I was recently talking to a young man about the situation here in the north. He expressed the view that young people like himself, as they grew older and more influential, would sweep away the old die-hard attitudes of the past with its obsessions over flags, parades and the border. This morning in the Irish Times Hugo McNeill, the chairman of the the British-Irish Association and the Ireland Fund, comes close to saying something similar. You can read the article yourself but this passage gives something of the writer’s thinking:
“At the recent British-Irish Association conference in Cambridge, a group of young people from Northern Ireland spoke about their vision. Some had spent a year in the US working in companies as part of an Ireland Funds Northern Ireland programme. The aim is to bring back new ideas and contacts to grow businesses at home .
The earlier part of the session dealt with flags, parades and the past. However, the young people spoke of “making Belfast the digital capital of Europe”, of “creating new jobs” and of “working with all the people they had met to do something special”.
As McNeill sees it, concern with constitutional issues is simply divisive. Only if Northern Ireland is a prosperous, peaceful place will those in the south be interested in national unity.
There’s some truth in this. It would be fair to say that Martin McGuinness, for example, places considerable stress on the need to create conditions in the north where jobs are available for the young (and others), and that former adversaries need to come together to work for the common good.
But I think the notion that the constitutional question should be parked while we all join together to make this state an attractive place socially and economically is a mistake. Not just that: it’s insulting. It presumes that people here are capable of thinking about only one thing at a time. A moment’s thought shows the absurdity of this. As individuals, we go through our days juggling a range of goals and concerns – our job, our health, our children, our hobbies, our plans for next summer, the state of the back garden – the list goes on. At a national level, governments certainly have a domestic policy: the welfare of the people it governs requires continual attention. But governments also have constitutional and foreign policy positions. What relationship should it have with its neighbours? What things should it be seeking to strengthen, what to resolve? Should Britain, for example, continue in the EU? Alex Salmond has made considerable domestic impact in Scotland with matters like education and health – but he’s also emphatic about the need for an independent Scotland and is doing something about that. In short, he’s thinking about more than one thing at a time.
If we say that the constitutional question should be parked until we develop a thriving northern state, we’re adopting a position that says our capacity for thought and action is like someone driving a car who can’t bear to have the radio playing at the same time. Human beings are capable of handling greater complexity than that. And the sooner people like McNeill start acknowledging that, the sooner they’ll begin treating us as grown-up.
Footnote: McNeill appears to be doing two jobs at once. How can he do that?
Cut and paste, I’m afraid. I still don’t know how to make links live…