One of my abiding memories from childhood is sitting in the back of my parents’ Renault 5 in the 1970s, in the height of the Troubles, while my Nationalist Mum and Dad had a long and sincere conversation with a Unionist farming neighbour, as he leaned in at my Dad’s driver’s window. Some atrocity or other had happened, and they were chatting. After such events, when meeting people “from the other side”, there was a careful social dance that had to be adhered to, nicely summed up in Heaney’s poem, <“Whatever You Say, Say Nothing“>:
Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours
On the high wires of first wireless reports,
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:
‘Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree.’
‘Where’s it going to end?’
Unusually however, this was one of those authentic conversations where the bullshit had been discarded. The conversation was respectful, and sincere. I always remember the sincere way our Unionist neighbour concluded: “We need each other“, he said, leaning in, and he and my parents sincerely shaking hands.
That was ordinary people talking to each other. Then you switched on the news, and it was a world away from that tolerant peasant sincerity, as our well-paid politicans sought to outdo each other with insults, put-downs and intolerance.
Do you consider that Unionism and Nationalism both are honourable and sincerely-held positions, equally worthy of respect? Take a bow if you do. I’ve met very few people who genuinely believe that. At best, they’ll pay lip-service to the notion of equality of aspiration, while secretly being (even slightly) contemptuous about one side or the other.
The trick is to find a structure which accommodates Irish-ness and British-ness without degenerating into the usual winners and losers narrative. Predictably, there has been no creative thinking about this at all. Ever. And the winners and losers game continues to this day.
Current, trendy, thinking is that, for peace to be cemented, far from respecting both traditions, the Irish and British traditions in the North both should be phased out, and supplanted by a new, “third way” identity. That is a form of cancel culture; and arises out of a failure of imagination. I dislike the dishonest failure to come clean on the cancel reality behind the proposal; and I resent the patronising assumption that both sides are ill-informed “extremists“. We’re not. The majority of DUP and SF voters are ordinary, everyday people with moderate, and rather boring, views on many social and economic issues. It’s only outsiders who are convinced otherwise.
The North could be dealt with as follows:
1. Merge Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan with the other 6 counties into an officially-recognised 9 county Ulster. That way, “we” gain territory, keeping the Unionists happy; and also keeps the Nationalists happy, as it irks us to hear the North frequently described by Unionists as “Ulster”, when, to our minds, it’s merely two thirds of Ulster.
2. Ulster gets a new red hand flag. It’s a vibrant logo, with a colourful mythic history – and it resonates with both main communities. Amazingly, in a place where, culturally, we share next to nothing (apart from, for people my age, a shared reverence for Georgie Best, Joey Dunlop, the Undertones, Van Morrison* and SLF), this is a uniquely inclusive logo. It’s shared by both communities e.g., the Tyrone GAA team (and several other GAA Ulster counties) and by Loyalism (e.g., the Red Hand Commandos) – and it avoids the plasticky contrivances of something designed by an anaemic PR committee.
[*Before Van lost the plot about covid, that is …]
3. Ulster gets a unique, Venn diagram constitution, whereby the new Ulster becomes a federal region of both the South and of GB, with full dual citizenship rights for all and a local parliament at Stormont. Defence is handled jointly by GB and Ireland through NATO, with a local police force to deal with internal crime. GB and the South split the tax take and fund public services on a 50:50 basis for a set period of say 30 years. Full access to GB and EU markets, and a local government led premium manufacturing and global exports push. After 30 years, depending on economic progress, partial fiscal devolution and funding one third GB, one third South and one third Ulster taxpayer generated. Constitutional bars on both a United Ireland and on British rule.
4. Ideally, this would be supplemented with a full federal structure on the island. Full regional parliaments at Cork and Galway also. The South is askew. The Dublin-centric thinking is out of control. The majority of all new Irish jobs are in Dublin. The other 24 Southern counties (Donegal has been de facto abandoned already) now are mere feeder counties to the Dublin black hole. Covid’s ill-wind role in shining a light on our absurd, last-century obsession with offices may of course assist in re-balancing this irrational metropolitan bias.
5. A federal structure would also quell Unionist fears about ” thin end of the wedge” / “stepping stones” to a United Ireland. The key point about the Venn diagram structure is that it is the destination. There is no traditional United Ireland. Nor is there sole British authority. Both are formally off the table, permanently. Incredibly, to this day, the only settlement narrative in town is binary – British rule versus United Ireland – and nothing in between. This makes little sense. With a split population, how is either solution ever going to work for the “losing” side? People dislike compromises, but I feel my compromise is more radical and more interesting than the traditional, tired approaches. And the new Ulster would get more loot as well. It’d be in a privileged position for world trade – a real gateway hub. We’d celebrate 1916 and the 12th.
