Paul Hosford: Grasping the nettle of a shared island concept

Political apathy is no longer a valid stance, as violence on the streets of Belfast is everyone's responsibility on this island.
Paul Hosford: Grasping the nettle of a shared island concept

The PSNI use a water cannon on youths on the Springfield road, during further unrest in Belfast. Picture: PA Wire

It has been a year of Seamus Heaney quotes. And though on this side of the border, politicians have eschewed the Derry great's poetry for more sombre lines in recent months, this week one line rings too true. "Anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland can’t be too optimistic,” Mr Heaney once said.

For people in and from the North, this week is a reminder that there is always something threatening a peace that was too hard-won. For people in the south, not all but too many, it was a chance to peer over the spectacles and proclaim the natives were restless again before returning to more pressing matters.

We are, you see, disconnected from the violence that occurs and has occurred just across an imaginary line on the ground. That is a problem for the North for northerners to deal with.

This is often a failing at political level, but it is an endemic failure at societal. And that apathy feeds up the vine. This current government has pledged €500mi to a Shared Island unit full of lofty goals and high-minded ideas but has not meaningfully engaged the Northern Executive on a co-ordinated response to the Covid pandemic. Too often questions on how and why this has been allowed to happen a year in are met with a shrug and a pursing of lips along with the words "The North", a catch-all explanation for avoiding any awkward conversations on the six counties.

And it is not hard to fall into the same trap when you see the level of political leadership in the North this week. As youths from communities supposedly in support of her ideology rampaged through the streets of Belfast, First Minister Arlene Foster found time to point to the "real lawbreakers" — the mourners of a Sinn Féin funeral last year.

That much of the violence had kicked off because of Ms Foster's incendiary and reckless reaction to the Public Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute those mourners was seemingly lost on the DUP leader as she took to Twitter not to appeal for calm, but to attempt to score political points. Ms Foster's call for the PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne to resign was an extraordinary political intervention into the justice system.

She was joined by Steve Aiken of the UUP, who, six days after calling for Mr Byrne to resign, saying that "the senior leadership of the PSNI has failed, and no longer has the support of much of our community" was condemning a wave of anti-police violence which injured over 50 officers. After a top-down attack on the police, an appeal to distrust and victimhood and the sense that "them ones" are getting away with something, neither party could believe there was a reaction.

Members of the clergy at the peace gates on Lanark Way in Belfast following an ecumencial service in response to the recent riots and violence in the city
Members of the clergy at the peace gates on Lanark Way in Belfast following an ecumencial service in response to the recent riots and violence in the city

However, the truth of a shared island or a united Ireland is that we don't have to understand Arlene Foster, whose party has campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement and for Brexit. We have to understand both those young men who saw fit to hijack a bus on Wednesday and the adults cheering them on to do so. We must understand the climate that creates distrust across both sides and not just because it may soon be our problem to deal with.

We need to understand not the political theatre of Northern Ireland, but its people. And, make no mistake, we need to do this whether unification is our end goal or not. We should do so because it is quicker to get to Belfast from Dublin than it is to Cork. There is no longer any excuse for seeing rioting on the street up the road from us and turning away out of apathy.

Ireland is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, so our government is duty-bound to uphold its letter. However, despite 94.4% of voters in the Republic voting in favour of the document, have we, as a society, upheld its spirit?

How many people do you know whose eyes glaze over when the North is mentioned? How many actively try to avoid the topic altogether? How many are very ready to offer an insight that amounts to 'one side bad, one side good' despite having never been north of Swords?

If you're like me, that number is not zero. Frequently in our lives, more frequently for some than others, there comes a time when we are faced with our ignorance. That is not to say that ignorance is malicious or intentional, it can just be a blind spot or something we have yet to learn. The correct thing to do in those situations is to step away, learn and listen. Sadly in the social media age, the common thing to do is to double down, lean in and belittle those who possess more insight than we do.

Personally, a fairly bracing run-in with my own ignorance came in the middle part of the last decade when I realised that despite being a journalist and despite having a grandfather from Ardoyne in Belfast, I knew very little about the North.

Of course, I knew about the top levels of it and could name the key players and talk about the politics of the day, but I understood nothing of the true origins of The Troubles or what motivated anyone in Northern Ireland over the last 60 years.

My grandfather died six months ago, but I am grateful I took the time to ask him about what it was like to be a young Catholic in 50s and 60s in Belfast. About what prompted him to move from what was effectively an apartheid state to him.

Those conversations allowed me to understand not just the North, but him better, too. On this side of the border, it's time to do away with our preconceptions, our half-informed, watery takes doled out to a captive, like-minded audience.

A united Ireland is more likely than not on the balance of probabilities in the next 20 years at this moment in time. The idea that the North is "nothing to do with us" is over. It is naive to think that any return to violence on this island will leave those on the 'correct' side of the border untouched.

To paraphrase the singer Billy Bragg, if violence  (true, visceral violence) returns to the streets of Belfast and Derry, it will come to the streets of Cork and Dublin, too. Grasping the nettle will require an uncomfortable period of listening for those who already know it all, but as a society and a body politic, we will be better, stronger and safer for it.

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