I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Taming the Past



Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Life punishes those who arrive late.
Mikhail Gorbachev to Erich Honecker, October 7th, 1989

All political parties, in or out of office, desire to own the past as a political commodity – to prove their legitimacy, to assert their right to rule, to show how much superior they are to the competition. On this island, the IRA/Sinn Féin grouping does not control the past. It has, however, gone a long way towards persuading sizeable minorities in both parts of Ireland that the relatively recent past, and specifically the recent past of their movement, was either justified, or at best, is of little account in considering the present or in contemplating the future. The fact that Sinn Féin is now sharing power in the North, and that it is trying to make the Good Friday Agreement work, provides a possible rationale for this; but to ignore the vicious brutality of the Troubles, and to expect that their long-term toxic effects may simply be forgotten or wished out of existence makes no sense.

The building of a healthier relationship between the two major political traditions in Ireland must begin by facing the realities of the 1969-2007 period, by confronting, directly and in detail, the distortions, omissions and false expectations of  Sinn Féin propaganda, by establishing a  realistic Southern policy on Northern Ireland adapted to existing twenty-first-century conditions and by pursuing that policy consistently and with vigour.

The present three-party coalition government in Dublin may feel that it already has enough on its plate with Covid-19, Brexit and a budgetary deficit of unique proportions, not to mention large-scale outstanding commitments in relation to housing and health and other imperatives on climate change and the direct provision system. It may therefore consider that it should not become more entangled in the thorny thickets of Northern politics until such a move becomes unavoidable.

That, I believe, would be a serious mistake. Sinn Féin did very well in the Republic in the last general election, and it is now the leading opposition party. It garnered the most first preference votes, 24.5 per cent, compared to Fianna Fáil’s 22.2 per cent and Fine Gael’s 20.9 per cent. Fianna Fáil ended up with thirty-eight seats (including the Ceann Comhairle), Sinn Féin with thirty-seven and Fine Gael thirty-five. There is also evidence, from the IPSOS MRBI exit poll on election day, that Sinn Féin not only had twice the support of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old cohort of voters, but that it also outranked each of them in support from all the other age cohorts up to the age of 65 plus. If this government stumbles and breaks down, Sinn Féin may form or at least dominate the next one; and this could happen sooner rather than later.

Around the time of the election, Sinn Féin was calling for a referendum on Irish unity by 2025; influential voices within the party were arguing that a majority of 50 per cent + 1 in the type of Northern poll provided for in Schedule I of the Good Friday Agreement would be sufficient to trigger movement to unity. The prospect of Sinn Féin in government in Dublin pushing its traditional policies on the need for a path to speedy unity ‑ and no clear alternative available from the major political parties here ‑ is disquieting. The consequences are likely to be profoundly negative, both here and in Northern Ireland, and not least in relation to the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties.

The Quebec historian Michel Brunet has written that there comes a time when the decisions from which former generations shrank can no longer be postponed by their descendants. While the record of successive Dublin governments in relation to the Northern Troubles has been on the whole moderate and honourable, I believe that the time has now come to construct a new public discourse and a new programme of action which confront in detail the complexities of the existing 2020 situation there. That will not be easy and there are risks involved. But if it is not done, I fear that the sustained common efforts of the last half-century may collapse, and that the voices of tolerance, patience and pragmatism may once again be silenced.

Good foundations have already been laid, north and south of the border. All the changes for the better which have occurred within Northern Ireland and between North and South since the early 1990s owe more to John Hume’s thinking and activism, to his balance and courage, than to any other single person. He and the SDLP party not only refined and reformulated the nationalist aspiration of a majority on the island, he also persuaded the leaders of IRA-Sinn Féin that their campaign could not be won and that the principle of unionist consent had to be accepted. Without Hume, the Belfast Agreement would not have been possible.

But it is also the case that Hume was not the first or the only voice speaking in favour of conciliation, consent, power-sharing and what came to be called parity of esteem. From the Dublin perspective, as reported by Ronan Fanning, Declan Costello had called for recognition of Northern Ireland and for North-South economic co-operation as early as 1951. In 1957, Donal Barrington published his groundbreaking essay “Uniting Ireland”. In it he argued that policy vis-a-vis the North must be based on reality rather than on aspirations, however noble and sanctified by time; that persuasion must necessarily take time; and, in a striking phrase, that “the best way for us to prove that we would respect the wishes of Northern Protestants inside a United Ireland is by respecting their wishes as long as they wish to remain outside it”. Hume’s articles in The Irish Times followed in 1964.

