Following on from the debate about “Liberalism” and “Northern Irishness”, it is perhaps apt that we turn to something which I believe to be fundamental, but which is essentially missed in the debate about the on-going protests and indeed in the discussion around the meaning and potential of a “Shared Future” – namely that both Unionists and Nationalists claim exclusive ownership of this part of the world and neither is willing to cede this point as the fallacy it is.
For Nationalists, the 1920 settlement was an aberration, giving the “Irish Nation” its rightful “Irish State”, just not encompassing the whole of Ireland and the Irish within that State. Nevertheless, implicitly, this makes Ireland “our state”, where “our” means Irish Nation(alist), and even allowing “British Planters” to live here is generous (far less allowing them to have their own symbols, culture, etc) when they have their own “British” country across the water.
For Unionists, the 1920 settlement was a reflection of the fact there are two nations in Ireland – the Irish/Nationalists (aka Catholics) who got their State, the Republic; and the British/Unionists (aka Protestants) who got their state, Northern Ireland. Implicitly and even often explicitly, this makes Northern Ireland “our country”, where “our” means British/Unionist, and even allowing “Irish Catholics” to live here is generous (far less allowing them to have their own language, culture etc) when they have their own “Irish” country across the border.
Herein lies the Fundamental Problem – both “sides” think Northern Ireland rightfully belongs to them. It so happens Unionists are in the limelight currently, and just look at some of the language – “This is our country, and…“, “If they don’t like it they can go to their country“, etc. But Nationalists are no better under pressure – “The British presence“, “Brits Out“, etc. Every single one of these is unreal, in the sense that it is not a reflection of the Northern Ireland populace as it is. Yet each is keenly felt by a significant minority – typically, sadly, that minority is from parts of Northern Ireland which sense they have little else to lose but “our country”.
It is possible that this “Fundamental Problem” can only be solved by the Alliance Party and its new-found supporters in the media, in civic society and, dare I say, even in other parties. Long the party of consensus, it now has a unique opportunity to be the party of leadership.
And here’s the first thing I think it needs to state clear: the 1920 settlement was actually an act of “containment”, telling “us” (by which I mean all the people of Northern Ireland) that we should just confine our problems into as small a space as possible. Social changes across Europe in 1968 meant it was no longer viable for London to leave Unionists in permanent majority government nor for Dublin to leave Nationalists to their fate; the outcome was the Agreements of 1973, 1998 and 2006 which all ostensibly reflected the same key point: we are (currently) British constitutionally but we are (always) British and Irish nationally. In other words: regardless of its constitutional status now or in the future you can describe Northern Ireland as “our country” only if, under “our”, you include both people who are British and people who are not.
This is a matter of fact, not opinion, not least given the last census numbers. And it begins to address the “Fundamental Problem” that for too long we have allowed minorities to claim privileged status in the name of the term “our country”. Once we accept that Peter Robinson, Naomi Long and Martin McGuinness are all “us” (whether we like it or not) in the same way we accept Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy are all “us”, we may begin to get somewhere.