Friday 17 January 2020

Gerard O'Regan: 'In this season of goodwill, perhaps we should park notion of united Ireland'

'Following the recent general election, there was hope an emboldened third force might jockey them away from their certainties' (stock photo)
'Following the recent general election, there was hope an emboldened third force might jockey them away from their certainties' (stock photo)

Gerard O'Regan

It's the season of twinkling lights and sharp grey winter afternoons. Suspended reality hovers like a giant cloak. The half-promises of Christmas beguile us - knowing they will fade sooner rather than later.

The lure of fantasy streaks the horizon. All the while, those jarring days of January hover closer.

They will come round as they always do. But what matter. Now is tinseltown time. And so we go with the flow.

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This season of make-believe is a respite.

It is a break between what was - and the way things could be. The old year sags to its end, already dwarfed by the promise of a new start, and what 2020 will bring. As always, there is much to review. It's a time for reflection.

Maybe, just maybe, in the whirlpool of our national life, one moment superseded all others these past 12 months. It was when we knew for certain our EU partners would not flinch; they would stand by us no matter what.

The mighty force of a 27-country collective made certain there would be no return to a 'hard Border' on this island.

It is a moment in our history not to be taken for granted. We should never forget what might have been. Brexit brinkmanship threatened a back-to-the-future journey of despair and danger.

And as we cascade towards Christmas Day, Northern Ireland's two tribes - like weary actors in an old drama - search for a new way to say their lines. What is the latest script which will allow them to play out another act?

Following the recent general election, there was hope an emboldened third force might jockey them away from their certainties. The Alliance Party has stumbled over challenging foothills. But it remains a straw in the wind.

The old divide between nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, green and orange, still sets the template others must follow.

Green is the colour which is shining most brightly in these year-end days. Nationalists have consolidated a power-sharing state, with bulwarks to protect their rights, and with the Dublin government acting as referee. And they 'won' on the Brexit border issue.

And so is this a moment to be magnanimous, to see beyond the horizon. Does nationalist Ireland, North and south, have it within itself to park tough talking on a 'united Ireland'? Hardliners will dismiss such a prompting. But what of those of more moderate hue?

Given that 'fair play' has been broadly institutionalised in the North, why not agree to say a 25-year moratorium before 'Irish unity' becomes a central agitation point in nationalist politics?

What is dubbed 'soft power' can still be used to try and win over unionist hearts and minds.

A quarter of a century, devoid of the psychological prodding provoked by the unity agenda, could transform the collective mindset on this island. All the while education - in the broadest sense - will continue to be a harbinger of change.

The big wide world will bring its own momentum for looking at things anew.

Ireland North and south - after all that has gone before - needs the healing balm that only an elongated breathing space can provide.

We must maintain a certain equilibrium between green and orange. There can be no return to domination of one side over the other. But in the broadest sense, a culture of equality has become ingrained in ways unthinkable in the past.

So can we indulge a Christmas fantasy? Could we say to unionists we are parking the unity bit as of now? In the meantime, all on the island of Ireland should be allowed to live their lives without fear or favour.

Nationalists can still express their 'Irishness' by choice of passport, the sports they play, the music they enjoy, and even the language they speak.

Meanwhile, there is a kind of madness in talking up a unity poll - on the basis of a possible slimline majority topping 50pc - in a traumatised society like Northern Ireland.

Much better to wait for balmier days.

Catholic, Protestant and dissenter need time and space to explore unknown - and undiscovered - ties that bind.

Irish Independent

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