The 1966 centenary produced further advocacy along these lines, notably from Conor Cruise O’Brien and Garret FitzGerald. FitzGerald held that Ireland could not be administered on a day-to-day basis by the dead; and that while the unionists would have benefited by being a substantial minority in a single Irish state rather than being a weak minority within the United Kingdom, the Irish state would also have benefited by the inclusion within it of a substantial body of unionists. By the late 1960s, this trend was being reflected in core, government-level statements. Jack Lynch’s Tralee speech of September 1969, and further public statements of the following July and October, stressed inter alia that Dublin did not seek a coerced unity, and that its policy was a long-term one, to be sustained by perseverance, goodwill, understanding and patience.

The traumatic developments in Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards reinforced the conviction in Dublin that “the real partition of Ireland is not on the map but in the minds of men”. The old rhetoric – of “occupied territory”, the “army of occupation”, and “Britain imposed Partition, Britain must undo it” ‑ was gradually discarded. In its place came a new appreciation of the depth of discrimination and apartheid in the North, the looming possibility of civil war there and between North and South and the need to confront existing realities. In June 1970, Jack Lynch stated: “ Let us not appeal to past gods as if past generations had said the last word about Ireland. We have our opportunities to say for our generation what is in our hearts and minds”.

The roots of the conciliationist tradition stretch back further than the 1950s and they have been nourished by diverse political currents. Although it is arguable that both Redmond and Carson were for long periods pillars of the British establishment in Ireland, it is also the case that for about fifteen years Redmond probably represented the political orientation of a majority on the island. To him, all forms of partition were “hateful expedients, but he continued to offer imaginative gestures of understanding to unionists. Roy Foster supports Dermot Meleady in judging that his motive in doing so was to “avoid drowning the (putative) newborn Irish state in blood”. In the 1920s, Bolton Waller of Trinity believed that unity could only be brought about by degrees and with consent. He saw the realistic choice facing the Irish people as lying between “complete independence for three-quarters of Ireland, and freedom with unity, for the whole”. From the revolutionary side, Eoin MacNeill, Roger Casement and Bulmer Hobson (all Northerners) had opposed armed rebellion in 1916; de Valera, when he judged it expedient, chose to prioritise building a “unity of wills” in relation to Northern Ireland rather than anything more direct and immediate.

Seamus Mallon’s book A Shared Home Place, written with Andy Pollak and published in 2019, contains the best analysis of the Northern Ireland problem published in the last twenty years. It has also been influential: Mallon’s fingerprints are all over the short section devoted to the North in the programme for government of Dublin’s present coalition. He, and the SDLP party, had been dedicated for more than fifty years to peace with justice in Northern Ireland, and to one version or another of the principles of consent, an Irish dimension and parity of esteem, all to be achieved by peaceful means. Mallon believed these principles could be accepted by a majority of the Northern Ireland electorate and that if they were the essentially decent and neighbourly character of Northern society would triumph.

The final three chapters of Mallon’ book look to the future, and from them especially I derive the following insights and beliefs. All aspects of an agreed solution must be approached cautiously and prepared for in detail. Nationalists in both the Republic and Northern Ireland may face hard choices in the short term between incremental improvements with relative peace and harmony and quick moves to a paper unity without. Any new arrangement may be less than the full unity aspired to, but so was Sunningdale and so is the Belfast Agreement. Prudence, patience and generosity will be required if the wish expressed in the new Article 3 of the Irish constitution for unity in friendship and harmony is to be fulfilled. Between Sinn Féin and the DUP, the major parties of the two principal political orientations in the North, there exists little trust and no reconciliation; each is still a party of confrontation and triumphalism; each sees past, present and future in the stark. zero-sum terms of one winner and one loser. Both parties are more interested in sharing out the fruits of power than in genuine power-sharing. Seamus Mallon saw his biggest challenge as having to persuade his fellow nationalists in the North that they were not on an unstoppable march towards the type of unity they wanted. He quotes FW de Klerk: “In a peace process, the hardest negotiations are not with your adversaries but with your own side.” A “shared home place” can only be based on deeply-rooted feelings of stability, safety and a sense of belonging, in both communities. Mallon approves Benedict Anderson’s dictum that a nation is an imagined community but adds that what is imagined can be re-imagined. He defines feelings of nationality as a deep, horizontal communion between citizens; such a communion between Irish nationalists and Irish unionists does not exist at the moment; equally, it cannot be forced and therefore there is no alternative to allowing unionists time and space.

From his analysis, Mallon draws two conclusions that I consider fundamental. The first is that the aversion of each community for the political vision of the other continues to be almost absolute. Although he hoped and prayed for a thirty-two-county state, with the full participation of both sides, he did not believe there would be such a form of unity in his lifetime, or in the near future after his lifetime. Second, based on this, he held that the only meaningful programme now for Irish nationalists was to work at persuading a significant proportion of the unionist community that their fears of Irish nationalism were groundless, and that there was no need for them to live apart from the rest of the island.

