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Abstract

This article investigates cross-border engagement between women’s organisations and other groups working on gender equality policy. It draws on interviews with activists and practitioners and two seminars—one in Belfast and one in Dublin. It is set in the context of the post-Brexit debate on the future of the island of Ireland, and the international Women, Peace and Security agenda’s emphasis on the role of women and the centrality of a gender equality perspective to peacebuilding. Participants had very positive attitudes to cross-border collaboration, but in practice there was very little cross-border engagement between groups, and this lack of activity predates Brexit. The key barriers to cross-border work were perceived to be post-Brexit political turmoil, a lack of appropriate funding and a lack of knowledge of policy differences between the two jurisdictions. Participants had very little knowledge of the ‘other’ jurisdiction and their views were strongly shaped by historic stereotypes.

Introduction

The international research on United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda demonstrates that a focus on gender equality in peace processes, and in the negotiated outcomes of those processes, is an important factor in ensuring effective conflict resolution and also successful political transitions. This is based on evidence that women as community activists and civil society representatives are more willing to take part in cross-community engagement than elected representatives, and therefore they are important actors if the goal is to reach out to and engage with diverse communities that otherwise would be underrepresented in the major political and policy debates.1 In the current contexts of debates on the future of the island of Ireland, this aspect of the public engagement of women’s organisations and community groups takes on a particular relevance, not just for cross-border cooperation but also for cross-community engagement in Northern Ireland, which is also a key part of building a peaceful future for the island. The policy agenda on gender equality is an area of cross-community and cross-border cooperation that has not been sufficiently well developed. This policy area provides a point of entry for women’s organisations into wider debates on political and policy change, while providing an essential element to these debates. Crucially, it also mainstreams gender issues and gender equality into the debates on the future of the island.

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ARINS research is published open access in Irish Studies in International Affairs and can be read on Muse.

Irish Studies in International Affairs has been published since 1979 as the leading Irish-based, peer-reviewed, journal in the discipline, with an increasing international reputation and circulation. Each issue includes contributions on a special theme and other original articles related to Ireland and international affairs broadly defined, to include issues such as development aid, conflict resolution, trade and human rights.

Pictured l-r: Eileen Connolly Tajma Kapic, John Doyle

A man sits alone at a communal meeting table, playing the flute (Figure 1). The walls are bare and sparse. He looks as if he is remembering more than just the tune he’s playing. This is one of a series of similar images from Brian Newman’s new photobook entitled Association. Newman’s project began when, working as a news cameraman, he visited the site of Inverhall Orange Hall in 2011 on the day it had been burnt down in an arson attack. That day he photographed the remnants of the hall with two women looking in through the windows. There was clearly something about the women’s position outside the building, the event of the fire, and the scorched darkness visible through the windows of the building that piqued Newman’s interest, because he then dedicated himself to making a carefully crafted photographic study of Orange Halls along the border region.

Figure 1

The usefulness of the Orange Order’s role in helping us understand contemporary loyalism and unionism was highlighted recently in the fallout within unionism over the DUP’s decision to return to the Assembly and Executive. Rev. Mervyn Gibson, the Order’s Grand Secretary, came out early to back the deal that the DUP had come to with the British Government via the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ Command Paper, describing it as ‘a win for unionist determination and unity’. At the same time, Rev. Gibson tried to anticipate the dissent that he knew would follow the deal, arguing that unionism should ‘not turn a significant victory into a defeat’.(1) As it happened, the first organised event protesting against the deal occurred in an Orange Hall in the village of Moygashel, County Tyrone. And three days after reporting on Gibson’s support for the deal, Suzanne Breen of the Belfast Telegraph was quoting an anonymous member of the Order, well versed in the rhetoric of the deal’s opponents, who was warning that Gibson’s support for the deal was premature.(2) The Orange Order’s official newsletter, Orange Standard, meanwhile, was non-committal, with Grand Master Most Wor. Bro. Edward Stevenson acknowledging receipt of the Command Paper and saying it needed ‘careful consideration’.(3)

This division in the Orange Order situates itself precisely at the fundamental dilemma, between pragmatism and dogmatism, faced by unionism now. That, in order to set up acceptance of the deal, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson felt the need to state a commitment to the principle of devolved government (in the Northern Ireland [Executive Formation] Bill debate on 24 January 2024: ‘To be absolutely clear, the Democratic Unionist Party supports devolution’ (4)), shows the post-Brexit state of disarray in which unionism has found itself. In the debate in the Commons on ‘Safeguarding the Union’, Donaldson tried to regather unionism to, as former secretary of state Julian Smith put it, make ‘Northern Ireland a success’ (5); a sentiment—that effective devolved government is the way to secure support for the Union—that is a long way from the rhetoric of those associated with the anti-Protocol and anti-Windsor Framework factions of unionism with whom Donaldson had shared a platform in April 2022.

The predicament that unionism finds itself in post-Brexit is an intensified version of the unsettled sense of its future that it has had since at least the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)—looking to restate and reinforce Northern Ireland’s Britishness but unsure if the ‘Britain’ that unionism attaches itself to recognises unionism’s very own version of Britishness. Unionism and loyalism will continue to be pulled between these forces: the defiance of the anti-Protocol faction, led by TUV MLA Jim Allister and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, on the one hand and, on the other, the attempt, currently represented by Donaldson’s acceptance of the Safeguarding the Union deal, to ‘make Northern Ireland work’. In his passionately sympathetic account of interviews with members of the Independent Orange Order, James Wilson notes that ‘Independent Orangeism’s Northern Ireland is an idealised 1950s historical theme park’ (6) and certainly this is one possible outcome of the strain caused by these forces and choices—a kind of impotent benign nostalgia that hopes to see a supposedly amenable past erupting into and replacing the unsettled present. The Orange Order’s role in unionism’s current dynamic is probably not crucial to the new Executive’s political success (though, as McAuley et al. point out, ‘Orangeism remains bigger than the formal membership of the Orange Order’ (7) and is thus influential in unionism in a way that is disproportionate to the falling numbers of its membership). However, as unionism reorients itself after the DUP’s return to Stormont, the Orange Order will remain a kind of weather station for unionism, where the temperature can be taken and from which future atmospherics can be projected.

The Orange Order member who sits at the table in Brain Newman’s photograph, playing his flute, as with the rest of Newman’s work in Association, is the epitome of the state of confusion and uncertainty (and potential entropy) that unionism faces. In the inscrutability of this man’s gaze (into the future or the past?) is the quandary of unionism and the Orange Order. This is mirrored by the photographer’s difficulty in seeing inside the heritage, thinking and everyday existence of Orangeism—a difficulty that is deliberately integrated into the aesthetics of the images in Association.

Figure 2

It was perhaps this sense that the Orange Order is both out-of-time and significant that led Brian Newman to begin a photographic project about the Order, and perhaps this is why his final manifestation of that project is, in effect, a journey inside its fabric. His book begins with the exteriors of Orange Halls and enters those spaces, gradually and tentatively, in the company of those who care for the buildings.

The prefatory image in the book is of a bench and a hedge (Figure 2) and is a distillation of what is to follow. The bench in the image is slightly decayed; the hedge, in the form of a barrier and boundary marker, is unkempt; the tarmac on the ground is mossed. This photograph, then, sets the tone for Association—the Orange Order, as seen here, rests on a desire for certainty, for solid and knowable patterns, but is currently, in an understated way, overwhelmed and unable to keep its physical (and, perhaps, ideological) structures in a state of ‘order’.

Newman’s photographic approach to the Orange Order is intimate and empathetically analytical. He does not intrude or interpret. He offers up a close (but not close-up) portrait of an institution. His photographic style sits between art photography and documentary photography in a way that has a clear lineage in recent decades in Northern Ireland. (8) It is a mode of photography that allows for a long, slow look at things, and in which the physical textures of objects, landscapes and materials become meaningful. Most obviously, this is undramatic photography. We might think of the Orange Order primarily through its parades—public, colourful, performative acts of celebration and heritage, or triumphalism and intimidation, depending on one’s viewpoint. In Newman’s work the colour and bombast have been drained, so that the images are dominated by the grey and the drab—the concrete of the car park, the rendering on the wall, the industrial steel of the shipping container. And the lines where these dullnesses meet draw the eye to the banal—a perhaps symbolic closed door and a barrier (Figure 3).

Figure 3

The exteriors of Orange Halls, as seen by Newman, are austere and often securitised with lights and alarms. For all its public swagger on the Twelfth, the Orange Order in the border counties has a long (and recent) history of feeling under threat from its surroundings. (The final image in Association is of a member of the Order locking the gates outside Fawney Orange Hall, near Lisnaskea in Co Fermanagh—the Hall there has been burned down twice in its history and was most recently attacked in 2013, when it was broken into and vandalised. (9)) Therefore an image of a member of the Order opening a door for, as it were, Newman’s camera to enter, has a particular resonance. (Figure 4) It is a reminder of the need for security, and of the challenges that the Order presents to others and feels are directed towards it. Again Newman’s careful photography underlines this fraught caution—the viewpoint in the image means that the actual unlocking of the door is hidden.

Figure 4

Once he is inside the Orange Halls, this sense of discretion and guardedness is constantly repeated in the gestures that Newman’s portraiture chooses to show. The men (they are all men) who let him into these institutions are seen primarily as caretakers; opening curtains, tidying things away, making preparations (Figure 5). In this context a photograph as apparently ordinary as that of two institutionally comfortable chairs with a radiator behind them and a tablecloth in front of them takes on a resonance because we look at it for longer than usual and try to place it in the sequence of images. The expectations of this specific setting are that there will be a communal gathering and that business will be done. And yet the interiors of the Halls in Association are continually and melancholically empty, always being prepared for use by their caretakers, but never actually in use.

