Behind the times

Once again Northern Ireland politicians have shown themselves to be unequal to the challenges of government, with the rejection of a same sex marriage bill in the Northern Ireland assembly.

The bill, which had the support of the two main nationalist parties was brought down by an unholy alliance of the Catholic Church, evangelicals, and unionist politicians of all parties. With legislation passed in England, Wales and Scotland, this is further proof that the the phrase United Kingdom is a contradiction in terms.

It it cannot be right that people in one part of the UK are afforded equality under the law, while others are not.  This is an abuse of human rights, and unsustainable.

There is no evidence that the people of Northern Ireland are less enlightened than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Attitudes have changed, but not among the political class. How is it than only a handful of unionists were brave enough to vote against the tribe?

With its roots in evangelical Protestantism, the opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party is not surprising. But the Ulster Unionists? Scared perhaps of it being used against them electorally, they appear to have taken the line of least resistance.

Nationalist politicians, whose roots are in conservative Catholicism, supported the bill. They have made a journey. It is difficult to comprehend why their Protestant/unionist counterparts have not been able to do so too. Ordinary unionist men and women have.

Northern Ireland’s regressive approach extends further than same sex marriage. Sexual health and women’s health are both areas where politicians have found it difficult to face up to their responsibilities.

This decision needs to be challenged, and if politicians cannot treat gay men and women with the dignity they deserve, the courts must ensure they have justice.

Easter and the Irish

Easter has a particular potency for the Irish. In the national mythology, the Easter Rising of 1916 is central to the story of Ireland and where it sits historically, culturally and politically. The power Easter 1916 exerts is felt not just by Irish nationalists – north and south of the border – it also is a reference point for Ulster unionism.

The proclamation of an Irish Republic may have guaranteed “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” but that didn’t wash with a Protestant minority in the north east of Ireland which feared domination by a government informed by Catholic dogma.

We will never know how the presence of a million northern Protestants would have impacted on the emerging Irish State, but the way the Irish Free State, and the subsequent Republic of Ireland, unfolded gave credence to those who believed that Catholicism would dominate the affairs of state. For most of the 20th century, bishops had a disproportionate influence on social, cultural and political affairs.

What is not commonly understood is that, under Unionist majority rule, northern Catholic bishops too wielded considerable power. Successive unionist administrations giving the Catholic hierarchy carte blanche to do what it liked in the separate Catholic school system. Regardless of what was happening to their communicants on the ground in employment and housing, the Cardinal Archbishops of Armagh had a pernicious influence on Northern Ireland’s non-state education system (but I digress).

1916 was a different age, not least in people’s adherence to their religion. The Church in Ireland was well entrenched. People believed, and believed uncritically.

The notion of blood sacrifice – so important to the leaders of the Easter Rising – was part of the warp and weft of religious and political thinking. Its poets evoked the suffering Christ for their cause. Among the most powerful expressions was Joseph Mary Plunkett’s “I see his blood upon the rose” where the poet writes: “His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea/His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn/His cross is every tree.”

The men of 1916 were Christs looking for their crosses and, by one of those grim twists of fate, Britain produced the hammers and nails. The execution of the Rising’s leaders transformed them from irritants to martyrs overnight; and Dubliners who had been aggravated by the inconvenience their rebellion had caused were galvanised. In the words of W B Yeats “A terrible beauty is born”.

Britain’s unsubtle response to the rebellion was perhaps understandable. Its troops were in the middle of a horrible war, millions were dead or dying or about to die. England’s difficulty may have been Ireland’s opportunity, but – given the circumstances – the revolt was the equivalent of a stab in the back. What if the leaders of the rising had been spared – another of the might-have-beens of history? No doubt they would have been corrupted by the compromises of government – like De Valera, spared because of his dual citizenship, their halos would have slipped.

It took generations before Ireland was able to take its place fully in the ranks of self-confident and successful sovereign states.

The early years were ruined by misguided economic policies, informed by a romantic wistfulness about the importance of the land. They perpetuated emigration and poverty. Ireland did not need the English to keep its people poor.

The Church ensured that progressive social policies were killed off before they made it to the statute book – better a people beholden to hand-outs from St Vincent de Paul, than to the care of the fellow citizens.

When it came, and my goodness it came big in the form of the Celtic Tiger, economic success was short-lived – snuffed out by corruption, greed and hubris.