On the last page of his book, Mallon refers to a passage from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Prize lecture of 1995: “The violence from below was then productive of nothing but retaliatory violence from above. The dream of justice became subsumed into the callousness of reality and people settled into a quarter-century of life waste and spirit waste.” What I treasure especially in Heaney is his human sympathy with the suffering and pain of others, physical pain (as in the poem, “Punishment”) but also the pain of bereavement and loss. Like Yeats, he took over the adage of Coventry Patmore that “The end of art is peace”, and like Mallon, he believed that it was not possible to live at the same time a life of sectarian resentment and a life of neighbourly co-operation. He made his choice between these two life values and, like the murdered eel fisherman in the poem “Casualty”, he “would not be held at home by his own crowd”. This broad human feeling for individual persons, together with his ingrained habit of self-questioning put him at the opposite pole to the callousness and unthinking self-assurance of the purveyors of violence.

The almost wilful extremism which has characterised many aspects of DUP policy, and the intermittent attention span, emotional distancing and occasional blunders of British policy, are weaknesses that are well understood in Dublin, but an over-concentration on them obscures the extent to which Southern policy shares some of the same faults; governments in general are not good at recognising or handling motes and beams. I will not deal in any depth here either with extreme unionism or Orange sectarianism and bigotry. My general reasoning is that the South should concentrate its attention on where it can most effectively influence events and developments. My main focus therefore is on the past record of IRA/Sinn Féin within and concerning Northern Ireland, and on its present policies; and with the pressures on, and political posture of, the Northern Ireland nationalist minority.

In early 2021, the Northern situation is bad but it could be worse. While variable and subject to consistent tension, relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP within the executive are more settled. Incidents of intimidation and violence are down, the dissident physical-force republicans have been less active and both the North/South ministerial council of last July, and the follow-up to it, have been positive. In many respects, Sinn Féin’s public profile is now on the good side of “semi-constitutional”; and the success of the Provisionals in making their about-turn stick over almost a quarter-century, and the consistent political and physical courage of Gerry Adams and his followers in maintaining this direction is impressive and deserves acknowledgement. In recent weeks the biggest threat to stability has been coming from the DUP and unionist paramilitaries, in regard to Brexit issues.

As regards the past record, it remains important to remember the facts and figures, the sheer volume of violence during the Troubles, and to consider its long-term effects. The population of Northern Ireland in 1971 was about 1.5 million, divided roughly 65 per cent unionist and 35 per cent nationalist. The checklist on violence presented by CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) makes for horrific reading. It records that 3,720 persons were killed as a result of the conflict; approximately 47,500 were injured; there were almost 37,000 shootings; 16,209 bombings were carried out; and the largest groups of those killed (54 per cent) and injured (68 per cent) were civilians. These statistics refer only to what happened within Northern Ireland, and only to the period 1969-2004. Within the nationalist community of the North, the beginning of the Troubles is often dated to 1966; and, of course, significant numbers were also killed elsewhere in the United Kingdom and in the Republic. Every day of the year marks the anniversary of someone’s death in Northern Ireland as a result of the conflict; almost all extended families there were directly affected.

While some of these figures have been subject to questioning, the broad picture is clear and so is the question of the division of responsibility. There is little doubt that physical force republicans perpetrated the greater number of these acts (over 2,000 deaths attributed to republicans), and that the Provisional IRA was the prime mover. Likewise, a somewhat weaker consensus holds that since the early 1970s, the Provisionals were the single biggest initiators of the violence and that the actions of loyalist paramilitaries were mostly reactive; this is so in general, even though the Troubles began with killings by the Ulster Volunteer Force. In the late 1980s, Hume argued that if the Provisionals stopped their campaign, so would the unionist paramilitaries – which is what happened. My judgement, shared I believe by a majority of persons on this island, is that the IRA campaign of violence was immoral, undemocratic and illogical, and that its effects on the relations between the nationalist and unionist communities were toxic and are likely to be long-lasting. I also believe that the campaign delayed rather than hastened any worthwhile coming together of North and South. Immoral: I am not a doctrinaire pacifist, and just war doctrines are a fraught subject; but the objectives of violent acts should at least be desirable in themselves, there must be some proportion between ends and means and I would argue that there should be a better than even chance of eventual success. In terms of their stated objectives, (“Brits Out” and “Irish Unity”), it is doubtful if any of these conditions applied to the IRA campaign of violence.  Undemocratic: The groups conducting the armed campaigns had no mandate for their actions. Surges of support for republican activists were evident after internment, Bloody Sunday and the deaths of hunger-strikers but, at the very least it is debatable if the republican campaign of violence had the consistent support of nationalists in the North over the thirty-five-year period of the Troubles; it certainly did not have anything approaching the majority support of nationalists throughout Ireland. The idea of a small, self-selected group claiming a mandate from the First Dáil (1919-1921) can best be described as quaint. Illogical: The above stated objectives are still being defended by Sinn Féin as its overriding imperative. In March 2020, Sinn Féin director of finance Des Mackin repeated: “Everything should be thought of in terms of a United Ireland – this is our main objective.” The “Brits Out” slogan is profoundly ambiguous (Is a “Planter” a Brit?) and it is not easy to understand the mindset which believes that any worthwhile form of “unity” could possibly result from the violence of the 1970s and 1980s. This was egregious folly, a political blunder as well as a crime, which persisted for far too long before being eventually abandoned.