Figure 5

The Orange Halls in Association are clearly places where ‘community’ is meant to happen. The series of images is not devoid of politics—Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait appears in one image, as does an Orange banner in just one photograph. But so does a Cornetto ice-cream fridge. And the interiors of these Orange Halls are places of performance—there are signs of musical performance (including a cowboy hat), singing, playing the flute, preaching, and there are carefully tended stages. But this is mostly a very different type of performance—intimate, social—than that of the parades that we normally associate with the Orange Order.

Perhaps the most significant thing about Newman’s work here is that there are no face-on portraits. All the men are seen from the back or from the side. We see them accidentally, as if they are busy or shy. The effect is to make this inside view of the Orange Order remain partial and to reaffirm that what it represents is not fully seen here. And that leaves us with a question about how much we know about the lives, motivations and futures of the people we see in these images, and the ideas and affiliations that they represent. As the series of photographs leaves the Orange Halls towards the end of the book and returns to the outdoors, there are images of the countryside surrounding the Halls in the border region. But these are not sweeping landscape views. They are stifled and enclosed and often, as in the image of the telegraph pole, visually split down the centre. (Figure 6)

The banality of these photographs is their point, since what lies inside the Orange Halls is very ordinary. In that, Association is a chance to pause and think about the politics that surfaces through the images; the religiosity, which is apparent occasionally; the loyalty, of those who attend these Halls, to what the British royal family means to them; the relationship of those who move in and then out of Hall to the border landscape outside.

Figure 6

The real or potential isolation of loyalism, which is empathetically imagined in Newman’s work, has perhaps no better recent political expression than during Jamie Bryson’s oral evidence to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in October 2023. After some tetchy exchanges with the Chair and two other Conservative members of the committee (including former lord high chancellor Sir Robert Buckland) about Bryson’s bona fides in speaking for loyalism and his legal views on the Protocol, Carla Lockhart, DUP MP for Upper Bann, began her questions to Mr Bryson with a complaint:

Sadly, for any loyalist watching these proceedings, I think they will see the hostility in which the loyalist voice is held by the Government of this land.(10)

The ‘sadly’ here is meant as a rhetorical rebuke to the committee and to the British government, but it also captures something of that sense of the separation from Britishness, as it currently exits, from unionism: something that has haunted, bedevilled and caught out unionism throughout the Brexit process. It is perhaps this too that Newman manages to distil in these photographs in Association—the uncertainty that comes from a sense of abandonment and the misapprehension of those to whom you feel you should be close to and understood by. In aesthetically depicting and creating the interiority of this feeling within unionism/loyalism, Newman allows us to see and think, via his aesthetic care and consideration, about the future for these people and the ideas they live by.

Brian Newman’s Association is published by PhotoMuseum Ireland and can be purchased in the PhotoMuseum Ireland Shop in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin or at https://shop.photomuseumireland.ie/products/association-by-brian-newman

Colin Graham is Professor of English at Maynooth University and author of Northern Ireland: Thirty Years of Photography (2013).

1 Suzanne Breen, ‘Orange Order grand secretary backs Donaldson’s deal as “a win for unionist determination and unity”’, Belfast Telegraph,

2 February 2024. 2 Suzanne Breen, ‘Orange Order Grand Secretary’s backing of Union deal may backfire on him: Grand Lodge member’, Belfast Telegraph, 5 February 2024.

3 ‘Safeguarding the Union’, Orange Standard, February 2024, 1.

4 ‘I simply say to my fellow Unionists in Northern Ireland, whatever their political persuasion or background, that the notion that a Unionism that turns in on itself is a Unionism that can deliver for Northern Ireland, to make Northern Ireland work and to secure the Union for the future, is not the way to go.’ Hansard, 24 January 2024, cols 329, 331–2.

5 Hansard, 1 February 2024, col. 1042.

6 In Senator Mark Daly, Unionist concerns & fears of a United Ireland: based on the recommendation of the report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement (n.d.), 40–1, available at: https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/govirl/Daly_2019-07-18_Unionist-Concerns.pdf (14 February 2024).

7 James W. McAuley, Jonathan Tonge and Andrew Mycock, Loyal to the core? Orangeism and Britishness in Northern Ireland (Dublin, 2011), 192.

8 Newman attended photography classes taught by Paul Seawright, one of the most prominent Northern Irish art photographers of the past 30 years, who also made work about the Orange Order in 1991: see Paul Seawright (Salamanca, 2000). For more see Colin Graham, Northern Ireland: 30 Years of photography (Belfast, 2013) and Declan Long, Ghost-haunted land: contemporary art and post-Troubles Northern Ireland (Manchester, 2017).

9 ‘Orange Hall targeted in sectarian attack’, BBC News, 14 September 2013.

10 Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, ‘Oral evidence: Effect of paramilitary activity and organised crime on society in Northern Ireland’, HC 24, 17 October 2023, Q543, available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/13684/pdf/ (14 February 2024).

‘Fear is a huge thing. A lot of us hold back on what could be our true potential through fear. But we all have a story to tell. The risk is in thinking we’re not saying anything of value. You could have something extraordinary to say that’s ordinary to you.’ Visual artist Colin Davidson made brave links between the political and the personal at Part I of the ARINS ‘My Identity’ conversation series, which took place at lunchtime on Friday 1 March in the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street, Dublin.

Image 1: L-R: Colin Graham, Colin Davidson

Davidson, who is Chancellor of Ulster University and a painter perhaps best known for his virtuoso, star-studded portraits, was interviewed by Professor Colin Graham, literary scholar and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Maynooth University.

In a wide-ranging public interview on a morning of heavy snowfall in Dublin, the two Belfast natives discussed the formation of identity in the wake of turbulence, the intention behind some of Davidson’s immense body of work, and the interrogation of individual identities for an artist whose subjects have ranged from royalty to rockstars and political pathbreakers, to survivors of the Troubles, and inwards, to the window self-portraits or ‘selfies’ that form a vibrant aspect of his current practice.

Described by Graham as a ‘technically brilliant painter and a person of extraordinary integrity and thoughtfulness,’ Davidson confronted the question of identity with reserve: ‘I’ve had to formalise and sort out what my identity was. There are so many facets to it and aspects to it. You can’t grow up in south Belfast without still feeling uncomfortable about who you are.’

In the community of his hometown, identity was ingrained and imposed according to sectarian principles: ‘Your identity could be the difference between being killed or not if you walked down the wrong street.’

Born into a Protestant household in 1968, his father taught art and painted at home, and his family were involved in an interdenominational Christian community which opened his mind to inclusive values.

But he described how, attending Finnaghy primary school and later Methody grammar school, ‘I was being exposed to demeaning words about Catholics that I hadn’t been exposed to before. I realised that the stereotypes weren’t accurate at all.’

His 2002–4 exhibition, No Continuing City, sought to depict Belfast as it evolved after the Troubles. ‘I’ve had a love affair with Belfast throughout my life.’

Image 2: A photo of Looking Over Belfast From Castlereagh. C Davidson 2017.

‘People had made paintings of the destruction of the city after the bombings. I was interested in going back to the tradition of Irish landscape. Belfast affords you many treats. There are many vantage points, from Black Mountain to Castlereagh where you can get a panoramic view by standing on your two feet with a sketch pad.’

‘Here was a city living and breathing, rediscovering itself after the decades of tragedy that it went through.’

Graham, for his part, described the period after the 1998 Belfast Agreement as a ‘pivotal time’ in the northern psyche. ‘It was as if everyone was going around holding something very breakable and nobody wanted to shout in case you dropped it.’

Image 3: Colin Davidson

It was after this ‘delicate time’ that Davidson chose to paint many of the protagonists of the Agreement, including Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness, John Hume and David Trimble, some in their later and more vulnerable years.

Asked by Graham how it feels to be in the room with a subject he is painting, Davidson said, ‘I’m out of my comfort zone. I’m out of my depth. Two people are in a room, one of them is looking intently at the other. We haven’t met before. That’s unnatural. It’s not like anything else.’

‘That uncomfortable position is the space that you need to inhabit to make anything of substance.’

He painted Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley with the intention of displaying the paintings side by side, a concept he encouraged both of his sitters to agree to.

Image 4: Ian Paisley. C Davidson, 2013-15. Martin McGuinness. C Davidson, 2015-16

‘This was meant to be a duo of paintings, not to be seen apart.’ He describes with a note of poignancy when he looked at the finished paintings. ‘I remember thinking, why couldn’t you two guys have got together 20 years ago? I didn’t say it, but I felt it.’

Portrait painting is an attempt to capture the honesty of who this person behind the façade – the ‘glimpses behind the façade’. It is a process of self-discovery and learning for the artist. ‘I think Picasso said that every painting is a self-portrait. For me, it’s like starting again to paint, every time I meet someone new.’

‘You come out of every encounter slightly changed, slightly altered, even slightly traumatised.’

Both speakers discussed the parts of the Good Friday Agreement that were badly resolved, ‘the promises it didn’t make,’ and the trauma that was ‘swept under the carpet’. ‘Things were still broken. Things are still broken. Things will always be broken,’ said Davidson. Dismayed to realise that the testimony of survivors and victims was barely included in the Agreement, he wanted to acknowledge the trauma, hurt and grief. This led to ‘Silent Testimony’, his series of 18 paintings of survivors of the conflict.

