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Unionism, or perhaps even more broadly the idea of togetherness, is, to put it mildly, fairly topical at present. It’s a week in which Article 50 has finally been triggered, officially beginning a process which already feels like it’s taken a lifetime as the UK leaves one union of nations. While negotiating that the UK government is also trying desperately to defend its own union as the Scots threaten (again) to split.
So, on Monday Teresa May was in Scotland trying to smooth feathers and head off a second referendum. The comment pages have for weeks speculated on whether it will happen, whether Unionism is doomed and what the impact will be on Brexit. While the Prime Minister was there, being sexually harassed by the Daily Mail, a more immediate crisis has been unfolding for weeks across the Irish Sea. Remarkably, given just how recent the Troubles were, the Irish situation has passed with comparatively scant analysis or media attention. Two days ago BBC Question time failed even to have a Northern Irish voice on the day that negotiations of a new power sharing agreement collapsed.
You could sense the crisis brewing months ago. Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK which actually has an EU border, was bizarrely absent from almost all debate on the EU referendum. The issue of the border and peace process was breezily dismissed during the referendum by the then Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers. Her confidence seemed hollow and misplaced at the time, and looks increasingly ludicrous as time passes.
Brexit is not the cause of the immediate crisis, but the added spark of insecurity about a future that will affect Northern Ireland more immediately than any other part of the UK has certainly not helped. Nor can it count as unexpected – the Catholic bishops during the campaign were one of the few bodies to call for caution on the Irish question in particular.
Meanwhile in the months since the referendum the Northern Ireland government has gradually imploded. The last election (which happened on the 2nd of March) was triggered by the resignation of (the now late) Martin McGuinness, citing frustrations with Arlene Foster, the First Minister and leader of the DUP, her handling of the “cash for ash” scandal, and an alleged failure to address Sinn Fein’s concerns. The vote itself saw Sinn Fein come within 0.2 percent of achieving the largest share of the vote and the first Assembly without a Unionist majority. With the latest failure to form a government, and riding in the wake of McGuinness’s death Sinn Fein no doubt expect to do even better should a further election be held. The prospect of a united Ireland has suddenly become more realistic than perhaps at any time since the War of Independence. A resulting flare up in sectarian tensions cannot be ruled out, particularly if the balance of power shifts decidedly from the DUP to Sinn Fein.
Easter time is poignant in Northern Irish politics; marking as it does the anniversaries of both the 1916 Easter Rising that is so central to the history of Irish republicanism, and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that has been so essential to the de–escalation of tensions and violence. This Easter marks a watershed of its own, an almost complete changing of the guard. Of the key agents who oversaw the Good Friday agreement and the 2007 restoration of the Northern Ireland executive and power sharing deal, only Gerry Adams is still alive and in power. Of the other key players Mo Mowlam, Ian Paisley and of course most recently Martin McGuinness are all dead, and no one is clamouring for Tony Blair’s return as a peace–broker. The generation that delivered the previous consensus are gone.
Easter is also of course a good time to be musing on death and resurrection. So much of the progress made in Northern Ireland was driven by individuals forming relationships and using the force of their own personalities to deliver results. With that generation dead or impotent, the question must now surely be whether the system they created will die with them forever, or if fresh impetus is around the corner from a new set of leaders.
There are reasons to be hopeful. One note of reassurance is that there seems to be no enthusiasm for a return to the violence of the not so distant past. At McGuinness’s funeral, among a number of powerful moments including Arlene Foster being applauded as she entered the church and Bill Clinton’s eulogy calling on the listeners to finish the peace process, was the Biblical reading from Ecclesiastes 3:3 “A time to kill; and a time to heal”. It was a striking choice – reflecting the fullness of McGuinness’s life as first (terrorist/freedom fighter/ murderer/ patriot – delete as appropriate) and later as architect of peace.
Real healing and peace, however, is about so much more than an end to violence. It is about a genuine love of neighbour and reconciliation such that such violence can never happen again. Whether that is as part of a united Ireland or a United Kingdom (politically neither option seems impossible at this point) is almost beside the point. Resurrection and reconciliation, the Christian theology of Easter tells us, are tied. By his death and resurrection Jesus reconciles humanity to God. Whatever the political solution to the current crisis the truly difficult task ahead is finding the means to heal and reconcile community.
Ben Ryan is Researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan
Image by Sinn Féin on Flickr available under Creative Commons License 2.0
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