Shared Island Initiative, Day 1 -  a trojan horse for unity or a shared future based on mutual respect?

Shared Island Initiative, Day 1 -  a trojan horse for unity or a shared future based on mutual respect?

A bullet-riddled welcome to Northern Ireland sign on the border between Derrylin, Co Fermanagh and Ballyconnell, Co Cavan. The communities where paramilitarism offers a chance of some fast cash and a sense of purpose will not be aided by conversation alone. PA Photo

On the first of our three-day feature on the Shared Island initiative, political correspondent Aoife Moore speaks with Taoiseach Micheál Martin, a survivor of the Miami Showband Massacre and a father who lost his son in the Omagh bombing.

According to the government, the Shared Island Unit "supports the implementation of the Government’s commitment to work with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future on the island underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement".

Overseen by Principal Officer Eoghan Duffy, the Unit is examining the political, social, economic and cultural considerations for a "shared future in which all traditions are mutually respected".

"Fostering inclusive dialogue and commissioning research on a shared future. The unit works in close cooperation with other Government Departments and engages on an inclusive basis with civil society, North and South on the island."

A series of online meetings labelled "dialogues" are hoping to target all communities on the island, including young people, ethnic minorities, with sources keen to point out that some 1.3 million people have been born since the Good Friday Agreement.

A series of eight to 10 discussions are to be held between now and the summer.

The two core pillars are; Key social issues that would be of concern to people on the island, environment, health, education, and the whole island economy.

The other pillar is around key civic concerns addressed in the Good Friday Agreement, including identity and equality.

The outcome of these "dialogues" will feed into the broader work of the Shared Island Unit, according to sources.

There will be no reviews, reports, polls, focus groups or reports published from or about any of the dialogues of the Shared Island Unit.

The first, held in November, had over 80 people from north and south across civic, student, sporting faith, cultural and youth groups.

The Shared Island Fund, as part of Budget 2021, saw €500m made available over the next five years to 2025, ring-fenced for Shared Island projects.

In overall terms, priorities for investment through the Shared Island Fund are set out in the Programme for Government and include:

- Working with the Executive to actually deliver key cross-border infrastructure initiatives, including the A5, the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water Bridge, and cross-border greenways, including the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway;

- Working with the Executive and the UK Government to achieve greater connectivity on the island, including for instance, to examine the feasibility of high-speed rail connections.

- Working with the Executive and the UK Government on new investment and development opportunities in the North West and Border communities, including coordinated investment at the University of Ulster Magee Campus in Derry.

However, it has been noted that much of the money has already been promised under long-standing joint commitments to cross-border investment in the A5 transport corridor, the Ulster Canal and the Narrow Water Bridge and cross-border greenways, like the Ulster Canal and the Sligo-Enniskillen route.

Critics have mused that despite much fanfare, much of this has already been done or promised before.

Others say the unit is a trojan horse for unity, a deftly crafted vehicle to slowly guide the evitable into place.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken has says he has no intention of engaging with the unit and has described the initiative as “political expediency” designed to counter “the scourge of Sinn Féin”.

“If the structures put in place by the Belfast Agreement were working effectively and appropriately there wouldn’t be any need for a Shared Island Unit and what is quite frankly an extra unnecessary layer of bureaucracy for what is political expediency,” he said.

He pointed out the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference and British-Irish Council already exist but are “ineffective”.

“No unionist sees any merit in the Shared Island Unit and we’ve told the Taoiseach that directly.”

Talk of a border poll and united Ireland has reached fever pitch in the years since Brexit, and has only gained further momentum due to Sinn Féin’s consistent positive polling in the republic.

Mary Lou McDonald says she will see a border poll in 10 years, while former DUP leader Peter Robinson has said although he does not think Northern Ireland will want to leave the UK, that is no reason it shouldn’t prepare for the eventuality.

“I don’t expect my own house to burn down, but I still insure it because it could happen,” he said.

Robinson’s claims were seen as shocking at the time, however others say the demographics are against unionism and he was merely stating the facts.

Unionism lost its Stormont majority for the first time in the Northern Ireland’s history in 2017.