Image 5: HM Queen Elizabeth II. C Davidson, 2016

‘Instead of painting the great and the good, I wanted paint people who weren’t known outside their families and friends, to afford them the same gravitas as the Queen, or Heaney, or Clinton. They had lost loved ones. This meant looking at raw human loss, not Protestant loss or Catholic loss.’

‘My sense was that if we were to have a future, it needed to be built on us being willing to acknowledge what we did to each other.’

‘What we’re trying to figure out,’ said Davidson, is ‘why we’re here, and how we’re going to get through it.’

Davidson told the story of painting Paul Reilly, a former school caretaker, in 2014 at the home he shared with his wife Ann in Warrenpoint. They had lost their only daughter, Joanne, in a no-warning bomb on 12th April 1989, when she was just 20.

Image 6: ‘Silent Testimony’ survivor Paul Reilly. C Davidson, 2014-15

For many of his subjects, life was ‘tangibly broken and the stories would just pour out. But Paul was somebody whose life had just frozen. He could hardly talk about what had happened.’

Davidson described entering Joanne’s bedroom with her grieving father. It had been kept exactly as it was the morning she left the house, with a teenage bedspread and matching curtains, a pink clock on the wall, and a self of cassette tapes, with a tape still in the cassette player. Reilly sat on his daughter’s bed and it was there Davidson found the right place to paint him: ‘The light streaming through the window was beautiful.’

As they began to talk, Reilly described being at work when he heard the bomb going off. ‘He said it just sounded like a door closing. I thought, you are unaware of how profound that statement is. It was a door closing on the rest of your life.’

Only through bearing witness to this devastating suffering can healing come about. The ‘Silent Testimony’ series will go on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2024. ‘Paul [Reilly] was quietly living out his life in grief,’ said Davidson. ‘Now, potentially millions of people will be able to hear his story.’

He added: ‘The best that we can hope for in any wound is that it leaves a scar.’

Main image is: ‘Silent Testimony’ survivor Margaret Yeaman. C Davidson, 2014-15

See more of his paintings on colindavidson.com

The ARINS project is a joint project of the Keough Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the Royal Irish Academy. ARINS stands for Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South Authoritative, independent and non-partisan analysis and research on constitutional, institutional and policy options for Ireland, north and south.

How post conflict societies deal with legacy issues is one of the most complex questions that emerges in the aftermath of violence. Ireland is no different and the most robust attempt yet by the British government to draw a line under the Troubles has now resulted in Ireland taking the United Kingdom to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for only the second time in over five decades. Such a step is being taken after much deliberation by the Irish government. Their formal decision was long anticipated, but was not announced until just four weeks before the deadline. There is much at stake. Taking the UK to the world’s oldest human rights court could impact years of carefully managed diplomacy at a time when the relationship between the two governments has plummeted. What is at stake and what might such a case involve?

How Northern Ireland has dealt with the legacy of the Troubles to date

Despite numerous multilateral agreements including the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement 1998 (GFA), to the St. Andrews Agreement 2006, Stormont House Agreement 2014, Fresh Start Agreement 2015 and New Decade New Approach in 2020 – the question of how to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for unlawful killings during the Troubles has neither been fully prescribed nor agreed upon. A fragmented approach through inquests, police ombudsman investigations, civil actions and police investigations has been growing in recent decades and has gradually become more effective. All of these processes were strengthened by the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law in 1998 (as agreed under the GFA). This ensured thorough and transparent determinations to emerge in such matters as the Ballymurphy inquest where, in 2021, the 11 victims were found to be innocent and their killings unlawful. The 11 people were shot by British soldiers who stated they were returning fire on Republicans. From 1971 until 2021, that remained the official record. This is what is at stake in legacy issues – determining a rigorous truth recovery process how to tell the truth about history at its most serious level. On 18 September 2023, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 (‘the Legacy Act’) was passed in Westminster despite opposition from all of the political parties in Northern Ireland. The Irish government had urged the UK government (through diplomatic channels) that the Act was a serious deviation from most recently agreed approaches in the Stormont House Agreement 2014 and a breach of the ECHR. The decision by the UK to legislate in such a way was an entirely unilateral one; in contrast to decades of previous collective consultative action by all parties to the GFA since 1998.

What have other jurisdictions done?

Other post conflict societies have dealt with legacy issues in different ways. The approaches can range from the restorative approach of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-2002) to the retributive method implemented by the Nuremburg trials (1945-46), or an agreement to simply ignore the legacy of violence seen in post Franco Spain’s Pact of Forgetting 1971, subsequently addressed in Spain’s Memory Law (2022). Indeed on this island, the Free State passed the Indemnity Acts 1923 and 1924 which granted amnesties for anti-treaty activists and British forces along with the national army. 100 years on, the Legacy Act proposes similar measures of indemnity and immunity in Northern Ireland, through the establishment of the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), although twenty-first century standards of justice and human rights may yet prove to be the Act’s greatest adversary.

What does the Act propose to do?

The Act proposes to establish a process through the ICRIR that would deal with all Troubles related cases. It defines the Troubles as a period commencing on 1 January 1966 and ending on 10 April 1998. Functions of the ICRIR will include reviews of deaths and other ‘harmful conduct’ during the Troubles and determinations regarding the granting of immunity to certain persons. It will also bring an end to any further inquests or civil actions related to the Troubles.

Critics of the Act include the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, all political parties in Northern Ireland, the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the GFA, Amnesty International, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Committee of Administrative Justice Northern Ireland and Church leaders. The foremost complaint is that the Act breaches Article 2 (right to life) of the ECHR by its immunity provisions, where victims’ families have an entitlement to due process and a system that ensures perpetrators can be brought to justice. It is alleged that the Act is in breach of the GFA in that it will limit the ability of people in Northern Ireland to potentially challenge breaches of the ECHR. Furthermore, it is argued that the Act interferes with policing and justice issues which are devolved powers under the GFA, without seeking consent of the legislature to do so (as is required by the GFA). The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has distinguished the South African legacy framework from this Act stating that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established following consultation with civil society for one year, it then formed part of a broader reconciliation process and hearings were held in public. In contrast, no such consultative process was carried out prior to the introduction of the Act; it provides the ICRIR with powers to withhold evidence and information from families seeking justice. Where ECHR rights are at stake, procedural aspects are vital. Investigations must be thorough, impartial and independent.

What is Ireland’s position and what is an interstate case?

Under the ECHR, cases are taken against states either by individuals (Article 34) or by other states (Article 33). Since 1953, there have only been approximately 30 interstate cases taken to the ECtHR (the Court has received over one million individual applications since its inception). Ireland took its first interstate case against the UK in 1971 in relation to the actions of the British forces at the outset of the Troubles. The Court ultimately held in 1978 that Article 3 violations occurred (regarding inhuman and degrading treatment but not torture). Ireland applied to the ECtHR in 2014 to revise this decision when new information came to light, claiming that the extent of the trauma suffered amounted to torture and the British authorities were aware of this at the time. The court considered the matter and refused the application in March 2018. The one dissenting judgment was given by Judge Síofra O’Leary, now President of the ECtHR. She criticised the narrow view taken by the Court and suggested it did not bode well for future interstate applicants, and might even reassure future interstate respondents.

An important aspect of the background of Irish government’s decision to take an interstate case is the fact that victim’s families are currently at the initial stages of a challenge to the Legacy Act in the UK courts. If the families’ ultimately want to bring their challenge to Strasbourg, this is how it begins as they must exhaust all domestic remedies first (Article 35 of the ECHR). Thus, in November 2023, their challenge commenced by asserting a breach of ECHR rights in the Belfast High Court. It is likely that this case could go to the UK Supreme Court but this in turn would require substantial time. It is only after this process (in the event of the UK courts finding against the families that there has been no ECHR breach), that families could proceed to take the case to Strasbourg. The procedure for interstate cases is separate but is subject to the same admissibility criteria as cases for individuals; Article 35 of the ECHR requires that all domestic remedies are exhausted first. Nonetheless, the ECtHR has tended to dispense with this requirement in interstate cases where the Applicant State alleges that the measure at issue contravenes the ECHR and the Applicant either does not or need not specifically claim on behalf of individuals.

Potential complexities

For cases involving historical crimes and access to justice, time truly is of the essence. Having now lodged an application, it is not clear how soon the case can be heard by the Grand Chamber of 17 judges. There is currently a backlog of approximately 76,000 cases pending but there are protocols to prioritise important cases, such as interstate cases.

Meanwhile, the ICRIR has been established and aims to commence its work as prescribed by the Legacy Act this summer (2024). It is open to Ireland to seek an interim measure (under rule 39) suspending the operation of the ICRIR until the matter is determined by the Grand Chamber. However, the ECtHR generally only accedes to such applications in cases where there is risk of imminent loss of life (such as ongoing conflict situations). Therefore, it is likely that the ICRIR will continue apace.

There are some complications that may arise for Ireland but overall, Ireland has a very strong case on the merits. There are different approaches to legacy issues (through approaches that will allow victims proceed through established channels in the courts and in public, to devising specific transparent and independent systems that are acceptable to victims, or on the opposite end, to agreements that no further investigations or ‘fault finding’ processes will occur), but regardless of one’s view, this Legacy Act appears to have challenges not least complying with Article 2 of the ECHR, demonstrating adherence to the GFA and that a transparent, independent process will occur. These challenges will be difficult for the UK to overcome as the Legacy Act proposes to deny due process where loss of life has occurred in accordance with Article 2 of the ECHR. The jurisprudence of the court is very consistent and a declaration of incompatibility is likely.

