Mary Kelly: Surely some British dimension in a new Ireland isn't that big a stretch

It's encouraging that McAleer and Byrne's skit is featured in a BBC schools citizenship programme on sectarianism. But it's sad that it still pretty much encapsulates how the two political tribes view each other

Kevin McAleer, who discusses Irish history with fellow comedian John Byrne in a sketch where neither character, one nationalist, one unionist, listens to the other
Mary Kelly

THERE’S a brilliant sketch by comedians Kevin McAleer and John Byrne where the pair discuss Irish history, agreeing with each other’s analysis while each word they utter shows they aren’t hearing what the other is saying.

Thus Kevin, the nationalist, talks about how Protestants arrived here 400 years ago. “They robbed the Catholic land. They drove us up to the hills like so many sheep. They did their best to brutalise our language, our culture our traditions. Our struggle continues today to right those wrongs and that struggle goes on even as we speak.”

John, the unionist, replies, “I couldn’t have put it better myself. These early settlers were fine, decent hard-working Protestant stock. What did they find when they got here? They found a wasteland, a bog, as Kevin said, inhabited by semi-nomadic non-English-speaking Roman Catholics, you know. What did they do? They built towns, they built cities, they started up industries, basically they transformed Ulster into the garden that we have today.”

It's encouraging that the skit is featured in a BBC schools citizenship programme on sectarianism. But it’s sad that it still pretty much encapsulates how the two political tribes view each other.

It came to mind when reading about the arguments over the commemoration of the centenary of Northern Ireland which is so exercising unionists while nationalists and republicans are warming up their arguments about the inevitability of a united Ireland, if only unionists would see sense.

For unionists, as Alex Kane has pointed out, the end of partition – a united Ireland – would spell the end of a key dimension of their identity as British. Their country, as part of the UK, would be no more.

Nationalists aren’t unaware of this fear but they are also somewhat exasperated at what they see as a refusal to accept realities.

Years ago Hearts and Minds featured a debate between two Ulster Unionists, Bertie Kerr and Willie Thompson, who had opposing views on the Good Friday Agreement.

Kerr, a veteran Fermanagh councillor, was backing Trimble. Thompson, MP for West Tyrone was not. We wound up the debate, which was pre-recorded, but the pair kept on arguing, so we kept on recording as it was pure gold.

I recall Kerr telling Thompson that unionists had to face reality and find accommodation with “the other side”. I’m paraphrasing, but he warned that every time unionists said no, they eventually had to come back to the table to negotiate from as weaker position.

What unionist wouldn’t have preferred the very modest reforms proposed by Terence O’Neill to sharing power with Sinn Féin today? But they said no then and kept saying it until they had to face realities.

I don’t doubt for one moment that the protocol makes unionists feel betrayed by the current British government. They should have plenty of experience of that over the years since 1972. But what have they learned?

Debates on what a future united Ireland would look like might be interesting, but unionists aren’t going to buy any of it unless a way can be found to accommodate their different sense of identity.

Those of us who have grown up in Northern Ireland – a term I’ve never had any problem acknowledging, by the way – have lived with British culture and influence, from television, newspapers etc. So it wouldn’t be that big a stretch to see some kind of continuing British dimension in a new Ireland.

Despite our experience of a state that denied an Irish identity, nationalists still felt Irish. Unionists will probably continue to feel British even if partition ended. And surely it isn’t beyond imagination to suppose it could be embraced with structures that recognise our differences.

Identity is complex and, to borrow a current trendy term, it is not binary. Let’s listen to each other. Properly this time.

* * *

IT MUST have been hard for Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s press officer, to keep a straight face when she said Boris Johnson always behaved with “honesty and integrity”.

The assertion followed days of kiss and tell claims in the Mirror from American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri about their four-year affair while he was London mayor. And married.

He hasn’t denied the Arcuri affair beyond saying there was no political impropriety over her benefiting from thousands of pounds in public money from the mayor’s promotional agency as well as places on trade missions abroad.

The real shocker among the lurid revelations was that they used to read Macbeth to each other as “foreplay”. Which part of a drama about a man so driven by ambition that he destroys anyone standing in his way appealed most to this lovely couple, I wonder?

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