Friday, 23 September 2016

Irish identity grounded firmly in the UK

The Irish Times published a series of articles examining relationships between “Ireland and Britain”.  In a typically forthright piece, the paper’s columnist, Newton Emerson, writes that he does “not feel Irish in the slightest”.  He grew up in Northern Ireland at a time when direct rule made it “as British as Finchley”.  

I’m a little younger than Newton and my attitudes are slightly different.  I do consider myself Irish, but the Irishness I feel has little to do with the Republic of Ireland and it sits happily alongside my sense of Britishness.  For me, Northern Ireland is “as British as Finchley”, or Stirling, or Caerphilly, it just isn’t the same as Finchley.  

I grew up in Ballymena, Ian Paisley’s heartland, where hostility to Irish identity was not  uncommon.  After winning his first international cap, one of the town’s rugby stars, Davy Tweed, was reputed to say, “I’ve played thirty times for my country (Ulster) and once for Ireland”.  

Like Newton, many of my cultural references came from British TV, sport and popular music, but I was also highly aware of Irish literature and music.  As a teenager, in the early nineties, my favourite group was U2, and I studied the full range of Bono’s musings, as well as the contents of the band’s lyrics.
As I got older, I still enjoyed the music, but I found his political pronouncements embarrassing.  That was a journey I suspect I shared with young people from all over the island.  

At school, the fashion at the time was to teach chunks of history, rather than its broad sweep.  Some of the topics were specifically Irish and some British, but, because our pasts are so closely entwined, mostly they were relevant to both identities.  Ireland was a prominent issue for Elizabeth I and the Stuarts, while a connection with Britain dominated Irish affairs in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Where politics were concerned, like many Northern Irish youngsters who were interested in current affairs, I knew embarrassingly little about our neighbouring state.  Proper political debates were conducted at Westminster, and local government in Northern Ireland offered a grim parody, embarrassing and futile in equal measure.  I read British papers, watched the BBC news and British political programmes on TV.

I was most aware of being Irish on holiday, where i spent summers on campsites in France, mixing mainly with children from the rest of the UK.  For English, Scottish and Welsh kids, my accent meant I was Irish, and I accepted that verdict cheerfully enough.  It didn’t seem to mean my Britishness was questioned, and I remember taking part in UK vs. the rest of Europe football matches, against players from the Republic.

This upbringing shaped my political beliefs, that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK and that Britishness accommodates Irishness, Welshness and Scottishness comfortably, as well as other identities from newer arrivals to our islands.

The Republic of Ireland purports to represent the Irish nation in its entirety, but that is not a claim that I recognise.  I’m from the part of Ireland that did not secede from the UK, and while I have certain aspects of Irishness in common with those who are not British, my Irish identity is grounded firmly in a multicultural, multinational United Kingdom.  

Thursday, 15 September 2016

There is no Brexit 'crisis' in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s public affairs magazine, Agenda NI, held a conference recently about the ‘Brexit crisis’. It was a clever title for the event but, almost three months after the referendum, it’s clear that there is no crisis around Brexit, and political attempts to manufacture one are not succeeding.
The exact details will be subject to complex negotiations, but Britain will leave the EU and both parts of the island of Ireland will have to adjust.
For Northern Ireland, Brexit presents specific challenges. There are anxieties about what form the Irish border might take, when it becomes a boundary between the UK and the European Union. The Republic’s ambassador in London, Dan Mulhall, told a Westminster committee last week that he is confident a ‘common travel area’, which guarantees free movement between the two countries, will be preserved.
These border arrangements pre-date membership of the EU and they complement British and southern Irish laws that ensure neither country’s citizens can be treated as ‘foreigners’ in either jurisdiction.
A victims campaigner, Raymond McCord, has challenged Brexit in the High Court, on the basis that it undermines the “peace process”. Although the case will cite clauses from the Good Friday Agreement, Mr McCord’s objections centre on a perceived threat to funding for victims of the Troubles.
It is unlikely that the court will find in his favour. The EU doesn’t form an important part of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement and the Good Friday Agreement is not a foundation-stone of the UK constitution.
The nationalist political parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, continue to call for a border poll on the strength of Brexit. Alongside Alliance and the Greens, nationalist MLAs have launched their own court challenge, demanding that Stormont gets to vote on Brexit in a motion of consent (which they intend to withhold).
Even so, they’re struggling to maintain the type of fury which greeted the initial referendum result. Opinion polls suggest that the issue of EU membership is unlikely to change many voters’ views on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.
Meanwhile, the Dublin government, which opposed Brexit vocally during the referendum campaign, is embroiled in its own row with the European Commission over tax arrangements with US technology giant, Apple. The Republic’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with the UK and, now its low tax deals with foreign investors are under threat, the idea of joining Britain outside the EU doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Even the gloomy forecasts about Brexit’s effects on the economy are proving unfounded. Although the value of sterling has fallen, consumers are spending plenty of money, manufacturers’ order books are full and the hospitality sector is booming. The IMF was forced to admit that ‘turmoil’ it predicted for the financial markets has already ‘subsided’.
There’s still plenty of uncertainty about the future. The prime minister says “Brexit means Brexit”, but that phrase obscures the fact that there are several options for the UK’s status outside the EU. There is disagreement even among government ministers about the desired outcome of negotiations with Brussels.
It’s important that our local politicians think about how Brexit can work for Northern Ireland and which arrangements suit us best. That includes making sure that goods and people can move across the Irish border quickly and easily, while we maintain close relations with our nearest neighbour. It also means considering how PEACE monies and other types of funding can best be replaced outside the EU.
Whether we like it or not Brexit is happening. It might involve some changes, but it won’t cause a crisis, it won’t derail the ‘peace process’ and it won’t collapse the economy. Northern Ireland’s policy makers have a duty to make the best of it, rather than stirring up panic or taking frivolous actions in the law courts.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

MLA posted on racist Facebook thread

Jenny Palmer won an extra seat for the Ulster Unionists in Lagan Valley, at last May's Assembly election.  The former councillor previously resigned from the DUP, after alleging she had been bullied during a controversy over Housing Executive maintenance contracts.

The MLA quickly caused a headache for her new party by becoming involved in a row about migrants trying to cross the English Channel.  She was accused of writing a Facebook post which compared them to dogs.

Palmer quickly apologised and explained that her comment was a poorly worded joke, which, on the surface, seemed reasonable.  However, she had replied on a thread started by a poster who made a shockingly racist comment about 'beating niggers' out from under a bus.

Why on earth would an MLA become involve in a discussion which opened with such an unpleasant remark, unless she intended to challenge its racism?  This wasn't just an instance of someone taking offence too quickly, where none was intended.  At the very least, it was a major error in judgement by Jenny Palmer, at worst it showed ambivalence to bigotry.

Taking the kindlier view, it still raises issues about the wildly inconsistent calibre of MLAs at Stormont.