A bigger problem potentially arises however, should Ireland win the case, will the UK comply?

If the case were to continue in the UK courts, an identical potential problem that looms for victims’ families is the prospect of the UK courts accepting and declaring a breach of ECHR law, and the UK government failing to respond to the court’s decision. If both Ireland and individual cases were to be successful in Strasbourg, it is possible in the current political climate in the UK that the result could simply be ignored (which would have implications for the Council of Ministers’ function in overseeing execution of judgments). In the event of a change of government in the UK, the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has committed to repealing the Legacy Act. However, there is some scepticism that a full repeal would occur (particularly from Relatives for Justice and representatives of the victims’ families, as emphasised at an Oireachtas Committee hearing on December 7 2023), suggesting some future iteration of the Legacy Act is possible. Even if the UK government does comply with any outcome, it is clear that the ECHR has become something of a lightning rod in the UK where there is bound to be a polarised reaction from elements of society who are divided around the issue of the UK’s continuing participation in the ECHR. This could become a real test for the rule of law generally in the UK and with such high stakes, it could have a conscious or unconscious effect on the jurisprudence of the ECHR.

In announcing their decision to take a case, the Irish government stated there was no other option having exhausted all political options which failed to elicit successful engagement on legacy issues. It is certainly a change of political climate since 1998. This case will undoubtedly be long and could come to determine the tone of Anglo-Irish relations in the years to come.

Despite the politics, this case will be determined on its legal merits. President Síofra O’Leary of the ECtHR said in a speech earlier this year “As a court of law we are charged with interpreting and applying the law of the Convention whilst often navigating very choppy political waters…politics are never far from our courtroom, but politics is not what we do”. Perhaps it is fitting that the issue of the legacy of the Troubles will now be determined by law in a Court that emerged from the aftermath of Europe’s greatest wars.

Further reading:

In mid-February of 2020, I had to attend a routine outpatient appointment at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) in Belfast. For the previous three weeks I had been working on pandemic preparedness and forecasting. On the morning of the outpatient appointment I had sent a message to a colleague simply stating the following, ‘the wheels have completely come off this now – pandemic for sure’, there was absolutely no question that the novel coronavirus, which would soon be named SARS-CoV-2, was going to cause a devastating pandemic. After the doctor had administered the vaccination I was attending the clinic for I said to him, ‘you’re going to be very busy, very soon’. He looked at me quizzically, and replied, ‘you mean the thing in China? We’re an island off an island – it’ll never get here’.

An island off an island. Although the underlying assumption behind his statement was correct, that the island of Ireland was well-placed, purely by virtue of its geography, to prevent a novel pathogen from arriving and taking hold on its shores. Tragically, we failed to do so, and as a result, thousands of people on the island of Ireland, in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, died unnecessarily. And although there was a multiplicity of reasons for this decision, what they boiled down to was this: an almost complete disregard by policymakers both north and south of the border of the fact that the island of Ireland is a single epidemiological unit (SEU). As the Belfast-born public health physician and then President of the Epidemiology and Public Health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr. Gabriel Scally, stated in June 2020, ‘the virus does not respect borders and there are people who live and work on a cross-border basis. We treat Ireland as one epidemiological unit for animal health purposes, so why does it not make sense to treat it as a single unit for human health? To avoid doing so is throwing away our advantage’[1]. The advantage Dr. Scally was referring to was exactly that which the doctor in the RVH expressed – that islands provide unique opportunities for defending themselves from invading pathogens. Opportunities that we catastrophically missed.

There were two opportunities – both based on the fact that the island of Ireland is a SEU – that policymakers completely failed to utilise, the first can be described as the New Zealand approach, and second the cross-border harmonisation approach. The former approach, as will be seen, would have been contingent on the full adoption of the latter. Simply, the New Zealand approach would have involved maximum suppression of SARS-CoV-2 until effective vaccines became available at the end of 2020. The island of Ireland and New Zealand have roughly similar population numbers, and, had the political will been present to both treat the island of Ireland as a SEU and impose strict travel bans to and from both political jurisdictions on the island, as New Zealand did, it is perfectly possible that, following an initial short lockdown, cases of Covid-19, and attendant fatalities, could have been kept at an absolute minimum. To put this in stark perspective – combined fatalities from Covid-19 in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland from March 2020 to December 2020 were 3559; during the same period New Zealand had a total of 25 deaths. During that year, as I watched with horror as the disparity in deaths became obvious between Ireland and New Zealand, it was painfully clear to me that the mounting death toll on the island of Ireland was absolutely preventable, because we had simply folded the winning geographical hand that we had been dealt. So, what would this approach have required, and what, other than preventing the deaths of over 3000 people would we have gained? Simply put, it would have required, as previously noted, full cross-border harmonisation (in terms of pandemic response measures), and a willingness on the part of both the UK government and the Irish government to recognise that the health security threat posed by a novel coronavirus justified extraordinary but temporary geopolitical measures. These temporary measures would have disconnected the island of Ireland from the island of Great Britain for passenger travel, and, of course, from every other part of the globe. It is, of course, the former travel ban – to and from Great Britain – that would have been by far the most contentious, a damning indictment of the power of partisan politics in Northern Ireland. As the bodies piled high on the island of Ireland, to paraphrase Boris Johnson, it struck me that in Northern Ireland especially, a region that has made an industry out of exporting the peace process, there was an uncharacteristic and uncritical silence in the usual quarters on a death toll in ten months that came close to approaching the death toll of the entirety of the Troubles[2]. A death toll that was almost entirely preventable. Freight would still have had to move between the island of Ireland and Great Britain, but this could have been managed with only a modicum of disruption; biosecurity systems exist to allow offshore facilities to remain free of infection at minimal cost[3]. These same systems could easily have been put in place at every port on the island of Ireland. From an economic point of view, and assuming robust cross-border harmonisation of contact tracing services, it is entirely possible that after the initial short lockdown, the entire island of Ireland could have safely opened up every sector of society – education, industry, retail, hospitality, and entertainment, with the exception of non-domestic travel. By drastically reducing the number of imported cases, and by using a short lockdown to achieve a very low level of community transmission, contact tracing and isolation could have kept cases to a minimum until vaccines were deployed.

This, in turn, would have undoubtedly given Ireland the lowest number of Covid-19 fatalities in Europe, not to mention having a much more open and significantly less disrupted society than Great Britain.

It is very easy indeed to think of this and instantly dismiss the idea as being too complicated or too problematic, but if the enemy was not a virus, but a hostile state’s armed forces, then the health security is national security approach resonates more readily. And yet, the New Zealand approach was not seriously discussed between the UK and Irish governments.

However, even simple cross-border harmonisation of pandemic response measures could have made a significant difference to case numbers and fatalities. The island of Ireland is, by definition, a SEU, having different public health measures in place on either side of a highly porous border with significant cross-border interdependencies (especially traveling for work and education), was not only nonsensical, but posed a number of threats. First, differences in quarantine policy between the UK and Ireland regarding overseas travel led to the earlier and more stricter regulations in Ireland being diluted by international travellers simply bypassing them by flying to and from Belfast. Second, with no defined allowed travel radius in place for Northern Ireland residents, many flouted Northern Ireland public health regulations and travelled to border counties, especially Donegal, during the Easter Holidays of 2020. Third, in the summer of 2020, flights landing in Ireland from regions with high rates of Covid-19 posed a threat to Northern Ireland, and fourth, discrepancies in hospitality opening dates and times between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland during 2020 led to surges of cross-border travel – primarily by young people – during that period. Crowded cross-border public transport services almost certainly facilitated numerous superspreader events. In the face of all of these problems, the only real outcome of note was the April 2020 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Departments of Health in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which, while ambitious in scope, was vague, non-binding, and did not account for the consequences of Brexit on the Irish border – being described as, ‘much like a New Year’s resolution: good intentions, but capable of being cast aside when inconvenient’[4]. In short, even the self-evident benefits of the eminently sensible but minimal approach of cross-border pandemic response harmonisation was not implemented in any meaningful way.

While these missed opportunities seem much longer ago than 2020, another opportunity still waits to be seized, both north and south of the border of the island of Ireland: the recognition that proven solutions exist to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 and other airborne pathogens, specifically HEPA filtration of indoor air. Contrary to popular opinion, SARS-CoV-2 remains a dangerous virus, with a significant risk of chronic illness with each infection. Learning the lessons offered from 2020 and putting plans in place to reduce transmission will improve the population health of the entire island of Ireland.

Conor Browne is a biological risk consultant working in the global energy, and novel diagnostics sectors.

X: brownecfm

[1] https://www.eolasmagazine.ie/covid-19-turning-the-final-page-of-this-story-2/

[2] https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/victims/docs/group/htr/day_of_reflection/htr_0607c.pdf

[3] https://www.siemensgamesa.com/explore/journal/2020/07/siemens-gamesa-offshore-responds-to-covid-19

[4] Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly Summer Vol. 73 No. 2 (2022) Territorial approaches to a pandemic: a pathway to effective governance? Mary Dobbs and Andrew Keenan

The recent politics of Europe have brought home to many of us the continuing vitality of fears related to social change: what is best described as the fear of cultural loss. Conservative politics across Europe, from Hungary to Spain, have fuelled a sense of the world having evolved in ways that are said to bring irreparable loss to nations, cultures and individuals. In many cases this sense of loss is located in various issues, but fears for British and Irish national(link is external) and gendered identities(link is external)  consistently inform the theme .