Last year in the European Parliament elections, 54.39% of the electorate voted for the non-unionist candidates of Naomi Long, Martina Anderson, and Colum Eastwood, while 40.26% cast their first preference for unionist candidates Diane Dodds, Jim Allister, and Danny Kennedy.

One of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, says he believes there will be a border poll “toward the end of the next decade”.

“I’d certainly like to see it, when we get to the anniversary in 2028 of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

“When you have referendums and the details are not worked out, or you don’t explain to people and articulate to people what things mean, it’s usually a waste of time having a referendum.

“There’s lots of issues, how would we work the police system, how would we bring the PSNI and the Garda Síochána together? How would our judicial system work? Would the Assembly in Stormont still operate? I think it would in a different guise as a regional assembly.

“All these things have to be worked out, how the civil service would integrate itself. And there’s been very little work done on that.” He said that there would have to be a “substantial vote” in favour of any border poll for it to succeed.

“If we can’t convince large sections of the unionist/loyalist community, and a middle ground ... then there’s no point.

“If it becomes a sectarian headcount, it’s lost before we start.” The first ever report on a united Ireland in the republic was compiled by Fianna Fáil senator Mark Daly three years ago.

The 1,232-page report was passed unanimously by the all-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Seventeen recommendations included more research into the income and expenditure for Northern Ireland, and the establishment of an international task force with experts in security, in an effort to prepare for any risks, including that of paramilitary violence, may be devised and implemented.

However, not a single recommendation has been implemented since its publication.

While Micheál Martin says unity is not on the cards in his government and more talking is all that’s on the table, it’s difficult to see what the unit will actually produce, or if it was even set up with that purpose.

Through a series of interviews, The Examiner has spoken to a number of people from communities across the north on what a "shared island" would mean to them.

‘No community — nationalist, unionist or neither on the island — should fear that they could be left behind’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: “The Government is working to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver progress for the island as a whole.“Picture: Julien Behal
Taoiseach Micheál Martin: “The Government is working to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver progress for the island as a whole.“Picture: Julien Behal

The Taoiseach says there is “no need for Trojan horses” on the constitutional question for Ireland.

Micheál Martin’s Shared Island Unit has been described as the first sign of a move toward Irish reunification, with some unionists wary that they could inadvertently be used to further a border poll they do not want.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, the Taoiseach said: “Successive Irish Governments, from the time of Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch onwards, worked very hard to strategically engage with the North, to allow peace to emerge, and to influence British policy over time.

“The Good Friday Agreement framework is clear and has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the people, North and South, in simultaneous referendums.

“The agreement allows us all to work together for a shared future, without in any way relinquishing our equally legitimate ambitions and beliefs, across all political traditions on the island.

“The Shared Island initiative is not dealing with questions around flags, emblems, anthems or potential constitutional change under the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

“The Shared Island initiative is about what we can achieve — in government and in wider society — through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement to build a shared island and a shared future.

“It is a broad, positive and inclusive endeavour, which reflects the continuing overwhelming support that the Agreement enjoys across all communities and traditions on the island of Ireland.” 

When asked if a “shared island” would welcome both Hunger Strike Commemorations as well as Orange Order marches, the taoiseach said: “Respect, understanding and tolerance for cultural diversity on the island of Ireland is what the Good Friday Agreement refers to and that should be the basis of our approach into the future.” There is a fear in both nationalist and unionist communities in the north that the region would be left behind by any future constitutional arrangements.

Many point to the lack of infrastructure and opportunity given to Donegal and the rest of the north-west as a totem of Leinster House’s apathy to the area and say Northern Ireland could be left to a similar fate.

Some unionists also fear that resentment towards their community could be borne out in future arrangements. The taoiseach says that would not be the case.

“Nobody and no community — nationalist, unionist or neither on the island — should fear that they could be left behind in the future,” he said.

People see and understand the value of looking at how best we live together and share the island into the future

“I believe we could do more together for instance to improve access to higher education and training, and to tackle ingrained disadvantage on the island.” The taoiseach says he has been “heartened” by the response from people.

“People see and understand the value of looking at how best we live together and share the island into the future,” he said.

