Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Anthem that divides ill at ease with our goal of unity

Peter Robinson

If we want a better society, it can't be 'them' and 'us'. It can only be 'all of us'." I raise these words, spoken by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, at his party conference, in the face of two recent controversies.

Firstly, the playing of God Save The Queen before Northern Ireland international soccer matches. Secondly, the refusal of the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast to present an award to a 15-year-old Army cadet and his subsequent apology for not doing so.

Let us consider what Mr Robinson said: "Help us build a new Northern Ireland. Not just for some, but for all. Get involved and, even in some small way, play your part in this great and historic endeavour. Our province may be small, but our ambition can be great. As a united community, we can prosper and flourish. That's the Northern Ireland I want to see."

Some people may conclude that these are hollow sentiments coming from a man who was a scriptwriter for Ian Paisley and probably helped coin the slogans 'Ulster Says No' and 'Never. Never. Never.'

The message from Peter Robinson is that times have changed. He says his brand of unionism feels under threat no longer. The Union is secure and unionists must reach out to those in the community who feel Northern Ireland is a cold house for them.

Those are truly visionary views, which, if acted upon, would transform this society. Which brings me to the singing of God Save The Queen at Windsor Park and the Lord Mayor's behaviour at Belfast City Hall. In hindsight, the row at the City Hall had a positive outcome. It has taught a lesson to Sinn Fein about what Mr Robinson calls "them" and "us".

In the context of the City Hall, where Sinn Fein councillors are in the majority, they are "us" and unionists are "them". At Windsor Park, the roles are reversed.

There is no more emotional moment in sport on this island than when God Save The Queen is played at Windsor Park and A Soldier's Song at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. And yet, in the context of 2011, I now feel they are both wrong.

If Scotland and Wales can do it with Flower of Scotland and Land of My Fathers, so can Northern Ireland. Given our divisions, we have even more reason to find words to unite and inspire all - and not just some - of our talented international sportsmen and women.

The singing of an anthem should come from the heart. It is about passion, spirit, commitment, loyalty and pride in one's country. It should never invoke unease among some spectators, or - more importantly - among the players on the pitch.

Yet that is precisely what happens in Dublin and in Belfast. The tight lips of international players standing uncomfortably to attention before games in both cities is a telling reminder of our divisions, if one were needed.

To its credit, the Irish Rugby Football Union recognised this issue many years ago when it accepted Phil Coulter's stirring anthem Ireland's Call.

The Irish Football Association has an even greater challenge on its hands, given the strong passions which the singing of the anthem invokes in Northern Ireland. But Gerry Armstrong was right to say that is time to open the debate and see where it takes us.

We have been here before; for example, in the search for a new symbol for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to replace that of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Finding a new and suitable anthem for all the people of Northern Ireland will not be easy, but it must be pursued with the same vigour.

This is not about denying any section of society their rights, or culture. It is about embracing - to use Peter Robinson's message - "all of us" rather than "them" and "us."

Slowly, we appear to be moving in the right direction. Even Sinn Fein - like the DUP, hardly a party noted for apologising or owning up to mistakes - has done so over the Duke of Edinburgh award debacle. Out of the ill-will at the City Hall has come some good and a sign that a little political maturity is emerging at last.

We have a long way to go. The speech by Mr Robinson rates, for me, as one of the most important unionist messages in the past 40 years.

The challenge now for unionists - and nationalists - is whether the will is there to do what is required, not least at Windsor Park.

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