Beyond Civil War: What can the north learn from the south to make good on the promise of the Belfast Agreement?

“The way through this morass is to be more curious and less judgmental.”

-Ted Lasso, fictional TV Soccer Coach

“There was and is quite a lot to be proud of [in the modern Irish State]” was an apt final line in RTÉ’s documentary on the Irish Civil War which finished on Tuesday. It was a rare acknowledgment of an arduous journey rarely talked about in the south.

That reluctance many lie in the fact that it’s only been in recent generations that the tragic and horrifying reality of that civil war was taught in the Republic’s schools. Perhaps people have felt emotionally unequipped to take on their state’s own history?

The final episode of the series describes one eyewitness description of (I think) a father and son literally trying to kill each other with crude agricultural implements. And how public opinion flipped from siding with the rebels to the emerging state forces.

Stability became a craving for a people under fire. In the end it delivered an uncomfortable compromise on the constitution and left partition more firmly in place than it had been before. Nationalists felt abandoned, but Unionists felt safer for the border.

What the programme paid homage to was a slow convergence between the former wings of the old IRA that began in the late 40s/early 50s and has concluded in a grand coalition laced with the same iron pragmatism that built the Irish state.

Unity of economic purpose was codified by TK Whitaker in 1958, when inflation and unemployment were rife and emigration not far below the birth rate (a cyclical pattern since the famine of the 1840s, ie long before the establishment of the state).

Such unity of purpose has made the difference. Whitaker served a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach when he wrote that early White Paper (the First Programme for Economic Expansion), but he also served Lynch and Cosgrove as Governor of the Central Bank.

It meant that as each party came into office they were each able to build on the achievements of their predecessor (even if, like the consulate politicians reluctant to acknowledge them in publicly) rather than try to destroy it and start all over again.

Time can be a healer but patience and a steady (rather than a fitful) focus on the future can work miracles over time. The Republic was conservative and Catholic but it also avoided the zig zag politics which has benighted the UK in recent years.

The south has much to offer the north, if it takes the time to remember the marvel of its own post independence journey. With the revelations of abuse under the previously dominant Catholic Church, it seems at odds if not alienated from that history.

There’s a reputed question on an Irish dating site that asks ‘do you hate Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?‘  Whether true or not, it reflects a contumelious disdain, not of the parties themselves but of the generations of Irish poor that helped built the state.

This is the substance and spirit of Fintan O’Toole’s recent biographic retelling of this period of time through his and his family’s personal experiences of the unprecedented expansion of the state and the economy in one lifetime: We Don’t Know Ourselves.

The change that was unleashed in 1958 [Fintan’s birth year] went far beyond the intentions of those who created it. But for all its tensions and disruptions it worked because it was not just a transformation. It grew – in wealth, in population, in economic and political standing – but it also allowed itself, gradually, painfully, and with relief, to contract, to shrink away from the stories that were too big to match the scale of its intimate decencies.

I like ‘intimate decencies’. It describes the Ireland I knew and grew up with better than the cataclysmic rhetoric of 70s and 80s Belfast, and more the geographies that surround the off grid farmstead of Donegal where I spent my summers.

Oddly for A Personal History of Ireland, the north barely gets a mention. For a more comprehensive history you have to go back to an historian from the north and one from a non Nationalist background like Henry Patterson’s Ireland Since 1939.

It’s almost as though even folks from a moderate nationalist background (like the current President) cannot bring themselves to admit that over the last 100 years we have developed separate histories, separate economic and governance models.

Excepting for another war (or in planer and more accurate language conquest) the challenge in trying to bring the two parts of the island does not simply lie in making it attractive to the ‘other’ community, but in making it a realistic possibility.

For all the well resourced marketing  materials and events, this is not something folks like Ireland’s Future have engaged with. Nor will it occur just because the current government compiles White Paper. But they are not the only players on the pitch.

Patrick Murphy last weekend identified three different groups working for some kind of unity on the island (he also noted that none of them seem to like each other very much).

There’s those who “advocate unity through violence”, then civic and political nationalism, as represented mainly by Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Future and finally is the Dublin government. Currently the first is not a credible player (though things do change).

The second Murphy notes is represented mainly by Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Future. He notes:

Sinn Féin practices in-your-face nationalism and argues that because of the IRA’s violence and the party’s politics, a united Ireland will be along soon.  Ireland’s Future appears to believe that a united Ireland is practically already here, if only the rest of us could see it.

Whilst Dublin’s approach under Martin;s leadership has been different…

As part of his €190 million Shared Island project, Micheál Martin this week announced another €50 million worth of programmes, including peatlands biodiversity actions, tourism and north-south research. Unlike the other two groupings, the Shared Island approach is practical rather than aspirational.

He closes:

Tone’s sustainable argument for Irish unity has been around for over two centuries. It was repeated in the 1916 Proclamation’s reference to “differences fostered by an alien government”. Only when those difference have been resolved can we expect meaningful progress towards Irish unity. In the meantime, everything else is just stamp collecting.

I’d draw two conclusions. One is that the history of the Republic since the civil war of 1922-23 shows far more clues as to how civil life can regulate itself across the island under the terms of the new Articles 2 and 3 (unity of the people before territory).

The other is that real change takes a very long time, and whilst not always intentional, in the Republic’s case it mostly was. Even if there were unintended changes, like the demise of the Church were consequent to the economic transformation.

We know from the south’s civil history that necessary trust eventually emerges out of joint enterprise, and that they did so by not by repeating the mistakes of the early years of the state by traversing the adjacent possibilities by investing in the future.

In the north we are trapped by a politics which sows distrust and reaps the harvest of rit. But we are not alone in this regard. As retiring Republican Governor of Massachusetts (where Republicans only make up 10% of the population) has noted:

…the negativity and divisiveness driven by the political class, including the press, which is then amplified by social media algorithms, that is souring the public’s view of politics.

So how did he get elected in such a deep blue state? Partly by talking to everyone regardless of traditional affiliations, but partly because he had noticed that both registered Dems and Republicans are being outnumbered by Independents since 2007.

Doubling down on the social media effect by engaging only true believers who are shrinking as a proportion of the overall population headcount is weak. The south did not build a modern state through mistrust, nor will it shape a better, larger nation.

What we don’t understand about trust. Nobody sensible simply wants more trust. Sensible people want to place their trust where it is deserved. They also want to place their mistrust where it is deserved. They want well-directed trust and mistrust.

-Onora O’Neill


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