We were at our very best on Friday evening; on Saturday evening we were at our worst.
It took a mere 24 hours to complete the cycle. By booking a week before Christmas, I managed to obtain two of the last tickets for Friday's civic concert by the Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Chorus to celebrate the reopening — after two years — of the city’s Ulster Hall. It was an exuberant occasion, Bedford Street buzzing, the old hall resplendent, every seat taken, and two fine soloists to do justice to the Rachmaninov and to Stanford's Songs of the Fleet.
But then there was the Lord Mayor, Councillor Tom Hartley, to give the whole thing a send-off. He made a most felicitous speech, neither too short nor too long — and expertly inclusive, bearing in mind the history of the hall; and it was pleasing that he was warmly applauded for his pains. As all present knew, Mr Hartley is a member of Sinn Fein, but the platform of the hall has in the past been the favourite stamping ground of the more fiery champions of unionism. On an evening like Friday, however, this was going to be no problem. It was the Belfast Agreement working, because here was an audience gathered in from all parts — in united celebration.
Then came Saturday. The late news reminded us how fragile remains the facade of normality in this place. It reminded us that the Agreement's Achilles heel is its wobbly foundation: wobbly because it consists, not only of two fictions, but of two fictions which contradict each other.
The first fiction is that Northern Ireland is secure as a fully-accredited part of the United Kingdom. The situation in law, of course, is beyond doubt. But laws are made by man and man can change them. The fact is that our UK membership is not fully-accredited, in the sense that our near neighbours south of the border refuse to honour it in the spirit. Oh, yes, of course they pretend to! They behave correctly and in a civil manner. But one has only to inspect their utterances and their speech to appreciate that they do not in their hearts accept it. To them, the UK is Great Britain — nothing more. Note how their government agencies advertise their jobs on the ‘national council’ of this and the ‘commission’ of that in the Northern Ireland newspapers, in accordance with, shall we say, their Special Educational Needs Act, 2004, under which ‘policy advice is to be given to the Minister’.
But in this jurisdiction we know nothing of either that Act, the body in question or the identity of the Minister (unnamed). But when similar vacancies are advertised in the London newspapers, it is interesting to note that the approach is very different.
In these instances there is an introductory note referring to the public body in question and stating that it provides, say, health and social services ‘for everyone living in the Republic of Ireland’. I maintain that the foregoing indicates a state of mind which is both significant and unfortunate. It implies a carelessness about the constitutional facts which sensitive souls — of whom we have plenty — might misinterpret as something much more sinister than wishful thinking.
All of which brings us to the second fiction upon which the Agreement is based: that a united Ireland is a realistic possibility in the foreseeable future. Why else is there continuing provision for the holding of a referendum on the border, a referendum which, in the letter of the law, requires a mere majority of one to sweep that border away? Sinn Fein feels obliged to keep the faithful happy by frequent mention of unity. They plan a new drive. Unity will not happen anytime soon, though, because the circumstances are not right. But, again, trigger-happy apostles of the cause can take this ball and run with it. A united Ireland could have advantages; but, at this of all times, no citizen of the Republic is ready to have the Dail double taxes to pay for it.
As for Northern Ireland, its earthy politics are the direct result of the choice the new Free State made in the years after 1920. The unionist tradition south of the border was sacrificed, lock, stock and barrel, to the republican ideal. Many unionists left; others were chased, their houses burned by the republican mob; the few remaining soon learned it was tactful to keep quiet about any proclivities they harboured for the Old Enemy. Thus was the new state raised upon only one of its two traditions. The temper of the North is the reflex of that choice.
If a united Ireland is to happen over time, the South will have to earn it — and I am not referring to money, although, goodness knows, millions will have to be found to pay for it.