Professor Mary McAleese, President of Ireland (1997-2011), Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin, delivered a captivating and inspiring lecture to staff, students and friends of the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, on October 29th 2020.
This lecture marked the launch of ICUF’s D’Arcy McGee Beacon Fellowship Program, a scholarship program which supports the development of connections between Canada and Ireland through online engagement. To watch the video, click here.
“Introducing D’Arcy McGee to a changed and changing island of Ireland”
I am not convinced that I would be doing any great favours to Thomas D’Arcy McGee by introducing him to a 21st century Ireland dominated by Covid and Brexit, two recent phenomena that we are hard put to explain to ourselves never mind a man who died over one hundred and fifty years ago. (13 April 1825 – 7 April 1868). However while Covid, Brexit, Netflix, Twitter, Trump, Boris and even the GAA would be entirely new to McGee there is still much in the ether of contemporary Irish politics, British-Irish politics, and indeed ecclesiastical politics that for him would have at the very least wispy threads of familiarity and in some cases he would recognise in our times the significant elaboration of inchoate chapters of history begun in or continued through his times.
The most obvious change from his day is that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which was created in the generation before his birth, no longer exists and has been gone for a century.
Gone too is the one time global colossus that was the British Empire and the cosy club of Empires which in McGee’s day included the Holy See. Not gone however are the long shadows cast by the Protestant Plantations of Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation with the serial politico- sectarian turmoil which became embedded as a consequence of them.
In response to the twentieth century Irish revolutionary bid for freedom from British and Protestant rule a century ago the British divided Ireland into two confessional states. On, the largest part of the island, today referred to as Ireland, had an overwhelming Catholic majority and a political culture which for decades after remained in thrall to the Catholic Church. The considerably smaller entity Northern Ireland was designed as redoubt within the United Kingdom for continuing the old British Planter Protestant political supremacy. Catholics there were outnumbered two to one and for most of the following decades they endured second-class citizenship as the Protestant government squandered the opportunity partition had given them to evolve into a fair, non-sectarian, liberal democracy. Instead Catholics were deliberately excluded from government, voting, jobs and housing and subjugated to a partisan police force, parliament, judiciary and legislation. In Northern Ireland the scene was set for an unstable and often violent century of violence with an unresolved toxic mix of religion, politics, identity, power and powerlessness in which heavy doses of politico-religious proselytism played a part.
There followed in Northern Ireland years of regular outbreaks of violent sectarian conflict. I was a teenager in the 1960’s when the latest and hopefully last phase of the conflict broke out. It lasted thirty years and was essentially a civil war known lamely as The Troubles and only brought to a conclusion in 1998 by the Good Friday Agreement.
The two separate jurisdictions experienced decades of minimal political or economic cooperation and the cool political relationships extended to those between Dublin and Westminster especially as the newly independent Ireland pursued military neutrality during the Second World War. What Northern poet John Hewitt has called “the centuries’ arrears” grew progressively worse . It was not a world of good neighbours but of harsh binary bunkers. Partition had set in train a tale of two quite different journeys with unexpected outcomes.
Northern Ireland’s Unionist government had a strong self-ideation of Northern Ireland as a bastion of social liberalism which contrasted with an illiberal Catholic Southern Republic. The North at partition was prosperous by comparison with the impoverished new independent state. Today it is the Republic of Ireland and not Northern Ireland which has blossomed into a highly successful secular multi-ethnic modern democracy, one of the wealthiest and most stable in the world. The grip of religious conservatism and the gravitational pull of sectarianism are still evident in the politics of the North. The years of violence and political instability particularly during the Troubles made it difficult to attract the necessary serious investment to generate significant economic momentum so that today though peace prevails in Northern Ireland it still depends on significant financial transfers from Westminster.
Both jurisdictions were radically changed,though in very different ways, by the advent of free second level education and the massificiation of third level education. They arrived in Northern much earlier than in the rest of Ireland.
In Northern Ireland from the 1950’s onwards free second level education and widened access to third level produced the first large educated Catholic cohort It had the confidence to push for their civil rights with what Seamus Heaney memorably described as “intelligences brightened and unmannerly as crowbars”. (From the Canton of Expectation). Their modest demands were violently resisted by the Unionist establishment and a sectarian war segued into thirty years of appalling violence with the reignition of the paramilitary campaign for the completion of Irish unity which had been moribund by the 1960’s.
A generation later in Ireland’s republic the effects of free second level education and the massification of third level were starkly different. In contaarast to the North, the South had missed the first industrial revolution but it did not miss the next one. Instead with the release of new swathes of talent it eventually, by fits and starts, grew a thriving globalised exporting economy capable of reversing decades of emigration, keeping its people in jobs at home and capable of attracting ambitious migrants from other countries so that today Ireland’s young and growing population is made up of seventeen percent non-Irish born citizens. A small but powerful recent cameo says much about the ethic of inclusion which has a strong grip on the ethos of modern Ireland. The Irish Muslim community celebrated EID a few weeks ago in our national sporting headquarters at Croke Park. The Protestant and Catholic Archbishops of Dublin were both present. The Chief Rabbi of Ireland was present. The event was broadcast live on national television. Ireland was the only non-Muslim country in the world to do so.
