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Northern Ireland

My trip across the invisible border provided a new perspective on North-South issues

On Friday I travelled to Belfast to unveil a plaque to commemorate Eoin Mac Néill’s birth 150 years ago this year and his lengthy residence as a secondary student and undergraduate at St Malachy’s College in Belfast from 1881 to 1887. When he arrived there, as John Mc Neill from Glenarm in Antrim at the age of 14, he progressed from getting 3rd place in Ireland in state examinations in 1882 to getting 1st place in Ireland by the age of 16 – a stellar performance.

A change in family fortunes obliged him to forsake formal academic studies and to seek a job as a clerk in the Four Courts in Dublin where he immediately devoted his energies to part-time learning of Irish and he had become fluent in modern Irish and expert in early and mediaeval Irish in very short order.

His interest in the language led to his becoming a co-founder with Douglas Hyde of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1891 and the editor of its main publications, and his interest in Irish history led to his appointment as a professor in the newly established NUI college of UCD in 1908.

That change in family fortunes prevented him from following his siblings’ academic path to Oxbridge; his brothers had been sent to Belvedere in Dublin for their secondary schooling. Without that change in the McNeill family fortunes, there might not have been the Irish Volunteers or, indeed, the Easter Rising (which he attempted to countermand).

By such combinations of talent and serendipity are the events of history often hewn from the stone of chance.

Those who value Ireland’s independence owe a lot to the selfless patriotism of a generation of Irish men and women who were really willing to put their lives on the line for this country.

Travelling across the now invisible border and reflecting on the changes brought about by the Belfast Agreement of 1988 and the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, I could not help thinking about the way in which random political events in confluence such as the “cash for ash” affair and the Brexit referendum are now endangering the peace and prosperity not merely of the North but of the entire island.

To get perspective on where we are this week, the CSO census has the population of Ireland approaching pre-Famine levels. The Republic’s population is growing towards 5 million and the island’s population is growing towards 7 million. We have peace. We have comparative prosperity (ignoring the national debt and the permanent exchequer deficit in the North). We have an agonisingly slow thawing in the glacial inter-communal rift in the North).

We have so much to be grateful for and yet so much to lose if the political fates are unkind to us. Just think of the Ireland of the 1950s when our population was half its present level and declining.

You might think it strange that, at this moment of great challenge, the two parts of Ireland share one dreadful fate – having little or no effective democratic government. We have instead a combination of the southern “new politics” and the northern “no politics” based on pettiness, point scoring, and blatant opportunism.

Surely the need for effective leadership – north and south – has never been greater. They have wasted hundreds of millions of our moneys of redundant water meters and the burning of wood chips. Not satisfied with such follies, we are now expected to stand and watch a squalid blame game being played north and south while the immense challenge of Brexit for Ireland is politically side-lined.

At least the Seanad, is addressing the implications of Brexit. And it is doing so in a cross-party, non-partisan process based on consideration of the practical.

It was good to see Bertie Ahern discussing the real, practical Brexit issues and the real, practical options with the members of the Seanad Brexit committee on Thursday. His proposal for a “common trade area” as well as a “common travel area” for Ireland deserves consideration and exploration. His firm rejection both of a “border poll” and of Irexit was welcome. His encouragement for Ireland to continue and intensify bilateral diplomacy within the EU and with Britain was convincing.  The Committee’s discussions were constructive and positive.

I know that the Irish Language Act is of importance to northern nationalists. I find it hard, though, to understand how the re-opening of “collusion killing” investigations in the North is really going to advance normalisation of community relations there. Does anyone really think that those demanding such retrospective justice will ever tell us even half the truth about Jean McConville’s murder or the murder/torture inquisitions of double-agent Scappaticci?

In our own bloody and vicious civil war, the two sides eventually agreed to work our democratic institutions without resolving who shot Michael Collins and Noel Lemass. The country saw its priority as economic survival and got on with the business of governing and well creation, however imperfectly and ineptly.

Frankly, it makes little or no difference whether Arlene Foster remains as First Minister or temporarily steps aside while “cash for ash” is investigated. An investigation can occur while she is in situ, even if it would be preferable to many minds if she stepped temporarily aside.

Which is more important – the presence of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and an executive at discussions on the Irish dimension of Brexit or the immediate resolution of whether Arlene has any personal responsibility for “cash for ash”?

Where is our sense of proportion? Why are we tolerating risible games of political “chicken” –north and south – when we need statesmanship, patriotism and a pragmatic spirit of compromise?

How would the young idealists, who gave their lives for Ireland – whether here or in Flanders – or who were sentenced to life imprisonment for their parts in our freedom struggle, view the values and antics of those who are giving us political paralysis on both sides of the border at this critical juncture in our island’s affairs.

I think I know. I think we all know.

My dealings with Bertie in the Seanad Committee on Thursday and my trip to Belfast on Friday renewed a sense of perspective.

For Ireland’s sake, let’s all get a sense of perspective and get on with the real issues.

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