Nationalists should welcome the celebrations of Northern Ireland’s centenary

A fascinating letter was published recently in this newspaper from a correspondent in Cork (August 27).

By Neil McCarthy
Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 1:13 pm
Updated Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 1:59 pm
A military parade past the GPO in Dublin in 2016 marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Some voices argued that 
It was argued that unionists should be generous about those celebrations and attend them. Nationalists should be the same about centenary celebrations of the founding of Northern Ireland in 1921. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A military parade past the GPO in Dublin in 2016 marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Some voices argued that It was argued that unionists should be generous about those celebrations and attend them. Nationalists should be the same about centenary celebrations of the founding of Northern Ireland in 1921. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

It detailed the reprisals carried out against the Catholic population of Lisburn in 1920 in direct and immediate response to the shooting dead of RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy in the same town by an IRA unit from Cork.

(The letter can be read here: ‘Remember victims of anti-Catholic pogrom in 1920’)

It is believed this latter killing was ordered by Michael Collins himself, who allegedly had evidence that DI Swanzy had been the leader of the party of men who had shortly beforehand killed Tomás Mac Curtain, Lord Mayor of Cork.

Another glimpse into the history of the same period was also recently provided by a spirited exchange in the News Letter’s letters section concerning the Listowel Mutiny (which also took place in 1920) (see link below.

Publishing such a wide range of opinions and viewpoints on events which were crucial to the formation of the two jurisdictions on this island, and particularly to the formation of Northern Ireland, strikes me as a fine example of the kind of broadly based civil discussions which could inform events and debates commemorating the upcoming centenary of Northern Ireland’s founding next year.

In 2016 the Irish government set about commemorating the seminal events of 1916 which led ultimately to the creation of the independent Irish State. Ben Lowry of these parts argued, not uncontroversially, in an opinion column in this newspaper at the time that unionists should take up the invitation to attend which they had received from Dublin (see link below).

Regardless of continuing and legitimate differences of political opinion, he opined that 100 years was long enough for a “family quarrel” to be let gently drop and that good manners apart from anything else dictated a positive response to the invitation.

In addition, Ben pointed out that the Republic of Ireland was now a modern pluralist European democracy which had matured to the point where 1916 was being openly interrogated by figures such as ex-Taoiseach John Bruton, as well as intellectually dismantled by other people like the Jesuit philosopher Séamus Murphy.

I believe that the exact same arguments apply to how Irish nationalists should react to any invitations to attend commemorations for Northern Ireland’s centenary celebrations.

In fact, apart from responding positively to invitations, I believe that nationalists should pro-actively welcome the celebrations and associated commemorative events.

In order for the “family quarrel” to be let gently drop, nationalists need to come forward out of the shadows too and show the hand of friendship and acceptance to unionists. Northern Ireland too is now a modern pluralist European democracy and it too has matured to the point where its origins can and are being openly discussed and interrogated.

Alex Kane, for example, has urged unionists to remember their own history of supporting subversion during the period of the Curragh Mutiny and has also recently pointed out in this newspaper that unionists did not want partition any more than nationalists did. Such maturity is a sign of confidence, not weakness.

However, as Proinsias de Rossa once pointed out, unionists have long been denied the basic courtesy from nationalists of having the constitutional position of Northern Ireland being recognised.

The infantile posturing of pretending that it does not even exist is to this day a hall mark of much nationalist discourse.

I read once that it could be considered something of an irony that whilst many “progressive” Irish nationalists seem to regard a two-state solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict as a thing which is beyond discussion, such is its self-evident rightness, the very same people will regard as anathema the idea that a two-state solution to the Irish conflict (i.e. the solution that was implemented in 1921/22) should be seen as just and fitting.

And yet, if as John Hume argued, and even Sinn Féin claim to recognise, there are two equally legitimate ‘traditions’ on this island, then why should not each ‘tradition’ be afforded a state on the island?

The truth of the matter is actually that nationalists, as a result of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, with its guaranteed power-sharing, parity of esteem within Northern Ireland for both traditions, and institutional North/South links, really have one and a half states in Ireland, whilst unionists just have half a state.

What is more, the recently imposed Irish Sea border has effectively fulfilled another long cherished nationalist aim, that of ‘essential Irish unity’.

In these circumstances a little magnanimity to their fellow Irishmen and Irishwomen is surely not too much to ask.

Ernest Blythe — a native of Lisburn and a man who in the early years of the 20th Century surely had the unique distinction of being simultaneously a member of the Orange Order and the Irish Volunteers — wrote in 1968: “We should realise above all that in the stalemate position at which we have now arrived, spiritual reconciliation between the two parts of Ireland is what is important.”

To this end he urged Dublin to open a consulate general in Belfast and respect for the British national anthem and the Union flag.

Real Irish patriots could do a lot worse than emulate his example.

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