The passing of Sam McAughtry shouldn't go by without comment. There has been a series of deaths recently of people who, through their creativity, imagination and artistic skills, contributed whole lifetimes of effort and ingenuity to our condition socially and politically in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole. This isn't to downplay anyone's grief at the death of a loved one. Many know how bitter that loss can be, of lives lived in quiet anonymity which were nonetheless decent and inspiring.
But with Sam McAughtry's death, the memory of almost a century of Belfast life disappeared from reach. In his many newspaper articles, broadcasts, memoirs, interviews and volumes of stories, he gave voice to a version of The Ulster Protestant which was and remains rarely expressed. In his own words, a 'hybrid unionist', McAughtry (below) came from a stock which had a more complex relationship with 'Ireland' and 'Britain' than nowadays we would ever be given to believe existed.
A culture which remembered the bread protests of the '30s, when want for a while united working people in a common cause; a people for whom 'Dublin' had until very recently been a recognised capital – a much less distant memory than our own Belfast Agreement is for us today; generations for which the slaughter of the Great War, for the island as a whole, was a living condition, an atrocious legacy; and yes, for which the ceaseless undercurrent of sectarian rivalry remained a periodic eruption of vicious of low-grade inter-communal violence.
McAughtry dragged that older sense of a declining city and the many everyday exchanges between and among its many districts and allegiances, right into the discourse of our own contemporary 'Troubles' and its deceptively black-and-white, 'nationalist and unionist' character.
Other writers and journalists, of course, drew on similar resources, but none with the immediacy, vividness, black humour, accessibility and huge credibility of the man from Tiger's Bay. His lifelong commitment to a working class left-wing take on the world he knew was given a deeper power, beyond sloganising, stance-making or trendy theorising, by the authenticity of his character and voice.
It was that genuine, root-and-branch Belfast authenticity which gave his views an audience in the most unlikely of places, which allowed him to walk among physical force republicans, posh Tory unionists, loyalist paramilitaries, woolly nationalists, and ordinary people of all brands, more or less without threat. There were occasions when his views and actions seemed misguided or simplistic or even naive – the Peace Train initiative, for example, didn't really grip the public imagination and risked being thought of as stunt politics. But his integrity carried the day. He was very real, very articulate, very forceful, and generous and witty and warm and human and, somehow, McAughtry represented the brand of Ulster Protestant, the kind of grassroots unionist, with which everyone else on the island, high and low, gunman and politico, sooner or later, was going to have to come to terms.
His speech to the Irish Senate on his election – not appointment, as Maurice Hayes made clear in his moving obituary in this paper – should pass into our common history as an important document of our time, bringing the news on behalf of the Ulster Prod after decades of ignorance and neglect south of the border.
His remarks in 1996 expressed one version of coexistence on the island: "It is my dearest wish to see this island inhabited by five million Irish people, living in two jurisdictions with consent, but with institutions established to emphasise their Irishness."
From an orthodox Ulster unionist perspective, they were in advance of their time; the context radical; the part about 'Irishness' still difficult to accept. But in this, McAughtry represented the kind of advanced thinking of which Ulster Protestants are capable without yielding their unionism.
And before we get overcome with a warm glow, let me make this clear. I'm not aware of a similar direct, simple, honest expression from a nationalist or republican viewpoint which accepts so much of Britishness, actively embraces so much of 'otherness', seeks so much to be reconciled to the legitimacy of jurisdictions or identities, hybrid or otherwise, to which they do not themselves adhere.
A statement from republicanism which expressed equal generosity out of similar community suffering would help tackle the issues of cultural symbolism and signals of Britishness which appear such an obstacle to the peace process today.
Something for us all to ponder as we bury another great son of the city.
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