As appears in this quarter’s Ulster Folk, available across Northern Ireland now:
The recent mayhem on the streets followed on from a decision which was not about a flag in itself, but rather about an illustration that Belfast is not specifically a Unionist and Protestant city, and that Northern Ireland is not specifically a Unionist and Protestant country. To many people this is a shock – after all, was it not founded as one as a progression of the 1912 Covenant?
Of course, this is not a one-sided process. On the other side, we have allegiance to a state founded on the back of the Easter Rising in 1916, with a constitution which passed by the Pope before it was confirmed – an essentially Catholic state founded by force of arms.
Yet Northern Ireland no longer has the Protestant majority it had at the outset, even if it retains a Protestant plurality; and the Republic of Ireland is no longer the Catholic state it was a century ago, even if it retains something of a light touch on some of the Church’s indiscretions. In other words, neither jurisdiction in Ireland is recognisable from those established on the back of events we are commemorating during the “Decade of Centenaries”. Suggesting they are – by treating the events of 1912 and 1916 without reference to the misjudgements made at the time and the hurt caused since – is dangerous.
Underlying almost any civil disruption in Northern Ireland is the notion that ‘we’ are the ‘majority’ – in Northern Ireland for one ‘side’, and in the whole of Ireland for the other. The other ‘side’ is, at best, to be treated as guests in ‘our’ country. Watch how many people, on either side, claim this as ‘our country’ while going on to suggest, implicitly or occasionally even explicitly, that the ‘other side’ can ‘go back to their own country’ – even though in the vast majority of cases they have been where they are for centuries. This idea of ‘ownership’ of the jurisdiction is even transferred to the idea of the ‘ownership’ of any given section of territory; and is then re-emphasised by glorifying past events without any hint of the context of the time, the pain caused then and since, or the relative irrelevance of those events to the contemporary situation.
In fact, whatever people’s difficulties with it, the 1998 Agreement reflects and provides the basis of modern Northern Ireland. It recognises on a cross-community basis the legitimacy of Northern Ireland; it recognises the consent principle and its place within the UK; and it recognises the two national affiliations of its people (and their right to choose either or both). This is not a ‘Protestant state and a Protestant people’; nor will it ever be a Catholic state and a Catholic people; it is in fact a diverse state for a diverse people. You cannot refer to Northern Ireland as ‘our country’ unless you include, under ‘our’, people who are Protestant and Catholic, and people who are British and Irish, and indeed people who do not affiliate to any of those. Yet still the vast majority of people have not been prepared for this reality.
Fewer than half the electorate vote Unionist first preference; fewer than half Nationalist. Fewer than half at the census declared themselves “British”; fewer than half “Irish”. Fewer than half are recognised to have “Protestant background”; fewer than half “Catholic”. This is the reality – you may have as many protests as you like, it will not change. A hundred years on from 1912 and 1916, and neither has any real relevance to our demographic and social reality.
Inherent within this is the failure of ‘separate but equal’. It is all very comforting living, socialising and educating with only our own ‘side’. It is all very comforting to have our prejudices and suspicions about the ‘other side’ confirmed in this way. Yet on the ‘other side’ are citizens, just like us – who want to make a contribution, get a challenging and well-paid job, do the best for their children. To do that, they too will have to pay rates and taxes and they do will deserve a share of the resources that accrue from them. If we continue with the folly that we may simply live separate from, and thus ignorant of, the ‘other side’, we are setting ourselves up for outbreaks of anger and disruption every time it turns out the ‘other side’ just doesn’t see the world – or our symbols, or our heritage, or our customs – the way we do. Frankly, our best best is to intermix to start with – and for us all to contribute to a shared goal of a prosperous Northern Ireland in which we can all create wealth and jobs and in which we can all bring up our children safely and happily. Is that not a reasonable objective? But it was not the objective of 1912 or 1916, no matter how you dress them up – the ‘other side’ will soon confirm that!
For me, the term ‘Shared Future’ does not apply to policy but to reality. The only viable future for a diverse society of no majorities – which is what Northern Ireland is – is one based on a ‘Shared Future’ approach. Such an approach cannot involve – at least, not uncritically – ‘celebrations’ of events 100 years ago which were based on anything but a ‘Shared Future’; nor can it involve even a hint that one ‘side’ or other may be able to return to a golden age where they alone held sway. This is not something which can ‘wait until the future’ – 15 years on from the Agreement, this is the future! Northern Ireland is a British state and an Irish state; Belfast is a British city and an Irish city. That is why the Union Flag flies on designated days, as it does in most of the UK; it is why street names are British but on them you may learn Irish; it is why you may find a pipeband and an Irish dancing class within walking distance. More importantly still: it is what makes us a diverse city and a diverse country, and this is nothing to fear. On the contrary, diverse cities and regions are consistently the most prosperous on the planet.