This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday February 14th. This was the same day as the Irish News published results of their opinion poll, which was conducted in partnership with the Institute of Irish Studies University of Liverpool between January 25 and February 7.
The latest intrigues of Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP bring to mind the adage: “You can get an awful sting from a dying bee.”
We may well be watching the final throes of Unionist ascendency as the DUP struggles to deal with a fraught situation entirely of its own making.
Last year’s celebration of Northern Ireland’s centenary reminded us how the net impact of five decades of Unionist rule was to undermine the very hegemony that brought it into existence. When Northern Ireland was established in 1921, around 62% identified as Protestant and 34% identified as Roman catholic. This figure remained steady up to the late 1960s when the proportion of Catholics began to increase.
By 2011, 41% were identifying as Catholic and just 42% identifying as Protestant share. A major shift. It was one of two shifts. The other was the emergence of a third category, one where people did not identify as being from either community background, a category that measured 17%.
A decade later, the June 2020 study, Political Attitudes at a Time of Flux, found that this “neither” category was now the biggest of the three categories of political identity, with almost 40% identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist.
This week’s Broadsheet column looks at the faux controversy that has arisen from the decision by President Micheal D Higgins to decline an invitation from the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) to attend a #NI100 Church service in Armagh in October. The Church leaders also invited HM The Queen. Here I suggest that this situation could have easily been avoided if the Church leaders, and others, had taken better heed of the advised offered back in May 2010 by then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen on the essential principles of commemorating and remembering.
With any luck, the controversy over President’s Michael D. Higgins decision not to attend next month’s planned church service in Armagh to “mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” will soon abate.
It is a row that does no one any credit, least of all those who claim the President has a missed opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to Unionism.
As yesterday’s Ireland Thinks/Mail on Sunday poll reported, a staggering four out of five of us believe that President Higgins is doing the right thing and for the right reason.
He is. But he has more than just popular sentiment on his side. This was not a decision made impetuously or in haste. As the President explained last week, he has been mulling over the invitation from the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) for several months. He shared his concerns with event organisers telling them that the event title was not a politically neutral and presented him with difficulties.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet on April 12th. It followed almost a week of disturbances and incidents across the North, though I mainly focus here on the attacks by loyalist youths along the peace wall in West Belfast, specially at the Lanark Way interface. The cause of these riots are complex – they also have immediate and proximate causes. While there are sinister loyalist paramilitary elements who saw this as an opportunity to make trouble for a PSNI that has enjoyed recent successes in thwarting loyalist drug dealing – especially with unionist leaders attacking the PSNI over and calling for the resignation of the Chief Constable – many of the teenagers and youths on the streets will misguidedly see themselves as fighting for their community, their people and their allegiance. Though that allegiance goes increasingly unreciprocated by the State to which they declare their loyalty.
As the riots raged along the peace walls in Belfast last week, I spotted a tweet bemoaning the absence of loyalist leaders of the calibre of the late David Ervine.
David was the avuncular, savvy leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). He was aptly described by Northern Ireland secretary John Reid as “possibly one of the most eloquent politicians in Northern Ireland”.
Ervine died tragically young, aged just 53, of a brain hemorrhage, in Jan 2007. Speaking at the time, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern called him a “courageous politician who sought to channel the energies of loyalism in a positive political direction.”
I don’t claim to have known David well, though I did meet him several times and even debated against him in UCD before an audience of US politics students. He was characteristically witty and demonstrated a willingness to engage and debate the future of the North, that showed his confidence in his in his identity and position. This is not something you can say about many in today’s unionism.
This week’s Broadsheet column examines how the week beginning Monday March 22 may be a more important one for the medium to long term future of relations on this island that the one before, even though that week featured several important set-piece speeches by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin on the North and the relations with UK and the EU post Brexit. My argument is not that the Taoiseach said anything wrong – he didn’t. My problem is with what he didn’t say. On Unity. I suspect the Taoiseach believes he is far ahead of public opinion in not discussing unity or constitutional change. The reality, I fear, is that Mr Martin is perilously far behind where the centre ground of nationalist and republican opinion public is, North and South.
Given the week that was in it, with St Patrick’s Day and all, and the impressive number of virtual calls and speeches made by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, you’d be forgiven for thinking that last week would have been a more important week for the future of relationships on these islands than this week. But it wasn’t.
To his credit, An Taoiseach seized every opportunity presented to him to speak in detail about what he called the “whole new category of challenges that we have had to deal with” following Brexit. He did so with conviction and belief.
In addition to his crucial virtual Oval Office face-to-face with President Biden and Vice President Harris, he had high profile speeches and exchanges with both the prestigious Brookings and Edward M. Kennedy institutes, plus a range of other important calls and engagements.
This week’s Broadsheet.ie column follows on from last week’s one, starting from it ended and hoping that the Taoiseach can take the opportunity presented by his Brendan O’Connor Show gaffe and start to abandon his seeming agnostic stance on unity, and become more of an advocate for unity and a champion of starting the detailed debate and discussion on what a united Ireland could look like, now.
The prospect of starting the second century of Irish independence with the challenge of building a new and better Ireland is so exciting, why would any Taoiseach delay the start of that process for even one day?
To say that was not a good week for North/South relations is to understate how utterly damaging and chaotic the past seven days have been.
They started with the Taoiseach’s inopportune comments on Brendan O’Connor’s radio show (I dealt with these last week) and finished with the astonishing suggestion from Brussels that it could invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol .
While the week may have finished yesterday, the Article 16 debacle has not. It is far from over. Though the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs worked hard over the weekend to limit the damage, be in no doubt damage has been done to relations on this island. A price will be paid here and a big price must also be paid in Brussels.
