Days since Brexit

"Unionists appear to have difficulty with a shared society, never mind debating a united Ireland"

Boris Johnson, Leo Varadkar, Simon Convey and Julian Smith meet with Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Boris Johnson, Leo Varadkar, Simon Convey and Julian Smith meet with Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

On the day when the New Decade, New Approach agreement was reached, Denzil McDaniel – the former editor of The Impartial Reporter newspaper – gave the annual Louis Leonard lecture, which The Detail has today published. Louis Leonard was an IRA member who was shot in 1972 in his butcher's shop in the Fermanagh village of Derrylin. He spoke of dealing with the past, the media’s role in a divided society, and the debate on the future of relationships on the island.

IT has been a very long journey for me to get here tonight. I don’t mean the 18-mile short drive from my home in Enniskillen, but we’ve all made our journeys through our recent history in which, finally, people of our differing backgrounds can come together to talk and listen to each other. Indeed, far too often, we are talking when we should be listening.

Actually, my own first memory of St. Pat’s, Donagh, goes back to the mid-1970s, probably 1976 I think, when I went to watch the Fermanagh senior championship final in Lisnaskea, when St. Pat’s played Enniskillen Gaels.

I used to play soccer with some of the Enniskillen Gaels team, including my good friend Jimmy Cleary who was a very talented player at both codes, and I’d go and support them playing gaelic.

That final, I seem to remember, went to a replay. The thing I recall most about the replay was that a massive fight broke out on the pitch during the game in which all the players seemed to get stuck in.

I suppose it was one of those occasions when the tension of the match spilled over and after, what the old RTÉ commentator Michael O’Hehir used to call an 'almighty schmozzle' that lasted several minutes, everybody settled down and got back to the football!

A lot of water has flowed under a lot of bridges since then, and here we are in 2020 at the beginning of a new year, wondering what it will bring for our country.

The month of January gets its name, I believe, from the Roman god of Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. This ancient figure is usually depicted as having two faces, one looking to the past and one looking to the future. Janus is a god of change, who presided over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace.

I’d say in my lifetime I can never recall such a time of transition, and with it a time of opportunity.

Tonight, I want also to talk about our future, and my hope for a shared future for my children; indeed I think particularly of a five-week old baby called Eva Rose, my grandchild born just before Christmas. Tonight, she is in my thoughts when I think of the Ireland she will inherit from us.

Despite what some people say, I think it is important to look back, to remember where we came from, to take stock of the present and to look forward. Our past is a tough place to go, but we need to face up to uncomfortable truths.

I attended an event recently which discussed the role of the media in divided societies, and something that Denis Bradley said struck me: our past is really horrible, but we seem to take a strange comfort in living or reliving it. The purpose of looking at our past, in my opinion, should be to remember those who suffered and to create the conditions in which we don’t sink to such dark depths again.

The loyalist leader David Ervine, an authentic working class voice, often talked about his concerns of our repeating the mistakes of the past. He knew the consequences of ignoring history. How those inner city unionists could do with his leadership now.

Former PUP leader, David Ervine. Picture by Kelvin Boyes, Press Eye.

Former PUP leader, David Ervine. Picture by Kelvin Boyes, Press Eye.

At this stage I’d like to thank, and pay tribute, to the Leonard family who have invited me here this evening, particularly Ciaran and Betty.

I listened intently to Betty speaking recently at the wonderful Aisling Centre event of hope and healing.

Many people will know about the story of how Betty was cruelly widowed by the murder of Louis in 1972, but as she spoke, I realised I didn’t know the half of her personal journey, in which she has continually overcome adversity with a resilience and dignity which is to be admired and indeed, she is engaged in reaching out the hand of friendship across the community. It’s vital work, I think a lot of this work goes on naturally and is not highlighted.

Quite often, actually, victims and their families from various sectors, show us the way to respond to those who hurt them. Other victims seek to politicise blame, and who am I to tell anyone how to feel.

Sometimes in my newspaper writing I refer to there being two tribes or two communities. I have been taken to task about that by people who say there’s really only one community which has its divisions.

Fair point, but sadly those divisions in the last quarter of the last century resulted in a conflict was has left many people on both sides with a range of feelings and a legacy of deep hurt.

At this point, I want to speak a little about my own background.

They say a journalist should never be the story, and in recent years I write far too much about myself, but I just want to say a wee bit to let you know where I’m coming from.

The dominant narrative today is that Protestant equals unionist, which is a far cry from the ethos of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen of 1798. But having grown up among the unionist community, I can identify with the ideals of Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken.

My father was a Tyrone man. He was born in 1924, just after partition, on a small farm between Ballygawley and Dungannon, in the townland of Tullyvannon towards Cappagh.

