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COLUMN - The moment for Irish unity is nearly over

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 29 Jan 2013 22:33 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By John Lloyd

Jan 29 (Reuters) - The latest "troubles" in Northern Ireland began 45 years ago, and though much reduced, sometimes to invisibility, they are not over yet and will not be for some time. Protests over the Republican-dominated Belfast Council's decision to fly the Union Jack just on certain days happened again over the weekend, if smaller and less violent than in the past few weeks.

This is what can happen after more than a century of demand for Irish independence: violence, on both sides, takes time to lose its attraction, and its adherents. Yet the bid for Irish unity, which from the late sixties to the late nineties was written almost daily in blood, has failed. Now, as we're witnessing what may be its long withdrawal from politics, republicanism may not have another chance.

Sinn Fein, for nearly all of its life a front organisation of the IRA, has made an accommodation with unionism. Its two leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness - respectively once heads of IRA brigades in the seventies and eighties - have not just implicitly accepted the partition of the island, but have called for the nationalist community to work with the police (whom they previously sought to slaughter). They have also denounced those republicans who carry on terrorism under the name of the Real IRA as 'traitors to Ireland.' In a much quoted observation, the historian Paul Bew quipped that "the IRA is too intelligent to admit that they have lost and the Unionists too stupid to realise they have won." This is what the 1998 Belfast Agreement brought.

Bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold was the raison d'etre for the Belfast Agreement. At its core, it was a negotiation between the British state and a terrorist-nationalist group, of the kind Britain has often carried off through the past century.

The prism through which moderate unionists see the current events is to hope that the status quo will hold. Most do not like people whom they regard as murderers or apologists for murder being deputies and ministers in the Northern Ireland assembly. But peace eases the disgust, as does a return of tourism to Northern Ireland.

Many unionists, though, do not see things this way. They view the Sinn Fein Council decision to haul down the union flag as a deliberate affront, a statement of intent to whittle away the Britishness of the province. Signs and symbols are of an importance here out of all comparison with the UK mainland, where few display any kind of flag or allegiance, other than to a football team. The protestors were outside Belfast City Hall again this past weekend, waving both the Union flag and the banner of Ulster, signifying Northern Ireland's government from the 50's through the 70's.

But they were only a few hundred protesters. Professor Peter Shirlow, a Belfast academic who works with unionist political groups, wrote recently that "politics in Northern Ireland responds to clamour." In an interview with Reuters, he said that the protestors rarely numbered more than two thousand and that "had this been ten or fifteen years ago, there would have been deaths by now." In what would have been seen as a miracle for most of the past decades, unionists and nationalists are tentatively reaching out for each other. "People," says Professor Shirlow, "are prepared to move on."

More: the annual Life and Time Survey done for the province, a kind of sociological snapshot, shows that many young people simply refuse to see themselves as British or Irish - but live in a kind of post-national space which they call "Northern Irish," and no longer allow themselves to be forced into ethnic or confessional silos. The same survey shows that two thirds, of all faiths and allegiances, think things are much better; that they can be open about their background; and that they would prefer to live in neighborhoods of mixed faiths than of one faith only.

The vigour of nationalism seems to have left, at least in these British Isles. It is always foolish to say that identities no longer matter and inter-communal peace will be forever: that was said about the various peoples of the Balkans, the Soviet Union and of Lebanon. But 'post-nationalism' may be taking root in Britain, where four nations were forced or woven at different times and in different ways into one state.

Failure of imagination and political skill in Britain's ruling class lost the Republic of Ireland, and after its secession, a long sore has run through Britain, as terrorism erupted in spasms and the Republic claimed the north. Yet now the spasms are weak and the Irish government wisely (and not too controversially) dropped the claim that it was the legitimate government of the entire island of Ireland fifteen years ago. There's a chance the sore is healing.

A final observation: that which excites both British and foreign comment - the absorption of Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland, the independence of Scotland and Britain's exit, broken or not, from the European Union - is exciting to read about. But the best bet is that none of these will happen. And they will not happen because of a paradox.

Nation states remain the organizing principle for governance, as the Europeans have learned. But if they are liberal and capacious in their civic and social habits, most citizens will express a kind of mild loyalty to them - eschewing flag, symbols and anthems, but accepting their right to rule. Never say it's forever: but for the moment, that's the provisional settlement we've reached, and it should be very good news for those who call themselves Northern Irish.

( John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine. ) (John Lloyd)

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