What has really changed in Northern Ireland in the last 30 years?

Last week I attended a reception in the Irish government’s splendid house in Notting Hill in Belfast to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the publication of the Opsahl Report.1 This landmark report, based on the views of around 3,000 people in over 550 written submissions and the opinions expressed at 19 public hearings about ways forward for Northern Ireland during a period of particular deadlock and despair, has been seen as one of the early seeds of the NI peace process. It was chaired by an internationally eminent human rights lawyer from Norway, Torkel Opsahl, and I was its coordinator. However, it has been almost completely forgotten and, until now, unmarked.

The 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission’s uniqueness was that it collected and highlighted the views of civil society in Northern Ireland: community and voluntary sector groups, women’s groups, churches, business groups and trade unions, cross-community dialogue groups and a wide range of individuals from prelates to paramilitaries, taxi drivers to bankers, prisoners to schoolchildren to academics. It was itself a venture that came out of the idealism of a group of 200 people active in civil society who called themselves Initiative ’92. Many prominent people contributed submissions: people like the 20th century’s most influential Irish civil servant, T.K.Whitaker; distinguished former senior British civil servants Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and Sir Oliver Wright; the Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Robin Eames, the poet Michael Longley and the broadcaster Robin Day.

There is no room here to detail its many conclusions and recommendations. Among the latter were at least four that would find their way in some form into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement: an equal voice for the two communities in the government of Northern Ireland; the legal recognition of such ‘parity of esteem’; the necessary involvement of Sinn Fein in any settlement (although it would have to renounce its justification of the use of violence first); and a Bill of Rights (still to be implemented).

The Opsahl Commission’s distinctiveness was in the fact that it gathered the views of ‘ordinary’ people rather than politicians (although the political parties, with the exception of the DUP, were persuaded to take part). What I want to do in this blog is to take a few submissions from those ‘ordinary’ people which particularly impressed the Opsahl Commissioners and ask if in the past 30 years there have been any significant improvements that represent real progress in Northern Ireland on the issues they raised.

Dr Brian Gaffney, a GP from Downpatrick, started his 1992 submission by saying: “I feel, as a Catholic, no sense of belonging to the fabric of society that makes up the official state of Northern Ireland”. He said that “as a person of liberal and left-wing political leanings, I have no means of expressing my views and feelings in a public forum”. He stressed that he abhorred violence.

He noted that the British government insisted that it was perfectly legitimate for someone like him to aspire to a united Ireland, “so long as this is deferred to the far distant future and not pursued by violent means.” Also that “such unity could come about if a majority in Northern Ireland so wishes. This indeed makes this issue a respectable political aim for anyone to hold.” However, he felt that many of the important structures of NI society (the RUC, the district councils, Queen’s University) “discriminate against this viewpoint by emphasising the relative ‘superiority’ of holding the similarly legitimate wish to maintain the link to Britain.”

“I would like to play a role in our society. I would like to feel at home in the city hall of my home city. I would like to assume that my local police constable had my safety and security as high on his or her agenda as my Protestant neighbour’s. Indeed, why should I not feel these things are so? I am a respectable member of the community, I wish no one ill, I pay my taxes and so on. But I would like to do all these things and still hold my ‘legitimate’ aspiration, still feel my Irish identity. Yet if I express these feelings, am I not assumed to be a closet ‘Provo’? Am I not forbidden open access to officialdom? These are feelings which I believe prevent a sizeable proportion of the Catholic community from playing a proper role in Northern Irish life. It is my belief also that both sides lose in this situation: we are frustrated in our wish to take part; Northern Ireland is denied the benefit of using our talents and diverse abilities.”

I met Dr Gaffney at last week’s reception and he was pessimistic. He said some things had changed for the better in the North: violence is now an “anomaly” and nationalists like him can support Irish unity without harm to their job or education prospects. “However, no one could argue that the North has become a normal European society whose concerns are the typical bread and butter issues of political and civic life. Yes, of course, we too are facing the consequences of economic austerity, globalisation and climate change. We too have issues around gender identity and ethnic discrimination. But always in the background and frequently in the foreground our political leadership and priorities are still based on orange and green. Sectarianism would appear to be the only effective way to engage the wider population, young and old.”

Raymond Ferguson is a former Enniskillen solicitor and liberal Ulster Unionist councillor in Fermanagh. He wrote in his submission that since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, British policy had been “to try to weary unionists, in particular, into a state of mind where they eventually accept what Whitehall policy-makers conceive to be the inevitable – that their political future lies on this island and not on the British mainland, and that they really have to make the best of it.”

He also looked at the inevitable consequences of Northern Irish business expanding into the all-Ireland market as part of the removal of European Community trade barriers: “to the vast majority of Northern Ireland businessmen, this market is much more readily accessible and understood than the markets of Britain and the rest of Europe.” [Remember that this was just before the 1993 Single European Market opened and six years before the Good Friday Agreement].

“It is to this new commercial situation that unionist politicians must address their minds…Because of the greater facility with which business can be transacted on the same land mass rather than over sea journeys of 30-300 miles and longer, it is entirely foreseeable that, regardless of what attitude is adopted by politicians North and South, commerce will develop and grow between the North and South of Ireland. This will inevitably give rise to the need for political direction and structures to deal with the demands and problems created. It is difficult to see how the Unionist Party [this was before the DUP became a power in the land] could sensibly ignore these developments. Of necessity, political representatives of the North will become involved in dealing with representatives of the government of the Republic. To date unionists have fought shy of acknowledging any entitlement of the Republic’s government to input into Northern Ireland affairs…but as time passes it will become clear that this position is no longer tenable.”

