State of flux

There is a younger generation of politicians seeking to defend the Northern Ireland peace process but hopes are fading for a restoration of power sharing. Is reunification edging nearer?

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There is always a grim anniversary with which to recall the darkest hours of the Troubles. Next month it will be the turn of the small town of Enniskillen to remember. That was where in 1997 the IRA bombed a Remembrance Day parade, leaving 11 dead and 63 injured. Next year the incident that kicked off the whole sorry chapter in Northern Ireland’s history will be 50 years old: the Unionist government ordering the old RUC, forerunner of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to forcibly halt a civil rights march in Derry/Londonderry.

Over three decades of the Troubles more than 3,500 people died. But in 1999 the British-Irish Agreement consigned the bombs and bullets to history, or at least led to Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups becoming dormant.

There have, however, been more than 60 conflict-related deaths since the Troubles were declared to be over. Compared to how it used to be, that is called peace in Northern Ireland.

A cloud hangs over the peace process: Brexit’s potential to impose a hard border

Somehow, though, the peace process has managed to survive one potentially fatal blow after another, from the protracted will-they-won’t-they drama of decommissioning paramilitary weapons in the early days to the latest of four suspensions of power-sharing between Nationalists and Unionists at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Now, a new cloud hangs over the peace process in the form of Brexit and its potential to impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the scrapping of which was a vital plank in the peace process. This month the Republic’s HMRC equivalent suggested that border controls and customs posts would be essential, a move that could undo two decades of peace and reconciliation.

There is among the bulk of the population no appetite for a return to the bad days, however, and in Liverpool earlier this month two women who once would have found it impossible to share a platform appeared together to talk about reconciliation and how the Republican and Unionist communities now manage to live in peace.

One of them was Dawn Purvis, 50, former Independent Unionist MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The other was Elisha McCallion, 35, one of Sinn Féin’s rising stars. At the general election she took the Derry seat of Foyle for the party, the first time it has won the city at UK parliamentary elections but, in common with other Sinn Féin MPs, she does not sit at Westminster. She also won the late Sinn Féin political leader Martin McGuinness’s Foyle seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly after he stood down through ill health.

Elisha McCallion
Sinn Fein politician Elisha McCallion, who will speak in Liverpool

McCallion says that although she was in her early teens when the Troubles ended she has vivid memories of those days growing up in Derry. “I do remember bombs in the streets, house raids and the armed campaign.

“My family were very much involved in it and as a result I had aunts and uncles who were in jail throughout my childhood.”

It was because of that sense of injustice in the Nationalist community in which she grew up that she became politically active in her teens, being elected to Derry Council in her early twenties and becoming mayor in 2015.

“Reconciliation is absolutely the only way forward,” she says. “I was inspired throughout my career by people like Martin McGuinness, who in my opinion advanced the peace process beyond expectations at the time.

“Martin took some very courageous and very needy steps towards reconciliation. There were times when it was very difficult for him, as a person, but he always saw the bigger picture. It was always for the greater good.”

McCallion admits that keeping the momentum of peace going hasn’t got any easier and it’s something that everyone has to work towards. One success she claims for Derry is solving the issue of parades through local dialogue. Twenty years ago they would have been contentious and sometimes violent but, she says, they have managed to “crack that chestnut” and are proud of the achievement. However, she adds candidly: “We aren’t living in absolute harmony but we’ve certainly come a huge way forward.

“What does the future hold? It’s for people like me and my generation to ensure that we continue the work for reconciliation in order to advance not only our own political objective but to ensure that the people of Ireland lead a prosperous and peaceful life.”

On the other side of the political and cultural divide, Emma Little-Pengelly, 37, shares similar hopes. She too saw the effects of the Troubles close to home: in her case her father was a member of Ulster Resistance, a Loyalist paramilitary group.

A barrister who represents Belfast South for the DUP at Westminster, Little-Pengelly wrote an article in the Belfast Telegraph acknowledging her background. “I have never used it as an excuse. I have had my own challenges. However it does not even begin to compare with the incredible loss and pain suffered by the victims and survivors of the Troubles. I know their pain cannot be taken away, or their loss replaced, but I also know they must never be forgotten, that victims are not ‘the past’ but are our present.

“There are many thousands of people who have been through much over the decades. Regardless of who we are and what we have endured I know we all have a positive role to play in seeking to build the brighter and shared future for Northern Ireland that so many of us want to see.”

The peace process that began in the 1990s is about to reach a potentially critical stage. In order to end the Troubles the late Ian Paisley and other Unionists politicians conceded that the “principle of consent” should determine Northern Ireland’s future. Put simply, if a majority of people living there voted for Irish reunification then the UK parliament would not block it. That point has now come back to haunt Unionism, with Sinn Féin calling for a vote on Irish unity within five years.

Kevin Meagher, Sheffield-based author of a book on the Troubles, believes it is likely to happen and that it will produce a majority vote for Irish reunification. The creation of Northern Ireland as a UK province in the 1920s was always a “sticking plaster solution to a very difficult situation”, he says, largely because the Westminster government thought it owed a debt to Unionists and Loyalists for their sacrifices in the First World. It was a political fudge that politicians decided to leave for those who came after them to sort out.

“Unfortunately, Northern Ireland became Protestant-Unionist a fief with discrimination in jobs and housing, and the civil rights protests that sprung up against it in the late 1960s were banned on the streets, culminating in Bloody Sunday of 1972.”

“According to Meagher demographic changes in Northern Ireland make a reunification vote inevitable.”

The most notorious incident of the Troubles, it took place in the Bogside area of Derry/Londonderry. British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians who were engaged in a peaceful protest march against internment – imprisonment without trial – and 14 lost their lives. It would fuel the bitter IRA campaign for 25 years until they and Loyalist paramilitaries agreed to lay down their weapons in the 1990s.

According to Meagher, once special adviser to former Labour Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward, demographic changes in Northern Ireland make a reunification vote inevitable. A majority of the population under the age of 35 is now Catholic, and recent voting patterns at elections suggest that – inch by inch – the gap is narrowing. In the assembly elections last March, Sinn Féin came within 1,000 votes of topping the poll.

If Sinn Féin became the largest party in assembly elections it would be a compelling argument to demand a referendum since a majority of people had voted for a party committed to Irish reunification. That demand has been given added weight by Brexit. The province voted 55.7 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU, and that could be a compelling reason to join the Irish Republic for a significant portion of the electorate.

To no one’s surprise, opinion polls in the Irish Republic suggest a big majority in favour of joining with Northern Ireland. But no one can predict how a vote would go in the north. Whether the demographic swing towards a Catholic majority could be utilised by Republicans for their cause of reunification, at least in the short term, is a moot point.

According to Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies about two-thirds of the province’s electorate between the ages of 18 and 24 did not bother to vote at the general election in June. It was found that the percentages of Catholics and Protestants turning their backs on politics was broadly similar, which suggests that neither Nationalists nor Unionists can guarantee its core electoral supporters will actually bother to vote.

While in the past younger Protestants have indicated they would turn out to support the province’s union with the UK, there are now questions about whether they have become indifferent to the issue. If a referendum were to take place, the issue of Irish reunification may depend on which side can turn out its apathetic younger voters.

Elisha McCallion and Dawn Purvis discussed reconciliation and living peacefully in conflict at Liverpool Irish Festival, Museum of Liverpool. A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About by Kevin Meagher is out now (Biteback Publishing, £12.99)

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