I was at two Feile an Phobail events yesterday, both hugely interesting and raising some important questions which we either don’t think of or try to duck.
The first, as I said in yesterday’s blog, was in St Mary’s University College. It was Trócaire’s annual human rights discussion for the Feile. There were two main speakers – Eoin Hamill of Trocaire, who works in the occupied Palestinian territory; and Tania Hary, who holds dual US and Israeli citizenship.
The title of Tania’s talk was ‘Gaza on the brink’ but it might have been “Gaza in a cruel balance’. She touched on a wide range of matters relating to Gaza, but the title of her talk related to the fact that the Israeli government do a kind of calorie count: they see to it that the two-million Palestinians go hungry, so that they’ll want to leave the area, but not so hungry that they are driven to major violence. Electricity is a luxury not always available for the two million Palestinians held in Gaza. Youth unemployment is at over 60%. Movement is severely restricted.
There is no doubt that Israeli citizens such as Tania work hard to ameliorate the harshest injustices associated with Gaza, as do Trócaire. But when both Eoin and Tania were asked about the boycott of Israeli goods, as a means of pressuring Israel into treating the Palestinians of the Gaza strip with something approaching humanity, she pointed out that as an Israeli citizen, she could be imprisoned for advocating a boycott.
I came away full of admiration for young people like Eoin and Tania, whose life work is dedicated to easing the major injustices in places like Gaza. But I couldn’t help feeling that major political changes are needed, starting with an end to the open-air imprisonment of two million people trying to live in their own country.
The second event was the Féile jewel in the crown, West Belfast Talks Back. As usual it was crammed with people in St Louise’s College; but crowding in this instance was happy gathering debate good-natured. The item that got the headlines was Michelle O’Neill’s statement that the Irish constitution should be changed to accommodate the British identity of northern unionists in any future reunited Ireland. Former Irish diplomat Ray Bassett, another panelist, seems a nice man but I had to remind him that there are too many southern pundits and commentators who talk about the country of Ireland, when they mean the state consisting of 26 counties which constitute the Republic of Ireland. Otherwise those of us north of the border don’t live in Ireland. To his credit , Bassett accepted my gentle correction.
Brexit was of course one of the topics discussed and I reminded Alex Kane, another of the panelists, that he had once said 99% of unionists and the same percentage of nationalists would vote in a border referendum by following the dictates of their hearts not their heads. Which would make discussion of Brexit pointless. Alex appears to have evolved in his opinions, suggesting that there’s a soft unionist vote of some 15-20% who could be persuaded to look at a reunited Ireland.
I think his more recent position makes more sense. Unionists have been known to talk of eating grass before they’d agree to a united Ireland, which of course is rubbish. They wouldn’t eat grass; they would vote with their hearts, certainly, as would nationalists, but an economic calculation would always be part of their decision-making. Would nationalists vote for a united Ireland if they thought it would result in their salaries being halved? Not a chance. Likewise, if unionists believed their salary would be doubled, they’d be falling over themselves to join a united Ireland.
Our hearts are massive organisms, capable of driving us to act or not act in all sorts of circumstances. But in a referendum on a reunited Ireland, a major component in decision-making would also be the money.
Which is one more reaons why the south of Ireland should work to develop a healthy economy AND a health service that is at least the equal of that available in the north. When the south’s standard of living and its provision of public services is developed to match and even surpass those in the north, you’d be amazed how many heart-plus-head unionists would see a united Ireland an attractive prospect.
So an interesting night, raising so many domestic and foreign questions, the two having the common denominator of borders and injustice.