Paul Sweeney (who was then director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, and would go onto head several Northern Irish government departments) agreed. He believed it was only a matter of time before the political structures on the island of Ireland would give greater expression to its “economic and social coherence”. He went on: “I am convinced that terms such as ‘united Ireland’ are redundant and delay any sophisticated discussion of pan-Ireland issues.” He urged that “the maximisation of cross-border co-operation in the island of Ireland and between the island of Ireland and Britain should be a central plank of British government policy.” Parallel with this, “every effort should be made in the Republic of Ireland to convince a besieged unionist community in Northern Ireland that their welfare can be advanced by the forging of closer relationships with the South.”

He also emphasised the direct correlation between deprivation and political violence in both Northern communities: “to remain indifferent to these levels of deprivation is to remain indifferent to peace”. In particular, he said a major anti-poverty programme would have to be aimed at young people: “Our young people, whose lives have been blighted by the sins of their fathers, need major compensatory programmes and life opportunities if they are to become the leaders, parents and citizens of tomorrow.”

Three women active in deprived Catholic and Protestant areas of west Belfast – May Blood (later Baroness Blood), Kathleen Kelly and Geraldine O’Regan – called for the establishment of Community Development Trusts in local neighbourhoods. These would help to eliminate the sense of powerlessness felt by local working class people and offer a focus for “new and emerging leadership which ultimately could bring new energy to Northern Ireland’s political structures.”.

They went on: “In our experience many local people in west Belfast work long hours, all day, every day, to provide the basic care that supports the needs of their neighbourhood. This activity is often in support of young people, unemployed, disabled, women and children. In all these areas of activity local leadership and activity has developed. Those of us who have experienced this growth of confidence feel buoyant and confident about the future of our communities.” Yet these people felt that their involvement was of “peripheral interest” to officialdom. “They have little opportunity to effect change and there is no local accountability concerning the aspects of government policy and resources which are directed towards their communities.”

From commerce and community development to culture: Dr Bob Curran, a teacher and folklorist from Portrush in north Antrim (and from a Presbyterian family), believed that the Northern Ireland problem lay not with politics, but with something more fundamental: “our perception of ourselves as having two distinct cultures and traditions.” He argued that “there may be more to unite both cultures than to separate them”, and much of this could be discovered in a common musical and folklore tradition. “Rather than there being two cultures to be accommodated, there is a single tradition – that of Northern Irishness – from which certain sections of the community, either by accident or design, choose to exclude themselves.”

In his studies, Dr Curran had found stories, tunes and traditions in Northern Protestant communities with counterparts in Catholic communities in the Republic, even though most Northern Protestants dismissed these common traditions as ‘nonsense’ and not worth passing on. He believed this could be overcome by educating children to value their culture and traditions. He did not see this as a cultural process of ‘Irishisation’ in a narrow sectarian/religious sense, but a “a celebration of our common heritage – both as Catholics and Protestants – within our respective communities and upon the island of Ireland.”

He proposed a Northern Irish version of a schools-based 1950s folklore collection project in the Republic, in which children were encouraged to collect from their parents, grandparents and relatives. Such a project could “provide the basis for a shared community experience and could open the eyes of those who are going to form the next generation in Northern Ireland to the wide and rich spread of tradition which exists in Ireland.”

He went on: “Protestants have constantly struggled with (or have been hostile to) any concept of an ‘Irish identity’ because they perceive it as being different and alien to their own. It was almost as if Ulster was not a province of Ireland, but rather one of the English shires. All talk of ancient Irish heroes and study of localised folk tales has been heretofore viewed (by Protestants and Catholics alike) as exclusively Catholic in tone. Such a view must be effectively challenged within the classroom. Such a perspective must also be challenged within the Catholic population – folklore, Irish myths and legends must not simply be seen by Catholics as their exclusive province, but rather as having roots within the Protestant tradition as well.”

So what has really changed in the Northern Ireland economy, culture and society over the past 30 years? Have we moved towards a more rational all-Ireland market? Probably. Have we moved towards a more sophisticated discussion of pan-Ireland issues? Probably not. Have we tried to bring the teaching of a common Northern Irish culture and history into the classroom? Not to my knowledge. Have we seen a comprehensive programme to overcome poverty in the areas most affected by the ‘Troubles’? Certainly not. Above all, have we seen any significant efforts to combat Northern Ireland’s most defining evil: sectarianism. Absolutely not: in their drive for power, tackling sectarianism is low on Sinn Fein’s priority list, while the DUP is steeped in it.

Let me finish with a comment in a submission from an extraordinary group of people, rural dwellers, none of them well-off, from the Fermanagh village of Tempo. They had been meeting across the communal divide in the Tempo Historical Society, to explore issues of local and common history, for decades. Their best known event – a day of lectures, drama and music – was called ‘A Brotherhood of Affection.’ “The United Irishmen are very attractive from a cross-community viewpoint because that was a time when Presbyterians and Catholics united against the establishment. It proves that our divisions are not of immemorial origin and the idealism of that time is inspiring. These are also the roots of republicanism. Can someone not discover common ground here and produce an ideological breakthrough?” they wrote in their submission to the Commission.

They concluded their submission by saying that Northern Ireland’s problems “need the application of the very best minds to suggest a way forward. We do not think that these are our politicians.”

1 A Citizens’ Inquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland. Andy Pollak (editor), The Lilliput Press, 1993


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