They could hardly have been more different. A couple of evenings ago, a group of Irishmen and women trooped into Buckingham Palace to bow and curtsey before Queen Elizabeth II, who asked them inane questions which thrilled them to the marrow of their bones. Just being in the Queen’s Palace was enough to make them weak with gratitude.
Last night I was in Queen’s University, where a debate was held: “This House believes that a united Ireland makes economic sense”. The lecture theatre was packed – quite a few people squeezed into standing-room-only at the back. The debate was good-humoured and some interesting insights provided by the speakers, particularly Michael Burke and John McAllister. I like John McAllister, and if I were a unionist NI21 would most certainly be the party I would vote for. There’s a warmth and good humour to the party’s deputy leader: he even gave the audience a brief verbal glimpse of his sexual stamina which brought the house down (you had to be there, Virginia). Michael Burke is a polar opposite of John. He’s a quiet-spoken Londoner, balding (nothing wrong with that) and he knows his facts and figures which he presents in a clear, concise way. At one point in the debate someone in the audience yelled a wisecrack at his expense, evoking much laughter. He waited patiently until it had died down, then came back with a sensible response which totally defused the initial witticism. Other speakers for the motion were Dr Conor Patterson and Caitriona Ruane, and those against Mark Cosgrove of the UUP and Alex Kane the journalist and commentator.
Did those present learn much? Not a lot, I suspect. I quoted Heaney’s line about mind here being “open as a trap”: it wasn’t a dialogue of the deaf but I doubt if anyone entered that lecture theatre with one view of the economics of a united Ireland and left with a different one. But maybe these kind of debates, when some tentative initial moves are made to discuss the economic question – maybe these tottering steps are necessary before we get down to looking at the figures in a calm, truly open-minded way.
I took a few impressions from the debate last night. The first was that anyone who says young people today are detached from politics and could care less would have had an eye-opener had they been there. Queen’s lecture hall was stuffed with young people, all absorbed in what was going on, including the on-going debate twitter-feed which was projected onto a screen at the front. The second thing was that debate to be worthwhile doesn’t have to be solemn: the faces in the tiered rows last night radiated that youthful verve for life that is near-infectious. And finally, I enjoyed talking to several people after, notably Patrice Hardy, a young woman who not only is standing for election to one of the new councils but assured me she has the good taste to read my blog.
All-round then, a good night with exchange of strongly-held opinions but done with respect and laced with a sense of fun. Why can’t it be like this all the time?