some research and data mining after the event. By then, however, it’s too late. People haven’t time to wait for the pedantic ‘fact-checkers’ to unearth the contextualized sources from the previous night’s debate and so the truth becomes merged with the alternative (the untruth, I guess).
The problem is that I, like the majority of the electorate, am an average person and we just don’t have the time or patience to pour over economic graphs and forecasts. We rely on people we can trust to tell us the facts. And that’s one of the issues- who can you trust? This is especially an issue in Northern Ireland. Are we not just getting to a point where we have built a fragile peace based on trust? A comment about crocodiles and a few dodgy boilers seem to be enough to leave us without a devolved government for the best part of a year (Stalemate ongoing). How could we ever deal with the inevitable hurricane of ‘alternative facts’ that will come with an Irish Unity debate? I don’t think we could handle it. Not least because Stephen Nolan will be in the middle of it all, refereeing the inevitable fracas from one week to the next. It would be a long few years of drudging up past grievances, at best, and could potentially provoke a resurgence in political violence, at the very worst.
Going back to the debate this weekend and there was some, all to familiar, political back and forth between Nicola Mallon, the SDLP Deputy Leader, and Hazzard. Mallon made some salient points urging caution in not alienating the unionist community and risk of violence but conceded that the SDLP had always been for a United Ireland. It was hard to follow the nitpicking between the two parties but basically as far I can see they’re both Irish Nationalists (One regular, one decaff). Cue the man from the back heckling for the SDLP to just get with the program and join forces with SF. There was then, in my opinion, a systematic ganging up on the Fianna Fail TD from Louth, Declan Breathnach, by some in the audience. Names of Irish politicians from present day back to Parnell and historic dates were bandied around and yet again I switched off. I didn’t follow the perceived grievances and even more, I didn’t care. It seemed almost pathetic at times. I watched men getting angry about “assimilation” with the British, abstentionism and basically mansplaining the minutiae of history to one and other.
This takes me to my main observation from today’s debate and the reason why I felt compelled to write this piece. During the debate there was an obvious element of posturing, anger and hyper-masculinity evident. Men were saying that they “know” a United Ireland is the best thing and it’s just a matter of how to achieve it that needs discussed. There was little debate about whether or not it was the morally right thing to aim for. I think this is the Nationalistic spirit that Orwell criticised in his 1947 essay, Notes on Nationalism:
Nationalism… is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality… placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.
When I stated earlier that I went to this debate trying to keep an open mind I meant that I already had a problem with Nationalism. This debate didn’t change my mind. Nationalism in the Orwellian sense is the reason we have had problems in this country and why we are at a political crisis. Both Irish Nationalism and Ulster Unionism are two sides of this same coin. We’re certainly not going to solve Northern Ireland’s problems overnight, however I think that we should start by reflecting on the inner nationalist in all our psyches.
In the not-so-distant future the world is going to have to come together to deal with increasing population displacements due to over-population, food shortages and climate change. We will need to lift our heads out of the turf and see the bigger picture. There are issues we can only solve as a collective humanity and recent events such as Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of the far right in Europe point to a dangerous lurch back to the inward looking ways of the past. Is it not time at last to aim for a more inclusive, multicultural society and to let go of Nationalism?
Northern Irish citizen