I was well into Ivan Gibbons’ concise and lucid primer Partition: How and why Ireland was Divided when Mark Devenport’s excellent Spotlight special A Contested Centenary was broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland. Both made me sit up and ask myself a simple question.
If you take the politics out of our current volatile situation, what do people actually know about one another on this island of Ireland, a hundred years after the foundation of both states. And I don’t mean ‘big’ themes like religion, or the Irish language, or sport, or the provocation of contrasting/conflicting national symbols and emblems.
I mean much simpler matters altogether. About, for instance, how things are done, about the quality of life; differences, that is, not of opinion or belief but of what could be called civic expectations and assumptions; about how things should be organised, locally; about how we say things and what we mean when we don’t.
About the way communities, and individuals, are treated in public spaces and how social or legal interfaces are negotiated differently between both parts of the island. Indeed, about how public spaces are in themselves treated and services from health and education, refuse collection to recreation differ north to south – or, east to west, for that matter.
And then it struck me that the increasingly strained and unenlightening rhetoric around the politics of unification seem to float free of these realities of everyday life as the latter evaporate into stereotype and cliché, sentiment and ignorance, and alas, prejudice and bigotry. And here’s another thing.
Is there any common report we can share on the achievements of the political parties whose role in our public lives is going to get very much more central as both states head into sorting out the post-pandemic, post-Brexit world that lies ahead.
How has Sinn Fein fared as a democratic provider of employment, investment opportunities and social services in Northern Ireland: it mightn’t be a bad idea to know as they move towards government in the Republic.
We know for instance that the DUP made a right hames of the ‘Cash for Ash’ business but it looks like Minister Swann (UUP) has handled a really dire life-or-death human crisis with dignity and effort. But then neither he nor his party will be involved in elections ‘down here’.
Or spinning the wheel in another direction – do folks in the north have any idea about the kind of taxes which we pay here for almost no return?
Charges on house property, for instance, or the Universal Social Charge (USC), a nasty hangover from the great economic collapse. When you pay rates in Belfast you actually get things back in return like refuse collection, clean streets, and so on and so on. Not so here. We pay for all that separately.
The nature of ‘southern’ Ireland underwent hugely positive civil rights transformations over the last two decades, particularly in regard to gender and legal rights, but I’m not sure how much of this has really registered across the religious divide in the wider Northern society.
Or, looking on the dark side, is there a sufficient recognition of the violence which remains such an integral part of Irish society based around criminal gangs not just in Dublin but in other towns and cities across the state. And a tragic drug problem among the young that the state seems incapable of resolving.
Health care is two-tracked with a burgeoning private sector that is funded through private insurance and a public service, over-stretched long before the current crisis, and perennially underfunded.
Almost fifty years of living in the west and east of the country long upset the dubious and dreamy notions I had of ‘Ireland’ as a twenty-two-year old leaving Belfast in 1974. And the reciprocal uncertainty all those years ago when, for example, in public moments, my protestant background morphed into being from ‘the unionist tradition’. I learned to bear it and not bore people with ‘Actually it’s more complicated than that’. No damage done; no hurt meant. Generally speaking.
So as we start to emerge blinking with the light from our Covid cave-life I’m wondering how are we going to handle the business, not of re-unification and the jagged static around that, but when and how do we start to show an interest in how others live on this increasingly multicultural island to the west of Britain and what the next decade will need as the Decade of Centenaries disappears in the wing-mirror.
Novelist Glenn Patterson’s dramatic and authoritative recent radio programme ‘The Northern Bank Job’ demonstrated there is a fair bit of truth-telling to be done. While Ivan Gibbons’ smart resumé of the history of division shows all too clearly, it looks like there’s a fair bit of re-evaluation needed, too, if we’re ever going to get on and build a decent society for all who want to live here at peace with one another.
‘Currently there is little evidence’, remarks Gibbons ‘to suggest that the Irish border will disappear with the same alacrity that the German border did in 1990; and, indeed, after thirty years of a united Germany the mental and psychological border between east and west remains’.
He then builds his argument into the kind of conclusiveness that those driven primarily by exclusively ideological agendas just don’t want to hear:
The Irish border has been in existence for a century – more than twice the length of time the German border existed. In addition, it was not imposed peremptorily from outside, against the wishes of a unified nation, as was the case in Germany.
The appearance of a partitioned Ireland in 1921 reflected centuries of cultural, ethnic and religious differences, and it would be unrealistic to expect that if partition were removed the same psychological separateness would not continue to be experienced between the two parts of Ireland for decades to come.
The significance, as well as the psychological impact of the border, should not be underestimated; it symbolised certainty and security for the unionist majority within.
Gibbons then delivers a fairly unchallengeable and frank assessment of where things stand at present:
However, because of this majority’s inability and unwillingness to welcome their nationalist neighbours as equal citizens, the same border became a symbol of discrimination and a constant reminder to nationalists of their second-class status.
Paradoxically, it was by benefitting from the advanced social and educational standards of the British welfare state as extended to Northern Ireland that the nationalist population came to no longer tolerate this status….
The concept of equality that emerged then (known as ‘parity of esteem’) became, thirty years later, the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement’.
Now, almost twenty-five years since that ‘cornerstone’ was laid, after so much death and destruction in the preceding generations, those in positions of political and community leadership today need to watch their language and recall the varied and conflicting reasons why the border, which was viewed as a temporary solution, has re-emerged to haunt us all.
Ivan Gibbons Partition: How and Why Ireland was Divided is published by Haus Publishing.
A City Imagined, the third and final part of Gerald Dawe’s memoir Northern Chronicles will be published by Merrion Press later this year.
Gerald Dawe is a Belfast-born poet. He was professor of English and fellow of Trinity College Dublin until his retirement in 2017. He has published twenty collections of poetry and literary criticism, including most recently, The Last Peacock and The Sound of the Shuttle: Essays on Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland.