WHY are we, in the Republic, so apathetic about the prospect of a united Ireland?
It’s a question I asked myself many times over the Easter weekend, having spent the 1916 rising commemorations, quite by accident, in Belfast.
For the weekend that was in it, I decided to immerse myself in the political history of the city.
Having studied Irish history, I’ve always had a keen interest in Northern affairs.
But there’s nothing in the books that can prepare you for walking around communities living side by side, but divided by generations of mutual hatred, and a mammoth “peace wall”, still standing as a testament to those feelings.
On the loyalist side of the wall, a huge mural (some have been painted over) of hit man Stevie “Top Gun” McKeag looks down on the community. It’s chilling to see this man, killer of at least 12 Catholic civilians, so proudly remembered. On the other side of the wall, a stone’s throw away, lies a community shrine remembering the burning of Bombay St. I’m ashamed to admit, it was the first time I’d heard of the event in 1969, which saw loyalists burn Catholics out of their homes. The subsequent clashes led to the deployment of the British army to Belfast, and the building of the wall that remains, higher than ever, today.
Eight people died during the burning of Bombay St, 750 were injured and more than 2,000 Catholics were left homeless. Standing in that tiny memorial garden, surrounded by the names of civilians killed in their communities, it’s not difficult to understand why people reacted like they did. And indeed walking around West Belfast in general, it is very easy to understand why the IRA flourished — the people felt they had no other support or protection.
It was always easy for us in our largely middle-class trouble-free 26 counties to tut tut at what went on during the Troubles, but if the British army had set up in Galway, Cork, Athlone; if people were burnt out of their homes, do we not think the population in those areas would have responded in a similar fashion? I will freely admit that it felt good to stand with the people of West Belfast on Easter Sunday — and to honour their dead.
That doesn’t mean condoning the bloodshed, but acknowledging it, and the reasons why it happened, not least because a civilian population stood up to discrimination they faced and were met with the might of the British Empire.
If it’s OK to stand in commemoration of the men and women of 1916, and the armed struggle they stood for, why is it wrong to do the same for those who fought in the Troubles? Or course no one condones terrorism, but we have to consider what that term means in an Irish context.
It’s likely that calling Bobby Sands a terrorist is not something that would sit easy with most Irish people. If we don’t call Sands a terrorist, then can we call the rest of the people, who fought in what they considered a war, one?
Speaking to ordinary Irish people in Belfast over the weekend, what came across strongly was the feeling of being abandoned by the Republic, not just in the worst of times — but all of the time. They are a proudly Irish people, with a strong affinity for their Irishness: the GAA, Irish language, culture and music. They look South to us, whereas we — who pride ourselves on building connections with diaspora all over the world — rarely look North to them.
One man put it bluntly: “I live in an occupied land.” At first I dismissed what he said as an old-school Republican stance. But as the weekend wore on, the statement niggled at me, not least as I stood on Antrim’s stunning coastline, at the Giant’s Causeway, listening to legends of Finn McCool, a very Irish hero. I felt like I was in Ireland — I was on the island of Ireland, but not in Ireland, of course.
THE whole experience made me realise that yes, I would like to see a united Ireland, achieved by peaceful and democratic means, as set out in the Belfast Agreement.
Does that make me a republican? Some sort of extremist? I don’t think so. And if it does, then why? It should not be so.
Apart from Sinn Féin, (I am not a member) Irish political parties do not entertain the notion of a united Ireland.
Is it because we’ve so blatantly abandoned our Irish population in the North that we cannot bear to face up to it? Or really, is it because we don’t consider the North can be truly Irish anymore, and it would simply be too much work to undo partition?
Of course, any move towards Irish unity would have to include the Orange vote, and that’s where the greatest stumbling block lies. But we too, the Republic, through our apathy, and lack of real understanding about the horrors that Irish people in the North faced, are a stumbling block.
As we wave our tricolours proudly in honour of 1916, that feels very wrong.