News Liz O’Donnell

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Petty point-scoring in the North must be replaced by generosity

Published 22/03/2014 | 02:30

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Andrew Trimble dives in to score Ireland’s second try during the Six Nations match at the Stade de France
Andrew Trimble dives in to score Ireland’s second try during the Six Nations match at the Stade de France

WATCHING Andrew Trimble weave his magic with the Irish team last weekend in Paris, I marvelled that our rugby team is an unquestioned all-Ireland fact. With four Ulstermen in the national squad, the Six Nations triumph was a day of joy and pride for the whole island, in all our diversity. It's rare to be united as a people in a shared all-Ireland endeavour.

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It may be a quirk of history that the IRFU has represented the whole island since 1879, despite partition and the emergence of two distinct jurisdictions. But even in the 'troubles'-related cold war, rugby was an exception.

I remember Ken Maginnis MP and other unionist politicians happily travelling to Dublin for rugby internationals. All tribal instincts and prejudices were set aside, just for the day. To their credit, even at the height of the conflict, Ulster men and women came south for the game and a tension-free weekend.

This rugby euphoria set me thinking about how incomplete our peace process really is. How deep does it reach, beyond an end to the killing and a new era of equality, justice and policing in Northern Ireland? Is the hatchet really buried? Is the Republic a cold house for Unionists?

Why are there only 85 first-year students at Trinity from Northern Ireland in last year's 3,500 intake? In my day, about a third of Trinity students were from Northern Ireland. Is there more to it than a points-equivalence problem for college entry?

The sad reality is that the healing and diversity anticipated for Ireland, North and South, by John Hume in his 1998 Nobel speech have not come to pass. Hume, in many ways the architect of the Good Friday Agreement, believed: "Difference is the essence of humanity ... an accident of birth therefore should never be a source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies the most fundamental principle of peace; respect for diversity."

Always rejecting violence, Hume argued that we should "live for our ideals, rather than dying for them ... spilling our sweat and not our blood to break down the barriers of distrust and prejudice... to strengthen our common humanity."

The power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, championed and negotiated by Hume, was unstable until 2008 because of the failure of the IRA to decommission weapons. Under the arrangements, power is shared proportionately between nationalists and unionists.

But outside the cabinet room, the parties are political enemies, playing to their respective galleries and constituencies. Essentially, they are constantly electioneering and point scoring. The notion of a shared future is a mere slogan.

Despite all the progress delivered by the peace process, we have not yet witnessed what I would term the 'Big Speech' from any of the First and Deputy First Ministers, which would transcend their own tribe to reach out to all of the people in the way John Hume could do in 1998.

The first people to take on the mantel of leadership post-agreement were David Trimble and Seamus Mallon. Both were complex characters, their destiny carved out of the political warfare of the peace process. Seamus Mallon, a committed peacemaker, was too principled for the realpolitik of British side deals with Sinn Fein and became disillusioned.

David Trimble had taken risks, beyond what was electorally safe for the UUP; it cost his party all but one of its Westminster seats, while the rejectionist DUP won power.

SINN Fein have settled into Government like ducks to water. They are disciplined politicians bringing all the stamina that sustained an armed struggle for decades into the democratic process. They rarely rise to the bait of nervous and narky unionist politicians, who still give the impression they were sold a pup in the agreement.

These days McGuinness and Robinson appear to lack the space or political confidence to be generous to the "other", as was required by the parties in 1998. They are not a team; they remain togged out in their respective colours.

Both are masterful at articulating their own credo and position. Neither can win the hearts and minds of the other community. They can fake it when they are abroad on trade missions.

This lack of generosity was most recently exemplified by the effective rejection of the Haass proposals on dealing with flags, parades and the 'past'. Richard Haass and his colleague Meghan O'Sullivan had invested significant time and intellect in examining these thorny issues, with the goodwill of the US administration.

How best to deal with victims and unresolved crimes needs to be settled once and for all, so that a shared future can be embraced.

President Obama expressed his personal disappointment at the rejection of the proposals in Washington last week. Northern Ireland leaders need to wise up; patience is justifiably running thin in the White House.

Irish Independent

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