Why Heaney sees no rhyme nor reason for united Ireland
There's never going to be a united Ireland. So why don't you let them fly the flag." The searing honesty of Seamus Heaney, illustrious son of Catholic nationalist Ulster, cuts to the chase as his words have done so eloquently in so many volumes of Nobel prize-winning poetry.
His comments – in an interview with The Times – may be dismissed by nationalist politicians or fastened upon by unionists as some justification for their recent actions.
The gist of his message is "cool it". He is suggesting that there is nothing to be gained and perhaps much to be lost from opening up old wounds and stirring salt into new ones.
One side is failing to fathom the mindset of the other. From the personal experience of his own Catholic upbringing, Heaney believes the importance of flags burns so deep into the Protestant loyalist psyche that the issue may be best left for another day. "Now is not the time," he is quoted as saying.
Much damage has been done already to the image of Northern Ireland abroad by events on our streets in the past three months.
We are all the wiser with the benefit of hindsight. Seamus Heaney has the virtue of telling it as it is, rather than how it might suit another person's political book to portray the continuing difficulties we all face and somehow must try to resolve.
These are "very dangerous times indeed", as he says. The more strident the demands of nationalists and republicans, the more it appears unionists are retreating behind their constitutional shields. Those who have lived through the Troubles know it to be forever thus. The pages of our history reveal a constant battle between one side asking too much, too soon and the other delivering too little, too late.
In 2013, we are in danger of opening another, similar chapter. The months ahead could prove crucial and defining times for the future of power-sharing and partnership.
Northern Ireland is not in its best place at present. It has been shaken and stirred by the flags protest, a most unhappy and worrying precursor for the spring and summer to come.
We live in a society where trust across political boundaries is still despairingly fragile, as evidenced by the fact that the First and Deputy First Minister, for all their public displays of partnership, are unable to see eye-to-eye over the flags dispute – even though it is so crucial to restoring stability.
The buck stops with both of them and with the governments in London and Dublin. A more impressive show of unanimity is surely needed by Easter, otherwise Northern Ireland faces yet another uncertain and potentially divisive summer. The Alliance Party's vision for the future, published last week, ticks all the right boxes for a better Northern Ireland by the year 2022, but words alone will not take us there.
Yes, it would be great to have the peace walls dismantled. Yes, more integrated education is welcome. Yes, the display of flags and emblems needs better guidelines and controls. The question remains: how can such goals be achieved?
The first priority for politicians at Stormont must be to work within the context of Northern Ireland. Uniting this community from within should be their foremost aim.
That means the constitutional position needs to be put to bed for the foreseeable future, as many people hoped it had when they voted for the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent deals.
Whether Seamus Heaney really meant to use the word "never" in the context of ruling out a united Ireland remains to be seen.
Certainly, his words should prompt a more constructive debate amongst nationalists and republicans and in the media as to what the aspiration of a united Ireland really means in today's harsh economic world.
For all the radio and TV focus on where unionism is heading, there is little or no reciprocal inquiry directed at either Sinn Fein, or the SDLP, on the issue of Irish unity.
How could unity ever be paid for, or achieved? What do the people on the street really think?
If the questions are not asked, nor any answers volunteered, is it any wonder politics here can be so dangerously distorted? Northern Ireland's best hope for the foreseeable future lies with itself. Seamus Heaney is stating the obvious when he says a united Ireland is not on.
Who in nationalist politics is prepared to show the same degree of honesty with the electorate?