Another point worth mentioning is how the IRA dragged its feet in relation to the decommissioning issue after the Belfast Agreement had been signed. More than seven years elapsed between the agreement and the IRA ceasefire (2005), more than nine years to the final St Andrews Agreement (2007). Decommissioning, putting the IRA guns and explosives beyond use, was a false issue since recommissioning always remained a possibility; those years were exploited cynically and effectively by IRA/Sinn Féin for political advantage. At the time, Sean Farren of the SDLP believed that “the silence of the guns” was enough; later he came to believe, like Seamus Mallon, that the IRA should have been faced down much earlier on decommissioning by the Irish and British governments.

As regards the distance now between the two Northern communities in their visions of the future, the toxic effects of the campaigns of violence, and the need for forbearance and tolerance in persuading a reasonable majority of unionists that their innate aversion to Irish nationalism is outdated and unjustified, I agree fully with the views of Seamus Mallon outlined above. In the final chapters of his book, he quotes the views of Garret FitzGerald, Brian Cowan and Brian Barrington, which point in the same direction. Barrington ends by arguing strongly that it is up to the nationalist majority on the island to provide all possible reassurances to unionists urgently, unilaterally and without quibble; and he makes the point that a special responsibility rests on the main Southern parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in this respect. In sum, if many, perhaps most, unionist families in Northern Ireland have had, within the lifetime of present members of that community, a relative or neighbour killed or injured due to republican political violence, the chances of persuading even a reasonable minority of unionists to take a chance on Irish unity now or in the near future are close to zero.

On this basis, I believe that objectively the biggest obstacles to a lasting peace between the two major political traditions on the island of Ireland have been, in order of their importance, physical force republicans and especially the Provisional IRA, loyalist paramilitary groups, extreme unionists including those within the Orange Order and the DUP, supporters of the IRA in the South, in the US and elsewhere and the undependable attention span of successive UK and Irish governments. The loyalist paramilitary groups are also important because their activities, and their suspected collusion with sympathisers within the British and Northern Ireland security and police services heightened fears and tensions among Northern nationalists and gave rise to the “hob-nail boots” syndrome – that is, the best or only protection against your hardliners is our hardliners.

So much for the past record. As regards present-day Sinn Féin policy, the widespread scepticism North and South that it is fully and irrevocably committed to the principles of consent, plural allegiances and peaceful persuasion is reinforced by three basic considerations which remain relevant in the first months of 2021, viz the structure of the party and its links to the IRA, the demonstration organised on the occasion of the Bobby Storey funeral and its stance on a possible Border poll.

Senator Edward Kennedy commented as far back as 2005 that Sinn Féin could never become a normal democratic party as long as it was linked to the albatross of the IRA. Fifteen years later, the Sinn Féin director of finance declined to deny that the party routinely consulted unelected and unnamed persons. He took pride in the fact that Sinn Féin was not a party like any other: “We don’t want a parliamentary party running the organisation. We want to stay a party of activists. It’s a totally different model. There is nothing mysterious about it.” Further, as mentioned in an Irish Times article of July 2020 by Michael McDowell, the Coghlin inquiry into the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal in Northern Ireland found that Sinn Féin members of the executive regularly consulted and took instruction from unelected figures, presumably the same unaccountable politbureau in West Belfast which regards itself as holding a mandate from the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916. One specific reference is to the then Sinn Féin minister for finance Mairtín Ó Muilleoir apparently asking for clearance from Ted Howell, described as a senior republican figure, before signing off on a plan to reduce the scheme’s escalating costs.

The implications of these charges for identifying the forces which may pull the strings in what is now the largest opposition party in the Dáil, and for the origins of at least a portion of the wealth of that party (two hundred salaried staff, more than forty properties, north and south of the Border), are clear. In blunt terms, if the IRA “Army Council” is an influential authority in, or the ruling body of, Sinn Féin, that council could fulfil the same functions in the Republic or in a unified Irish state in the future.