All my life, we’ve been in suspended animation. I’ve been governed all my life by patronising, ill-informed, unimaginative outsiders, people locked into outmoded ways of thinking. People who see us as malcontents in need of continual placating; a dreary problem to be solved. People who, deep down, think that we need looking after. It’s often struck me how many talented and ambitious Nordies I’ve met abroad. My idea is one that gives security to both identities, permanently. Until that happens, local political culture by design is frozen in perpetual adolescence, with each tribe continually looking over their respective shoulders at the “adults” in London and Dublin, while spending most of their time name calling, squabbling and point scoring. There is a continuing existential hope for Nationalists, and a continuing existential dread for Unionists. That hope, and that dread; both paralyse.
The irony of the North, one rarely perceived by outsiders, is that nothing is quite what it seems. Unionists are not as resistant to change as they let on. Nationalists are not as eager for change as they let on.
Deep down, many Nationalist and Unionists, while we publicly cleave to our traditional positions (Irish v British), in reality, our election posturing increasingly is just that – a posture. Day to day, most Nationalists and Unionists rub along well with each other. We certainly do not wake up every day thinking about constitutional politics.
Face it, post the Good Friday Agreement and the ending of the Troubles, and before Brexit, whether you were in Britain or in Ireland had become a first world problem (for everyone bar the DUP / SF top brass – and even SF in the last election were savvy enough to dial down the re-unification narrative, because their doorstep polling made them realise it wasn’t a burning issue for their voters) – “which rich, liberal Western democracy would you like to be part of” isn’t much of a casus belli lol. I’ve lived equal parts of my life in NI, SI and GB. I was entirely happy in each location.
Brexit drove a coach and horses through our careful accommodations. When the UK was in the EU along with Ireland, the 2 tribes in the North could each be what they wanted. There was an element of make-believe, but it worked.
As I noted in a separate post, <“Why Brexit is failing“>:
It’s worth posing the question – in what ways did the DUP think that making the Union with Britain more difficult would strengthen the Union with Britain?
In reality, a vote to remain in the EU would have strengthened the Union with Britain. Even a vote for the half-way house Protocol, which keeps NI fully in the UK and still gives porous access to the EU, would strengthen the Union with Britain.
In short, anything which makes cross-border economic and social life easier for NI’s pro Irish unity population strengthens the Union with Britain.
However, the DUP’s rationale, if one could call it that, seems to have been: “Let’s piss off the pro united Ireland population as much as possible; let’s make NI difficult and unworkable for them; that’s bound to convince them of the merits of the Union with GB!” The DUP failed completely to realise that many in the pro Irish unity camp were de facto in the pro Union with Britain camp already. That is, the DUP based its strategy on what it thought its opponents were, as opposed to what they actually were. As an analysis failure, as a policy failure, that takes some beating; and is explicable entirely by the DUP’s comfortable bigotry which ensures that it views its political opponents through the narrow prism of its own ingrained prejudices, and acts accordingly, generally taking the wrong option every time.
Publicly though, it’s easier to take refuge inside our traditional positions. It’s comfortable. All your thinking has already been done for you; and, since nothing ever changes, you probably will never have to do anything constructive anyway.
There is however a silent majority of reasonable people throughout the North, who, whatever their publicly-stated allegiances, de facto live their lives as constitutional agnostics. That is, if we were being honest, most of us live our lives as if we were constitutionally-agnostic Alliance voters. We pay our taxes and get on with our jobs and families. We’re not daily out agitating for one cause or another. But we all share a horror of being thought disloyal to our binary pasts; hence the binary posturing and virtue-signalling every time an election comes around.
Our publicly-stated Unionism (in reality, British nationalism), and our publicly-stated Irish Nationalism (in reality, European federalism), often are quite formulaic by this stage. Like the British Labour party members singing the Red Flag, when most of them aren’t even socialists. Like people going to midnight Mass on Christmas eve, when most of them aren’t practising Christians.
Part of this derives from nobody here having any real political agency. It’s easy to cling to extreme positions when you know you ultimately are not responsible for anything anyway. It’s easy to be an extremist when you never have to sit across a table from a decent person and explain to them why their Irishness, or their Britishness, must be eradicated or downgraded, and why cultural co-existence, and genuine parity of esteem, must never happen.
Because, as far as I’m concerned, full co-existence would be quite easy to achieve; and many people would support it. We already have a better mindset than Putin. Let’s try and show it.
Of course, when you have a government as lazy, as ill-informed, as instinctively patronisingly-colonial in its attitude to the North, and as third rate as Johnson’s Brexit Cabinet, let’s not hold our breath. Boris and the strutting Brexit popinjays don’t give a fuck about any part of Ireland, and never will. Depending on those chancers for anything far-sighted, honourable and statesmanlike is a mug’s game.
But that’s where we are, folks. We’re a small region, we have no power, and we’re ruled by idiots who know nothing about us.
Anyway, on a noisier note, here’s the said Fingers:
And here’s the ‘Tones – while SLF’s songs often engaged with political issues, the Undertones took a different approach – while they were quite political in their personal lives, as working class kids, so mired were they in Troubles politics / crap during their daily lives in Derry, that when they got up on stage, or into a studio, the last thing they wanted to think about was local politics or the Troubles – for which you can hardly blame them, especially when they produced bangers like this, about fancying women and going on holiday: