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Dennis Kennedy: The Belfast Agreement entrenched tribalism... it's time to think again

London and Dublin should stop congratulating themselves on alleged successes of the deal and start over


Prime Minister Tony Blair signs the Good Friday Agreement with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

Prime Minister Tony Blair signs the Good Friday Agreement with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald


Prime Minister Tony Blair signs the Good Friday Agreement with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

As the south celebrates the abortion referendum result, here in the north the two arguably most-blinkered nationalist parties in western Europe trade insults and ludicrous claims as to their own broad-mindedness and general enlightenment.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland flounders without an Executive or Assembly, and with a seemingly incompetent Civil Service.

Where do we go from here? There is no mutual trust or respect between the DUP and Sinn Fein. In regard to their stated objectives - the preservation of the Union on the one hand and the achievement of Irish unification on the other - both seem blind to their own long-term interests and blind to present-day evolving realities.

It is clear that the unionist goal of keeping Northern Ireland within the UK can be achieved only if significant numbers of non-unionists are content to be in the UK. On the nationalist side, it has long been recognised that Irish unification can be achieved only by persuasion and that must mean persuading a large section of the broader unionist community that it is a good idea.

Yet the DUP's policies and public utterances seem almost calculated to offend moderate nationalists not to make them feel at home in the UK.

Its extreme pro-Brexit stance, seen by a majority as contrary to Northern Ireland's economic interests and motivated by intense British nationalism, is doing nothing to cement wider acceptance of the Union.

Pig-headedness over flags, parades and bonfires, plus its jeering dismissal of the Irish language, all work against this.

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The party's fundamental conservatism on social issues, now particularly on abortion, may appeal to its Paisleyite core, but not to many others.

Up to now opinion polls show a considerable number within the nationalist community saying they prefer a future within the UK to joining a united Ireland.

There are sensible grounds for this, not least the large flow of funds from London to keep Northern Ireland in business, and the health service. But common sense, even self-interest, does not always prevail - the UK's Brexit poll is a sobering example.

The electoral support for Sinn Fein and the SDLP - both parties committed to Irish unification - indicates that a considerable number of voters who say they are content to remain in the UK give their support at elections to parties pledged to a united Ireland.

That disconnect may not always operate.

What about Sinn Fein? It, too, is going the wrong way about Irish unity by persuasion by continuing to present a face of Irishness that is least likely to appeal to even moderate unionists. Overshadowing its alertness to local issues and its new-found liberalism on same-sex marriage and abortion is Sinn Fein's continuing celebration of the violent role of the IRA in the Troubles. It is this which defines Sinn Fein's distinctive Irishness in northern unionist eyes.

The IRA was responsible for 1,700 murders during the Troubles; Sinn Fein may call them regrettable casualties of war, but murders they were - husbands and wives shot in their homes, others gunned down going to or at their place of work, diners and shoppers blown to pieces by IRA bombs.

The Belfast Agreement was careful to avoid such plain speaking and helped pave the way for an official amnesia and a radical rewriting of the history of the Troubles. But, for many, an Irishness that honours such barbarity has few attractions.

Mary Lou McDonald had an opportunity to distance Sinn Fein from IRA violence, but instead she chose to make her first official function in Northern Ireland as president of Sinn Fein the laying of a wreath in honour of an IRA terrorist.

Sinn Fein has also made a top priority of another aspect of Irishness long anathema to unionism: the Irish language.

Many have a fondness for the language, though few can speak it and even fewer use it on a daily basis, but to argue for a bilingual Northern Ireland, or for parity with English, is to ask the impossible.

In all this the Belfast Agreement bears much responsibility. Whatever benefits it may have brought - and it did end violence on anything like the scale prevailing before - it has also seen the near-total elimination of any middle ground in our politics.

It institutionalised tribalism - unionist and nationalist - and these labels play a key role in the formation of the Executive and decision-making in the Assembly.

The pressure on unionist or nationalist parties is not to seek common ground, but to ensure that tribal support is maximised in one party from each side.

The Agreement's principal architects - the governments in London and Dublin - are making matters worse.

The British Government wantonly embraced Brexit, ignoring the inevitable damage that turning the UK's back on European integration would do to a situation desperately needing the blurring of national identities and the elimination of hard frontiers.

The Irish Government does not help by continuing to trumpet the armed insurrection by a small minority in 1916 as the founding and shaping event of modern Ireland and by continuing the pretence that Irish is the language of today's Ireland.

There is little hope that Sinn Fein and the DUP will mend their ways. It may be that Sinn Fein sees little point in trying to persuade unionists of the potential benefits of some form of a united Ireland. Its money may be on continued instability here, with all sorts of difficulties post-Brexit, the DUP lurching further to the Right and a Northern Ireland within a UK outside the EU becoming uncomfortable for even the most moderate nationalists. That way the border poll so foolishly promised in the Belfast Agreement might appeal to Sinn Fein as its best bet.

The DUP seems entrenched in an ultra-unionist mindset of "Not an inch", Ulster is British and anything Irish is foreign.

Arlene Foster's candid admission that, if unity came about, she was not sure she would be able to continue to live here and would probably have to leave sounded sadly defeatist, even though she prefaced it by saying it was not going to happen.

Such convinced optimism, from a unionist viewpoint, seems to take no account of demographic changes in Northern Ireland, or of British attitudes to unionism and the whole Irish situation in a post-Brexit world.

The role of the DUP in sustaining a minority Tory Government thus ensuring what may well be a disastrous Brexit will not add to its credit in London. The two governments should stop congratulating themselves on the supposed success of the Belfast Agreement and think again.

Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times. He is the author of Square Peg: The Life and Times of a Northern Newspaperman South of the Border (Stroud: The History Press, 2009)

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