Dublin must insist that those responsible for this mess are held accountable. Hailing the Commission decision not to do the wrong thing as a “positive”, may be very diplomatic, but it is neither sufficient nor proportionate.
Returning to my observations last week on the Shared Island Unit, I do not flatter myself to imagine the political crew currently occupying government buildings read any of my scribblings. I mean, why would they read them now when they paid scant attention to what I said on the odd occasion I was ever asked for my thoughts. Nonetheless, I was genuinely gratified yesterday to hear some tiny incremental movement from the Taoiseach along the lines I suggested last week.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 25th 2021 and considers the damage An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has done to his Shared Island Unit. His unfounded claims and ill considered comments during a lengthy RTÉ Radio One interview with Brendan O’Connor hurt the prospects for the Shared Island Unit by undermining his relationship with the NI Executive,particularly with its unionist members.
An Taoiseach may have inadvertently given himself an opportunity to get his Shared Island Unit back on the rails, by accepting today’s new reality and allowing it to engage meaningfully on constitutional issues, including advocating for the positives of a united Ireland. Maybe some good can come from Martin’s little too much.
It’s never the little too little that hurts, it’s the little too much. This was Sean Lemass’s famous advice to aspiring politicians. Keep your own counsel and never say more than you need too, especially when what you are saying is not fully thought through.
Though the advice comes from an age before social media and rolling news, it applies as much today as it did in the 50s and 60s.
It is such a profound piece of political advice that I assumed I had mentioned it here before. But a word search of the Broadsheet pieces I have written over the past 5 years tells me that I’ve only quoted it here once before. That was last November in a piece I wrote about the Shared Island Unit. In it, I suggested that the Taoiseach still “has an awful lot to learn from Lemass’s practical application of vision to action.”
Listening to the Taoiseach’s lengthy Saturday morning interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One, it appears that it is a lesson he still needs to learn, and urgently.
This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday September 14th. It primarily looks at Boris Johnson’s threat to roll back on commitments made in a the Withdrawal Agreement and to undermine the workings of the Good Friday Agreement
It was a week of dead cats and ducks.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson slammed his breaking international law in a very specific and limited way dead cat on the table, in the hope that others would be so horrified they’d forget entirely that his government hasn’t the slightest clue what happens when Brexit transition ends.
As for the dead duck… well, as I discussed that at length last week, I will comment briefly on its 10% rating later.
The dead cat drop is an old political ruse. You only do it when you are in deep trouble. You reach for the dead pussy when your back is against the wall. You hope everyone focuses on the festering, fetid, defunct feline and forgets about your bigger problems.
The “dead cat on the table” tactic is proof that Johnson and his confederate Cummings are still more consumed with campaigning, not governing.
This post was originally posted on Broadsheet.ie on January 6th 2020. I have written about unity many times here in the years since the Brexit referendum. This piece was written in the heat of the Government’s RIC commemoration fiasco. While some saw that episode as proof that we are not yet ready for a constructive debate on unity, I believe that any moves to quash or stymy open discussion now on how unity might work are wrong-headed – just a wrong headed and counter-productive as charging towards holding unity poll within five years
This may come as a shock to some, but it is entirely possible to want a united Ireland and not favour holding a unity poll within the next five years. Indeed, I would suggest that it is axiomatic that wanting to see Ireland successfully reunited means having reservations about holding a referendum in the next five or even ten years.
The sensible position for anyone who thinks unity is more than just a political slogan is to not consider holding a unity poll until there is a more than a reasonable chance of it being passed. Surely this is evident? Is this not a lesson we have taken from the whole Brexit vote fiasco?
For clarity: when I say “passed” I mean backed by a simple majority: 50% plus one. Just as retention of Northern Ireland’s existing status as a part of the United Kingdom requires a simple majority, then so does any process leading to unity require a simple majority.
This is not just a core principle of the Good Friday Agreement it is the fundamental basis of democratic process: every vote is equal. An individual unionist’s determination to remain in the Union is as legitimate and valid as any republican’s desire to see a United Ireland. The idea of weighted majorities requiring a 55 or 60% threshold for change, as some have suggested, is not just denying parity of esteem it also denies parity of representation.
While making unity work in practical terms would doubtless require a greater public buy-in than just a bare 50% plus 1, the principle of one person, one vote – of equal value, cannot be up for grabs.
This column predated the meeting between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister. Here I look at what is behind the Brexiteer’s obsession with getting rid of the Backstop (be it Northern Ireland only or UK wide. It first appeared here on Broadsheet.ie on October 7th.
Opening his Sunday morning BBC1 show yesterday, Andrew Marr wondered if Boris Johnson’s cunning Brexit plan was to pretend that he has a cunning plan to cover the fact that he doesn’t have a cunning plan.
Mr Marr has a point. Most of Johnson’s cunning plans have thus far failed. His ruse to prorogue parliament was demolished by the Supreme Court, and he has still to win a single vote in the House of Commons. He entered Downing Street at the head of a government with a majority (via the DUP) of one. Now, thanks to his handling of the grandest of the Tory grandees, it has a majority of minus 42.
Yet, despite these failures and setbacks, Johnson is doing well in the polls. The Tories now enjoy a steady lead over the Labour party of anywhere between 7% and 13% (YouGov polling). As with John F Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, it seems that the worse he does, the more popular he gets.
This is Johnson’s cunning plan. A speedy election putting the Tories back with a solid majority, no longer dependant on the DUP and ERG. Johnson believes in nothing as deeply as he believes in his destiny to lead.