As far as I know, the precise role of Bobby Storey within the IRA and the reasons why his funeral was organised as a major public event in Northern Ireland have not been made public. Outsiders can only speculate. Was he the IRA’s director of intelligence? Did he have a seat on their Army Council? By repute, he was a fundraiser, organiser of the Northern Bank robbery and raids on other banks, an enforcer who maintained discipline by the most direct of methods, who kept any potential opposition to Gerry Adams in check, an influential strategist and operational leader. The tribute to a former colleague was ostentatious but hardly spontaneous; thousands of people on the streets, up to 1,800 in uniform dress, full representation of the Northern and Southern Sinn Féin leadership, a cover visit to Milltown Cemetery for the obligatory oration with public address system operating, before moving on to Roselawn, etc. The most likely reason for the public theatrics was to remind all other actors with influence on the political stage in Northern Ireland – the unionist and nationalist communities, the Executive, the British and Irish governments, the other political parties, unionist paramilitaries and dissident republicans ‑ of the continued existence, relevance and clout of the IRA: “We haven’t gone away, you know.”

The effects of that funeral were the exact opposite of what was needed. It interrupted steps towards reconciliation and respect for all political traditions on the island in favour of a one-sided glorification of a person and a period marked by bloody violence and bitter divisions. The effects especially on the unionist community, and on their attitude to Irish unity, can hardly be in doubt.

A prominent theme in the statements of Mary Lou McDonald through the summer and autumn of 2020 was the need for the government here to plan and push for constitutional change in the North. She asked the Taoiseach to initiate the process for a referendum, demanded the establishment of an Oireachtas committee on Irish unity or an all-Ireland representative citizens’ assembly similarly charged, and argued that an Ireland-wide approach was no longer merely aspirational but an essential commonsense approach on health and Brexit, as on ecological and agricultural issues. By late October, on the basis of a LucidTalk poll, John Finucane was claiming that there was “strong support” for Irish unity among the under-45s in the North, and that Micheal Martin was badly out of touch with public opinion. The Taoiseach responded by distinguishing between what he termed “this crudely majoritarian and territorial approach” and his own, which he characterised as practical, pragmatic and consensus-seeking. He preferred to work through the North/South ministerial council; and he pointed to the work of the new Shared Island unit set up in his Department, which has a budget of €500 million for practical co-operation projects.

While it presents certain difficulties, not least for the Taoiseach within his own party, I believe this stance is not only preferable but absolutely necessary. Premature moves on the border can only lead to greater disunity now, and where it counts. Whatever about the Belfast  Agreement text, the consent of a reasonable proportion of the unionist community (and not merely 50 per cent plus one of NI voters) to any worthwhile coming together of North and South is in practice essential; work on gaining this assent has scarcely begun. As far back as 1957, Donal Barrington had pointed out that reaching past the barriers and suspicions built up over time might take as long as fifty years, but that fifty years was a short enough term in the life of a nation.

Northern Irish nationalists may be excused for sometimes feeling three-times distant from the other political forces operating in their area ‑ from the unionist majority in the North, from the British government and, not least, from Dublin and the South. They often complain that the South regularly neglected their interests for long periods from the 1920s onward, and that when Dublin did get involved with their plight, this was frequently done cynically, for internal, Southern political advantage. It is important therefore that Dublin governments (and Southern commentators) listen carefully to what fellow nationalists from the North have to say and that they are extra-sensitive in their reactions. That said, we owe Northern nationalists not only our co-operation and support but also the help of our best judgement, expressed as clearly and as honestly as possible, especially where we disagree.

Mallon’s view that his fellow nationalists believed that progress towards Irish unity could not  now be halted has probably strengthened in the short period since his death. Within the past year, Bertie Ahern among others has used the word “inevitable” in relation to Irish unity. This view is based partly on developments in respect of Covid-19 and Brexit issues, but the fundamental driver of nationalist expectations is demographic change within Northern Ireland. As Dr Paul Nolan pointed out in 2018, it is possible that the Catholic community could overtake Protestants in numbers this year. In 1911, Protestants accounted for about 65 per cent of the then population of the Six Counties; in 2011, the Protestant majority fell below 50 per cent for the first time, to 48 per cent Protestant or brought-up Protestant against 45 per cent Catholic or brought-up Catholic, and the Catholic share is still increasing. The division is even stronger among children, where Catholics now outnumber Protestants by 51 per cent to 37 per cent. The census returns of 2021 will be examined very carefully.

I believe that heightened expectations among nationalists North and South of quick moves towards Irish unity are falsely based. The view that Catholics will probably overtake Protestants soon as the largest population group in Northern Irealnd is not the equivalent of saying that nationalists will become a majority there in the near future. Dr Nolan’s research points to the fact that although the Catholic proportion of the population increased substantially between 1998 and 2017, in the same period the combined nationalist vote went up only by 0.1 per cent, that is it was effectively static On this basis, he concludes that it will take some time for the overall nationalist vote to break the 40 per cent barrier, let alone that of 50 per cent. Moreover, the increased number within Northern Ireland who identify themselves as neither unionist or nationalist (now between 39 per cent and 50 per cent) adds a further complication.

If unity were on the cards following a favourable vote in a Border poll within the next decade, it seems most likely that the great bulk of unionists would oppose the outcome. The opposition and resentment will be all the greater if the voting is close and the margin of positive votes small. Is there anything in the record of unionist choices, stubbornness and intransigence since 1913 to give grounds for believing that such a result will be accepted peaceably, without recourse to bloodshed and violence? If not, nationalists should decide, in advance of calling for such a vote, if that is the way they want “unity” to begin. One might note that it has taken almost a hundred  years to overcome the bitterness of the Irish civil war, in the present coming together of the two sections of the pre-1922 Sinn Féin to form the government in the South. That war lasted just under one year (1922-1923) and cost about a thousand lives in a population of about three million. Yeats described his Ireland in the words “great hatred, little room, fanatic hearts”. Again, the Troubles in the North, called a “war” by the IRA but never a “civil war”, lasted thirty-five years and cost 3,720 lives in a population of about 1.6 million.

In April 2018, in response to Arlene Foster’s statement that she might leave the North in the event of a popular vote there favouring Irish unity, Mary Lou McDonald said that of course Irish unionists would have to be at home in a new Ireland. She called for discussions with unionists, and said that in discussion nothing, from the flag to the anthem, would be taboo: “Let’s talk about every nuance and aspect of Irish life, North and South.” This was a good thing to say; she does not say so often enough. But she must realise that for even the most moderate Northern unionists, those most open to movement towards better relationships internally and externally, Sinn Féin promises for the future, like their equivocations about the past, mean little.

To bridge this credibility gap, Sinn Féin must decide on its priorities. That party can either continue to try justifying their armed campaign or they can settle for the path of conciliation and persuasion favoured by the majority of Irish nationalists. A fundamental contradiction exists in trying to do both. Conciliation and persuasion will take time in any event; without some acknowledgement of past error, some regret for the republican contribution to the present state of bitterness and polarisation in the North, that time will be extended immeasurably. The signs since late 2020 are mixed. On the one hand, we have the Sinn Féin leader’s openness towards inclusive talks with unionists, her stress on practical arrangements in the Covid and Brexit contexts and indeed, her designation of Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael politics as too much of a cosy club. Against this, her presence at the Storey funeral, her stress on the adequacy of a 50 per cent plus one majority in a Border poll for quick movement towards unity, her inability, for example, to move beyond “inappropriate” in condemning Brian Stanley for his glorifications of the Warrenpoint killings (did she mean that his timing was not the best, or that he should leave the expression of such opinion to his superiors in the party?) do nothing to encourage a belief that the Sinn Féin party will change its position, or be permitted to change it.

I have little doubt that the role of armed force in Irish history, and the justification for it, will continue to be debated for a long time. I personally find it difficult to justify the use of armed force, except defensively, in the circumstances of Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007, and impossible to justify the sort of brutal and indiscriminate violence then employed by the IRA and other paramilitary groups. My views are not based on a self-centred Southern attitude, or on any lack of sympathy for the position of the nationalist minority in the North. They are however reinforced by two considerations drawn from earlier history. The results of Ireland’s War of Independence 1919-1921 were ambiguous. Irish nationalists fought for independence for the whole island; they only won dominion status for twenty-six counties, the “freedom to attain freedom”, and partition. Irish unionists in the North armed in order to struggle against Home Rule for the whole island; they only won home rule for a truncated Ulster of six counties, and partition. At best then, each side had to report a half-success and a half-failure; for the following century, each side chose to remember and celebrate the half-success.

The difference between armed force and non-violence is not absolute. The proponents of constitutional action in the nationalist camp relied either implicitly or explicitly on a warning or threat of violence to further their aims; for the unionists, Carson was blunter. The mass meetings of O’Connell, the parliamentary agitation and “new departure” of Parnell, and even John Redmond’s stance carried the implication of strong retribution if just demands were not met. It was Redmond, after all, the least radical and most imperialist of the three, who said: “I have no faith and never had in English benevolence towards Ireland. We have never got anything without making a movement dangerous and menacing towards England.” But moving from the threat to its actualisation is a momentous step; reversing that actualisation, as in one sense Adams did in the North from the late 1980s and seeing the problem more in terms of Irish unionists than of British troops is an admission that making good on the threat may have been a strategic error; alternative strategies pursued over a similar period of thirty-five years could well have produced equal benefits with less poisonous results.

The existing breathing space in the North needs to be built on and developed. I have previously described the present situation as “imperfect but balanced, frail and uncertain but offering promising green seeds of hope”. It is the calm of a hiatus or time-out, more frozen than fertile, and it might break down by accident or design at any stage. Little or nothing of a positive nature is happening towards anchoring peace and reconciliation more firmly. Our government should now be considering how it can best contribute to making progress. As indicated above, our programme on the North should at least include setting out clearly and in detail what Dublin’s policy vis-a-vis the North consists of; and distinguishing in precise terms between Irish government policy and that of IRA/Sinn Féin. Once determined in detail, we should also publicise and sell our ideas vigorously and consistently to public opinion North and South, to all the political parties in the North, and to Westminster.

