Balking at joint-reception at City Hall another Unionist blooper

Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland team have been invited to Belfast City Hall for a joint civic reception with Northern Ireland 

I WENT to Queen’s University between 1995-98 and enjoyed every minute of it. It was an exciting, hopeful time to be studying politics.

David was one of my best friends at Queen’s. He was studying politics too. We hit it off right from the start.

David was born and bred on the Shankill Road. It was no surprise to learn he was a staunch unionist. Just because he was a staunch unionist didn’t mean he wasn’t open-minded. David was the kind of guy who gave unionism a good name.

He was a confident, self-assured unionist. He was a good debater too. We’d regularly disagree during tutorials, sometimes just for the hell of disagreeing. If any of the tutorials became heated, it was nothing that a cup of coffee in Cloisters couldn’t sort out, or better, a pint in the Speak Easy.

Like most students, I was curious about a lot of things. Curious about Irish politics and unionism’s crucial role. My dissertation was grandly entitled ‘The evolution of Loyalist paramilitaries’. A cool 10,000 words.

It was my tutor, Graham Walker, whom I felt most sorry for, as he had to wade through the waffle – and indeed there was much of it – in those 10,000 words.

Part of the dissertation included interviews with Glen Barr and Billy Hutchinson. I found both to be amenable, affable characters both of whom enlightened my research. In the mid-90s, the Progressive Unionist Party [PUP] was on the rise.

A Leeds United supporter, Hutchinson believed that the PUP could occupy 10-12 per cent of the unionist vote by 2005. Back then, he came across as an open-minded unionist who seemed intent on giving working-class loyalism a voice of its own. 

Spool forward 18 or 19 years and I often wonder what happened to that confident, forward-thinking unionism I’d encountered – and admired – during my time at Queen’s.

Since those all-singing, all-dancing halcyon days the unionist monolith has lurched to the right, and to the right some more.

It’s never done re-positioning itself in some new outpost of political reason. Power-sharing, it seems, has to co-exist these days with rejectionist unionism.

The Irish language is regularly derided in constituent parts of political unionism. Despite conciliatory and era-defining rule changes, the GAA still gets criticised. Community festivals get a touch too.

And, as pointed out in this column last year, Cliftonville Football Club has had to endure several DUP assaults while the club’s cross-community efforts are conveniently ignored.

Nobody is suggesting here that Irish nationalism or Irish republicanism has reached a utopian stage, but it’s definitely more conciliatory in tone than unionism allows itself to be.

I follow deputy first minister Martin McGuinness on Twitter. Without fear of contradiction, McGuinness is the first to condemn any racist or sectarian behaviour or violent acts in northern society, no matter what quarter it comes from.

And I was struck by what sports minister Carál Ní Chuilín had to say a couple of years ago at a press day at Windsor Park and how the major renovation work at the south Belfast venue would create job opportunities for surrounding loyalist communities such as Sandy Row.

Unfortunately, vast swathes of unionism feel incapable of reciprocating these countless examples of goodwill from their political opponents. Constitutionally, unionism is in a stronger position than a lot of its political representatives realise. 

And yet the main unionist parties, and others, are making a right pig’s ear of ‘state-building’ and fail to recognise their role of being charming persuaders of a new Northern Ireland. 

This is probably because they’re too busy looking over their shoulders and lurching to the right. 

Worse still, we’re then patronised into submission by a much-maligned section of political commentators who are incapable of stretching themselves beyond their one-size-fits-all analysis – that one side is as bad as the other up on the hill, which is no analysis at all really.

Unionism scored another own goal this week when its representatives balked at the notion of a joint-reception at Belfast’s City Hall for the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland soccer teams after both reached this summer’s European Championships in France.

It’s the first time the two ‘Irelands’ will compete at the same major tournament. Prior to the council passing the SDLP motion on Tuesday night, Billy Hutchinson warned of loyalist protests should the civic reception go ahead. What? Really? The union had suffered another wobble. 

Hutchinson’s prediction was unfathomable as it was dangerous. It’s despairing to think unionism is not yet mature enough to invite the Republic of Ireland soccer team to Belfast for a civic reception without stamping its feet in disapproval.

Like I say, my time in Queen’s 20 years ago were great days. Hopeful and inspiring days.

The genuine pity is that self-assured, confident, articulate unionism I encountered at university all those years ago must have hit the hard shoulder along the road and has struggled for momentum ever since. 


IT was with great sadness we learned of the death of our colleague Joanne Priest (nee Dale) last weekend. Joanne worked with our marketing department for over 20 years and was one of the key driving forces behind the Irish News Ulster Allstars.

In my 17 years in the Irish News, Joanne was the most professional colleague I had the pleasure to work alongside. 

Everyone in the sports department loved Joanne, probably because she was always fun to be around. 

Joanne battled cancer for 18 months. She returned to work for a brief period last year. 

Her approach to her illness was inspiring. Joanne was a special person and will be forever remembered by her friends in the sports department.

Our deep condolences are extended to her husband Andrew, her five-year-old son William and family circle. 


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