McGee might be surprised at the extent to which an independent Ireland created as a confessional state has shaken off the label of Catholic State though it is important to acknowledge the huge burden of national education and healthcare which was borne by the Catholic Church from the foundation of the State. Notwithstanding that legacy and debt, today a process of divestment of Church patronage in both education and health sectors is in train to allow for the growing reality of a more diverse, heterogeneous and secular Ireland. In fact the relationship between the Catholic Church and the State has been recalibrated as is evidenced firstly by the robust way in which the State intervened to hold the Catholic Church to account for the physical and sexual abuse of children. Secondly by recent referenda on same sex marriage and abortion which were overwhelmingly endorsed despite strong opposition from the Catholic hierarchy.
In fact religious adherence generally in the Republic is diminishing and fragmenting. In particular the label Catholic no longer is one size fits all. A new generation educated in women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights and the fundamental rights of all human beings to freedom of religion, opinion, belief and conscience no longer accepts the Catholic Church’s outdated teaching that its members must be obedient to the magisterium because of obligations undertaken by them at baptism when they were non-sentient infants.
Other impulses are changing the face of Ireland. Irish partricipation in the Great War was a story poorly told for decades in order to maintain division. Today it has been told honestly and has become powerful healing tool right across the entire island. The memory of all those, Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and nationalist, of Irish and British identity, from North and South who died fighting for the Allies is now honoured at the island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in Belgium. It was opened in 1998 by myself and Queen Elizabeth II. Former Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries routinely now attend together Great War dead commemorations and Irish political leaders lay wreaths at War Dead cenotaphs in Northern Ireland –things that were unthinkable a generation ago.
The Irish government’s deft handling of and planning for a decade of difficult centenaries from the Somme to the Rising, through the War of Independence, Civil War and Partition, has contributed to a mature set of civic society and scholarly debates that have lowered old ramparts and allowed considerable respectful cross-border discussion and participation.
The creation recently by the Irish Government of a Shared Island Unit supported by significant funding to promote north south infrastructure initiatives points up the desire to fill those centuries arrears with good neighbourliness, trust, and partnership between North and South. But tellingly in announcing the new Shared Island Unit the Government announced its commitment not to advocate for a referendum in Northern Ireland on a united Ireland within the next five years. It did so to allow the people who share the island time to breathe the fresh air of peace and to build the culture of partnership promised by the international treaty which is known as the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The agreement ended governance by protestant majoritarianism in the north. It provided for an innovative cross-community power-sharing government, working to the principles of parity of esteem and equal citizenship. It created a standing infrastructure to support North- South and East West cooperation into the future. The republic surrendered its constitutional claim to ownership of the North and in return the agreement provided that while Northern Ireland was to remain part of the United Kingdom, that was not guaranteed in perpetuity but could be changed if a simple majority voted in favour of a United Ireland in a future referendum in Northern Ireland. No date was specified but the holding of such a referendum was left at the discretion of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State based on his view of the likely level support for such a change. That is where things stand today but they have not stood still in the two decades since the agreement.
Change is always in the air. Aas one academic has pointed out, in 2022 the centenary year of partition, Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority (Paul Nolan 2019). Whether that translates into a majority for a united Ireland is an open question but it is no longer the only question thanks in part to Brexit. Just as McGee’s divided homeland North and South was beginning to write the most remarkable chapters of its history with a shared government, community police force, fair legal system and warm cross-border political relationships, Brexit interrupted the tolerably linear progress and put new questions on the agenda.
In back of the changes wrought by the Good Friday Agreement was a complex of crucial supports which facilitated the agreement itself and its rolling out into the future. Not for nothing was it called a Peace Process. Foremost among those supports was the fact that both Ireland and the United Kingdom were members of the European Union having joined on the same day in 1973. Around that Union table coloniser and colonised were on an equal footing, and partners in that miracle of partnership between enemies who had turned Europe into a bloodbath and were determined never to do so again. The European Union offered Ireland the opportunity to end its overwhelming dependency on the United Kingdom by diversifying into new markets which it did with notable success over time but importantly it also offered North and South a common European identity, easy commerce across an almost invisible border, and years of regular political engagement at the highest level between Ireland and the United Kingdom. These things were pivotal to achieving the compromise and consensus which became the landmark agreement in 1998. They were also pivotal to the outworking of the Agreement.
With unnerving lack of consideration of the impact on the Good Friday Agreement the United Kingdom was propelled into a referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016. Convincing majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU but the decision to leave won the day thanks to majorities in England and Wales.
Suddenly the future of the United Kingdom became no longer just about the possibility of Northern Ireland leaving. Scotland witnessed an increase in support for independence which would free it to rejoin the EU. Nor was a united Ireland any longer just about reuniting the island of Ireland into one political unit, for Northern Ireland it was now also about holding on to membership of the EU. Thanks to a deal struck by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny with our European partners including the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has the right to seamlessly reenter the European Union at any time if it opts for a united Ireland.
