Dr Philip McGarry: Our great task is to find ways of living together

The recent controversy over US Congressman Richard Neal’s “Planter and Gael” speech reminded me of the wisdom of my late father, a surgeon at the Mater Hospital until 1988.

By Dr Philip McGarry
Friday, 1st July 2022, 1:00 am
Richard Neal surveys the Derry Girls mural in Londonderry on a recent visit to Northern Ireland. The US Congressman - who was on a protocol fact-finding mission as part of a bipartisan Congressional delegation - caused controversy with his use of the word “planter” during an earlier speech in Dublin when referring to unionist culture and heritage
Richard Neal surveys the Derry Girls mural in Londonderry on a recent visit to Northern Ireland. The US Congressman - who was on a protocol fact-finding mission as part of a bipartisan Congressional delegation - caused controversy with his use of the word “planter” during an earlier speech in Dublin when referring to unionist culture and heritage

He used to tell medical students: “A Catholic spleen with a bullet in it is exactly the same as a Protestant spleen with a bullet in it.”

He was one of the Alliance Party’s 200 foundation members in April 1970; he viewed the sanctity of human life as far outweighing the values of nationalism and unionism.

Two colleagues had sons murdered by the UVF. Peter Gormley, an eye surgeon, was shot in the leg when his 14-year-old son Rory was killed. Paddy Lane, whose son was abducted and his body dumped, had been awarded the DSM in World War Two.

Dr Philip McGarry is a consultant psychiatrist and former Alliance Party chair

Dr Colm Kelly’s brother, a lawyer with the DPP, was murdered by the IRA, as was the brother of Sister Ignatius, the legendary Matron of the Mater, callously killed in his flat in Dublin.

My father broke his leg in 1981 when our home was set on fire.

It was much more difficult at that period – when it really mattered - to state that you didn’t identify with “one side or the other side”.

It is encouraging that over recent years the Life and Times Survey has shown a very large number of people identifying with “neither nationalist nor unionist”, and this has been reflected politically in the increasing support for Alliance.

However, paradoxically the political atmosphere, and particularly that between London and Dublin, is more polarised than for a long time. If we compare today with how it was after the Queen’s visit to Dublin in 2011, it is actually quite shocking how divided we have become.

Brexit has certainly been a prime contributor to this, but unfortunately this manifestation of British hyper-nationalism has been heartily reciprocated, to the benefit of no-one.

Colm Toibin said last year: “All the talk of a United Ireland ‘in my lifetime’ is mystical blather, but has the power to unsettle a fragile political environment.”

It is a recurring weakness of many Irish politicians that they have such a huge need for external approval that they often suspend all sense of judgment.

The DUP were told by their friends (and enemies) that Boris Johnson was inherently untrustworthy; they really should have listened to Sinn Fein on this one! When he claimed he had an “oven ready deal”, and that there would be an Irish Sea border over “my dead body”, the language was so clichéd and childishly exaggerated that any fool could see he was bluffing.

Which brings us to the uncritical approach of nationalism to US politicians. Richard Neal has said “Irish nationalism has always been much stronger in America than in Ireland.” (Perhaps not being subject to the daily reality of terrorism is a factor!).

Hubert Butler (writing 50 years ago) noted: “Diaspora nationalism allows us to keep in touch with like-minded people by post, in disregard of the neighbour next door.”

The “Planter and Gael” trope spoken of by Mr Neal illustrates a simplistic, anachronistic mindset.

But who exactly are “The Gaels?” Are they a genetically identifiable group? Did they arrive from a particular place, or at a specific time? Were the 19th century Protestant Gaelic speakers “Gaels” or “Planters?”

Given that Adams is an English name, Hume Scottish and De Valera Spanish (and Biden English), are the Irish political leaders of those names “Gaels”; if not, are they “Planters” or something else?

The actor Ardal O’Hanlon produced a recent TV documentary addressing the origins of the Irish. A key contributor was Dr Lara Cassidy, a geneticist at TCD. Dr Cassidy said that race is a social, rather than a biological or genetic construct. She added that genetic populations change over time, because “people are always moving, migrating”.

When asked, “What makes people Irish?”, she pondered and then replied: “It’s those who call Ireland home.”

Dr Cassidy, in the course of several minutes, undermined totally the mystical blather about two separate tribes; we Irish are essentially the same people!

Perhaps we could channel the spirit of the French Pastor Trocme, who told the Nazis looking for Jews in WW2: “I do not know Jews, I know only men.”

Our great task now must surely be to recognise that we share this island (as we always have) and find ways of living together, on the basis of mutual respect. As the old Irish saying goes: “We live in the shelter of each other.”

We owe this not just to the memory of the victims with whom I commenced this article, but to our future generations. (And we should become less preoccupied with those who do not call Ireland home!).

• Dr Philip McGarry is a consultant psychiatrist and former Alliance Party chair

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