When pressed on whether the unit was a “talking shop” as some critics have labelled it, Mr Martin said: “Without dialogue, there would have been no peace process, and without dialogue, there will be no progress.

“The Shared Island Unit is working with the Economic and Social Research Institute and the National Economic and Social Council to develop a comprehensive research programme across a range of sectors.

“In addition to partnerships with key research bodies on the island, we see scope for collaboration with academia and potentially drawing on wider international expertise.

“Research work will be published and it will inform the Government and also contribute to broader debate in society, on how we can work together.

“We are seeking as broad a range of perspective and experience as possible, and ensuring that often underrepresented voices, North and South, including those of young people, women, new and minority communities are heard,” he said.

“The dialogues provide a forum for people to engage on questions for a shared future on this in an inclusive, respectful and pragmatic way, and will inform how we progress the Shared Island initiative.

“The first Shared Island Dialogue was held in November, with young people representing diverse groups and communities across the island, giving their perspective and their ideas on what a shared island means.

“Our Shared Island Dialogue series will continue in the months ahead and engage with key issues for the future on the island including our environment, economy, health and education, and also with key civic concerns that are addressed in the agreement, including issues around equality and identity.” The Government says the €500m significant new resourcing to the Shared Island initiative, “confirms the scale of our ambition to build a shared island and a shared future”.

“The Shared Island fund means that we have significant, ring-fenced resources for investing in collaborative North/South projects, putting Shared Island at the top of our agenda,” the Taoiseach said.

On criticism about the long-promised projects, the taoiseach said: “There are indeed some projects which are long-standing and we are working in partnership with the executive now to actually progress these, without undue delay.

“We have agreed an all-island strategic rail review, including examination of the feasibility of high-speed rail.

“There is clear value in conducting this kind of strategic planning on a cooperative all-island basis, as we look to enhance transport connectivity for people across the island in the years ahead and we will work with the executive and the British Government to commit to new investment and development opportunities in the North West and border communities.

The taoiseach adds that he has had “constructive engagement” with British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the Government’s Shared Island objectives and commitments, and “has made it clear that we are happy also to engage on an East-West basis as we take this work forward.” The legacy of the Troubles looms large in every community in Northern Ireland and there are no specific commitments in the Shared Island Unit to deal with victims issues, however, the taoiseach says he is “committed” to address legacy.

“Reconciliation doesn’t just happen. We are committed to working with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to address the painful legacy of the Troubles.

“We want to do this, as agreed, through the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement framework, in order to support societal reconciliation and meet the legitimate needs of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland.

“Through our Shared Island initiative, the Government is working to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver progress for the island as a whole and to build consensus around a shared future with all communities and traditions on the island.”

‘In dealing with pain you must weigh your words’

                        Stephen Travers, survivor of the Miami Showband Massacre. “If there is a chance for reconciliation at all, it has to be done through the first generation of survivors.” Picture: Larry Cummins
Stephen Travers, survivor of the Miami Showband Massacre. “If there is a chance for reconciliation at all, it has to be done through the first generation of survivors.” Picture: Larry Cummins

Over 3,600 lives were lost in the period known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Legacy issues remain an open wound across the north with many noting that the inability to confront the tragedies will only create more tension.

The 2014 Stormont House Agreement saw the British government commit to introducing legislation to implement the provisions on legacy within 100 days and was one of the pledges of the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored the Northern Ireland Assembly in January.

The commitments included the creation of an independent historical investigations unit to investigate outstanding Troubles-related deaths.

However, in March, Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, in a written statement to the House of Commons, said a new approach would be taken to dealing with legacy issues that included “significant changes”.

Under the British government’s new proposals, only cases where there is a “realistic prospect” of prosecution would be investigated, and all other cases would be closed permanently. The move has been criticised by victim rights groups as well as British MPs.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the scheme for victims’ pensions has been delayed.

The regular payments, which would be given to people seriously injured in the conflict period, have been delayed by arguments over the definition of a Troubles’ victim.

The victims say that any discussion on the future of the island must be led by victims themselves.

They say only victims, who have paid the ultimate price for the politics of the island, can lead the way, bringing their communities with them.

Stephen Travers, from Tipperary, is a survivor of the Miami Showband massacre.