Add to the equation the dwindling authority of the labels Catholic and Protestant, growing acceptance that the labels British and Irish are not mutually exclusive, that many in Northern Ireland now use the label Northern Irish, it is the case increasingly that identities are not fixed along the raw severed edges they once were. We are living through a time of inchoate flux.
The Good Friday Agreement did not forsee Brexit. If it had it would have been a different agreement. Right now the outworking of Brexit is about as inchoate as it is possible to get but through the Brexit blur we can see a number of things that are already clear. First, if the United Kingdom does not stay close to the Single European Market it will cause huge problems for Northern Ireland’s economy and for trading between North and South. Secondly, the future of the republic of Ireland is firmly linked to the European Union and though trade with Great Britain and Northern Ireland will continue to be important, the regular, indeed relentless engagement between Ireland and the Uk as EU partners which has always been such a positive phenomenon will fall away and we have no idea what if anything will replace it. The East West infrastructure under the Good Friday Agreement was not created for such a purpose and has yet to be road-tested against it. whether it will be adequate to the task is a moot question.
An agreement was concluded last year between the EU and the UK which was designed to protect Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement from the worst consequences of Brexit. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. announced a few weeks ago that it is to be unilaterally broken by the UK .
Negotiations between the UK and the EU on a future trade deal have entered their dramatic grandstanding final stage. Weeks away from deadlines we have no clue as to how the story will end- well or badly. If badly the impact on East West and North South trade relationships which are extensive today, will be immediate and drastic. Strains in the East West relationship are evident and the Covid crisis which has impacted both sides of the border has highlighted a worrying lack of preparedness for spontaneous collaboration in a mutual crisis which is not how things should be this far down the road of the Good Friday Agreement.
In reality the years since the GFA have shown the power-sharing governments to be more vulnerable than one would wish, with long stops and shaky restarts. They have shown a jurisdiction still in thrall to religious conservatism and where sectarianism is still a concern. Where the republic has faced down conservative religious control of social policy, Northern Ireland has not yet managed to do so. Same sex marriage and reform of abortion law which had public support were resisted by the Northern parliament and only introduced into Northern Ireland by the Westminster Parliament during yet another long interregnum when the Northern government had collapsed. Ironically however there are emerging new civic society alignments evident between secularists North and South and religious conservatives North and South which are flattening the old Catholic-Protestant, Irish-British divisions.
What is encouraging is the very convincing cross community solidarity around the principles and vision embedded in the Agreement which has not been shaken by attempts particularly by republican paramilitary dissidents to drive people back into their sectarian bunkers. Encouraging too are grass roots initiatives like Unionist Linda Ervine teaching Irish to Loyalists in east Belfast where a flourishing cross-community GAA club has just started. That kind of innovative solidarity and more will be needed to prevent any future reweaponising of sectarianism for political purposes.
North and South many people are trying their best to fill the centuries arrears but an army of scholars is surely needed to help guide their thinking and to nudge both their learning and their unlearning as they navigate the waters of the tough debates that lie ahead. D’Arcy McGee could teach us all a thing or two about changing one’s opinions morphing as he did from radical revolutionary to conservative constitutionalist.! But the
Brexit debacle has warned us not to walk unprepared into an epic watershed constitutional debate.
Over the course of fourteen years in office as President of Ireland I tried to build bridges of cross-border friendship especially to the most estranged, the hardest to reach Unionist and Loyalist constituencies among which my husband Martin and I grew up. Many of them transcended their fears and distrust to take the hand of friendship and reciprocate it so that over time there was a lessening of fear of the other. The changed political temperature facilitated a hugely successful four-day State visit to Ireland by her Majesty the Queen in 2011. It was the first such visit in the history of the State. Her first time to set foot in the republic. Her words in Dublin castle promised that the two islands could bow to the past and not be bound by it. In a nod to people like D’Arcy Magee and millions like him she observed
“With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all. But it is also true that no-one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and the people of our two nations, the spirit of partnership that we now enjoy, and the lasting rapport between us. “
If we have learnt anything since the days of D’Arcy McGee it is that change is coming and it is not always predictable. But whatever lies ahead the people who share the island of Ireland have something he did not have. We have that spirit of partnership for we are all, North and South, a Good Friday people. We know the cost of peace. We have paid it. We know the waste caused by enmity. We have been paralysed by it. We have committed ourselves to the spirit of partnership which Queen Elizabeth highlighted and which is the fundament of the Good Friday Agreement.
An old Irish proverb says “Ar scath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine“.
It means that only when we work together will our true power and potential reveal itself. We, in this generation, have the opportunity to do that, to work together in peace, and parity of esteem. We have the opportunity to see what we can build when we work to secure a future that is peaceful and prosperous for all our children. It is an opportunity D’Arcy McGee never had, could never have imagined though he may have dreamed of it. He would surely tell us today individually and collectively to use it well, to make sure the best is yet to come.