Belfast Telegraph

South may be broke but it's not a cold house for 'nordies'

Don't be put off by the treatment meted out to Martin McGuinness and Dana. The Republic has never been more welcoming to northerners, says Henry McDonald

Using Martin McGuinness and Dana as Exhibits A and B to make the case that southerners just don't like northerners is a flimsy argument.

The line goes that because both natives of Derry are likely to be rejected in the Irish presidential election tomorrow proves there is an inherent bias against the north down south, particularly in Dublin.

This was the thesis that former Ulster Democratic Party spokesman-turned-columnist David Adams advanced on this page yesterday (above) in the light of ferocious and forensic media assaults on Dana and McGuinness.

Adams appeared to argue that the hostility directed at the two northern candidates underlined a basic fact about the Republic - people just don't warm to the 'nordies'.

The trouble with this assertion is that, for a start, the former winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and the ex-chief of staff of the Provisional IRA are bad examples to cite.

Take the latter first. Undoubtedly, there is a disjunction between what successive Irish governments have told unionists in the north and what the major parties in the south tell the Republic's electorate.

Unionism has been consistently urged since the IRA ceasefire to embrace Sinn Fein, first in all-party talks and later in power-sharing administrations, for the sake of the peace process.

On the other hand, the Dublin political establishment believes that, while McGuinness is fit to be deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, his IRA past makes him unfit to be their head of state.

This dichotomy (call it hypocrisy if you like) is a by-product of partition and its endurance into another century. The north, to many people in the Republic, really is like the past - a place where they do things differently.

In their defence, the reluctance of much of Middle Ireland to elect McGuinness president is due to the fact that the two parliaments on this island are completely different political entities.

Leinster House is the sovereign national parliament of a state with a seat in the United Nations, that has its own army, air force, navy and foreign policy.

Stormont, however, has only a few powers beyond that of a large county council in England and is, in effect, still part of the entity known as the UK. Hence, the qualitative difference between being Deputy First Minister and head of state.

As for Dana, the mistrust and hostility is due to her ultra-conservative Catholic values. The Eurovision singer is bluntly out of touch with the new a la carte Catholicism prevalent in the Republic.

Changed times.

Fourteen years ago, another northerner with deeply-held conservative Catholic values stood for the presidency. Mary McAleese not only got elected the first time around, she was so popular that none of the parties put up a candidate against her second time around. Being from north Belfast did not preclude her from reaching the highest post in the land.

The only thing halting Dana's ambition appears to be lousy timing. Her homespun, American-style Christian conservatism no longer chimes with an increasingly secular, liberal state. Even beyond politics, there are relatively few barriers around any more for enterprising northerners to make it in the south.

Last week, I attended the launch of Deric Henderson's new book on the Colin Howell-Hazel Stewart murder scandal in the Reform Club in Belfast. The guest speaker before Deric was a fellow northerner, Sam Smyth.

Sam happens to be one of the best-known journalists in Dublin and is a regular face and voice across the Republic's airwaves. He is a shining example of the northerner who carved out a successful career across the border.

On a personal level, I only ever encountered one moment of anti-northern hostility and that was in 1992 on my first day working for the de Valera-owned Evening Press on Dublin's Burgh Quay. One of the older secretaries/copytakers quipped as I marched fresh-faced and eager into the old newsroom that "Here's another northerner down here taking our jobs." Of course, she was only joking and we later became the best of friends.

At present I reside during the working week in Dublin and have found the city, even in a time of recession, vibrant and stimulating.

New opportunities have opened up for me, lecturing in the Irish Writers Centre. Along with fellow Belfast author Liam Carson, I am about to go on a brief reading tour across the Republic.

Dublin has been more open culturally and creatively to me than the closed circle of the old boys' and girls' cultural network in the north.

The evidence, therefore, is overwhelmingly stacked against the notion that southerners just don't like anyone from the north coming down to their patch. The Republic may be broke, but the south, and Dublin specifically, has never been as culturally and ethnically diverse.

The city fizzes with creative projects in the face of economic doom and gloom.

Yes, it has social problems that people in Northern Ireland should hope never get exported, such as the never-ending, deeply disturbing heroin crisis.

But if I had to advise my children where they should pursue their third-level education, it would be Dublin, or perhaps the equally vibrant Galway, in order to experience a more diverse, open society.

Besides, as Irish citizens with a gold harp on their passports, they would not have to pay any university fees.

Or, rather, I wouldn't.


From Belfast Telegraph