There can be little doubt. The signatories to the proclamation – Pearse, Connolly, Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, Plunkett and Ceannt (all executed) – would not have recognised the Ireland they fought to bring into being.

Neither would they have recognised modern-day Britain whose monarch bowed her head to the fallen Irish in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, stepped on the hallowed turf of Croke Park, and who intoned a welcome in Irish at the state banquet in her honour during her first visit to Ireland.

Easter is associated too with another moment in Irish history – the signing of the Good Friday agreement – which tidied up a little bit of unfinished business: the estrangement of the Ulster unionist community. (It has to be said this is still work in progress.)

In most Christian countries, Easter is an uncomplicated festival marking the death of a man some 2,000 years ago on a lonely hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

In Ireland, it is indivisible from the fight for freedom from British rule. In the eyes of republicans, Jesus’s blood has been intermingled with that of the inept leaders of a little local difficulty. The Holy Grail resides not in Glastonbury but in a mass grave for Pearse and his comrades in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Pearse and his comrades staked Ireland’s claim to be a “sovereign independent state”. What price independence when the stakeholders are not the Irish people, but the IMF, the World Bank and the leaders other nations in the European Union?

It is time to unhitch Ireland from blood sacrifice. It’s time to hand Easter back to the man to whom it belongs.

A letter from Scotland

I am in the interesting position where I can help bring about the downfall of the United Kingdom. OK, it’s only one vote. But the way things are going, it could be a crucial one.

As a blow-in from Northern Ireland, a bit of me thinks that I don’t have the right to take part in the referendum in September; but like every voter in Scotland, the outcome is likely to have a profound influence on how I live my life. I have an interest in the outcome.

Up until recently I didn’t think the referendum was going to be such a big deal. My default position was an assumption that people would vote no to change. As human beings we worry about the unknown. When push comes to shove, we tend to go for the safe option, and the status quo is usually that. “Better the devil you know.”

But the Scots might prove to be the exception that proves the rule. The Yes camp has played a clever game. It is relentlessly positive, talking up Scotland and its potential; flattering the voters that they can do better for themselves by taking control of their own destiny. The sense of alienation from London helps. There is no mandate for the coalition from the Scottish electorate, and it’s difficult to see anyone in the current government Scots can relate to, never mind have any confidence in. Danny Alexander just does not do it.

A cabinet of toffs was never going to cut much ice north of the border; and every time one of them opens his mouth another raft-load of voters head into the arms of the Yes campaign. Poor George Osborne cannot help sounding patronising, condescending and out-of-touch. He is. And David Cameron, for all the protestations about his Scottish roots, is out of his depth in the visceral world of Scottish politics. He does not speak like the Prime Minister of a united kingdom, but the leader of a faction.

For the Yes campaign, its biggest strength is also greatest weakness: Alex Salmond. In two administrations he has displayed a degree of competence that has surprised many who saw him as a factional and divisive figure. But his power is held in check within the current constitutional arrangement. Unfettered, who knows where Salmond might go? Hubris is his biggest enemy, and there is a suspicion that he is susceptible to it.

Surprisingly for a politician, he recognises his Achilles’ heel. His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, is taking the lead for the SNP. And, at this weekend’s party conference, Salmond made a big play of the fact that in an independent Scotland, Labour could command a majority in the parliament (not that the prospect of a Labour administration under its current indifferent leadership is any prospect).

Salmond’s refusal to debate with anyone but Cameron is also working well for him. Like the king in a game of chess, he position is best secured by the other pieces dominating the game. The less he is played, the stronger he becomes, and the more potent are his interventions.

Little literature has come through the door thus far into the campaign, but the first leaflet from the No campaign – a letter purportedly written by a housewife telling me why to vote no – was enough to have me voting yes. Completely lacking in subtlety, it played on fears about the future of the pound in an independent Scotland. The leaflet failed the acid test of good communication. It completely lacked authenticity. It was probably written by an apparatchik with no understanding of the real world.

We all know that authenticity is a value lacking in most political communication. It’s hard to tell the truth when the truth is not what people want to hear. But there are ways of saying things that do not patronise.

Quite simply, the biggest threat to the Union is a No campaign that is incapable of articulating a compelling reason to retain the United Kingdom. Better Together is becoming a contradiction in terms.