I am a Northern Irish Protestant who has lived in Dublin for the past twenty five years. I am proud to be from the Protestant community and proud to be from Northern Ireland. But I have never been so proud to be part of a society, as I have been to be part of the Republic of Ireland in recent years. A society that voted, myself included, in favour of marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose.
I have a friend who is a teacher of history and religious education in a Catholic girl’s secondary school on the outskirts of Dublin. She teaches her pupils about partition and about how the Protestant people in the north of Ireland once feared that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule – and that they were right. In its early days, the Free State very quickly became a Catholic theocracy. Those days are gone. I now live in a modern, liberal society that respects people’s religious beliefs, but does not impose them. The Republic of Ireland has changed.
However, since the historic referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, little in Northern Ireland has changed. There is a lack of violence, but not peace. Twenty years on, two thirds of people say that most, if not all, of their friends are from their side of the religious divide.
In the twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland seems to have become more, rather than less, polarised. It was the centre ground, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, that brought the bulk of Northern Irish voters with them when brokering the Agreement. However, since then, outlooks have toughened. Communities that have been victims of violence and oppression have long, painful memories. Most now vote for parties that were viewed as hard-line twenty years ago, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. All other concerns seem to give way to the national question and the battle over who was right and who was wrong. Other issues are continually subsumed by an old fight between orange and green.
Northern Ireland needs change. If you believe in marriage equality, if you believe in a woman’s right to choose, if you believe in respect for the differing cultural identities on this island and if you believe in the European Union as a worthwhile project, there is a heck of a lot that we could be getting on with.
My preferred solution sounds simplistic and will certainly not be to everyone’s taste. But the sooner all of the ordinary, tolerant people living on all parts of this island work out how to live together, the better.
It is ultimately up to the people of Northern Ireland to decide their future, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. But why wouldn’t you try to get on with all of those that live on the island you share, rather than with the people that live on the island next door? My cultural identity is very different to someone who grew up playing sport in a Catholic school in Limerick. However, when it comes to cricket, hockey, rugby and many other sports, we all support the same team.
Let’s agree to disagree about the difficult stuff – history, language, flags and emblems. Agree not to rub each other’s noses in it, and agree to accommodate difference. Not everyone likes the rugby anthem, Ireland’s Call. But I love it for what it represents – respect for all of the people on all of the island of Ireland.
I know that a lot of people from my tradition in Northern Ireland will have difficulty with what I am saying, but the demographics are changing and people need to start thinking ahead.
The Oireachtas committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has appointed Senators Mark Daly and Gerard Craughwell to consult with unionists regarding their concerns about the prospect of a united Ireland. That is a good thing. But a lot more will need to be done.
The GAA is an organisation with community at its heart. It is great that Arlene Foster was invited to the Ulster Final, but what else could the GAA be doing to make Protestants from Northern Ireland feel included and welcome? This is the kind of thing people in Ireland need to start thinking about if we are ever going to be reconciled.
If we wait and do nothing it may take another twenty years, or maybe less, for the demographics in Northern Ireland to change. This may force Protestants and unionists into an all Ireland. If that is what happens, it will not be a day to celebrate. Anyone who knows anything about Northern Ireland should know that this will not turn out well.
Reconciliation, not just a lack of violence, needs to come about before then.
For some Protestants in Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland equals a Sinn Féin nightmare, and any kind of one Ireland political entity is victory to the IRA.
That is not true. Most people in the Republic of Ireland deplore the violence that was committed, on all sides, and understand that the Protestant community in Northern Ireland have their own sense of identity and their own outlook, past and present.
I was born in Northern Ireland. But there is going to be one Ireland. We will all need to feel included and welcome, British and Irish, and everyone in between.
Here’s another suggestion. It would be very helpful if Brexit was not fought out as a battle between orange and green. It could be both. Or neither.
If Northern Ireland were to remain part of the United Kingdom and part of the European Union, we could put an invisible border in the Irish sea, which the British government could ensure does not aversely affect Northern Ireland’s trade with its biggest market, the rest of the UK. Wouldn’t that have the potential to keep us working together in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement?
Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians could make a lot of friends by respecting and accommodating the wishes of the majority of people living in Northern Ireland who do not want to leave the EU. They would also be making friends in the Republic of Ireland, the rest of the UK and the EU, by making Brexit a whole lot easier for everyone else. All of the people of Northern Ireland could enjoy the advantages, whatever they are, of being both outside and inside the EU.
It’s not something that the people had the option to vote for, but maybe, just this once, that could be a welcome change.
Robert Taylor is a screenwriter and playwright from Northern Ireland, living in Dublin.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.