For the past few years, successive Irish governments have held to our traditional aspiration in relation to Northern Ireland, but there has been little of value added in regard to policy and programme. To put substance into Dublin’s Northern policy, it seems to me that we should make up our minds where we stand at least in regard to the following questions which are live and relevant in early 2021. What sort of all-Ireland arrangement do we favour, a unitary, federal or confederal state, or something else? Under what conditions would we support the holding of a border poll? What about applying the idea of parallel consent to a border poll? Parallel consent relates to the working of the Northern Ireland assembly and is defined in the Belfast Agreement as either a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting, or as a weighted majority (60 per cent) of all delegations present and voting, including at least 40 per cent of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting. This mechanism was first proposed by the SDLP to protect the minority community but it was applied last year in a different context, in respect of Covid regulations. The point is, of course, to ensure that a respectable number of unionists support any new arrangements favoured in a vote by a simple majority of NI voters. Alternatively, are we prepared to say in advance that we would reject, or not feel bound to implement, any arrangement not supported by a decent proportion of unionists? If constitutional change does come about, are we prepared to agree to a consultative role for the UK government in relation to unionists similar to that which we in the South now have in relation to nationalists? How can existing co-operation be enhanced in the policy areas of Covid-19 and other health issues, and as regards Brexit and other EU problems, including especially the agriculture, trade and ecological areas? What further steps are advisable in relation to security, the courts, policing, legacy issues, cultural co-operation, etc? Are we prepared to engage consistently over time, not just with the Northern Ireland executive but with the Northern Ireland political parties? I believe we need to do this, in order, in the first place, to persuade Northern unionists to move from their default position of hostility to, and suspicion of, all Dublin governments and of any form of improved accommodation with the South. We should also continue to support and encourage the SDLP and Alliance parties, and talk seriously and regularly to the DUP and Sinn Féin at party level. Are there any further actions we may be planning for the short-term, medium-term and long-term future? Most of the above points are based on Seamus Mallon’s analysis.

As indicated above, such an approach will not be easy. It will require Dublin to take initiatives on the North, which it has done seldom enough in the past, and to play an active, rather than simply a reactive, role there. This in turn will have to start by beginning debates on the detail within the major Southern political parties. It will also be important to avoid two big dangers – firstly, that this is seen merely as an exercise in Sinn Féin-bashing, undertaken primarily for Southern, party-political advantage; secondly, that the South is coming to this with an exaggerated notion of its own potential role, or from a belief that its wisdom is unquestionable and its record above reproach. On the first danger, setting a civil tone and using measured words will be vital. On the second, we will do well to remember that our power to influence developments in the North is real but limited, and that no Southern leader has ever lost his position due to taking forward or risky positions on Northern policy; three unionist leaders did, O’Neill, Faulkner and Trimble, and Adams and his supporters also took serious risks.

Such a programme will also have to recognise that, at present, a majority of Northern nationalists support Sinn Féin, that persuading that majority to adopt a more long-term approach will take time, and that political opposition in the South to making more visible this split in nationalist opinion will be considerable. Sinn Féin now has twenty-seven seats in the Northern Ireland assembly, it holds seven of the eighteen seats in the UK parliament and it numbers 105 councillors in local government across the North. The comparative figures for the SDLP are twelve, two and fifty-six. Sinn Féin overtook the SDLP in popular support in 2003; it went from fourth place in the assembly to third after the Belfast Agreement; it reached second place in 2007 and it has maintained that position since. It now obtains between 24 per cent and 28 per cent of the total Northern Ireland first preference votes, roughly about 60 per cent of the nationalist vote.

I have said very little regarding the past or present role of the United Kingdom. This is right and proper, since the Irish aspects of the NI problem as we see it, that of relations between the two communities in the North and that of relations between North and South, should be settled primarily in Ireland by the people of Ireland. Of course, as always, we have to keep a close eye on what is happening across the water; in this regard, developments as regards Brexit and what happens in Scotland could be significant in the short term.

As indicated above, I agree with Micheal Martin’s approach as it has developed so far. It is low-key and practical, designed, as I understand it, to build trust over the medium to long term; there is no stress on immediacy or on “Irish unity” rhetoric. This has already provoked some unease within the Fianna Fáil party, and not just from the oldtimers’ brigade; Barry Cowen and Jim O’Callaghan have also raised questions. This will have to be faced and argued out, but it is to be hoped that the party will be able to find a consensus centred on the merits of a sensible, small-steps-forward policy. Similar discussions and the forging of a modernisation programme should, of course also take place within the other Southern parties, and particularly inside Fine Gael and the Greens. In some respects, Fianna Fáil, the Republican party, is better positioned than other Southern parties to take the lead in this, and likely to be more convincing in persuading Northern nationalists, moderate unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance party that the new emphasis is logical, genuine and potentially durable.

