I like the idea of the conversation. I’ve always found conversations very useful. Arguments are too heated, always driven by aggression, and even debates always seem poised in an uncomfortable, adversarial way. But the conversation is good. A conversation is calm and much more likely to be geared toward understanding.
It was mid-morning in a nice bar in Northumberland Road, Dublin. My friend was across the road in Dublin and Wicklow’s Orange Hall. I’d been in there earlier and absolutely loved it, as any Loyalist anorak would. But the meeting was about to commence and as I wasn’t an Orangeman, I’d excused myself to spare my new friends the discomfort of having to ask me to leave. It was a frustrating couple of hours, as due to a trapped nerve my right arm was in a state of constant pain, causing me to munch paracetamol and anti-inflammatory tablets as frequently as the directions written on the packaging would allow. I was working on a speech I intended to give at Ireland’s first Trans Pride event, and after some time was still staring at an empty page. I put that down to the throbbing wing. God it hurt. So, my mind wandered to my first visit to the little protestant hall across the street, as this was the second. The first time I ever saw it I noticed first the horrible “FTQ” which had been carved into the front sign.
I believe it is an acronym for f**k the queen.
I recalled thinking how I could have spent hours inside the hall. It was decked out with the memories of many generations. Photographs, artefacts and historic flags – most prominently the red and white solitaire of St Patrick. I don’t recall seeing any union flags. This was the first time I tapped into a very proud, warm brand of Irish Loyalism. Every one of the members (all but one of whom didn’t know me from Adam) treated me like a cherished relative who was visiting from up north. They offered me tea, biscuits, and each – having perhaps picked up on my interest – seemed keener than the last to present their favourite parts of the hall, from the huge, very historic looking bible to the roll of honour which humbly marked the military service of their parents and grand-parents through the two world wars.
And it was an historic event that day too. It would be only the second time that the Sherwood Foresters, the regiment of young British soldiers who suffered atrocious losses during the 1916 rebellion, would be honoured with a poppy wreath, laid in their memory. This poppy wreath would be laid at Mount Street Bridge by the Dublin and Wicklow Orange lodge. I really felt honoured to have been invited.
The gathering of Irish Loyalists walked the short stroll from the protestant hall to the bridge. As we made our way toward the bridge, Dublin continued past us, going about its business, not caring one jot about the squad of folk all but one of whom wore an orange collarette. That was until one gentleman who was wearing a Viking helmet and steering a bicycle driven beer-bus full of tourists pumped a closed fist salute. “Lads!” We glanced round. “No Surrender!” A bit of good-natured craic rather than mockery. Several of the Orangemen in turn read passages from the bible as another laid the wreath. Another then read a poem. Then a prayer was said. It was a calm experience. My overwhelming feeling at the time was how glad I was that this acknowledgement was happening.
So, I’m in the bar as my friend is across the road in his lodge meeting and another piece of history breaks. The referendum result has been declared for the ‘yes’ campaign. Ireland’s abortion laws are to be liberalised. The count centre (well, one of them) had been only streets away from where I sat. I’d have gone to stick my neb in, but I was busy popping pain relief and cursing writer’s block. It was a nice May morning and at that stage of the day I was the only person in the bar where I sat nursing my third coffee.
Chris finished up with his meeting and joined me. He noticed my empty page and suggested I start by quoting someone I admired. He took me to meet his family. We then embarked upon an inevitable tour of Dublin’s social establishments. We walked past a grim old building which looked condemned but turned out to be the Irish Government’s Department of Health.
In Fade Street, we really saw the swell of the Repeal celebrations. The streets thronged with political Tee-shirts, pints of cider, activism and hugs as all the seats inside the bars were occupied. Irish women smiled and every one of them appeared ten feet tall.
But there would soon be somewhat of a handover. This was also the evening of the Champions League final. Real Madrid were playing Liverpool. Glentoran didn’t make the Champions league final this year, but it was still a game I was looking forward to watching. Chris would accompany me to meet another couple of friends of mine. Sven and Christina had lived in Dublin for several years. He is a German and she is from Dundonald. They had set up home in Sutton, to the North side of Dublin. They met whilst they were both back-packing in Australia. Christina was a school friend of my wife’s and would be her maid of Honour at our wedding. We met later that evening in another part of Dublin and – given that I don’t know Dublin very well at all – it felt somewhat as if Chris had finished his babysitting shift as Sven and Christina had clocked in. A packed bar mostly mourned Liverpool’s defeat, whereas I ordered another Guinness, enjoying the evening.
Christina and Sven assumed full stewardship of the nordie mate and his overnight bag of anti-inflammatorys, paracetamol, and fresh underwear. A bar crawl ensued and at one stage I may have discussed David Ervine with a man from Newry. I’m not sure where in Dublin we where by this stage, but the cost of the Guinness had spiked, and the guy from Newry had given me several man-hugs.
It was a fantastic day for a whole host of reasons. But still my thoughts will return to the person who vandalised the protestant hall. I’d love to have a conversation with him (or her). Not an argument, not a row, not even a debate, but a conversation. With coffee and biscuits. In that wee bar across from the hall. I’d like to start the conversation with a handshake and end it with a hug.
I’d tell the person that I understand what it feels like to distrust another group of people, but that it makes your life crap.
I’d tell the person that the more confident I have become in my Unionism the more comfortable I have become in my Irish identity. I’d explain that I grew up in East Belfast and being a home-bird I still live and work there. I grew up snapping sharply at any inference that I was Irish, a behaviour I took wholesale from my dad. A sad consequence of the conflict, I guess. Irishness during my childhood – to me – was not a bunch of new-found friends in Northumberland Road, it was the terrorist bombing campaign of the IRA. The news reports, and pictures of entire communities in tears. Irishness didn’t belong to me, and if the people who bombed the Shankill Road were doing so in its name, you could keep it. It was binary. It wasn’t until much later that another unionist impressed upon me that if the pro-union community here reject their Irish identity, they are making the tragic mistake of surrendering it entirely to anti-British elements to claim and fashion for themselves. But that’s what I thought back then. You could be British, or Irish and that was that. One of us, or one of them.
Of course, one irony is that this also did a great disservice to what I now appreciate as Britishness. To be British is to be who you are. It is freedom. It is to be part of a Kingdom of multiple nations, countless identities with virtually every religious faith-group represented. It is to be part of an old democracy which conscripts no-one into any jagged form of nationalism. A proud Scotswoman is just that. To be Pakistani-British is something to celebrate. To be British-born yet identify with the culture of your Jamaican grand-parents is to add to our kingdom’s cultural richness. You can be Irish, Northern Irish, and British all at the same time. It’s that free. You can embrace Britishness overtly, or you can avail of the freedom not to. As much as I love that there exists the freedom not to, part of me will always be five years old, and on my dad’s shoulders waving a little union flag. We did this. The IRA couldn’t stop us.
I’d tell this person that I’m not going to apologise for continuing to support Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom, because I like it when different peoples live in Union. I’d tell the person that my family includes loved ones in other parts of the UK and so for Northern Ireland to be part of that family feels more than right. I would tell this person that the friendship and experiences shared with my friends in the Irish Republic continue to happen today with no feeling of disunity whatsoever.
I hope whoever carved the sectarian slur onto the sign at the front of the hall happens across the wreath. I hope they read the brief message of remembrance. Such a person could do with standing at such a place on a calm day, allowing his/her eyes to fall upon the gleaming ripples of the water, and investing in a few moments of reflection. I hope that occurs, and that that person then has a good life. Sure, that’s what I want for us all.
Progressive Unionist, worker, Ervinian Loyalist, BA (Hons).