Tuesday 16 July 2019

North and South are happy living separate lives

Miriam O'Callaghan and Stephen Nolan did the State some service with their joint broadcast

Shining a light on our differences: Miriam O'Callaghan and BBC Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan
Shining a light on our differences: Miriam O'Callaghan and BBC Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan
Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty and party leader, Gerry Adams, bang on about a united Ireland like men in a lift spreading good news about Jesus

Eilis O'Hanlon

The report by Northern Editor Tommie Gorman on Thursday's Morning Ireland was uploaded to the RTE website later that morning with a confident caption: "Cross-border poll shows support for united Ireland."

Really? As Gorman himself acknowledged when analysing the poll, jointly commissioned by RTE and BBC Northern Ireland as part of a link-up between Prime Time and Nolan Live the night before, what the figures actually show is that "the appetite just doesn't exist" for a united Ireland.

The number of people who want it in the "short to medium term" is a mere one in three in the Republic, rising to two in three when the prospect is put back to some indeterminate point "in their lifetime" - and even that drops again to a third when told they may have to pay for it.

The figures for Northern Ireland are starker still. Just one in four of those from a nationalist background want a united Ireland soon and nearly five times as many Catholics want the immediate return of direct rule as there are Protestants aspiring to a united Ireland.

Of course, if you add up the figures for those wanting a united Ireland some time in the distant future in the Republic and add them to those saying the same in the North, then it does comprise a majority; but it's a meaningless figure, because such a single cross-border constituency doesn't exist.

It would be like conducting a poll on Scottish independence in both Scotland and England before the recent referendum and then announcing that a majority of respondents favoured the Scots remaining in the Union.

The only poll on that particular issue that mattered was the one held in Scotland, just as the only one that would matter on Irish unity is the one held in the North. If Ulster says no, it won't happen.

On one level, none of this is particularly earth-shattering.

The polls have been consistent for a long time. The real question is why? Why don't we all want to become one big, happy family? Last week's historic joint broadcast Ireland's Call between the two national broadcasters was regarded sniffily by some more high-minded viewers, but it was not without merit in answering that question.

The first myth it dispelled is that there's any great difference between North and South on contentious social issues. Dublin may like to believe that it is a generation ahead of the rest of the island in its liberal attitudes. In fact, when it comes to abortion, same-sex marriage and so on, the statistics are roughly similar. That's because an increase in liberal attitudes seems to be an inevitable outcome of social and economic progress.

Likewise, the lack of enthusiasm for Irish unity is not because of mutual hostility. People North and South are generally well-disposed towards one another. It's just that we're different. That was symbolised in the clever choice of presenters last week.

Belfast's Stephen Nolan is fiercely intelligent, but in a pugnacious, in-your-face way; he muscles in on a conversation, demanding to be heard, a bit like Northern Ireland itself. He also has Ulster's distrust for fancy language and evasion.

Miriam O'Callaghan's intelligence is less of a sledgehammer. She is more comfortable with nuance and ambiguity.

The two presenters represented different types of Irishness, each equally valid, but sharing little in common.

The thing to understand about northern nationalists is that our sense of Irishness is every bit as strong as that of southerners; it simply happens to be a northern version of it. That comes partly from isolation. There were decades after partition when northern Irishness existed in a bubble.

Conflict intensified it. A certain stubbornness set in, like the old football chant: "No one likes us, we don't care."

Middle-class SDLPers are more adventurous, but for the average Belfast Shinner, life barely exists outside their area of the city. Partly from historical necessity, they've created small enclaves inside the North which provide all their needs and even when they cross the Border, typically into Donegal, they import that same ghetto mentality. Physically they may be in the Republic, but mentally they never leave west Belfast.

Northern nationalists don't sit down on a Friday evening to watch The Late, Late Show. The names Ryan Tubridy and Ray D'Arcy mean nothing to them. They don't recognise the names of TDs from Mayo but do know Eton-educated members of the British Cabinet. They don't buy Dublin newspapers or watch Love/Hate, any more than the average southerner watches BBC Newsline or buys the Belfast Telegraph or listens to Nolan.

By themselves, these are small, insignificant things. Cumulatively, they amount to a great deal. Because these cultural signifiers are far more influential in defining one's identity than politics. They also grow so slowly that their effect goes unnoticed. The feeling becomes most pronounced when a northerner moves South and is faced with a series of culture shocks, such as paying for schoolbooks and GP visits or putting children through the Leaving Cert, rather than A Levels.

Most northerners are initially discombobulated by this experience and, though they may stay in the South for decades and even come to love it, they never entirely lose the sense that something isn't right and they'll swap complaints for hours with other displaced northerners when they get the chance.

They certainly can't share those feelings with southerners, who, with a tendency to smugness, feel slighted by any criticism of their strange ways.

All this translates over time into a feeling in northern nationalists which says: why give up everything we have for nothing more than a feeling, a narrow definition of Irishness, when our sense of Irish identity is in no way diminished by the Border anyway?

Irish people in London are no less Irish for being in the UK; so why should Irish people in Belfast feel that they're missing out on anything, when all the benefits of Irishness are available to them, without political change that might bring trouble? Being able to elect TDs isn't that important that you'd take too many risks to achieve it.

Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty, who spoke on the programme last week, suggests that the lack of enthusiasm for a united Ireland comes about partly because of an absence of proper dialogue about what a united Ireland would mean, or how to bring it about.

He's right. Outside of hardline republican circles, where they blather on about little else, it's rare to have a conversation about a united Ireland, not least because those conversations tend to be extremely dull, like being trapped in a lift with a man who wants to talk about Jesus.

What Doherty fails to appreciate is that republicans have made it harder to have that debate by tarnishing the aspiration with blood. As a result, we're still right back at the start of it.

At the end of that debate, we might still decide we don't want it. The challenge for fanatics who have made a fetish of the land is to realise that's okay too.

Irishness has to be big enough to accommodate those of us, North and South, who really don't care about the Border.

Sunday Independent

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