The Haass talks: screwing down the lid

I  was asked to take part – at short notice – in a BBC Radio Five Live discussion of the Haass talks yesterday. The prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully, and I found the prospect of being live on Radio Five Live forced me to think hard about what’s been happening and what’s at stake.

The  first and most important thing is that these talks are not merely about how we can live together in a more productive and civilized way. Behind that aspiration there lies a unionist fear that the ground is slipping from under them. Two things contribute to this fear: power-sharing at Stormont and the inexorable rise of the Catholic population. Unionists, it’s safe to say, do not like sharing power with nationalists and republicans. The second and even deeper sense of fear comes from the steady rise in numbers of the Catholic population. At the present rate, 2021 will see Catholics holding a 3% lead in population terms. Which is why the ‘Northern Irish’ box on the census has been hailed so loudly, as a sign that Catholics now want to be part of the UK. In their gut, however, most Unionists know this isn’t so. They’re worried.

So they have a choice. They can embrace the change at Stormont, develop it more locally through acknowledging the Irish identity of just abut half the population in terms of flags and marches, or they can struggle to keep the lid on things and call on reinforced not-an-inch attitudes.

The first option – embracing change – offers real hope for a productive transformation of our society. The second invites increasing friction and ultimate disaster. As the English commentator Simon Jenkins said in yesterday’s Guardian:  “Flags and parades [are] emblems of a militarist past, blatantly intended to induce fear in an enemy. Why should anyone need such antics in 21st century Europe? Any sensible person would simply ban them, totally and without partiality”.

The fact is that we are a society in which there are two conflicting identities, British and Irish. A minute’s dispassionate thought will tell you that expression of British identity is available at every turn in this society. The Union flag is the only flag that flies on public buildings; of the 3,000 + marches annually  the Parades Commission calculates 95% are unionist/loyalist; when Haass proposed an inventory of memorabilia in all councils it was quickly vetoed by unionists.

It’s a  conclusion I’m reluctant to come to, because it bodes ill – very ill -for the future: unionism has opted for keeping or attempting to keep a lid on things in this society, has decided to blink away the importance of giving equal outlet for the Irish identity of roughly half the citizens of this state. That means not only that the Haas talks will be a failure, but that ammunition will be handeded to those who say that this state is a failed entity. The longer unionism struggles to screw down the lid, the more disastrous things will be when it finally blows. If I were a unionist, I would be actively seeking ways in which I could accommodate the different identity of my fellow-citizens. To do anything else would make me a first cousin of King Canute.

6 Responses to The Haass talks: screwing down the lid

  1. Am Ghobsmacht December 25, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    Indeed Dr C

    I agree with (most of) what you say.

    I struggle a wee bit with ‘the Irish identity not being represented’ as growing up in Mid Ulster it seemed alive and well. Even more so if you count Orange marches and band parades as being a an Irish tradition (which I suppose it is).

    However, if you mean flying the tricolour, well, we’ll leave that aside for now, we’ve covered this ground already.

    Anyhoo, yes, the static approach of the unionist big-wigs continues to amaze and frustrate in equal measure.

    Did you know that at least 5 of the most important British generals of WWII were of an Ulster background?

    Goes to show that once upon a time there was certainly some capacity for strategic vision within the unionist community.

    It appears to have sacrificed along with many other things during the great cultural carve up when Protestants turned their back on parts of their Irish identity.

    As you say (and a few others over on planet Slugger) the unionists could have at least called for designated days all over NI, but they didn’t even bother, instead was the usual “from my cold dead hands….” approach.


    ‘Accommodating’ Irish identity needn’t be as difficult as people may think, my blogs are mainly about the lost Irish identity of the Protestant community (e.g. Gaelic speaking Apprentice Boys).
    They’d just be regaining some their culture that they so cherished 100 years ago.

    Anyway, Merry Christmas Dr C


    PS I’ve been planning on focusing on King Cnute for a while, in fact I’ve written a draft already, so don’t be thinking that I’m ripping you off 🙂

    • Jude Collins December 25, 2013 at 11:30 am #

      Go raibh maith agat, GS – and may the day be stuffed to bursting with good things for you and yours.

  2. bangordub December 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    Have a great Christmas Jude,
    Excellent article as usual.
    Not much I can disagree with there

  3. Baxter h December 25, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    Superb article jude …. Ce Bon … Ce trios Bon!!

  4. Eoin OBeachain December 29, 2013 at 2:02 am #

    The nationalist march to majority i.e. 3% by 2021 is fine and dandy but how do we give the unionist community the peace of mind that we will embrace their heritage for what it is and at the same time achieve our legitimate aspirations


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