Belfast Telegraph

Trevor Ringland: Why all our problems, with the exception of Troubles-era crimes, can be solved with shared endeavour and mutual goodwill

Focusing on promoting two civic groups - a Northern Ireland For All and an Ireland For All - would allow us to park the constitutional issue to be decided by future generations, argues Trevor Ringland

A panel discussion at Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland conference at the ICC, Waterfront Hall, in January
A panel discussion at Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland conference at the ICC, Waterfront Hall, in January
Trevor Ringland

By Trevor Ringland

Northern Ireland is an incredibly beautiful place and our people are generally regarded as generous, warm and friendly by those who visit here. Like many societies, we have a dark side to the character of too many.

In particular we allowed two deeply flawed and exclusive ideologies to gain prominence during that unnecessary and unjustified period of conflict we too simplistically call the Troubles.

To try and undo the terrible consequences from that time, many have shown tremendous grace and goodwill with an aspiration of building a peaceful and stable future.

We should not waste that, as we have created an opportunity to bed down the relative peace we currently enjoy. In fact, we should be more confident about what can be achieved and challenging to those who wish to return to the hatred and turmoil of the past.

Yes, there are significant issues to be dealt with, but through the good leadership evidenced throughout our society they can be overcome. It does require all of us who do believe in that constructive future to play our part and point to and implement good practice while demanding more of those in leadership positions to do likewise, or expose them for the narrowness of their ambitions.

After all, most of us recognise the reality that the only acceptable way to promote a constitutional preference is to make Northern Ireland work socially and economically for the benefit of all its people. Any other method risks blighting our children's future across this island.

It requires us to value all of our children as if they are our own. That means challenging those who feel it is appropriate to run a sports competition named after those who were involved in a murderous campaign of violence against their neighbours, or try to link the UVF of the Troubles to those who fought at the Somme.

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In 2016 my son and I joined others for a charity cycle, first to Dublin to visit the sites of the 1916 Easter Rising, and then to northern France and Belgium to the Somme and other First World War battlefields. I came back with three observations, which developed into four:

1 Any poet that encourages war should be firmly told to stick to poetry and if they mention "blood sacrifice", make sure it is their own first. Or, put simply, more Wilfred Owen than Patrick Pearse.

2 If our politicians take the nation to war, it should be understood that their children would be the first out of the trenches as only then can we be certain they explored every peaceful option before declaring war. Perhaps in Northern Ireland they should stand in front of the police in riot situations.

3 Keep your children out of the hands of generals. There was so much needless slaughter in the First World War. In Northern Ireland, the paramilitary generals directed those under their control to murder, die, be imprisoned, blight their lives and even encouraged some to starve themselves to death.

4 So, who puts your children into the hands of the generals? The politicians. They can cause conflict, or prevent it, as we well know. It would be good if more of our politicians showed some understanding of the responsibility they have to bed down a peaceful society. A reform of the St Andrews Agreement would restore democratic choice to our politics and enable those politicians who do want to work constructively together and take responsibility to be given a chance to do so.

Seamus Mallon's recent book, A Shared Home Place, provides a number of insights into how we failed so badly in our relationships in the past. We simply did not know, or understand, each other as we lived separate lives, made worse by conflict.

It also highlights how the two governments prioritised the concerns of Sinn Fein above all others.

This undermined the middle ground and, as a consequence, led to the rise of the DUP. As matters stand, it is exposed as a flawed strategy and the evidence is it will continue to be. The risk of being voted out of power might introduce some sense of reality to their failure to govern constructively.

While politics has been failing most of the rest of us have been simply getting on with our lives.

When it comes to identity, it is significant that Northern Ireland can comfortably host the Irish and British Open. As the Irish part of the United Kingdom, we are as British as Finchley, but also as Irish as Cork; as the British part of Ireland, and whatever Brexit delivers, we will still be part of Europe. And let us not forget our links to the Commonwealth.

Most of the Northern Irish can embrace that feast of influences on our identity, while also recognising the importance of creating an inclusive and interdependent society for our increasingly diverse community. The Agreement was not about Northern Ireland becoming less British, but simply more Irish in an inclusive way. The challenge for nationalist and republican politicians is developing a concept of Irishness that includes a fifth of the population of the island.

It was also somewhat ironic that at a meeting in the Waterfront of 1,200 successful people, largely from Northern Ireland, they were complaining about the country they had been successful in. The "civic nationalism" they were promoting showed little understanding of the British-Irish tradition on this island, with an attitude that seemed to be based on a "like it, lump it, or leave" approach.

They do not seem to appreciate this place belongs first and foremost to all of us who see it as our "shared home place" and it is for us to make it successful socially and economically for our children.

A whole section of us recognise that and are no longer, even if we were to varying degrees in the past, defined simplistically by religion, culture or narrow identity.

The binary approach to politics ignores that third grouping of those who want this place to work in a constructively shared way and that broad and diverse group has to be allowed a place in the debates on our airwaves and in our papers.

Every problem we have, except the legacy issues of the crimes of the Troubles, can be solved through shared endeavour.

Brexit raises difficulties, but it is really a reconfiguration of the UK's relationship with the European Union. The focus should be how, in the circumstances, the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the European Union all prosper economically and socially as an outcome and challenge those politicians constrained by pure ideologies, rather than necessary pragmatism.

A friend rang me some nine months ago and said that, while he and his son would aspire to a constitutionally united Ireland, they would not vote for one, as they appreciate the hurt it would cause their unionist friends and neighbours. Such grace deserves a response from the political leaders of unionism, Robin Swann and Arlene Foster, while civic unionism will respond to assure them that a united people of this island, which already exists in so many ways, will always be to the forefront, even if constitutionally we remain apart.

What we have now is, if worked properly and in good faith, pretty good and could be so much better if, first and foremost, we concentrate on making our shared home place a success for all of us.

One small step to take would be to set up two civic groups looking at how we promote a Northern Ireland For All and an Ireland For All, leaving the constitutional position to be determined by future generations, who at least will be better friends.

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