Stephen and his bandmates were travelling home to Dublin after a performance in Banbridge when their minibus was stopped at what appeared to be a military checkpoint where gunmen in British Army uniforms ordered them to line up by the roadside.

At least four of the gunmen were soldiers from the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), and all were members of the UVF.

Two of the gunmen, both soldiers, died when the time bomb they were hiding on the minibus exploded prematurely.

The other gunmen then opened fire on the band members, killing three and wounding two.

Stephen was shot but survived after being rushed to hospital.

Two serving UDR soldiers and one former UDR soldier were found guilty of the murders and received life sentences.

Those responsible for the attack belonged to the Glenanne Gang, a secret alliance of loyalist militants, RUC police officers, and UDR soldiers.

There are also allegations that British military intelligence agents were involved.

“When people ask about whether I believe in a united Ireland, it’s like being asked do you believe in god. I always say, ‘what do you mean by god?” Stephen said.

“It’s up to ourselves, what we think a united Ireland would look like and how it would survive, for both the loyalists, the nationalists.

It’s up to ourselves, what we think a united Ireland would look like and how it would survive

“I’m a committed nationalist, I believe it would be good for everybody. I’m convinced the only way a united Ireland can come about that’s sustainable, that starts to work for everybody, will come about through the economy. It’s not going to be brought about by politicians or paramilitaries who make decisions in smokey rooms.

“The young couples around the breakfast table worried about keeping a roof over their heads, they will decide Ireland’s future.

“The only way around it is education, no one has a monopoly on suffering or loss.

“This idea of a ‘shared island’ is probing to see how Ireland can woo the middle class in Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland — the joker in the pack is Brexit, that may move things very quickly.

“I do believe Brexit will change attitudes and the middle class will look at this in a way of — what is best for us? They are better off currently because of things like housing, healthcare or insurance, it’s not an ideological decision.

“If a united Ireland is brought about, it will be through the economy, the money will be the driver but we have to have a roadmap.

“It would have to be something to entice young people, for instance being part of the EU. I think it would be good for people, but I am open for people to tell me otherwise.

“In a way, Micheál Martin is right when he says we don’t want to use certain terms to frighten the horses. It’s a gradual process, you have to make your case for it.

“One thing I had to learn when I began engaging in the north, loyalists and unionists and republicans, you have to sit down and discuss it and language is more important than anything.

“In the six counties, you have to weigh your words.

“Dialogue is essential but, during and after, you must give as much consideration to listening.

“To quote a former loyalist, David Ervine, he said: ‘There is no problem talking to republicans because it is not contagious’.” Stephen believes that unless the legacy of The Troubles is acknowledged, the divisions that already exist in Northern Ireland will continue.

It’s about our children, the worst thing we can possibly do is hand this toxic legacy to them to deal with, that’s the most selfish thing we could possibly do

“Sometimes legacy issues are an inconvenient truth or used to weaponise one case against another,” he said.

“Like Miami, or Bloody Sunday or Claudy or Enniskillen or Dublin and Monaghan, McGurk’s, Finucane’s, they are wheeled out when it is convenient.

“Only in the last six years, I agreed to call myself a victim. I was arrogantly calling myself a survivor before. It is about time the legacy issues are dealt with, there should be a huge input from victims.

“Victims themselves are fragmented, there is division between how you were injured and by who. It is far more complicated than anyone wants to deal with, so they are not being dealt with. It seems a convenient thing to have those impacted fragmented, I would love to see them together, what unites us is the pain.” Stephen says his own experience has shown him that victims can lead the way rather than politicians.

“It’s about our children, the worst thing we can possibly do is hand this toxic legacy to them to deal with, that’s the most selfish thing we could possibly do.

“When my daughter returns from the North she passes where I was shot and I’m worried for her. Worried someone might stop her there.

“We must make sure it doesn’t happen again and understand the issues.

“The victims who have had to live with the consequences of what happened have a huge amount to offer and I hope the politicians read this and take on board that they can and should appoint somebody who can advise on the feelings of the victims. Appoint someone as an advisor and people would think we’re being listened to for a start.