One possible caveat: a “shared island”, as in the present government programme, does not necessarily carry the same connotations as a “shared home place”; after all, what we have in operation at present is one version of a “shared island”. An “agreed island” or an “Agreed Ireland” implies the need for some changes.

The adoption of the above policy and programme is not an easy option. It calls especially for political courage of a high order from the leaders of the Southern political parties. Keeping to our traditional aspirational language and, in effect, allowing Sinn Féin to continue leading in the South for Northern nationalist opinion involves less work and less political risk in the short term. But if our government wishes to help make progress in the North during its term of office, if it truly believes in the values of partnership, reconciliation and inclusion in both parts of the island, if the Republic considers itself an important custodian of the future welfare of all Irish people, is there an alternative? Brian Cowen put it well ten years ago: “We have to make the here and now a better place, we have to devise a political culture that is less suspicious and less fearful than ever before, that is more open to recognising the common interests we have while respecting that we are in separate jurisdictions.” In short, peace and growing together are more important than quick, and therefore necessarily coercive, unity.

It is also the case that however hard this sort of programme may be for Southern parties, it is more difficult, much more difficult, for Northern nationalists. They are being asked to be circuit-breakers in the direction of a new and more generous Northern Ireland, and if we decide in favour of parallel consent in respect of a border poll, to move even beyond existing treaty provisions in order to show understanding of, and provide comfort to, a community which treated them with scant respect in the past. Southern leaders may suggest this and try to persuade Northern nationalists of its merits, but they can hardly insist on it. I support it because the border poll is a live issue, because a parallel consent approach has been advocated by Seamus Mallon and because his arguments in favour of it seem to me to be cogent. He took issue with the arguments put forward by Richard Humphries, who favours strict adherence to the treaty text, and refuted them convincingly in my view as simply not sensible. Mallon’s counterargument is that a new constitutional dispensation based on a narrow majority is likely to provoke strong reactions and possibly violence from the unionist side and that it is not in the interest of the nationalist community that any new departure should begin by replicating in reverse some of the worst features of the old.

I am an optimistic, Dublin-born nationalist. Like Heaney, I hope for “a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge”. I believe that our independence and our republican structures have served Ireland well for almost a century and that the Irish nationalist community, North and South, and the Irish unionist community would both benefit by closer co-operation within a single constitutional framework. I am optimistic in that, like the late Dermot Nally, I consider that Ireland will eventually come together in some form of unity, provided the pace is not forced; the logic of our history, positive and negative, our geography and important common elements in the economic life of North and South all point strongly in this direction. That said, the type of unity I am interested in has nothing to do with a forced merger of territory or with the unreal utopianism of instant solutions. It looks instead to the building of trust, to a more substantial reconciliation between our different traditions, and to a series of incremental improvements beginning as soon as possible. For this to happen, what will be required of Dublin is a new activism, a new rhetoric and, above all, the virtues of patience and prudence.

To hold that history is a nightmare from which Northern nationalists and unionists are trying to awaken is simplistic. Where does that history begin – in 1922 or 1969, in 1169 or 1609? Disregard of history can be a dead-end trap; a refusal to learn is the classical recipe for repetition of the same mistakes. Kurt Schaechter said: “What distinguishes us from animals is our memory. Humanity cannot forget its history.” But oversensitivity to the past, too much history, can be as bad; reconciliation and forgiveness involve giving history its proper due, but no more. Interpreting the present only or largely in the light of the past, and reading the past only or largely in the light of the present, are two equally invalid category errors. Stathis Kalyvas, author of “The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars”, notes that the terms “victim” and “perpetrator” are not mutually exclusive – either in the present or in the past. In sum, history is a good servant but a bad master. History matters and it cannot be ignored. But too much history, in particular a one-sided obsession with past wrongs, is, if anything, worse. In building a better future, the tyranny of the dead – “Young men of Erin, your dead are calling you” – must be opposed. To see oneself, one’s community or one’s tradition exclusively in terms of victimhood is psychologically damaging and politically sterile. Getting the balance right in Northern Ireland regarding the past as well as the future will not be easy, but that effort also has to be made.

Colum McCann’s hybrid novel Apeirogon tells the real-life stories of two men, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab, each of whom lost a young daughter to political violence and who went on to establish a peace movement together. Bassam, the Arab, quotes the thirteenth century Islamic poet Rumi: “Beyond right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”


John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as ambassador to Cyprus, ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the UN (Geneva).