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Modern Ireland's quiet revolution: An age unimaginable to 1916


Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) after the 1916 Rising

Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) after the 1916 Rising

The visit of the Queen to the Irish War Memorial Garden in Dublin in 2011

The visit of the Queen to the Irish War Memorial Garden in Dublin in 2011

Photocall Ireland

Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) after the 1916 Rising

If ever there was a year to reflect on the history of Irish nationalism - and Ulster unionism - it must be this one.

A century on from the seminal events of 1916 - the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme - where do nationalism and unionism stand now? Where are they heading in the next century?

The first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, whose statue dominates the Great Hall staircase at Stormont, posed a similar question in 1934: "It would be rather interesting for historians in the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the south with a Protestant State in the north and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more."

We can all make our judgments and present our answers all these decades later. Both parts of this island have come through a lot of economic pain and violent conflict to reach where we are today.

However, no matter what flags and emblems, what passions are aroused and memories are evoked of 1916, the contrast between then and now is simply immense. In answer to Craigavon, historians may well conclude that north and south have entered a golden age for this island with the promise of relative peace and economic stability which would have been unimaginable a century ago.

For all the emphasis on the Easter Rising, 2016 offers an opportunity to stop the old world and get off. To recognise the new realities of life today on the island of Ireland.

To accept that a quiet cultural and religious revolution has taken place in recent years which renders obsolete any reason for another rebellion - even though a tiny minority of dissidents continue to think otherwise.

"All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born," wrote W B Yeats after the execution of the Easter Rising leaders.

Today he might write all has changed utterly again - for the better. The terrible beauty is not so terrible any more.

Not in many centuries has the relationship between England and Ireland been better. Not in 1916 could anyone have envisaged the welcome given to a British monarch in Dublin which the Republic witnessed in 2011, nor the homage she paid with a wreath of green laurel at the shrine of its independence from her country.

Nor in 1916 could anyone have foreseen that being Protestant or Catholic is nowhere near as relevant north and south today as it was then.

The Irish State, as further evidenced by its ground-breaking referendum on gay rights, now treads a very secular path. Religious, though not cultural, differences are fading against a backcloth of empty church pews.

Craigavon's statue still dominates Stormont, but his assertion of it being "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people" echoes hollow down the marble power-sharing corridors of that building today.

Likewise, Eamon de Valera's romantic vision of Ireland in 1943 - "cosy homesteads, the romps of sturdy children and the laughter of happy maidens whose firesides would be forums for serene old age" - is consigned to the mists of the past and sharply contrasts with the pace of modern day life. Even the title Sinn Fein - "Ourselves Alone" - seems an anachronism in 2016 set against an economy built on foreign investment and heavily inter-dependent on the financial support of Europe and Britain as evident during the recent Irish banking crisis.

However, unionism as well as nationalism needs to confront the new realities of 2016.

For example, at what future cost will the main unionist parties remain tethered to a narrow, pro-Protestant, anti-Irish image, as they have to date?

Can they ever attract the support of what opinion polls suggest could be those 50% of people from a broadly Catholic and Irish cultural background who have a preference for living under the Union, yet would not cast a vote for unionist parties.

It does not take a political genius to conclude that reliance on a sectarian headcount to preserve the Union is a highly questionable strategy - especially since the Good Friday Agreement now affords the people of Northern Ireland the right to determine their own destiny.

The constitutional issue aside, crucial to us all today is the value of the pound or the euro in our pockets.

Flags and emblems and memories of the past do not pay the bills of modern Ireland.

The economy, as the recent painful recession has shown, is at the heart of all our futures. Revering events in 1916 will occupy a lot of minds and make many headlines for good or ill this year, but it will not build any more schools, hospitals or roads, or pay for welfare benefits, or attract much-needed investment and jobs.

In 2016 the age-old arguments between unionism and nationalism pale beside the fact that whether we live in Northern Ireland or the Republic, we are all part of the global economy, hugely dependent not only on one another but on the outside world.

The future challenge for nationalism is to come up with an economic formula for Irish unity which would stand any chance of winning majority support in a country sustained by a £10bn umbilical cord from the London Exchequer.

The challenge for unionists beyond 2016 is to show that the Union they wish to defend is not the preserve of any narrow sectarian interest.

Ed Curran was Editor of the Belfast Telegraph from 1993 to 2005

Belfast Telegraph