As a teenager he joined the Navy and served in the Second World War before returning to get a job at the Taylor Woods factory in Enniskillen, where my mother was from.

They married and set up home in Cornagrade housing estate in Enniskillen, in a street called Riverside, where I was born in 1952, in the days when babies were born at home.

Cornagrade was, and still is, a mixed estate where Protestants and Catholics lived side by side, but in 1960 my father was made redundant and we moved to Dungannon where he got a job in Moygashel.

My father decided to go back to full time study at the age of 39 and when he was at Greenmount Agriculture College my mother, sister and I moved back to live with my grandmother in Westville Terrace in some pretty grim housing, no bathroom, outside toilet and all.

In 1964, when my dad returned, I very well remember my mother, literally, getting on her bike to visit unionist councillors virtually begging them to give us a house.

At that time, the standard of housing in Enniskillen was a disgrace. We walked past the Streets, the area where the library is. Hundreds of Catholic families crowded into slums, with no toilet, some with a tap in the back yard, but for most the only source of water was a standpipe at the top of the street.

Ironically, the area was nicknamed the Dardanelles, after the area in Gallipoli where a lot of men from the area had fought and died in World War One. Their reward for laying down their lives for king and country was for their families and community to live in such conditions.

Housing was being built by the council, but in places like Coleshill and Derrychara. Such homes were occupied by Protestants. But, while Catholic families were bottom of the list, Protestant families like us felt we were pretty low down as well.

My dad was a quiet, very deeply religious man, indeed he once told me that as a Baptist coming to Fermanagh in the 1940s, his faith was regarded almost as a cult by the Protestant establishment at the time. He had no connections to the loyal orders and no real contacts of influence or political inclination of any description.

So, we had to wait until unionist councillors decided it was our turn.

Maybe that’s where my deep rooted tendency to criticise councillors and politicians comes from, though I think it’s more to do with my socialist principles and my desire to see those in power do more for ordinary people.

I recall how happy my mother was when we were eventually given a house in Coleshill. Sadly, she only got a few years to enjoy it as she died of cancer at the age of 40. In 1972, as it happens, the year that Louis Leonard's life was traumatically taken, my own family was dealing with our own grief of losing a young wife and mother. Our grief was rather more private though.

Anyway, I recall all this, not just to show you the genesis of some of my thinking but perhaps more importantly, to illustrate that even Protestant families who were disadvantaged still voted unionist. Big house unionism expected it and got the votes.

They took it for granted.

If, at this stage, you consider what I’m saying as an attempt to distance myself from the unionist and Protestant tradition, you would be wrong.

I have a great empathy for unionists. My experience is that they are hardworking people of faith, who have much in common with their Catholic neighbours.

I understand their qualities, their potential and I understand their fears. I would like you, whatever your faith or politics, to understand them too.

But you don’t need me to tell you about good and decent people.

There’s plenty of Protestants and Catholics who live happily together, whether it’s neighbouring farmers helping each other out, or as men hunting together or people socialising together, there’s plenty of rapprochement.

It’s just that when it comes to national identity or culture, we haven’t been able to cope with that difference and it’s ended up in shocking bloodshed. Sometimes we’re good friends, then we’re the best of enemies.

We often talk about peace and reconciliation as if it was some 'happy clappy' ideal where everybody just gets on. That’s only part of it. True reconciliation will be when we both accept difference and respect each other’s beliefs and culture.

To understand Protestants a bit better, I think it’s important to recognise that they are not one homogenous group that all thinks the same way.

Yet, just like Protestant families living in disadvantaged circumstances in the past who voted for unionists, they seek the tried and trusted comfort blanket of unionist unity. They stick together with a siege mentality – the glue which holds them together. That glue is a mistrust of what they are opposed to, rather than what they agree on.

A united Ireland, in which unionist culture would be diminished, is portrayed as the savage dog barking at the door.

Jim Allister says unionism has nothing left to give and it’s a viewpoint that gains more support than it really should.

There is change, though. Political unionism struggles with change, particularly coming from a position of a feeling of superiority and power.

The shift to Alliance will be a cause for concern in the unionist leadership. This is very significant.

There’s also an acknowledgement of the changing demographics, and what has brought real alarm to unionists is the conduct of the British Government over Brexit.

I’m at a loss to why unionists ever thought Boris would not shaft them and I thought the comments of Mike Nesbitt were very telling when he said that, for years, unionists thought their problem was Irish nationalists, but it turns out that it’s English nationalists.

Despite all this, unionist leaders seem to have difficulty in agreeing to a shared society, never mind entering into a debate about a united Ireland.

There is genuine fear, though. It’s one of the uncomfortable truths that this unionist fear and mistrust was further deepened by the republican war to achieve unity in this country.

This applies all around in a divided society, once a conflict gains traction. A fog of war makes it difficult to control and a lot of inhumanity gets perpetrated on the enemy.

Whatever side it was, including the state, all combatants tend to focus on the excesses of other side.

As we come out of war, what happens is that the analysis of that conflict results in a denial of the truth. You would think, for example, that the acceptance of collusion would be a no brainer. But look at what happened to my good friend and colleague Trevor Birney when he exposed it in his film about Loughinisland, No Stone Unturned.

Journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, with Tory politician, David Davis. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, with Tory politician, David Davis. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Dark forces from the past are still at work.

So what of the future? Long term and short term.

I really do welcome the deal at Stormont and hope that the initial enthusiasm for genuine partnership is fulfilled.

In the face of the problems over our health service and everything else, it seems remarkable that it took three years to get Stormont up and running again.

If we wonder why, perhaps, the deep rooted failure to respect or even recognise each other’s culture is at the heart of it and I would have to ask anyway do we really believe that Stormont will solve our problems? It won’t end, will it, discussion on the constitutional question? Has Brexit shifted the tectonic plates forever?

Will I see a united Ireland in my lifetime. Or will it be my children, or even wee Eva?

A major sticking point is an Irish Language Act (ILA). This isn’t something minor, it is symbolic and important.

We seem to have gotten to the point where certain elements of unionist leadership is denying the heritage of those Presbyterians who saved the language. As long as people like Linda Ervine cherish the language, though, it’s a heritage which will be honoured.

Irish goes to the heart of the Good Friday Agreement ethos of respect, understanding and tolerance, and I agree with Eamonn Mallie when he said that an ILA was important for parity of esteem.

Yet even for that moderate opinion, he was castigated as a “spokesman for the pan-nationalist front".

I suppose tonight I’ve focused quite a bit on having empathy for unionists. I just feel that as a minority in Ireland, and even a minority in NI, they are still a sizeable population, and that if we are to move forward they need to be reassured that there is a place for their culture.

What sort of country would it be if such a large section felt alienated and resentful. You’ve been there and there seems little point in transferring one community’s alienation in their own country for another.

All voices should be heard.

How do we do that? I don’t know.

There is a push for a border poll, but I agree with those who say we should learn the lessons from the Brexit vote, that a simple border poll would not resolve anything without any context and without debate about what a future Ireland would look like.

How do we have that discussion? It can’t be left to be done in an under resourced media. I think we have many fine journalists here in Ireland, north and south, (and some poor ones too) and a free press is important.

But if you look at the bearpit style of debate that is Nolan, for example, the issue would not be addressed in any meaningful way and while the BBC in the north is managed in a very establishment way, there are also issues in the Dublin media which seems to me to have a very partitionist mindset.

As somebody at that event I mentioned earlier said, 'everybody has their own truth' and the media doesn’t have the definitive truth.

Eoghan Harris opined in the Sunday Indo that a border poll would really be a “murder poll as it would end in bloodshed” and I think it was Stephen Collins in the Irish Times who even came out against any discussion about unity.

If we needed any further evidence of the Dublin establishment's lack of empathy and understanding of northern nationalists, just look at the botched fiasco of honouring the RIC and Leo’s assertion this week that the prospect of a united Ireland is now further away after the objections.

It won’t help the penny to drop with unionists that Britain is betraying them and they’d be better off negotiating a position of influence on this island. Maybe even the Éire Nua proposal of a federal Ireland, with Ulster having its own autonomy.

A group of people representing civic nationalism in the north recently wrote to the Taoiseach asking for another people’s assembly to be set up in Dublin, bringing together people from all sections all over the country to discuss what a united Ireland would look like. Including the economy, agriculture, and all facets of life.

Going forward, all voices need to be heard; including loyalists, who apparently are being consulted by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

Some republicans don’t want a border poll, their reason is that they don’t consider Britain has a right to be involved in a poll in which the six counties are allowed to continue to deny the existence of a true 32-county republic, which remains unfinished business. All voices should be heard.

By the way, while there have been acts of violence by some, republicans who are opposed to Stormont do not say they want to go back to war. One told me once: "The people who say armed struggle is a republican principal are wrong. It’s not a principle, it was a tactic to be used, but now is not the time to use it.”

I want to conclude by saying this. We have a peace now, a fragile peace which needs to be nurtured, whether it’s an agreement at Stormont to make people’s lives better now or a debate over a new Ireland to include all communities, including the many people from foreign shores who are now part of our communities. We need to learn to live together.

The word courage comes from the French le Coeur, meaning the heart. In my heart I love this county, this country and its people. It’s the greatest place on earth. We need to take the bitterness and anger out of our hearts and move forward in respect for every child of the nation.

Let us never go back to the dark days.

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