Belfast Telegraph

How these two icons of Irish politics left us a lethal legacy

Republicans need to recognise right of Protestants here to be British if we are ever to be free from hatred and violence, says Eoghan Harris

All republicans since 1916 have never faced the fact that the fundamental problem was not to break the connection with England, but to connect with Northern Protestants - who rightly feared a repressive Roman Catholic Republic.

Accordingly the first duty of all who called themselves republicans should have been to re-assure Northern unionists that their Protestant and British identities would be cherished. In 1922, the Free State lost one million northern Protestants. By 1926 it had lost a third of its southern Protestants as well - 107,000 people.

Those who went were not big lords looking down from big Anglo-Irish castles. They were ordinary Irish people: farmers, shopkeepers, clerks and rural people.

Some left because they had served Britain. Some left because they felt their lives were in danger. Some had seen their neighbours murdered - 73 in the Cork city area alone. But all were afraid.

Far from protecting these defenceless Protestants, republicans actively took part in many of the sectarian actions against them. Their supporters are still in denial, still ducking and dodging about what was done.

Today sectarianism is still the biggest barrier to a better future in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, although an amazing grace, has made no dent in the divisions between the two traditions. Coming up to the centenaries of 1912 and 1916, where unionists will recall the Ulster Covenant, and republicans the Easter Rising, it is crucial that both traditions do not settle for triumphalism but take another look at their lethal legacies. Let me cut to the chase and make three points.

First: both states on this island have flawed and bloody title deeds. The treasonable actions of Edward Carson in 1912, and the gun-running of 1914, both fed the blood sacrifice blasphemy of Patrick Pearse.

And 1912 and 1916, for all their physical bravery, ended the prospect of a peaceful evolution to home rule and an all-Ireland parliament.

Second: we should not use 2016 to cover up past abuses. Republicans should admit their historical responsibility for much of the murder and mayhem on this island since 1916. A public admission that republicans failed to honour their high calling would put pressure on unionists to review their past actions.

Some unionists have already tried to make amends. Gusty Spence and the Combined Loyalist Military Command went much further than the Provisional IRA when they expressed "true and abject remorse" for crimes committed against Catholics. So did David Trimble when he told his Nobel Prize audience that the Northern state "had been a cold house for Catholics".

Third: coming up to 2016 we need a new platform, a televised talking shop, convention, chamber - call it what you will - to facilitate a continual public conversation, not within Northern Ireland, but between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

The lack of public and popular interaction between the two states is striking. Belfast is 104 miles from Dublin, two hours by road. Yet most in each society seem as indifferent to the lives of others as the old East and West Germany .

Neither the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Assembly, nor the cross-border bodies provide for a continual public conversation between the new pluralist Irish Republic and the progressive currents of Northern unionism.

So why are we still so far apart? Some of the blame can be laid at the door of unionist bigotry. But most of the blame belongs to republicans who failed to follow Wolfe Tone and find a formula to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. The question is: why did republicanism lose its way?

Republicanism lost its way because it never really respected the rights of Northern Protestants to be both British and Irish. Republicanism lost its way because it mocked legitimate Protestant fears that Home Rule meant Rome Rule.

Republicanism lost its way by believing its own secular priests, the IRA leaders, knew better than the common people, by defending the secular IRA priests when they murdered the innocent, by looking after republican abusers rather than victims.

This closed circle of violence, pardon, and more violence has continued for the past 100 years. Right now it is replaying with the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, or what I call the Recurring IRA. It will continue forever unless republicans cut the cord to the dead republican cardinals who claimed to know better than the men of no property.

Above all, republicans and unionists should remember the dead. The first public act of 2016 should be for the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to raise a joint memorial, straddling the Border, to all victims of armed actions on this island, be they IRA or loyalists, southern Protestants, RIC, British squaddies, RUC constables or soldiers of the UDR.

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