What I would have said on RTÉ

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Commentator Joe Brolly has responded to RTE’s controversial effort to silence him during a TV debate on a united Ireland (for the Irish Independent).

 

Max Hastings, Boris Johnson’s old editor at the Telegraph, wrote last month that “Irish unification will take place within a generation, righting a historical wrong” and “this outcome would serve the best interests of the Irish people”. He added: “Most British people don’t care a fig for the North.”

George Osborne, former Tory chancellor under David Cameron and former Evening Standard editor, said in January: “Northern Ireland is heading for the UK exit door and few people will care.”

When I said on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live debate on Monday night, that the DUP is a short-term fantasy based on triumphalism, homophobia, racism and sectarianism, I was intending to go on and make the point that only when we honestly call this out, can we solve the Northern problem. If you took the sectarians, homophobes and racists out of the DUP, there would be hardly anyone left, so Gregory Campbell must have been bewildered that I was cut off by RTÉ.

Gregory, who, in the way of the DUP, cackled contemptuously at the Irish audience, told me once – during the interval of a debate we were having at the Belfast Festival – that he had found God in a blinding flash of light when he was 16. With the DUP dominated by evangelicals who won’t watch Strictly Come Dancing because there are gay couples on it, who believe Aids was a punishment from God on gays and that Covid is God’s penalty for legalising gay marriage and abortion, serious discussion is pointless.

When a political party claims to speak for God, there isn’t much point in taking a vote at the end of the meeting.Therefore, the solution must be created with or without them. There is recent precedent. Albert Reynolds, John Hume and David Trimble set out to create the peace and, in doing so, ignored them. Ian Paisley and his heavenly warriors bellowed and warned of Armageddon.When the Peace Agreement was signed, the DUP rejected it, then destroyed David Trimble (painting him as a traitor to Ulster) and progressive unionism.

As soon as that was done, Paisley U-turned and became First Minister. In spite of the DUP, we are enjoying the most spectacularly successful peace process in modern history. They have had an opportunity in the 25 years since to create a stable Northern Ireland, but they couldn’t. This is because they are not so much a political party as an emotion.

As historian Brendan O’Leary explains in his masterwork on the North, the North is not a state, or even a province. It is instead an unworkable fantasy based on unionist supremacy. A ragbag of a place whose raison d’etre has always been to rub the Catholics’ noses in it. We have lived through systematic discrimination, electoral fraud, deprivation of the vote, violent repression of civil rights, shoot to kill, massacres of innocent civilians without consequence (Bloody Sunday, Glenanne, Ballymurphy) and so on.

If children in the Republic were taught that in 1971, thousands of Catholic men were rounded up and detained in a detention camp outside Belfast without charge or trial for up to three years, they would think you were joking. Doesn’t that only happen in Russia?In 1976, after a music night at the Bellaghy club, my parents and a few friends, including my Aunt Maura, who was on the lookout for a man at the time, were stopped by a UDR patrol. My father was taken over the hill out of sight and three shots rang out.

Then Packie Kealey (a fiddler). Then Lawrence Mulholland. When car lights appeared on the horizon, the soldiers got back in their Land Rover and drove off. My Aunt Maura said: “Your mother was heavily pregnant with Aine. We ran over the hill in hysterics. We thought they were dead. They were all alive. Just badly beaten.” Subsequently, the men were awarded £5,000 in damages at Magherafelt District Court. No one was ever charged. This was normal life for us.

The Republic turned a blind eye. As writer and historian Paul Larkin put it recently, the only explanation for the hysterical Southern response to anyone talking honestly about the North “is self shame – a phenomenon well attested in post-colonial societies”. It is a sense of guilt that comes from them having sat on their hands as the horrors unfolded. Much easier The short-termism of the DUP is seen in their fantasy that Brexit would lead to the restoration of the Border and a “final solution” (as Gregory put it on RTÉ last week) to the six counties problem. The only way to avoid a border between Britain and the North was a soft Brexit, but the DUP wrecked Mrs May’s deal, proclaimed Rees Mogg and Boris (who wouldn’t pee on them if they were on fire) the saviours of the Union and hurtled on towards self-destruction.

Three years on, Boris, with a majority that returned the DUP to the status of an embarrassing sideshow, duly peed on them from a great height (they were not on fire, to be fair) and did a Brexit deal that created a de facto United Ireland. As MP Ian Paisley put it in Westminster in January, pointing at the Tories, voice trembling with rage: “What did we do to members on those benches to be screwed over by this protocol?”Nothing of substance binds the North to the UK. There is no kinship between English people and Northern unionists. The Tories have always loathed the DUP and are loathed in return.

Unlike in 1920, when the North was an industrial powerhouse, it now contributes nothing to the UK. With Scottish independence looming and 40pc of Welsh voters favouring independence, it is no coincidence that significant English voices are talking openly about severing the link.I have no interest in party politics. I never voted Sinn Féin. I despaired when the Women’s Coalition was destroyed because I believed then as I do now that women from both persuasions can create a new type of politics here. My prediction is that the UK government will soon start the discussion in earnest. They want out. Therefore, it is inevitable.

A civic forum needs to be created that gives a voice to the highly educated and decent Northern Protestant constituency that has been drowned out by the DUP – the one Andrew Trimble referred to on Monday night.The first step might be a two-state solution. Stormont would remain, but it would no longer be a political kindergarten overseen by the British. Both states would be in the EU (a referendum would be needed to return the North fully, but since 56pc voted to remain and only 44pc to leave in the Brexit referendum, this would be a formality). Northern Protestants would continue to have the same rights as they have now, including UK citizenship and UK passport; the same representatives; the same daily lives.

There would be strong bilateral agreements. The US, the UK and the EU would willingly provide long-term financial support. This would be, as Martin McAleese put it recently, “pocket change to them”. With the UK gone, there would be no point in triumphalism. Short-termism would be replaced by the dull nuts and bolts of long-term problem solving. Progressive, well-educated Protestant voices would emerge. We have a very peaceful society. In the new dispensation, we would begin to have a functional society. After that, if people on both sides of the Border felt it would be better to join together, that could be easily worked out. Stormont could remain as a regional parliament.

It would all develop organically. Unionists and Southerners have nothing to fear. The trick is to approach the problems honestly. Only then will the solutions emerge. I could not be more optimistic about the future – and no one will have to choke on their own blood.

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