Eilis O'Hanlon: Why new pan-nationalist front recalls the past - while Stephen McCarthy points towards the future
An open letter, signed by 200 prominent nationalists, demanding Dublin reaffirm its one-sided approach to Northern Ireland, is a throwback to a period in our history that's best forgotten, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Identity politics is the curse of the age. Nothing does more damage to individual freedom of expression than demanding that, purely by belonging to one group or another, you must think and speak and act in a particular way, no deviations allowed. That tribalism only ever leads to a bad place, riven with mutual hostility and distrust. We ought to know.
That's why it's still a big deal for the Ulster Unionists' newest representative on Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council to be a 29-year-old working-class Catholic from the Falls Road, whose grandfather was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries.
Nearly 20 years on from the Belfast Agreement, there ought to be plenty more pioneers such as Stephen McCarthy on both sides of that cliched sectarian divide who are able to transcend the restrictions of an imposed identity and think for themselves. That's what progress looks like, after all.
That they remain so few in number should set alarm bells ringing. As Cllr McCarthy said in his interview with this newspaper yesterday, there are others like him, but they're still keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. It's safer that way.
Breaking the mould inevitably makes one a target for those who think identity is handed down at birth, rather than forged from experience.
What's more troubling is that the weight of community expectation in Northern Ireland, far from diminishing, actually feels like it's increasing again.
Take that open letter to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, published with a noisy fanfare of bells and whistles this week.
Backed by more than 200 prominent northern nationalists from the worlds of politics, law, business, academia and the arts, as well as a smattering of footballers and GAA players, this informal manifesto articulated the signatories' collective belief that, "Irish cultural traditions and Irish national identity" were under threat in the current political climate and appealed "urgently" to the Dublin government, "to reassure us of your commitment to stand for equality and a human rights-based society and your determination to secure and protect the rights of all citizens in the north of Ireland." Heck, it even sounds like it was written by a committee.
Many of those putting their name to this plaintive plea could be classed under the banner 'the usual suspects', making their intervention somewhat predictable; but it remains curious, not to say alarming, to see such a melodramatic tone being struck at this sensitive time.
Whatever the political difficulties, it's hardly difficult, or dangerous, right now to espouse Irish national identity or cultural traditions. There can never have been a moment in Northern Ireland when it was easier.
Exploiting emotional language about a "sense of abandonment as experienced by our parents and grandparents" suggests a deliberate stoking of old race memories and slumbering grievances. That's never gone well in the past. Why would it be any different now?
Part of the reason for this hardening of attitudes is, of course, Brexit, which has put up barriers between British and Irish opinion, especially since Ireland, north and south, is predicted to be impacted more negatively by the UK's exit from the EU than any other country. That's what happens when neighbours' economies and destinies become intertwined.
It's understandable that a certain anxiety should have set in with future relationships on these islands up for grabs. Some resentment is also justified that the Brits didn't consider for one second how their decisions might affect those who live on this side of the Irish Sea.
The increasing fractiousness of public discourse doesn't bode well, all the same. In recent weeks, the airwaves and front pages south of the border have turned greener than the rivers in American cities on St Patrick's Day.
It's as if the stand-off between London and Dublin over how to avoid a hard border gave the Irish permission to fall back into some comforting Brit-bashing, and they quickly realised how much they'd missed it.
Now along comes this letter, too. As if the process wasn't complicated enough, Brexit is being tied up with the demand for a specialised interpretation of civil rights, a matter which has log-jammed talks for the entire year. How adding an EU dimension to the list of complaints is meant to make breaking the deadlock easier is anybody's guess. This is 'never mind logic, feel the grievance' time again.
Leo Varadkar's response to the letter was lukewarm, as he reminded signatories that the best guarantor of the rights they're demanding is the return of devolution, and he's not wrong there; but the Taoiseach can hardly be surprised when he and Simon Coveney, his new, greener-than-thou Minister for Foreign Affairs, have deliberately stoked nationalists' sense of injury since taking office, despite the modern, ultra-progressive Varadkar always seeming to be immune from these inherited hang-ups.
This new 'pan-nationalist front' is their baby. They're the ones who need to figure out how to stop its bawling from disturbing the peace.
It's not just Brexit, though. Public discourse in general has been getting gradually coarser, as evidenced by the rise of the so-called 'Corbynistas' in Britain and 'cybernats' in Scotland, who increasingly see their Tory opponents not merely as wrong, but as irredeemably evil.
The letter's factionalism is part of the same reduction of complex issues to black-and-white slogans.
There's also the Belfast Agreement itself, which has undoubtedly institutionalised and rewarded sectarianism.
There were warnings at the time that this would happen, but anyone who dared express misgivings was dismissed as an enemy of the peace. It was best to bite one's tongue.
By insisting that power had to be divvied up between the largest unionist and nationalist parties, the agreement made it logical to vote for the most stubbornly partisan among them in order to secure the best deal for one's side.
Within a few short years, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP, who'd been the largest parties at the time of the Agreement (though it's easy to forget it) had been trampled into historical irrelevance by the march of less moderate counterparts, a trend which has only intensified at each subsequent election.
This week's letter from hundreds of nationalists, urging the Irish government to double down on its one-sided approach to Northern Ireland, only encourages that same cycle of suspicion.
That approach belongs to a past that's best forgotten, while people like Stephen McCarthy who insist that identity is a matter of choice, not DNA, represent the only possible future that doesn't loop right back there.
He's not enthralled with Brexit, either, but knows that weaponising it to the benefit of only one tribe is not the right answer.
It's just a more seductive way of being wrong.