By Arnold Carton. I am from the unionist community & I recently retired from my job as a secondary school teacher in the controlled (state) sector.
The first 100 years of N. Ireland is over; the centenary was a disappointment, with neither unionists nor nationalists satisfied and in truth, most people being indifferent. As is usual here, both communities blame the other side; nationalists feel we unionists did not sufficiently acknowledge the pain of partition (and I have some sympathy with that point of view), while we unionists feel that rejecting an invitation to a joint church service and banning a centenary stone at Stormont were petty.
Rather than apportion blame, can we learn from this failure? Did those of us over 40 collectively miss an opportunity?
There has been enormous growth in the number of young people who describe themselves as Northern Irish; young people have grown up with the surge of hope generated by the Good Friday Agreement and tend to identify with this state, while having a secondary identity of being either Irish or British. There should have been an opportunity to bring the people of N. Ireland together to celebrate all that we have endured and all we have achieved over the past 100 years without making it a series of unionist or nationalist events, but that would have required us Unionists to acknowledge that the existence of N. Ireland was the unintended result of ‘a series of unfortunate events’. (Apologies to Lemony Snicket.)
Believing your state came about by chance will be unsettling to many, almost like discovering that your birth was the result of your parents’ carelessness, rather than desired and planned. However, by holding on to our comforting founding myths we have no explanation for the chaos and hatred at the founding of our states, and end up blaming ‘the other side’, rather than the unfortunate circumstances.
Even at the start of the 20th Century politicians were aware that to create a stable united state or country you needed the 4 features below. Because the creation of N. Ireland was the accidental result of regrettable actions by Carson, Craig, Pearse and Conolly the N. Ireland state was deficient on 3 out of 4 features.
- A national territory defined by borders, preferably clear geographic borders such as rivers, mountains or seas. NI had no clear agreed border between itself and the Irish Republic and this contributes to the lack of stability of NI as a separate state.
- A system of government that had the consent of the people. Historically, consent was missing and Nationalists felt excluded from government. That changed after the 1998 referendum when 71.1% of voters accepted the Good Friday Agreement.
- A small set of common languages. The UK and Ireland function primarily using English, but some unionists seem to almost welcome an opportunity to pretend that we are not Irish as well. We could have dispelled much of the conflict with some simple steps.
- The vast majority of our town names come from Irish (with some coming from Ulster-Scots), it would seem appropriate and unproblematic to display town names in both the currently accepted version and the original Irish version.
- Encouraging controlled school teachers and local TV broadcasters to use occasional greetings in Irish, eg Nollaig Shona for Merry Christmas etc would inconvenience no one but would eventually make the acceptance of a few words of Irish universal; much better than the current trajectory of creating a patchwork where Irish street signs demark the boundaries between communities.
- A sense of nationality created by a common narrative. All countries will have a set of stories used to bind citizens together, to make them feel proud that they belong to their country; these will be based in fact but may be distorted or with important parts left out. We have tales of Richard the Lionheart, Robin Hood and how we stood alone against the Nazis. While the nationalist community in N. Ireland will share some aspects of this narrative, they will also strongly identify with the feelings of injustice over the painful partition of Ireland during the creation of N. Ireland. Because our two communities still do not easily discuss such issues our people have no common story of what is so good about N. Ireland; we cling on to our own comfortable myths and we have no agreed narrative on which to base a stable Northern Irish identity.
There will be advantages to unionists and nationalists alike if we remedy this omission. Remember we do not have separate unionist or nationalist futures; whether we remain British or join a new Ireland the people of N. Ireland will make that journey together and it will be easier if we respect and look after each other.
This can look like a hopeless task, but our population (especially those under 40) are ahead of our politicians in so many ways; our people have made a commitment to powersharing, we welcome the occasional use of Irish, we are prepared to seek a common narrative of being Northern Irish. Kenneth Brannagh’s Belfast might hint at where to start. We just need to find a way to get our politicians to follow our lead.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.