“For me, I’ve never hated the people who did it. Not for one second. I woke up in Daisyhill hospital and was instantly convinced the person who did it, went to bed, woke up and thought, ‘what did I do?’ I immediately transferred my values onto them.

“I was almost embarrassed for them, that’s never left me, even when I engage with loyalists. I just want to make it better, it’s not about me, they’re not going to shoot me again.

“Sometimes I think that governments hope we’ll all die off.

“If there is a chance for reconciliation at all, it has to be done through the first generation of survivors because as it is handed down through generations it becomes more toxic.”

'Victims’ groups should lead the way

                        Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden died in the Omagh bomb, pictured at the Omagh Garden of Remembrance. “There can be no place for tribalism,” he says. Picture: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden died in the Omagh bomb, pictured at the Omagh Garden of Remembrance. “There can be no place for tribalism,” he says. Picture: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

On August 15, 1998, a Real IRA bomb ripped through Market Street in Omagh killing 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.

More than 220 people were injured. It remains the biggest loss of life in a single atrocity in The Troubles. It was the second such atrocity in Michael’s life.

His brother Hugh Gallagher was 26 when he was murdered by the Provisional IRA, who had carried out a campaign of attacks on Catholic UDR men.

Hugh was married to a protestant woman and had two young children when he was killed.

“I think a united Ireland is probably inevitable, it will happen in the future,” he said.

“I liked what Micheál Martin was saying about it. I come from the nationalist community but I deeply understand the unionist community.

“When you hear Sinn Féin talk about a border poll, that’s showing a red rag to a bull. We should make it easier to bridge that gap.

“We’re very tribal and that’s what’s caused the problems, this tribalism.

“There’s a lot of suspicion and mistrust in the unionist community. They feel very threatened, particularly around a border poll.

“We need to break down those barriers and naturally dispel them.

“Particularly over The Troubles, we got too polarised. I’m not saying it was anyone’s fault, when you’re in trouble you jump into the trench you’re comfortable in. Looking at it, I think the younger generations will not have the same prejudices, and the churches will not have the same amount of control as they did in the past.

“I can see the Orange Order and organisations of that type are not attracting young people as they did in the past.” Despite the tragedies he has endured, Michael says hatred is irrelevant.

“I always had those principles not to judge people on their religion but the content of their heart.

“I have great friends of both religions and equally terrible enemies.” He recalled the treatment his brother Hugh suffered, which ultimately led to his murder, and then the bombing that claimed the life of his only son, Aiden.

The bombers didn’t know one of them but used our loved ones to make a point to governments

“What happened to Hugh was truly horrendous — the first bad experience we had of The Troubles. And then, our only son went into town to buy jeans and never came home.

“Hatred was never something I felt deeply. We all feel hatred but I’ve never allowed it to be part of my character — that would burn me up inside and poison those around me.

“I had so much love for those I lost, there was no room in my heart for hatred. Of course, at the time, I hated them but I try not to let it colour my thinking.

“When I’m talking to extreme republicans and loyalists, I say, ‘I can’t understand how you took someone’s life but can understand why you were angry’.

“Taking a life — to make a point — is what happened. The bombers didn’t know one of them but used our loved ones to make a point to governments.

“There were serious atrocities on all sides — military, police, republican and loyalist — they all did things they should be ashamed of.

“25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, I think the victims should be the people to map the future. There are so many vested interests in this on both sides, on both governments.

“When I talk to victims I can recognise their pain and hurt. We as a group know what sort of a future we should have, and we haven’t even started to talk, almost 25 years after the agreement.” Hypocrisy Michael says there is hypocrisy on all sides when it comes to victims issues, and will prevent the island moving forward.

“This is the hypocrisy, the taoiseach and tánaiste will come out and support the Finucanes and quite rightly so, but when the Omagh campaign called for a public inquiry, the Irish government would not support our call.

“They are selective in what victims are they prepared to support, that’s what happens in politics.

Arlene Foster... would she not take the case of the Omagh families? When Sinn Féin goes to Dublin they’re taking extreme cases in nationalist communities, but could they not also campaign for protestant victims? We’re still behaving as we were 100 years ago.”

  • Continued tomorrow

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