This article first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 2nd 2019. It followed my attendance at the funeral service in Derry for the great Northern Ireland champion of civil rights, the late Ivan Cooper
Last week two lesser known but nonetheless extremely significant figures from the last half century of Northern Ireland’s history died.
While the pain, grief and sorrow and felt by the friends and family of both men was equal, the tributes given, at their respective funerals, to the lives they led and the key roles they played in forming today’s Northern Ireland could not have contrasted more.
While those tributes reflected the diverged paths they took, one in bringing communities together, the other in dividing them, champions of both would claim that each man was motivated equally by the pursuit of equality and civil rights.
The tributes, coming within days of each other, did more than point to the differing lives led, they also highlight the still glaring differences in interpretation of the origins of the troubles in Northern Ireland, but also to the conflicting views on where Northern Ireland goes next, and how.
Speaking at the graveside of the former Provo chief of staff Kevin McKenna in Monaghan last week, the former Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams TD, stood alongside his successor Mary Lou McDonald and sought justify the Provo’s 30 year campaign of senseless violence and terrorism.
Adams told the mourners that they were “right to fight” as the provisional movement’s cause was to end British rule in Ireland, violently. Maybe Adams was suiting his words to the crowd, or to his party’s drubbing in elections both North and South, either way his words fly in the face of his assertion, only a year ago, that the Provo’s cause was the achievement of civil rights for all in Northern Ireland and that the war was foisted on it. Whichever is the truth, it simply can’t be both.
Not that anyone in that cemetery was going to mention this incongruity to Adams, no more than they would ask: well, if the provos were so right why didn’t you join them?
Adams’ repeated assertion that the provos had not come to the war, but that the war had come to them is part of a long-standing campaign by this generation of Shinners to re-invent and re-write the history of the North from the mid-60s onwards.
Labelling their terrorist campaign a war is just one small part of the self-justification, the whole effort is based on a lie, a falsehood – namely that there was no alternative.
There was an alternative, only it was more than a mere alternative, it was the democratic route to progress. One of primary figures behind it was laid to rest last Friday in Derry.
In contrast to Adams’ rewriting of modern Irish history, the tribute given at Ivan Cooper’s funeral spoke of compassion and hope for the future. That tribute, given by Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Derry, Robert Miller emphasized the journey that Ivan Cooper had taken and the important role that Ivan had played in uniting communities by fighting, non-violently, for the civil rights of all.
Rev Miller told the mourners gathered for Ivan’s funeral (which included me) that to truly celebrate Ivan Cooper’s life we must echo his voice, and be
“…utterly, unequivocally committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland… So, let’s make Ivan’s vision a reality. Let’s make politics work.”
They were sentiments echoed by President Michael D Higgins, who attended Ivan’s funeral service. Speaking afterwards, President Higgins said that:
“…to his very last breath Ivan believed in hope and believed in possibility and believed, in fact, in taking the pieces of hope and turning them into something positive for everybody in a very inclusive way.”
So, which vision and which writing of recent Irish history are we to use as we face into the coming years where the future of Northern Ireland will loom large on the political agenda?
Brexit has done more than make the Irish border an issue, it has made Northern Ireland an issue, just as it has made the break-up of the whole United Kingdom a serious possibility, indeed a probability if Boris Johnson ends up in Number 10.
In an excellent analysis piece last Saturday, the Irish Times’ Fiach Kelly warns that the main threat from a no-deal Brexit crash-out is political and constitutional, not economic and that the Irish politics needs to wake up to this.
But even a soft, managed Brexit with some form of withdrawal agreement and political declaration would put Northern Ireland firmly on the political agenda here and its place on that agenda is only likely to rise as Scotland moves closer to a second independence referendum.
It is arguable that Irish voters are already ahead of the main parties on this one. Whatever its flaws and failings on party support levels, the RTÉ/TG4/RedC exit poll found significant support among Irish voters for a united Ireland.
In the exit poll 65% told pollsters that they would vote in favour of a united Ireland if a referendum was held tomorrow. This was at the same time that they told Sinn Féin Cllrs in the ballot box that it was time for half of them to go.
The Ivan Cooper view of how we got here and, most importantly, where we go next, shall indeed overcome.