In any account of cultures of loss, is how complex is the making of that sense of loss. If we take the Republic of Ireland as one of the many examples of a country which has, in the past fifty years, seen a transformation of its laws around gender and sexuality, we can see how a powerful literature has supported those changes at the same time as re-considering Irish history.  In the works of Sebastian Barry, John Banville, Clare Keegan and Colm Toibin aspects of the past in Ireland are shown in all their evasions, deceits and punitive practices. Yet, what is also recalled is a powerful sense of ‘being Irish’, an identity forged out of the eight hundred years of struggle for independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That element in the individual sense of having a national identity can inform both sides of the ‘culture wars’ and demonstrates how diverse the construction of cultural loss may be.

Nostalgia has long been considered one of the major English narratives; a way of looking at the past which assumes fixed English identities and a ‘great’ historical past. In this sense its current re-iteration is nothing new and as always provided a place of sanctuary for societies as divided as those of Northern Ireland.   But it is not a story which has always convinced everyone, even those often associated with that canonical English literature which may be read as an endorsement of the past. When the English novelist Evelyn Waugh was confronted with a comment about the consistently excellent behaviour of the ‘English gentleman’ he remarked that he himself had never noticed this. Yet this mythical persona has formed the basis of considerable fiction, invoking a world of accepted social cohesion.

That vision of the past, of the ‘good’ and munificent ruling class of England never of course existed. England, the United Kingdom and the Empire were ruled by the privileged for the privileged with occasional bursts of altruism and social improvement. Despite the best efforts of conservative historians such Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts to argue the case for the general improvement the British Empire brought to its inhabitants, the balance sheet of the past two hundred years of British history suggests a very different picture .

However, that picture remains deeply alluring for millions of British people  especially those who fear attacks or critique of their identities. It is a history of white people (usually male people) strutting the world and exerting dominance over domestic and foreign populations. Should an enemy threaten then a saviour will emerge and the British will come together to fight off this enemy. The traction of the still potent example of Britain’s part in the Second World War remains – and has been seen to remain in debates over Brexit – a dominant strand in our nostalgia about ourselves. Despite the fact that the human and material resources of both the Soviet Union and the United States played the decisive roles in the Second World War ‘we’ won the war and with it a much-enhanced vision of our national culture. The war time rhetoric of ‘all being in this together’, as problematic as it was then, was used yet again by the Cameron government to justify vicious policies of spending cuts. .[1]

It is through this endless re-play of moments of historical unity and moral clarity that in the second decade of the twenty first century millions of British people feel that the world in which they now live has lost much that is valuable, a sense of loss which it is particularly acute for older generations who did not fight in the Second World War but whose parents did. Younger generations may have little recognition about ‘the war’ given that 1939-1945 were years belonging not just to their grand-parents but also to their great grand- parents. But what that generation has grown up with up is another fundamental transformation of the social world as great as that of the loss of the Empire and its accompanying sense of British global influence and power. Legislative changes across much of the world have endorsed both different kinds of sexual relations and access to forms of contraception and divorce. In  these changes what has disappeared for many people is the sense of ownership over the personal relationships of others: the right for a community or a neighbourhood to condemn behaviour (be it homosexuality or the birth of children outside marriage) that does not accord with prevailing norms . Upholding the norms of previous generations, as the case of Northern Ireland suggests is as much a form of political allegiance as resistance to sexual liberalism. Examples of this kind of condemnation constitute too much of the world’s social history. Even when a figure such as Alan Turing played a decisive part in England’s development of radar in the Second World prevailing laws about homosexuality condemned Turing to vicious medical treatments.

On questions of current English views about both sexuality and our national history evidence suggests deep, although not overwhelming, generational differences. It is a pattern to be found across Europe where generations who have grown up since the 1960s and 1970s generally have more accepting views about different sexual choices and less commitment to grandiose, and highly sanitised versions, of English history.  But before it is assumed that this entire generation, either in England or elsewhere, occupies a new tolerant space it is important to look more closely at what underlies these changes and what is a fissure, across much of Europe, between different social groups .

One of the first places to look for the origins of Right wing views – the views which have supported Donald Trump in the US, Vox in Spain, Reform UK in the United Kingdom and National Rally in France – is concern for the erosion of  racial  and ethnic difference. For example, in her study of the radically divergent lives of two women from Arkansas in the US (The Forgotten Girls) Monica Potts wrote of ‘dominant group status threat’.  Essentially, poor white people in the US felt that the colour of their skin owed them a measure of security and comfort; white was, and should be, more privileged than black. Immigration in European countries contributed to the perception that the particular privileges that made up being English (or French or Spanish or American) were being eroded by these changes. ‘Being‘ (English or French et al) had implicitly meant being of a single race, heterosexual and convinced of a country’s ‘greatness’. The slogan much used by the Trump campaign of ‘Make America Great Again’ invoked a sense of loss as much as it assumed that loss could only be repaired by a return to the past.

The case of England is a further instance of this complication. Previous comments here might lead to the conclusion that all of English culture and history is a generally endorsed and taken-for-granted set of assumptions about the glorification of the Empire, Winston Churchill et al. For some in English politics that is certainly the case. But for others, England, and English culture also includes the establishment of the National Health Service  and that endlessly radical and critical tradition in which the values and actions which are heralded as definitely ‘British’ have been consistently held to account. In such contexts the sense of ‘loss’ is not one for grandeur, patriarchy and a single, national racial identity but one which celebrates difference and equality. At least as importantly this view recognises the absurdity of assuming that the emergence of new rights (in personal relations as much as in citizenship) removes the rights of others.  Yet the fantasy of the fear of the implications of those new rights remains a potent political force. It is also one which can serve to marginalise more pressing political issues: of material inequality, the increasingly urgent problems of climate change and challenges to hard-won legal and institutional rights. Across the globe, a challenge to the false, dangerous and mythical narrative of cultural loss is now of immediate importance.

Mary Evans, Professor Emeritus at LSE

[1] David Cameron’s Big Society Speech 19 July 2010(link is external) https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/big-society-speech

The recent politics of Europe have brought home to many of us the continuing vitality of fears related to social change: what is best described as the fear of cultural loss. Conservative politics across Europe, from Hungary to Spain, have fuelled a sense of the world having evolved in ways that are said to bring irreparable loss to nations, cultures and individuals. In many cases this sense of loss is located in various issues, but fears for British and Irish national and gendered identities consistently inform the theme .

In any account of cultures of loss, is how complex is the making of that sense of loss. If we take the Republic of Ireland as one of the many examples of a country which has, in the past fifty years, seen a transformation of its laws around gender and sexuality, we can see how a powerful literature has supported those changes at the same time as re-considering Irish history. In the works of Sebastian Barry, John Banville, Clare Keegan and Colm Toibin aspects of the past in Ireland are shown in all their evasions, deceits and punitive practices. Yet, what is also recalled is a powerful sense of ‘being Irish’, an identity forged out of the eight hundred years of struggle for independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That element in the individual sense of having a national identity can inform both sides of the ‘culture wars’ and demonstrates how diverse the construction of cultural loss may be.

Nostalgia has long been considered one of the major English narratives; a way of looking at the past which assumes fixed English identities and a ‘great’ historical past. In this sense its current re-iteration is nothing new and as always provided a place of sanctuary for societies as divided as those of Northern Ireland. But it is not a story which has always convinced everyone, even those often associated with that canonical English literature which may be read as an endorsement of the past. When the English novelist Evelyn Waugh was confronted with a comment about the consistently excellent behaviour of the ‘English gentleman’ he remarked that he himself had never noticed this. Yet this mythical persona has formed the basis of considerable fiction, invoking a world of accepted social cohesion.

That vision of the past, of the ‘good’ and munificent ruling class of England never of course existed. England, the United Kingdom and the Empire were ruled by the privileged for the privileged with occasional bursts of altruism and social improvement. Despite the best efforts of conservative historians such Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts to argue the case for the general improvement the British Empire brought to its inhabitants, the balance sheet of the past two hundred years of British history suggests a very different picture .

However, that picture remains deeply alluring for millions of British people especially those who fear attacks or critique of their identities. It is a history of white people (usually male people) strutting the world and exerting dominance over domestic and foreign populations. Should an enemy threaten then a saviour will emerge and the British will come together to fight off this enemy. The traction of the still potent example of Britain’s part in the Second World War remains and has been seen to remain in debates over Brexit a dominant strand in our nostalgia about ourselves. Despite the fact that the human and material resources of both the Soviet Union and the United States played the decisive roles in the Second World War ‘we’ won the war and with it a much-enhanced vision of our national culture. The war time rhetoric of ‘all being in this together’, as problematic as it was then, was used yet again by the Cameron government to justify vicious policies of spending cuts. .[1]

It is through this endless re-play of moments of historical unity and moral clarity that in the second decade of the twenty first century millions of British people feel that the world in which they now live has lost much that is valuable, a sense of loss which it is particularly acute for older generations who did not fight in the Second World War but whose parents did. Younger generations may have little recognition about ‘the war’ given that 1939-1945 were years belonging not just to their grand-parents but also to their great grand- parents. But what that generation has grown up with up is another fundamental transformation of the social world as great as that of the loss of the Empire and its accompanying sense of British global influence and power. Legislative changes across much of the world have endorsed both different kinds of sexual relations and access to forms of contraception and divorce. In these changes what has disappeared for many people is the sense of ownership over the personal relationships of others: the right for a community or a neighbourhood to condemn behaviour (be it homosexuality or the birth of children outside marriage) that does not accord with prevailing norms . Upholding the norms of previous generations, as the case of Northern Ireland suggests is as much a form of political allegiance as resistance to sexual liberalism. Examples of this kind of condemnation constitute too much of the world’s social history. Even when a figure such as Alan Turing played a decisive part in England’s development of radar in the Second World prevailing laws about homosexuality condemned Turing to vicious medical treatments.

On questions of current English views about both sexuality and our national history evidence suggests deep, although not overwhelming, generational differences. It is a pattern to be found across Europe where generations who have grown up since the 1960s and 1970s generally have more accepting views about different sexual choices and less commitment to grandiose, and highly sanitised versions, of English history. But before it is assumed that this entire generation, either in England or elsewhere, occupies a new tolerant space it is important to look more closely at what underlies these changes and what is a fissure, across much of Europe, between different social groups .

One of the first places to look for the origins of Right wing views the views which have supported Donald Trump in the US, Vox in Spain, Reform UK in the United Kingdom and National Rally in France is concern for the erosion of racial and ethnic difference. For example, in her study of the radically divergent lives of two women from Arkansas in the US (The Forgotten Girls) Monica Potts wrote of ‘dominant group status threat’. Essentially, poor white people in the US felt that the colour of their skin owed them a measure of security and comfort; white was, and should be, more privileged than black. Immigration in European countries contributed to the perception that the particular privileges that made up being English (or French or Spanish or American) were being eroded by these changes. ‘Being‘ (English or French et al) had implicitly meant being of a single race, heterosexual and convinced of a country’s ‘greatness’. The slogan much used by the Trump campaign of ‘Make America Great Again’ invoked a sense of loss as much as it assumed that loss could only be repaired by a return to the past.

The case of England is a further instance of this complication. Previous comments here might lead to the conclusion that all of English culture and history is a generally endorsed and taken-for-granted set of assumptions about the glorification of the Empire, Winston Churchill et al. For some in English politics that is certainly the case. But for others, England, and English culture also includes the establishment of the National Health Service and that endlessly radical and critical tradition in which the values and actions which are heralded as definitely ‘British’ have been consistently held to account. In such contexts the sense of ‘loss’ is not one for grandeur, patriarchy and a single, national racial identity but one which celebrates difference and equality. At least as importantly this view recognises the absurdity of assuming that the emergence of new rights (in personal relations as much as in citizenship) removes the rights of others. Yet the fantasy of the fear of the implications of those new rights remains a potent political force. It is also one which can serve to marginalise more pressing political issues: of material inequality, the increasingly urgent problems of climate change and challenges to hard-won legal and institutional rights. Across the globe, a challenge to the false, dangerous and mythical narrative of cultural loss is now of immediate importance.

Mary Evans, Professor Emeritus at LSE

[1] David Cameron’s Big Society Speech 19 July 2010 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/big-society-speech

In an early ARINS paper on Unionism, Jennifer Todd puzzles as to whether unionism is polity or people centred, and that the community may be perceived as ‘potentially fissile, intermittently ontologically insecure, and quick to favour repressive policies’ while those who align their sense of identity, with their past and belonging are a people who, ‘notoriously, cannot be reassured by reasoned argument, pragmatic appeals or appeasement.’ I find such language confusing given that I sense and know that the pro-union community is not as collectively bound as may be assumed. As the recent Institute of Irish Studies, Liverpool polls have shown the use of short-hand caricature or stereotyping of communities is limiting.

Our polls find that respondents who are pro-union are ‘notoriously’ more varied by religion and identity when compared to respondents who favour Irish unity. The latter are more firmly rooted and designate as Irish or Catholic. While the former includes a significant share of Catholics, migrants and the bulk of those who do not state a faith. Moreover, the majority of the pro-union electorate do not vote DUP, UUP or TUV, and are not incentivised to vote to keep ‘the other side out’. Of course, their majority support for marriage equality and access to abortion services is a favouring of ‘repressive policies’ as would be understood by religious zealots. (See Figure one)

Figure 1: Responses relating to the availability of Abortion Services in Northern Ireland

Negative readings of findings/results undermine the capacity to shift pro-union thinking towards forms of Irish nationalism that engender a perception of being ‘othered’ and plainly misunderstood.

Other myths of socio-economic decline are challenged by the fact that the majority of socially deprived wards in Northern Ireland are Catholic due to a combination of past discrimination, the rise of Belfast and its new economies unlike Derry which has not received the same post-conflict benefits, and a lack of policy imagination within the Assembly especially regarding alternative economic strategies. Far from being disorganised with regard to social capital one of the most successful social economy projects is run by loyalists in Lisburn. The sectarian label is challenged by pro-union supporters who are less likely to be concerned by a relative marrying across the identity divide and more likely to be supportive of integrated education. This is not an insecure community but one that is more secular and increasingly socially liberal and in many ways the epitome of what the GFA aimed for – a plurality of thinking and post-conflict integration. “Othering” and the label of “other” leads to the folly of labelling ‘self’ through narrow definitions of identity wrapped in information short cuts and far from empirically-led hubris. Few in Northern Ireland rise from their beds and peer out the window to check their constitutional status.

As our recent report shows, through analysis of census data there are issues and trends rarely identified in public discourse. These include a) the significant slowdown in the birth rate and no overall majority among those aged under 18 who are Catholic, Protestant or neither b) the near four-fold increase in those who do not state their religion since 2001; a trend which is even more pronounced among the school age population c) the majority of those who do not state their religion are mostly British only or Northern Irish only d) over 30% of Catholics did not state they are Irish only. The goal of sectarian head counting, achieving 50+1, has been undermined by the growth in those not stating a religion and electorally, by the rise of the Alliance Party. It could now be the case that the Catholic demographic highpoint has passed and we are within the era of constitutional stalemate.

Figure 2. Age groups by religious composition

The too easy-to-read guide to unification works on a form of sectarian head-counting in which demographic change will lead to greater support for pro-unity parties. In the 1998 and 2022 Assembly elections Sinn Fein and SDLP share of the vote was the same, yet during that period around 200,000 joined the electorate of which around 16% of that rise equated to the numerical growth in pro-unity voters. If c. 50% of those who joined the register following the head counting paradigm were Catholics then 16% would read closer to 50%. Interestingly, the growth in the Alliance vote as a share of new voters was twice as high.

If we are caught in a stalemate, then we need a new vocabulary to explain the diversity and unfolding of new forms of identity that are not complex or difficult to understand. They merely reflect the decline in fealty to out-dated identity constructs. Increasingly, many who wish to remain in the union have no link to unionist identity or any sense of nationalism allied to their preference to remain in the UK. They are middle income, send their kids to subsidised grammar schools, coast along and holiday yearly in the sun. Constitutional change is viewed as problematic with many knowing the details around cost of living crises in Ireland, the scandals of housing shortages and FDI tax avoidance and that you pay for prescriptions. These are not East Germans dreaming of BMW ownership when a seven series already sits in the driveway. There may be benefits to unity in terms of economics but these are abstract and cannot be guaranteed. Nationalist over confidence forbids any debate regarding flaws in the socio-economic realities of Ireland is met with ‘have you had a look in your own backyard?’

Neither Irish or British nationalism has much to offer given a reliance upon the Orwellian form of two legs and four legs. It is replete with stereotyping, claims that constitutionalism is organic and a refusal to read shifts in identity and the varied reasons for constitutional preference.

If those who seek unity do not seek to understand those shifts, that being pro-union has multiple forms and that most seek interdependence and better inter-community relationships then the capacity to draw pro-union people to Ireland’s cause will remain remote. A starting point would be to realise that within pro-unionism the traditions of Orangeism, monarchism and the behaviours of sectarianism are minority concerns. These shifts away from traditional forms of unionism but remaining pro-union have been tracked by surveys and polls we have conducted since the late 1990s. We have found a small decline in Catholics who favour the union but among those who state they are Protestant or of no faith they have remained at the same level of support for the union. They have not shifted, in significant numbers to be being undecided or now pro-unity. Therefore, the fundamental vulnerability at present, for the pro-unity campaigners is the need to build a society in Ireland that is so economically advanced and socially inclusive that membership of it is beyond doubt. That may lead to the shifts in pro-union thinking. Accepting structural and societal weaknesses in the Republic would also help start a proper debate concerning futures.

As University of Liverpool Irish Institute surveys show, Northern Ireland is a much more nuanced place than some commentators assume. Neither form of rhetorical device employed by unionism or nationalism holds the sway that they once did which is why ignoring nuance is a dystopian tactic akin to 2+2 equals 5. We should start with the data and build up never assert data to ‘prove’ polemic.

Increasingly, sections of the electorate in Northern Ireland are coming to realise that the totem of the two nationalisms is merely power assertion based upon deception at the expense of progress, transition and reconciliation. Those who will eat grass to either gain unity or maintain the union must take great care with shifts in data and recognising changing facts. Without such recognition of change and the dynamics therein that are not linked to traditional forms of constitutionalism, the hollowness of these respective ideologies will remain and continue to deliver distortion and its corrupting effects.

Professor Peter Shirlow (FaCSS) is the Director at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. He was formerly the Deputy Director of the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, QUB. He is the Independent Chair of the Executive Office’s Employers’ Guidance on Recruiting People with Conflict-Related Convictions Working Group and a board member of the mental health charity Threshold. He is a Visiting Research Professor at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. He sits on the editorial boards of Irish Political Studies and International Planning Studies. He is a member of the ARINS Advisory board.

Jennifer Todd, MRIA, cited in this article replies below:

Why does Professor Shirlow have to ‘short-hand caricature’ other views in order to present his own findings? This University of Liverpool, Irish Institute survey is interesting and valuable. I look forward to discussing it further at some stage soon.

It shows – as many have done before that the Protestant and pro-union population is varied. This was one point of my ARINS article that there is no one size policy or form of dialogue that fits all. That’s why it’s necessary to look at all the parts.

Shirlow’s selective quotations suggest falsely that I’m lumping all unionists together and saying none can be talked to. He can’t have been that ‘confused’. My article called for ‘a reflexive and dialogic approach’ and argued that ‘mutual respect and recognition does not come from protecting identities but rather it requires autonomous change in them’. His own interpretation of ‘the unionist community’ is interesting and deserves further discussion. I have a few questions. Is he really saying that there are no unionist hardliners? Or that they are really reasonable and it’s hardline even to talk about them?

Perhaps I am reading too much into the first couple of sentences. Is this good old school joshing and jostling? Far better we tease out what is happening within unionism.

Jennifer Todd

Professor Jennifer Todd MRIA, Geary Institute, UCD

As a historian I take a longer view of contemporary events. What many assume to have been eternal is not always so. History reveals there have been identities and structures in Ireland not remembered today. This insight into the past shows us a future way forward.

The question of Irish reunification has long been the goal of nationalist Ireland, both north and south. To be clear we do not see a referendum on the border resulting in a vote for unity anytime soon. But the full implications of Irish unity have recently been addressed in earnest (ARINS, UCL Constitution Unit). For a united Ireland, or ‘New Ireland’, will have to deal with the reality of a million Northern Irish Protestants as a minority in any new state: the same mistakes, in regard to the Catholic minority in the North, with the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, must not to be repeated. The question is whether Irish nationalism is ready to make some fundamental sacrifices to accommodate the unionists of Northern Ireland in a new state; for a united Ireland will be a new state and a multi-national state, radically different from what the 26 counties is today. What would a New Ireland look like? Are the citizens of the Republic ready to embrace this New Ireland? Will it be an authentic and welcoming place rather than a ‘cold place’ for Unionists.

The Brexit referendum shows the folly of a simple slogan: for ‘Brexit means Brexit’ read Irish unity means Irish unity. Unity does not, necessarily, equate a United Ireland in the traditional sense of one nation state. So, regardless of whether unionists participate in shaping any future Ireland now, it is important that nationalists, North and South, continue preliminary discussions amongst themselves about the kind of New Ireland they are prepared to accept before engaging with Unionists. Nationalists are fully aware of the economic and religious barriers to unity. There is one elephant in the room which ought to form serious consideration: the Britishness of Northern Unionists and how that may be accommodated in a new Ireland.

A nation is an imagined community composed of a narrative its citizens tell one another: those national myths that constitute great shared events. Above all it is a shared consciousness. When Germany was united, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at least the Germans shared a common sense of national identity, albeit, shaped by the experience of a partition since the Second World War. This is not the case with Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Competing Historical Narratives

On the island of Ireland there are two competing dominant national narratives. The first is the struggle for Irish freedom. This is the nationalist narrative of Irish history. But there is another: the Unionist national narrative. This alternative tale is one of participation in the British state and the British Empire. If one takes one year, 1916, one can see parallel histories and national memories for that year. For Nationalists the primary event was the Easter Rising as part of the struggle for Irish independence. For Unionists, however, 1916 represents the sacrifice of Ulster Protestants, at the Battle of the Somme, for King and Empire: it represents their loyalty to Britain and membership of the British nation state. Same year; different histories.

As powerful as is the Easter Rising for nationalists, in the Irish national story, the Somme is equally as powerful in the psychology of Unionists. The Rising represents the foundation myth of the Irish state; the Somme represents the foundation myth of Northern Ireland. It does not matter that these myths may be full of inaccuracies: it is a reality that large numbers of people believe in them. But the Somme is but one part of this story. Two of the great shared events of Unionism are those, such as the building of the Empire and the participation in the First World War and the Second World War. This was why the nationalist, John Redmond, forced to deal with the reality of Unionist opposition to Home Rule, advocated fighting in the British Army for Ireland and for Home Rule in 1914: to prove to Unionists that Nationalists could also be loyal subjects of the Empire. And it almost worked.

One Irish army officer looked forward, positively, in 1915, to a united Ireland, one in which Irish people could work together. That officer was Captain Sir Basil Brooke, who later, as Lord Brookeborough, became the hard line Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Following the Easter Rising he no longer described himself as Irish, but as a Britisher or Ulsterman. Sir Edward Carson looked forward, in 1917, to a partitioned Ireland, but a temporary partition, in which the two parts of the island would eventually come together in a united Ireland. It is well to remember the British Government, too, with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, that partitioned the island, looked to a Council of Ireland that would provide the mechanism to vote the two Irish Parliaments out of existence and into one assembly for the whole Ireland. Partition envisaged eventual Irish unity but a united Ireland under the crown.

To understand the unionist sense of dual Irish-British identity we need to recognise that Britishness was once a global identity: one could be British and Irish; British and Scottish; British and Canadian; or British and Australian. To be a British subject one merely had to acknowledge allegiance to the Crown. Now Britishness has shrunk, reduced to an archipelago in the North Atlantic. Perhaps the United Kingdom will break up in the face of Scottish nationalism and the English nationalism of Brexit. Nevertheless, when Unionists now say they are part of a British nation they believe it. Unionists are consistent in defining their identity as Ulster British; British and Northern Irish; or British Irish. The common denominator is British in this multi-layered identity.

This Britishness has been a long time in its creation. Unionist national heroes are Irish, from the Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo, to Sir Alan Brooke (Lord Alanbrooke), Winston Churchill’s military Chief of Staff in World War II. The Unionist identity allows them to be part of great national myths in a British story. Their culture can be local – bonfires on the 11th night and the marching season on 12 July – celebrating their loyalty to the Queen, the Union Flag, to pride in Shakespeare, the Battle of Britain or the sporting success of Northern Irish athletes competing for Great Britain in the London Olympics of 2012. It is unrealistic for this identity to dissipate if there were to be a united Ireland.

All of this is history. What is its relevance now, it may be asked? The present form of nationalism, in independent Ireland, is relatively recent. Prior to the Irish Free State, Irish nationalism operated in a political and cultural environment shaped by 800 years of English and then British involvement in Ireland. It is unrealistic to believe this did not have an impact: it can be seen today from the Royal College of Physicians to the Royal Irish Academy to name but two.

Republicanism took independent Ireland towards a completely new identity dispensation. Republicanism was now part of the public discourse: prior to 1916 – and introduced for the first time in the late 1700s it was a minority view; Ireland operated for 800 years in a Britannic shaped world. From Daniel O’Connell, through Charles Stewart Parnell, to John Redmond, the only realistic form of government for Ireland was a monarchy within the British imperial framework.

John Redmond, for example, hoped that a new form of Irish nationality, based on the sacrifice of Nationalists and Unionists in the trenches, would form a new Ireland. This was the essence of Home Rule – an Irish national conscious in an overarching Britannic imperial loyalty.

There is evidence of this working among Unionists. Basil Brooke, then a captain in the British Army, looked forward in 1915, to a new political dispensation after the War. But, for Brooke, the Easter Rising was a watershed. From 1916 he never regarded himself as an ‘Irishman’ again, preferring ‘Ulsterman’ or ‘Britisher’ instead to describe his nationality. Sir James Craig, like Brooke a future Northern Ireland Prime Minister, expressed similar views – this time over Ireland’s exclusion from conscription in 1916. The point here is this: that Unionist involvement in the War was central to their sense of psychological participation in the British national project.

In 1911, for example, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, actually argued for what he termed the creation of a ‘Brito – Hibernian Empire’: he saw an ultimate solution to Ireland’s relationship with Britain as both countries becoming full partners in the imperial enterprise. This was behind his call for Dual Monarchy and the repeal of the Union, to restore the old Kingdom of Ireland: separate kingdoms but the same King. In 1927, Kevin O’Higgins met Sir Edward Carson, in London, and proposed the coronation of the British king, separately, as King of Ireland, in Dublin.

What partition did was to remove having to deal with this Unionist reality, abandoning Northern nationalism, and pursuing the dream of an independent Catholic Gaelic and Republican Ireland for the 26 counties. Independent Ireland turned inwards. Remember that Eamon de Valera, when offered the prospect of a united Ireland in 1940, by Winston Churchill, turned it down because of the sacrifices he would have to make to win Unionist consent. Now no one expects a repudiation of republicanism: but if the dream of Wolfe Tone, to unite Protestant, Roman Catholic and dissenter, in the common name of Irish, is to be realised, some serious thinking as to what that will involve, needs to take place.

Unionist Opposition to Irish Unity

Unionist opposition to Irish unity stems from their Protestantism and the economic link with Britain. Most nationalists recognise this. But opposition to unity also stems from the sense of belonging to a British nation. Nationalists have not recognised the intensity of this, since John Redmond and Home Rule, partly because it challenges the very notion of there being one nation on the island. To admit there might be two national identities on the island suggests partition of some form should exist. Even if one does not accept this two nation argument it should now be possible to recognise Unionist Britishness, as Redmond did, within the language of one nation, two traditions on the island or that of a British heritage. There is scope for a new version of what used to be called a ‘Union of Hearts’.

At the very least Stormont, with power-sharing, should persevere. But the Northern Ireland Protocol demonstrates that a sovereign nation, like the UK, can cede considerable influence over part of its territory to another entity, in this case the European Union. Likewise, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which preceded the protocol, conceded the right of the Irish government to be consulted, and to put forward policies, for a part of the UK’s territory – the North. It would not take a significant step to imagine unique constitutional arrangements for Ireland to do the same.

The Nation and State Need Not be Co-Terminus

The point is the nation state, while is the dominant political entity now, was not always so. British kings reigned over multiple entities, and were kings of Ireland, Scotland and England – three separate kingdoms and crowns, one person; the Hanoverians who were kings of Great Britain and Ireland and, at the same time, rulers of the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, part of present day Germany. The Holy Roman Empire, which had existed since 800 AD, until abolished by Napoleon Bonaparte, had hundreds of individual entities governed by kings, princes, dukes, counts, and abbots with an Emperor as its figurehead. Its replacement, the nineteenth century German Confederation, contained an association of 39 German-speaking states plus two great powers, Austria and Prussia, but did not contain all of the Austria Empire nor all of Prussia. The point here is the ability to think creatively about what a New Ireland might be like and it does not have to be a unity state nor merely a federal state. A confederalist, as opposed to a federal, state can be imaginative. It need not be confined to a nineteenth definition of a ‘nation state’.

The simplest model, for an Ireland apart from a unity state, would be a federal Ireland with Stormont retaining its current powers. Unionists, of course, could no longer be unionists: but they would still be loyalists, retaining their longstanding sense of Britishness and allegiance. In a New Ireland, Unionists could constitute a significant minority, perhaps holding the balance of power in the Dáil. This would force the rest of the island to take account of their presence.

Alternatively joint authority could be the form of government if Ireland had sovereignty over the North, post an independence referendum, but chose to administer a shared territory in conjunction with the British government (the reverse could also be true with continuing British sovereignty being exercised over the North). Alternatively, again, joint sovereignty, with both the UK and Ireland, with both countries becoming part of a confederation, could administer Northern Ireland as the intersection between two nations and two cultural identities. This may appear to be a somewhat fanciful notion but the Anglo-Irish Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol/Windsor Framework have created unique circumstances in administrating part of the British state; and, of course, as we have seen, history provides a number of alternative models.

Unionist Cultural Alienation

Right now unionists are experiencing a siege mentality after a period in which they felt in the ascendency. The confidence of controlling their own destiny, since the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, has given way to a feeling their identity is under attack in Northern Ireland. There is a process of cultural alienation occurring among the Unionists in the North. They see the advance of their nationalist neighbours, such as increasing prominence of the Irish language, sharing power with nationalists (particularly Sinn Fein), a Nationalist First Minister designate, as part of a cultural and political retreat. A serious situation of political and cultural alienation is developing in the North.

While this may be interpreted as Northern nationalists legitimately demanding their cultural rights, there is a real fear of the deBritishisation of Northern Ireland among Unionists. The North was set up as the ‘Protestant’ part of the island; the fact that it contained one third of its population as Roman Catholic, who did not give their consent to be governed by a Protestant government, made it fundamentally unstable. But, regardless of the rights and wrongs of 50 years of unionist rule/misrule in the region, there is a real concern, a real sense of a long-term erosion, a fear of long-term defeat, particularly since the final Brexit deal. This is not healthy for any society. It was not healthy for Northern society when it affected nationalism in 1921; it is not healthy for Northern, or indeed Irish, society when it affects unionism in 2022.

New Symbols

Recognising the symbolic and cultural Britishness of Unionists may go a long way to acknowledging their place in a potential New Ireland. Northern Ireland could constitute a bridge between Ireland and Britain. As a bare minimum unionists would expect that the guarantees established under the Belfast Agreement would continue to apply to their community in any new dispensation. This would mean the British Irish intergovernmental Council would act as a guarantee to look after Unionist interests. There would continue to be a British Irish Council in which Unionists would participate. The birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish or British, both, or neither, would continue.

But there ought to be more recognition of this Britishness. Ireland could rejoin the Commonwealth – but, remember, this is no longer a ‘British Commonwealth’, but one composed of independent states, many republics. It is not the British Commonwealth of 1948 when Ireland declared a formal republic. More recognition of the links between Ireland and Britain may be needed. It is interesting to observe that, 1917, Eoin MacNeill was ahead of his time, writing an article that advocated a United Ireland as a republic within the British Commonwealth.

The status of Northern Ireland could be federal and confederal within Ireland and between Britain and Ireland. A British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could be appointed to be act as a guarantor of Unionist rights. Unionist representation might continue in the British Parliament, but with non-voting rights in the House of Commons/Lords. This would guarantee the continued voice of Unionists in a place where they could air their concerns, and recognise their sense of Britishness. They would not be ‘silenced’ and able to raise any concern for their community in a New Ireland. The Irish Tricolour could continue to be the National Flag of the Irish state; but it could have dual status in Northern Ireland, alongside the Union Jack; or St Patrick’s Cross might be adopted for the North. Or the Tricolour and Union Flag could fly alongside one another rather like the EU flag does, in the Republic, with the Tricolour. Perhaps there could be a completely new National Flag of Ireland incorporating both Irish and British symbolism.

The constitution of Ireland would have to be changed. Irish would no longer be the first language of a New Ireland. Irish and English could be equal and recognised as having ‘equal respect’ for one another as Scots Gaelic and English are in the Scotland Act 2005. And what of Ulster Scots? The heritage of the British community in Ireland could be recognised in the constitution, perhaps given an official status. More than this the right of people to define themselves as part of the Irish nation or part of the British nation (or both/neither) could be enshrined in the Constitution. Perhaps it might better if the right to a British (alongside Irish) cultural heritage were explicitly recognised in the Constitution.

Monuments are considered lieux de memoire or sites of history. They reveal a lot about the dominant narrative in a state. One monument that might be erected in Dublin to replace Nelson’s column, destroyed in 1966 by the IRA, might be Lord Nelson again; or failing such a radical move, a statue of Sir Edward Carson, or Sir Ernest Shackleton the Irish Polar explorer, other prominent Unionists. Unionist ‘heroes’ or Irish soldiers who served in the British Army British-Irish military figures (Lord Roberts VC or Lord Kitchener – a Kerryman) might be appropriate.

Finally, consideration as to whether Amhran na bhFiann, with its talk of the ‘Saxon foe’, remains appropriate for the whole of Ireland: there was controversy when ‘Ireland’s Call’ was played outside the jurisdiction of the Irish state, at Ulster’s rugby ground in Belfast rather than God Save The Queen. This illustrates the sensitivity around all these issues. It ought not be forgotten that most all Ireland sporting bodies are a legacy of pre-partition Unionist Ireland. The conversion of the title of the ‘British Isles’ rugby team to the ‘British and Irish Lions’ illustrates what might be achieved with a little imagination.

None of these suggestions would make the majority of people, on the island, any less Irish than they already feel; nor would it involve surrendering any of their national identity. But it would acknowledge that Irishness is a mature, confident identity secure enough to accommodate other identities. It would surely be wise to start thinking about this now. The important question to ask is does one want to unite territory or to unite people, to borrow from John Hume? It means that a New Ireland ought to recognise its British, as well as its Irish, heritage.

Thomas Hennessey is Professor of Modern British and Irish History at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Read more ARINS blog posts

Catch up on the ARINS podcast

The “Mapping Diversity, Negotiating Differences: Constitutional Discussions on a Shared Islandreport by Dr Joanne McEvoy (University of Aberdeen) and Professor Jennifer Todd (University College Dublin) finds that inclusive deliberation is best placed to manage division, increase participation and involvement of diverse voices, and deliver the active engagement of those who feel marginalised, excluded, and “othered”.

The report is based on extensive research over several years which found that grassroots communities across the island invite opportunities to engage in constitutional discussion but feel alienated from the technical language often used in the debate. Rather than focusing on institutional design, they favour constitutional discussion as a way to discuss wider issues with potential to bring about a better society. The research showed convergence of views among different groups (women, ethnic minorities, and youth) and on both sides of the border. People wish to see bottom-up discussion, focusing on lived experience and real problems. They want to see improved communication between grassroots and policymakers; and they call for radically inclusive constitutional discussion. In pointing to potential ways forward, the Report builds on the work of the Shared Island initiative. It recommends widespread participation, linking local deliberations (e.g. the recent deliberative forum held in L/Derry) with larger forums. Inclusionary research has flourished in recent years (e.g. Ashe et al, O’Keefe et al) but we need to bring this work together, to strengthen channels of communication between grassroots participation and political planning, and to ensure that inclusion and participation are cumulative, relevant, applicable and augment democratic processes. A dedicated research Centre could coordinate the emerging best practice on the island on participation and deliberation. The Report findings provide the footing for further collaborative and coordinated constitutional deliberation.

Listen back to episode #12 of the ARINS podcast in which Joanne McEvoy and Fidelma Ashe explore the ways in which including and encouraging popular engagement can not only enrich constitutional discussion but critically can shape constitutional change.