Thursday 24 January 2019

The tiresome tribal baggage of North has hamstrung progress

Sinn Féin’s delegation at the talks in Stormont speak to the media while the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA
Sinn Féin’s delegation at the talks in Stormont speak to the media while the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

If you don't fix your final destination, it's easy to lose your way. An attempt to give us the contours for the future shape of our island has been unveiled.

Amid the looming Brexit chaos and another dismal failure on Northern Ireland with the Executive consigned to indefinite cold storage, comes a blueprint for our future.

On taking over from Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald reiterated at her first leadership démarche that Sinn Féin's ultimate goal is a united Ireland.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also seems intent on expediting the quest for a unitary state as an achievable medium-term objective.

Brexit fallout has naturally shaped the debate on the consequences of an EU/UK separation. Meanwhile, demographic trends pointing to a Catholic majority in the North have also put the spotlight on the North's constitutional future.

It seems the two Irelands are 'set fair' to pursue divergent destinies in or out of Europe. Not only separate currencies - separate trade treaties, markets, customs unions. Different economies and administrations on either side of the 500km Border all inevitably involve a deepening of partition.

I believe the 'Unity' Emperor has no clothes. These musings about a united Ireland are predicated around a profoundly dishonest debate.

Three generations of nationalists in the North, since 1922, felt betrayed by the south - they saw themselves as effectively abandoned to the tyranny of unionist majority rule.

In the south, there was a grievance borne out of a romantic historic goal to reclaim the fourth green field of Ulster, as nature ordained. And it's an unspoken assumption that one day unity will naturally recur.

In the interim, however, the practices of partition for the best part of a century now require a more conscientious reappraisal. Today, the internal politics of the Republic and Northern Ireland are simply incompatible.

Northern nationalists, even those living in the south, are in deep denial about the time warp of their troubled politics.

Violence brings dysfunction and the scars of strife have deprived too many of the vision to be objective and to see beyond singular goals. Normal political discourse must also embrace employment, investment, tax, health services, education, welfare standards, infrastructure, transport and housing. These are not issues that prevent devolved government; they are the engine that keeps it running.

Political progress can't keep being delayed because of tripping over tiresome tribal baggage.

It's unimaginable that Irish language legislation could prevent a government being established in Dáil Éireann. But such is the potency of identity politics in the North that if there's to be an Irish Language Act, there must be an equal Act to recognise Ulster/Scottish and whatever you're having yourself.

Difficult legacy issues like fresh inquests into so many unspeakable deaths are further evidence of a political life unable to look away from the rear-view mirror.

Naturally, Nordies are deeply offended by any external objective analysis of their modern-day society - particularly from southerners. But let's call it for what it is: much of daily Northern life is still deeply sectarian.

The election of 10 DUP and seven Sinn Féin MPs (out of 18) illustrates how the middle ground of moderate representation through the SDLP, UUP and Alliance parties has been hollowed.

Let us also not pretend that 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, ecumenism, pluralism and a harmonious community ethos has yet to evolve.

It seems as if things are as bitter and bigoted as ever.

Why not call it for what it is? Protestant versus Catholic. Blue Glasgow Rangers versus green Celtic. Enmity somehow has become acceptable. Let's do away with the pretence: sectarianism still is a core characteristic of the North's two largest political parties. Both feed off blinkered approaches - the goal is to get one over on the other side.

A retreat to the bunkers was never more evident than in the party responses to the perils of Brexit.

Faced with a 12pc collapse in the North's GDP based on research, you might think they could find common cause. Far from uniting with both EU and UK allies to obtain the best of both worlds in terms of North-south and east-west trade, the DUP and Sinn Féin have seized on Brexit to drive their individual tribal agendas.

The DUP wrapped its Union Jacks around Tory Eurosceptics to drive a wedge away from the Republic.

Sinn Féin seized upon a harder Border to leverage a Border poll for a united Ireland - driving home its core message that Northern Ireland is a failed state.

Tribal rivalry trumps what is best for the community.

The unpalatable truth is Northern Ireland is a dependent economy. Its largest, most vital source of prosperity and employment is still in the public sector and services sectors. It requires an annual subvention from London of €12bn - an interesting figure.

Coincidentally, it's equivalent to the €11.5bn for each year of our National Development Plan.

In a united Ireland, the entire resources of €115bn over the next decade would have to be siphoned off just to sustain subventions to the six-county economy. So forget your Cork-Limerick motorway, designated regional cities, Metro or second runway at Dublin Airport. All fiscal resources would have to be funnelled into Belfast.

By contrast, while life in the North remains a prisoner to the past, society in the south has rapidly and irreversibly modernised. The 26 counties are becoming more secular and multicultural. Our population is set to grow by more than one million. Mobile generations in a globalised world want to live, work and raise families here.

They increasingly ignore the woes of Northern Ireland. Ergo, editors/producers throughout the broadcast and print media deliberately diminish and even ignore coverage of Northern political affairs.

People have turned off or tuned out, tone deaf to the incessant circular arguments.

Coverage kills viewer/listener ratings and newspaper sales. The public switch-off is rooted in an unstated but apparent ambivalence to the North's persistent culture of conflict.

We don't like replacing our national anthem with 'Ireland's Call'. If the Brits eventually want out, we don't really want to stump up or radically adjust to sustain their perpetual strife.

Leaving aside the consent of one million Northern unionists, resisting being shoehorned into a united Ireland, we need a deeper analysis than rhetoric.

By 2040, the prospects for a federal Ireland involving two separate states seems a much more plausible notion, acknowledging the divergences of the respective body politics, societal aspirations and economies.

This is a non-conflict constitutional aspiration. It is the optimal context for maximising good, neighbourly cross-Border cooperation. It might also secure fiscal life support from both the UK and the EU.

But a vision borne out of a misrepresentation is a disingenuous basis for shaping our island.

Irish Independent

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