Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

How we need political lions to tackle that Anglo-Irish divide

Is there a lesson in Northern Ireland politics to be learnt from the British and Irish rugby team? It plays under a unified banner — the Scottish Thistle, the Welsh Prince of Wales Feathers, the English Rose and the Irish Shamrock. The team has an illustrious history of unified glory going back many decades.

The Lions' greatest and most inspirational leader was one Willie John McBride from Ulster. When he was in charge in 1974, his team was known with complete justification as ‘The Invincibles’. Legend has it that the Earth quaked whenever he shouted “99” to his players, a call to arms which wiped out even the toughest opponents.

Now, in the aftermath of the European elections when nearly 60% of the population failed to vote at all, I wonder if a new British and Irish party could invoke a similar spirit and maybe even arouse the electorate from its deep slumbers.

Don't over-excite yourself about the Traditional Unionist Voice. Don't lose any sleep over the Democratic Unionists' double-jobbing problems or the Ulster Unionists joining up with the Tories. Consider the vision of the B and I party.

Who would be eligible to join? Answer, anyone who feels distinctly British or Irish, as long as they did not consider physically attacking or killing anyone to enforce their point of view.

I suspect that there are hundreds of thousands of potential members of the B and I party who cherish the British tradition, their Planter heritage, and simply want to remain politically and economically part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Likewise, there are many others who feel more Irish than British, who cherish the tradition and culture of the Gael, but also know which side their bread is buttered on. By that I mean, they would run a mile from an actual united Ireland today or tomorrow but would still like to see more unity of purpose between the UK and Ireland.

I think most people now accept that a united Ireland cannot be achieved by force — or by wishful thinking.

It cannot be achieved, as John Hume used to say, without a united Northern Ireland and it cannot be sustained in any way without addressing the harsh reality of the economy, north or south on this island.

The current British and Irish Lions are captained by Paul O'Connell, an inspirational Irishman from Munster. When he has a day off, his brilliant Leinster compatriot, Brian O'Driscoll takes charge. All of their players appear to me to be more than willing to lay down their lives on a rugby pitch for each other. It is a classic example of one for all, all for one, British and Irish, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh alike.

Aside from their undoubted talent, they display total loyalty and commitment to one another. If such a team spirit could be translated from the sports field to a political party, the latter would surely sweep all before it on this island.

In my view, we should stop and think about this because existing unionist and nationalist parties have a difficulty. They continue to talk at one another but seldom with one another. If that happened on the rugby pitch, the British and Irish Lions would never win a match.

We delude ourselves if we think there is not a massive job to be done.

The UK and the Republic live cheek by jowl geographically with even a land frontier joining them but they still behave as if they were light years apart. They have separate currencies and very different economics. The Queen in one country cannot even visit the President in the other.

In virtually every aspect of life, short of using the English language, the two nations have wide differences, in living standards, house prices, taxes, employment prospects, health and education matters and many other corners of government.

The London and Dublin governments may have tried to sort out Northern Ireland but what price real harmonisation between such neighbouring states?

The British and Irish Lions rugby team is an example of true cooperation. It begs an enormous question for us all. What if we British or Irish of the 21st century were to concentrate more on pulling together rather than arguing apart?

What if, instead of being seen as a great sectarian black hole into which any unionist or nationalist who shakes hands eventually falls and is never seen again, Northern Ireland were to become a bridge between London and Dublin, between the British and Irish traditions?

What if we were to recognise that in being British or being Irish and living together in this province, we could be as incredible a force as the Lions?

What if we could redefine unionism from its narrow ground and persuade nationalists to support a unified British-Irish future rather than dwelling on a divided British-Irish past?

What if unionists and nationalists could have a common cause in bringing together the people of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic?

If we could achieve that, far from being a barrier between London and Dublin, Northern Ireland could be a causeway of hope joining the islands together.

United they stand. Divided they fall. The British and Irish Lions know this every time they go out to play.

Maybe it is time we the British and Irish citizens of Northern Ireland felt the same.

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