Future Ireland: Uniting people is the starting point

I was in a cafe recently when the owner, who I know from being a regular, came over and asked me, “David, clear something up between me and the Missus – was that you on the TV we saw the other night … [puzzled look] … you were part of a panel … Mike Nesbitt was there too.”

To which I answered – ‘Yes, guilty! Was me!’

After a little discussion about how he didn’t realise I was interested in the political situation here, he had a few questions…

I explained it was hosted in St. Mary’s, that it was a debate about creating a New Ireland that would be a warm-house for people from unionist backgrounds. And that it was run as  part of the Féile an Phobail.

His response, said in all innocence, captured the engrained, default and casual sectarianism that riddles our society…

“Wow – that’s great – crossing into enemy territory.”

“Enemy?? No, sorry it was part of the Féile in Belfast,” as I called it out.

Working in construction, I’m used to, and enjoy, the day-to-day banter. But that one conversation, which could have taken place in any cafe, pub, golf club, restaurant – and unfortunately church – exposed the underlying division that we live with on a day-to-day basis. The assumption that Northern Ireland is bitterly divided between green and orange.

But it isn’t solely green, and it isn’t solely orange. If you try to divide every issue like that, you get the mess we’re currently living through. We should also remember there are a growing number of people who choose not to identify in that way, and happily live outside of the traditional divisions.

How can we create a society that is proud of our differences? One which respects and celebrates them? It is that difference that helps create what is special about the Irish people. Our hospitality, our humour, our compassion, our passionate support for our sporting teams.

It’s that difference, that gives us our rich heritage and place on the world stage, where for a small island we massively excel.

What would a society be like, where the ignorances of difference are removed, and fear of the unknown was cast aside? A society where we all – Protestant, Catholic and Other – celebrate together the orange and the green of Ireland, and everything in between?

We are being sold short without one another.

Sure, there’s responsibility on the people with authority to come up with laws and constitutions etc. But equally there’s a responsibility on each of us to watch and call out our own actions and attitudes.

The coffee shop owner could have been in any bar, coffee shop, golf club, ‘name-the-place’.

Let us begin to speak words of life about our neighbours, not words of fear.

The challenge to those wanting to unite Ireland, and actually for those wanting to remain within the United Kingdom, is to unite people. That has to start at ground level with each of us.

Coming from a Presbyterian background, growing up in a manse, meeting my wife in that church, having kids and then years later being introduced to the GAA.

I walked into the GAA eight years ago, and am now the Development Officer. But this is only a minor part of the story.

You can read a bit of the background to my journey here.

The welcome I, and my family, with others, have received from my local Glenavy GAA community is the real story. The warmth we received says way more about my local community than it does about me.

Glenavy is a shining example of what can happen when you simply love your neighbour.

Alan McBride spoke this week about making similar choices. Having grown up on the loyalist Shankill Road, and after losing his wife in the Shankill bomb, Alan deliberately chose to move to a mixed area. He said he wanted his daughter to have Catholic as well as Protestant friends. He wanted to break the cycle of division. It worked. They made Catholic friends, and began thinking about life in terms of loving their neighbour. Something which he has tried to bring into his politics.

Sometimes you have to go out of your way to break the cycle. But it can be done.

As this article has been written for ‘Future Ireland – alternative conversations about unity and the union’, there are various issues of difference between north and south that quickly flash up when I think about the Unity side of that. We need to be brave enough to have those discussions, to try and understand neighbours we currently don’t know much about, and begin to imagine a future vision. Even if this is a vision we aren’t comfortable with.

If we continue to ignore things we don’t understand, we will continue to live on ground we’ve farmed already. We will continue to be trapped in deja-vu, living in a closed bubble. We’ll live a life without adventure, exploration, new discovery or any chance of improvement.

We should not bury our heads or leave it to the extremes. These discussions about the future are happening across the divide like never before. And although we must talk about symbols and flags, in my experience, the most important topics on the list need to be education and health.

I would like to to focus specifically here on education. I’m not bringing forward any policies. I would simply like to point out the difficulties and hurdles that we urgently need to address.

Let’s quickly look at school systems across this island, but focussing on Northern Ireland. The wider issue is for another time and another article.

We currently have effectively three systems in Northern Ireland. A state system, which is in reality a Protestant system, a Catholic maintained system and the smaller integrated system.

Would creating something more streamlined, that is more efficient, is a better use of public money, brings people together and enhances all our services not be of benefit to everyone? Regardless of the unity or union debate.

How do we create a world class education system, that works for everyone? For the academic student, those whose strengths are vocational and those with special needs? A system that puts the blocks in place to unite society, where difference is celebrated, where success in all its forms are celebrated – together. Where all sports are played, enjoyed and barriers removed.

Let’s get real and even say, where Irish history is taught. All of Irish history, on either side of a conflict, rather than the current void. Then, slowly, fear and ignorance may become a thing of the past.

An education system that is based around location, local community, that brings people together and smashes down the walls of division and segregation. Where everyone is welcomed and celebrated. Where strangers become friends.

Do we need 3x systems? Simply, No.

Our current model is actually working against a united society. It’s actually working against those who hope for a peaceful transition to Irish unity and it is also deeply damaging to a unionist future, and those supporting the union.

It is helping to form and contain suspicion, fear and uncertainty. By keeping children strangers, it is ensuring that either future constitutional path has the potential to be painful and messy. It is unsustainable financially, and dare I say it, morally and ethically.

The current ‘Shared Education’ policy is also selling us short, settling for second best. Although better than doing nothing, it will do very little in practical terms to unite our people.

I would simply suggest for all these reasons, that a united society requires new thinking, be that within a future new Ireland, or if the population decided to remain within the United Kingdom.

Leaving unity or union to the side, the future Ireland that I want to see is a place where green and orange and others celebrate together. Where society is enriched by everyone.

But it starts with each of us, our attitudes, our hopes, our dreams and our success. And how we pass these on to our children.

The job of uniting people is the starting point.

Part of the Future Ireland Series. Questions, ideas, pitches to Claire – [email protected] or David – [email protected]. To keep up with other pieces in the conversation, click here.

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