The tragedy of the present impasse in Northern Ireland is that the great majority of people, whether unionist or nationalist, are, or appear to be, decent , sensible, well-intentioned women and men who want to get on with their lives and with their neighbours.
But is that really true?
How come that picture does not seem to feed into the politics of the North which remain septic and raw?
The truth, alas, is that bigotry and sectarianism lie below the surface of society in many cases. Tolerance and mutual respect are but a top veneer of a social discourse that deeper down is polarised and mutually suspicious in many cases.
Why would any decent society paint itself into an electoral corner where, despite the fact that the multi-seat proportional representation system affords every opportunity for moderation to assert itself, the ultimate choice for voters is between the likes of Gerry Adams and Arlene Foster?
Why would Mary Lou McDonald finish her acceptance speech with “Tiocfaidh ar lá. Up the rebels”?
No genuine republican in the tradition of Tone and Davis could have done that. Especially at the delicate moment when the words were spoken. It was the language of defiance and confrontation. Mary Lou is not a republican precisely because, at a crucial moment, she forsook the language of reconciliation and inclusiveness and spat out sectarian words of enmity and threat.
It wasn’t that she didn’t think about those words; it was because she didn’t care about those words. She didn’t care about the message she was sending to the wider community. She doesn’t really accept that there is a wider community to which she must address herself and for which she must measure what she says.
Let me make one thing clear- no genuine Irish republican party leader has any business these days organising or attending the graveside commemorations of bombers and gunmen who died in the recent troubles. And anyone who does so in present circumstances is simply no republican.
Just as that those who lined up and machine-gunned the protestant workers at Kingsmills were not republicans but betrayers of republicanism, the MP who tweeted and posed with a Kingsmill loaf on his head on the anniversary of that massacre has not even a smidgen of republican blood in his veins.
There are a lot of phony “letty-on republicans” on this island – people who, at heart, despise the appeal of Thomas Davis for reconciliation of orange and green. They seek conquest – not conciliation. They try to arrogate the tricolour to their sectarian view of politics, just as they try to hi-jack the 1916 Rising to bookend their sordid history of killing and maiming.
They have no moral right or title to the term “republican” and the media are foolish to use that term to describe their violence and their divisive brand of politics. Separatism and republicanism are not the same. You can be a violent separatist and still be no republican.
Real republicanism has nothing to do with the glorification of the 30 years of violence. The real republicans were those who, like Séamus Mallon sought to stop the violence, who endured the graffiti calling them touts and traitors and the death threats from all sides, and who sacrificed everything, except their integrity, in pursuit of peace. The real republicans were the architects of Sunningdale – not those who brought it down.
None of the foregoing excuses the political weakness, would-be supremacism and political sectarianism that increasingly seem to fuel the DUP’s behaviour since the departure of Paisley. But it must be said that Sinn Féin is great at demanding respect while being extremely ungenerous in showing respect.
Here is the litmus test. If the DUP leadership were to attend at the graveside commemoration of one of the Red Hand commandos or UVF killers, what would Sinn Féin say? What message would that send to the nationalists in the North? Can you imagine the outcry? And yet similar behaviour on their own side is supposed to cause no offence and show no disrespect!
While it may well be that Sinn Féin are using the Irish language issue as a battering ram in their ongoing siege politics, it is undoubtedly the case that the UK government conceded that the legal status of the Irish language would be provided for in the context of the St Andrews Agreement.
And apart from expense, what exactly is the problem of giving legal recognition to the Irish language in Northern Ireland in the same way as Gaelic is recognised in Scotland or the Welsh language in Wales. Each of those devolved UK jurisdictions has adopted laws recognising official status of Gaelic and Welsh respectively.
Is Scotland or Wales less British on that account? Are Welsh or Scottish unionists diminished or offended by such recognition?
Or is this yet another instance of the zero-sum theory of Northern politics – to give to one side is always to take from the other? Looking at a TV vox pop broadcast from East Belfast this week, it appears that there is a visceral backlash to the recognition of Irish among DUP supporters. But that form of political reaction is no reason not to reinstate the executive and assembly at Stormont?
It is the equal and opposite reaction to Mary Lou’s “Tiocfaidh ár lá. Up the rebels” peroration.
Will direct rule bring gay marriage and abortion to the North? Or will Nigel Dodds save Ulster from sodomy by holding the balance of power in London for a few more months while the roof comes in on the North’s post-Brexit economic future.?
Are we to despair?
Brexit turns more threatening by the day. And yet the main protagonists in Northern politics seem content to engage in attritional trench warfare while Boris Johnson and Michael Gove light an economic house-fire that portends disaster for all sides in the North – not to mention for us in the Republic.
Nationalists in the North now have no political voice or forum. In the Seanad this week there were exchanges concerning the wisdom of Sinn Féin leaving the nationalist voice in Northern Ireland wholly absent from the debate on Brexit at Westminster.
De Valera adopted the “empty formula” approach to the Oath of Allegiance in the 1920s, and abolished the oath on assuming office. Sinn Féin were offered alternatives to the oath if they would take their seats at Westminster. They declined – but they still draw their remuneration as MPs.
Abstention-ism was fine in the 1918 to 1921 period because there was an alternative assembly – namely Dáil Éireann. But now those elected as Sinn Féin MPs and MLAs in the North have no assembly at all.
Sinn Féin changed their minds about abstaining from Stormont and Leinster House in the past. When their voters need representation on Brexit in the debate in London, they are to be found posing with loaves on their heads, or cutting off clamping devices, and parading at the graves of those killed in the Troubles.
Do Sinn Féin think, as they used to think, that things must get far worse before they get better? Who will bear the blame for the consequences of that kind of politics?