Reading David McCann’s Slugger article reporting on Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael Ard Fheis speech that sets out his vision of what Irish unity could be, I was saddened to read a comment from the_swerve: “Fundamentally, people here want to feel wanted”. To the_swerve, I would say: you are wanted, all of you. There is a great desire among many southern Irish people to actualise their belief in the essential fraternity of sharing this island together. The vast majority of southern Irish people – I write from Dundalk – regard themselves as 32-county Irish, and that actually imposes a strong fraternal sense of caring for our fellow Irish people in Northern Ireland. This ‘islandic’ fellow-feeling, for most people, has no interest in monoculture or ethnic triumphalism.
But sometimes we don’t know how to start caring in a way that makes a positive difference to your lives. Or we know but we are afraid that our hand of friendship will be gnawed to the bone by the rotweilers of hate and fear on both sides, ‘minds open as a trap’ in Séamus Heaney’s memorable phrase. Sometimes it seems to us that conflictual identity politics must be so mightily addictive that it is impossible to get off the misery-go-round.
Having lived in the North for most of the nineties, I have met many – of many backgrounds – whose deep knowledge of the subtleties and minutely-filigreed riches of Ulster’s contribution to Irish and British culture is at a level unknown by many in the South, who fail to appreciate that their Irishness is mere simulacrum. Southern Irishness is part of this island story, but 100 years pales into insignificance in our 10,000 year-old history since the icy wastes began their recession towards the North Pole. Northern Irishness is also an equally valid part of this story. An Irishness unsuffocated by fear and borders does not threaten or deprive anyone. The more we embrace the totality of cultures on this island, the more the irridentism and exclusivism of narrow nationalities seem absurd. Who, be they nationalist or unionist, gazing northwards from Knocklayd near Ballycastle, could fail to be moved at the view of the mountains of Arran and Ben Cruachan? And who, sitting on top of the Maamturks and picking out the Aran Islands and Cruachan Aí in north Roscommon, could fail to realise that these islands are a geographic and cultural continuum?
Yeah, right. All very well to sit on a hill and rhapsodise about ‘the mist that do be on the bogs’. Where does it get us? We still have to fix the mess: the legal and political structures on both parts of this island that make us mistrustful of each other. Maybe the Grand Unified Theories of QED political solutions are always doomed to fail. Their scale is too vast and inhuman. The journey of a thousand miles really does begin with one step.
So what small steps can we southerners do to make you feel wanted? Voltaire put it well: “il faut cultiver notre Jardin”: we must cultivate our garden. We must make small things more beautiful than they have been, and do it for its own sake. A good place to start would be with the Preamble to the 1937 Constitution.
The preamble communicates the purpose of the Irish constitution. It embodies the spirit that underlines the letter of the articles of constitution. It is an introduction; it is not the law. Some preambles express noble sentiments: see the South African preamble; some, like the Irish one, do not.
In 1937, the preamble to de Valera’s constitution chimed perfectly with the Catholic irridentist ideology that suffused the articles at that time. Yet our constitution is a living breathing document that has been amended 38 times, ten times alone in the past ten years. The removal of the special position of the Catholic church, the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 to a non-irredentist wording, and the sea-change in public sentiment regarding Catholic social teaching: these huge changes mean that the gap between the spirit underlying the articles of our constitution and the words of the preamble has become a yawning chasm that urgently needs to be bridged.
Our current preamble states:
“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire,
- Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,
- Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,
- And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.”
It reads like a message from a dimly-lit past. It is a message that has no resonance for us now. Who are the citizens of the Irish Republic now? We have rejected Catholic social teaching; we continue to be shocked at the collusion between church and state over the treatment of many of our women and children; we have no desire to incorporate Northern Ireland into our state against its citizens’ wishes; we wish to live in amity with each other, both immigrant and native-born.
We need a new preamble: one that reflects who we are right now in the twenty-six counties; one that reflects who we would be in the advent of unity; and one that guides us to become the best we can be in both cases. Mick Fealty’s favourite Goethe quotation is right on the button here: “if you take man as he is you make him worse, but if you take him as he could be you make him better.”
So let’s rewrite the Constitution Preamble to ‘take people as they could be’: to elevate universalist human decency and make clear our belief that unity through violence and ethno-majoritarianism must not be encouraged by our law.
And, for God’s sake, let’s keep God out of it. God has no country.
Here’s a possibility:
“We, the peoples of the island of Ireland:
- Respecting the complexity of our diverse origins, identities, concerns, hopes and dreams;
- Acknowledging the slights, hurts, pain and inhumanity we have inflicted upon each other in the past;
- Seeking atonement for thoughts, words and deeds that have caused suffering to our fellow islanders;
- Accepting the bonds of our common humanity;
- Respecting the dignity of the individual;
- Pledging to build a shared society on the foundations of decency and mutual respect;
- Vowing to build a caring society that guides all towards the fulfilment of their potential;
- Desirous of laws that are blind to tribe, sect, and party;
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give ourselves this Constitution.”
I am not a legal scholar so I don’t know whether amending the preamble would require a referendum or not. Perhaps the Dáil or Aosdána could set up a panel of our greatest poets to come up with sparkling text that rhymes hope and history in a new preamble for all of us that everyone would, at worst, find inclusive and unthreatening or, at best, be proud to learn by heart and recite?
“together” by frank_hb is licensed under CC BY
Philip McGuinness teaches at Dundalk Institute of Technology, and loves to walk around and over the wee perfect hills of the Ring Of Gullion.