Belfast Telegraph

Bridging the gap on Ireland's increasing divide between north and south

Since the Good Friday Agreement North and South have moved even further apart in all aspects of life and will continue to do so unless someone comes up with a workable vision for the whole of the island, argues Malachi O'Doherty

As a child before the Troubles I had a strong sense that the Irish Republic was a different place. From a nationalist family, I would never have conceded that it was a different country. It was the real Ireland and the North, or the Six Counties as I'd have called my home State then, was the part that was estranged, flawed, ill-fitting.

During the Troubles the crossing of the border was more arduous and worrying. Usually there were police or Army checkpoints and every prospect of being searched and held for questioning. And during much of this time the Republic was changing in character. It was becoming more prosperous.

Here we had the stress of the Troubles and it made us different, harder and more wary.

And distance from the Troubles made the people of the Republic naive or indifferent.

Once summer in the mid-Eighties when I cycled to Kerry it seemed to me that the further south I went the more smug and detached people sounded in their ordinary conversation.

The guy in the pub would say: "Awful about the Troubles; do you think they will ever sort it out?" He didn't even notice how his language signalled his washing of his hands of someone else's problem.

In a discussion on The Late Late Show on RTE on Friday the journalist Martina Devlin from Omagh said she thought that since the Good Friday Agreement the cultures of the different sides of the border had not shifted closer together but had actually moved apart.

One of the surprising ways in which the cultures of North and South have diverged is that the South has liberalised and secularised faster. Previous generations feared Irish unity on the grounds that it would put us under the undue influence of the Catholic Church. But now it is the North that is more moralistic in its law-making.

Culturally, the two States on the island are separate. Go to the big arts festivals and you see different audiences. The people who go to the John Hewitt Summer School are rarely if ever seen at, say, the Mountains to the Sea Festival in Dun Laoghaire, and vice versa.

I have had four of my books published in the Republic yet I have done more readings in North America than south of the border, which isn't many.

Watch RTE's current affairs programme Primetime and you will rarely see northerners in the heat of their discussions about events down there. You will see instead a parade of pundits and political figures who almost never feature on discussion programmes in the North.

A few pundits and critics from the North are noticed in the South: Eamonn McCann, Susan McKay, Devlin. Almost none from there are regular guests on programmes here.

UTV tried to cross the border with new channel UTV Ireland, investing in the prospect of the emergence of a one island consciousness, and it failed miserably.

The people of both jurisdictions are settled comfortably with a sense of their parameters.

There are exceptions in sport and religion. Northern rugby players often play for Ireland and northern supporters travel to Dublin to cheer. But there is little chance of this being matched in football.

Even in Gaelic sports, northern teams like Tyrone getting into the All-Ireland final is talked of as something different, unusual, as an invasion of the barbarians from one perspective, an injection of raw genius from another, but either way, until very recently, a surprise, a break in the natural order.

The churches are mostly all-Ireland bodies, including the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. But the synods and assemblies don't feel national; they feel regional.

Even the Catholic Church feels partitioned with two figurehead archbishops, Diarmuid Martin in Dublin and Eamon Martin in Armagh.

The one political party making efforts to close the gap is Sinn Fein, though in doing so it comes to look like two parties, too.

Gerry Adams moved from West Belfast to take a seat for Louth in the Dail and re-energise the party down there, and has had massive success on the back of the economic collapse.

Yet he attracts disdain not just for his radical politics and his routine support for the IRA, but quite simply for being an interloper and for pushing the argument for Irish unity when interest in the idea has almost died out.

The other parties are supposed to say they want a united Ireland but they aren't expected to go on and on about it.

The South did not expect to have Sinn Fein in its face after the Good Friday Agreement.

Essentially, many saw the settlement here as a means of keeping the North out of the politics of the Republic.

Provoism reminds the other brands of republicanism that the vision of Pearse and Connolly has been shortchanged while the people are not equal and the island is mortgaged to pay the gambling debts of the rich.

And yet this becomes a northern story only when it has a strong northern connection, like the claim - which has never been substantiated - that some of our politicians tried to cream millions out of the fire sale for themselves.

Maybe partition has gone on too long, that is, so long that it cannot be reversed, and the best that can be hoped for is that the two States in Ireland can be good neighbours.

If we are to be dissuaded of that then somebody will really have to come up with a comprehensive vision of a whole Ireland, one that works in this decade of centenaries.

And what might that be? You certainly can't expect Northern unionists to provide the ideas, so it falls to the all-Ireland institutions, that is the churches and the sporting organisations and the trade unions and other parts of civic society which already seem organically divided.

Or it falls to the Irish Government to frame its vision of the past more inclusively, having already lost the chance to have the Northern Ireland First Minister or a British royal at the 1916 commemorations.

One element of it could be focus on those parts of the legacy of that disruptive period that we are all now glad of, like votes for women, the growth of trade unions, the survival of democracy.

Another faint hope would be for some of the constitutional nationalists to reconsider more realistically what the Easter Rising did to them. Britain wasn't the only enemy in Pearse's sights. He wanted to usurp the Irish Parliamentary Party, the guys who wanted participation in British politics (the SDLP/Fine Gael types of their day) and he did it. Maybe someone from that camp standing up and saying plainly "we wuz robbed" would take the shine of the myth of the rebels as men of destiny.

The trajectory begun in that decade of turmoil a hundred years ago has taken us to where we are now. In that the revolutionaries wanted a different Ireland they have failed. Has no one the gumption to say we should be glad of that?

Belfast Telegraph

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