At the opening address of this year’s John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh, Bobby McDonagh, former Irish Ambassador to the UK and Permanent Representative to the EU, explored themes of the nature of identity, the beauty of complexity, the power of language, and reasons for optimism in the future of society on this island.
McDonagh began with reference to this year’s chosen poem by John Hewitt, “An Irishman in Coventry”, written in 1958. The poem deplored “The glittering fables/Which gave us martyrs when we needed men”. However, McDonagh noted an ending of optimism:
“Yet like Lir’s children, banished to the waters,
Our hearts still listen for the landward bells.”
On the nature of identity, McDonagh gave five brief reflections.
First, “the reality of identity is usually complex, but the politics of identity are often dangerously oversimplified”, suggesting that most people in the room could report intricate backgrounds of allegiance, affiliation, nationality, religion, and/or race. Again, quoting Hewitt:
“Celt, Briton, Roman, Saxon, Dane, and Scot,
Time and this island tied a crazy knot.”
But such complexity of identity is swept aside when it comes to the politics of conflict and confrontation: “We must wear our chosen uniform and wave our chosen flag.”
Second, McDonagh argued that the EU is perhaps the best illustration of how different identities can be at ease with one another: “Being Swedish or Slovenian is not an alternative to being European; it is a way of being European.” He also felt that very many people in the UK, including a significant majority in Northern Ireland, were at ease with the European dimension of their identity.
Third, the challenges the UK has been going through in recent years are closely intertwined with the issue of identity, McDonagh said. He sees “two Britains” — an open, tolerant, self-confident, modern Britain that has long exercised significant influence in the wider world through its engagement in international organisations, versus an uncertain, backwards-looking, narrowly nationalistic Britain that has lost confidence in its ability to defend its interests in the multilateral globalised world: “a Britain which sees its values as uniquely attractive and at the same time uniquely under threat”.
Here, McDonagh quoted whom Hewitt saw as those “who truly made Britain great”:
“Blake, Darwin, Wesley, Newton, Shakespeare, Wren
There’s no John Bull amongst these Englishmen.”
McDonagh’s fourth point was about how much one’s sense of Irishness has been defined by proclaiming a non-Britishness “in a way that doesn’t apply to, say, Australians and New Zealanders”. He argued that this binary approach “glosses over the historic intermingling of our peoples and the depth of our friendship today”:
“Most of our families reflect the interaction and interrelationship between our islands. Patrick Pearse’s father was English. Tony Blair’s mother was born in Donegal. Two small examples amongst so many.”
Fifth, while there has been significant progress between the two islands in reconciling Britishness and Irishness, this still needs to be reflected in similar progress within Northern Ireland. McDonagh sees this as “entirely understandable”, with the principal dividing line in its society corresponding with national aspirations. Whatever the future holds for Northern Ireland, McDonagh said, respect for identity will be essential:
“Hewitt, in his poem ‘The Anglo-Irish Accord’, acknowledges the legitimate fear that both communities have about respect for their identities As baffled thousands dream they are betrayed/Stripped of the comfort of safe loyalties’.”
McDonagh added that as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, respect for Irish identity will be of profound importance: “If, on the other hand, the direction of travel is one day towards a united Ireland, exactly the same parity of esteem for British identity will be of paramount importance.”
On his second theme of complexity, McDonagh said that we live in a world in which “naïve assertions have increasingly replaced serious analysis, in which superficial slogans trump enlightened insight, in which simple solutions are promised for complex questions”:
He said that an understanding of complexity is “the necessary antidote to all the populists who would sell us their snake oil solutions both at home and abroad”. Yet understanding complexity is not an end in itself: “It is a weapon we must use to defend our fundamental interests and values.”
As a positive example, McDonagh argued that the EU’s understanding of and ability to manage complexity is a manifestation of its wider vocation to assist in managing and shaping our complicated world. To those who would mock the EU’s complex way of doing business, “it is not quite as funny as the centuries of war that preceded it”.
McDonagh also gave the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as “a tribute to complexity”. To those who have criticised various stages of the peace process for fudging things, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fudge when the alternative is firepower.”
A necessary corollary of complexity is compromise, McDonagh added, where intelligent compromise is a tool to advance interests, not a means of surrendering them: “’The Winner Takes It All’ is an Abba song, not a negotiating strategy.”
On the third theme of the power of language, McDonagh argued that the precise and creative use of words is the very definition of us as human beings and that words are the means by which we can break down even the oldest and most seemingly impenetrable of barriers:
“British-Irish relations improved beyond recognition — in the run-up to and beyond the Queen’s visit — because of the words of mutual respect, the words of honest recognition, the words of heartfelt empathy, in both directions, that came to characterise the relationship.”
McDonagh acknowledged that words can create division and confrontation. He quoted from one of John Hewitt’s last poems, written in 1986:
“So now intransigently negative
Our threadbare lexicon provides no scope
Should one of our naysayers dare to give
Some gentler phrase of mercy grace or hope.”
McDonagh spoke about the devaluation and debasement of language, due to effects of nationalism, populism, and social media. To him, it appears that words have lost meaning and the connection between words and truth has become tenuous. But words have not lost any of their importance:
“All democracies… must remember that the first line of defence against both populism and totalitarianism is language, culture, and the truth.”
McDonagh’s fourth and final theme was some reasons for being optimistic about the future. He began by saying that we need to understand and live with imperfection: “Imperfection is an inevitable consequence of our humanity… it would be foolish to judge any of our achievements or institutions or societies against the standard of perfection.” Furthermore, McDonagh argued, accepting the necessary imperfection of our lives and societies is not only about embracing the truth, it also permits us to remain appropriately and cautiously optimistic about where we find ourselves today and about where we may be heading.
He cited the Windsor Framework as another triumph of language, complexity, and compromise, and another reason for optimism:
“The Windsor Framework is necessarily imperfect as it is needed to address the imperfect situation caused by Brexit. However, I strongly believe that it offers Northern Ireland a unique opportunity to have the best of both worlds. Moreover, the agreement reflects a restored sense of trust between the EU and UK…”
McDonagh concluded with reference to Hewitt’s poem that he began his presentation with: “I’m convinced, as we exchange thoughts with each other here at this festival in Armagh, that the sky is not falling down, that the end of the world is far from nigh, and that the landward bells are getting closer.”
During the question-and-answer session, a delegate asked whether the Northern Ireland government should be formed on some sort of majority rule, or at least make it more difficult for one communal block to shut down the entire government. McDonagh recognised a rise in the centrist vote, but that any change would need agreement by unionist and nationalist parties, in addition to the Alliance Party: “Remember that any change to the Treaty on European Union requires unanimity by all its member states.”
Another person asked how to mobilise those who appreciated their “intersectional identities” that McDonagh spoke about, because “it lacks the sex appeal of a populist rallying cry”. McDonagh replied that it starts with recognising our complex backgrounds:
“One of my grandfathers was head of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) [and] the other was in the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary)… It’s good to stand back and recognise that there have been mixed marriages, people from England and the south coming to live here.
“So, recognise the complexity and then speak both in substance and in tone, in a way that recognises that complexity.
“And within political parties, while still getting support from your loyalist quarters, to show respect for different perspectives and different points of view.”
The questioner didn’t appear satisfied with the response, and added: “My fear is that the representative democracy that we have — and the political language of the referendum that we have been given — forces us to articulate our identity in very extreme and absolutist terms. And I don’t know if we have the forum to be able to explore these complicated identities in contemporary politics.”
McDonagh replied: “Yes, but maybe this summer school is a start.”
Cross-published at Mr Ulster.