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Why the Republic would be very wary of taking on a Northern Ireland that was not at peace with itself

Hugo MacNeill


Rather than rush headlong into an ill-advised border poll, it would be preferable if nationalists and unionists tried harder to understand the views of 'the other side', writes Hugo MacNeill

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A border sign post

A border sign post

A border sign post

I was delighted to be asked to write this piece because Northern Ireland has always had a very special place in my life. From my ancestors from Glenarm on the Antrim coast, to my rugby playing days, to a lifelong association with organisations such as The Ireland Funds, Co-operation Ireland and the British Irish Association, which I now chair, I have equal respect for the different hopes and aspirations of all.

A significant part of my motivation in running for a seat in the Irish Senate is a desire to spend an even greater part of my life on this issue at this important and sensitive time.

I think this question has to be looked at both from a Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland perspective.

In looking first at Northern Ireland, genuine reconciliation and building real relationships remain the unfinished part of the Good Friday Agreement.

There has obviously been much progress in the period - and lots of examples where trusted relationships have been built - but much remains to be done.

Without wishing in any way to rehash the elements of the Brexit topic, it can't be denied that it has had an unfortunately polarising effect.

This lack of reconciliation and real, trusted relationships has a number of consequences.

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Hugo MacNeill on the attack as an Ireland full-back in 1987

Hugo MacNeill on the attack as an Ireland full-back in 1987

Hugo MacNeill on the attack as an Ireland full-back in 1987

It has implications for the nature of society today in Northern Ireland.

However - and this is where it is important for the topic I have been asked to address - I firmly believe that it also has implications for the longer-term ambitions of both the major traditions.

For the unionist community, that is a Northern Ireland that is genuinely valued and treasured by the rest of the United Kingdom; for the nationalist community, greater constitutional alignment with the Republic, or a united Ireland.

I fully respect the genuineness of these objectives. However, I believe that, without reconciliation and trusted relationships, it is very difficult - if not impossible - for either of the main traditions to genuinely achieve their objectives.

I fully appreciate that there are many shades of opinion within these traditions and an increasing number of people who do not define themselves in this way, as illustrated in the recent University of Liverpool study. However, I think the basic premise holds true.

As someone who lived in England for 18 years, I don't think that Northern Ireland has been valued and embraced to a full extent by the rest of the United Kingdom.

Recent political events around the various elements of Brexit have confirmed the suspicions of many Ulster unionists.

However, it cannot be denied that the view of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK has been substantially influenced by various images of discord that they have seen for many years.

I genuinely understand the desire of the nationalist community to push on with a border poll. The pursuit of unity is a completely legitimate aspiration.

However, as the late Seamus Mallon argued in his book A Shared Home Place, it is potentially dangerous to push ahead with such a poll without both (a) having a very detailed understanding of exactly what is involved and, equally importantly, (b) having created the context and environment in which it has a chance of succeeding.

I appreciate that the book was subject to criticism on some points, but what came out of it was a generosity of spirit and a willingness to reach out and understand the views of 'the other side'.

Recent referenda have shown the danger of not being very precise as regards what is being asked.

With respect to the Republic, I believe there is a long way to go to understanding the genuine identity of Ulster unionism.

It is also not clear what the Republic might pay for any change in the constitutional position, either in monetary terms or willingness to be generous on matters of identity.

This is, in large part, due to the history that we learnt in school. Irish history has been taught as the journey, with its various ups and downs, to being an independent state. 'Independent', in our case, meant being not British.

Therefore, many have difficulty in comprehending that someone is genuinely British and Irish at the same time.

It was shown in the recent BT Sport programme Shoulder to Shoulder. Former Irish rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll was talking to his former team-mate and successor as captain Rory Best.

"I don't get it," said Brian. "You are Irish and British." "Yes," said Rory Best OBE.

This echoed the words of the great Ulster poet John Hewitt, who talked about the various layers of his true identity, including being Irish and British.

There has not been sufficient thought, or discussion, given in the Republic to what elements of Britishness would be included in any united Ireland (or a federal Ireland) - rejoining the Commonwealth, the role of Stormont, representation in the Irish parliament, increased taxes to fund the NHS and other services, changes to flags and anthems, commemoration of Ulster culture and so on and so on.

There is very little understanding of the distinct elements of Ulster culture.

I took my daughter to Belfast last July 12 to watch the Orange parade. I asked myself, what were those who were proposing a border poll doing to accommodate the identity of those who were marching by in such numbers?

When you see the ongoing criticism of the singing of Ireland's Call before rugby and other sporting events, you feel like saying, "If you have problems with Ireland's Call, wait until you get on to the hard stuff".

I think the Republic would be very wary of taking on a Northern Ireland that was not at peace with itself. To the extent there was any genuine threat of a return to loyalist violence, attitudes in the Republic could harden very fast to the idea of such a poll.

In conclusion, would it not be more constructive if the leaders of unionism set out a clear, generous, inclusive vision of a Northern Ireland for all within the UK?

Equally importantly, would it not be extremely helpful if the leaders of nationalism also articulated a clear, generous and inclusive vision of greater alignment, or unity, with the Republic and what it would mean precisely for northern unionists?

I would respectfully suggest that the immediate focus should be on building real and trusted relationships and demonstrating real political leadership.

As Bill Clinton said in Belfast on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, "Compromise should not be seen as weakness".

That will then create the options, should people wish to pursue them, of successfully achieving not only short-term, but other, long-term, goals.

Hugo MacNeill is chair of the British Irish Association and a candidate for the Irish Senate. A former Irish rugby international, he was a member of the team that won the Triple Crown twice, in 1982 and again in 1985

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