Tom Kelly: We need a sense of maturity over place names and commemorations

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

Translink said the 'Short Strand' Glider bus halt has replaced a Metro stop with the same name. Picture by Matt Bohill
Translink said the 'Short Strand' Glider bus halt has replaced a Metro stop with the same name. Picture by Matt Bohill Translink said the 'Short Strand' Glider bus halt has replaced a Metro stop with the same name. Picture by Matt Bohill

A few years ago a Sinn Féin spokesperson touted the notion that the Royal Victoria Hospital and Queen’s University Belfast should be renamed in the interests of equality. This was obviously before they came up with the idea of ‘outreaching’ to unionists.

Many people, immaterial of their political outlook, would be horrified at the thought of either institution being known as anything other than the ‘Royal’ or ‘Queen's’. It was a stupid idea. But here in the north/Northern Ireland people are obsessed with seriously trivial issues in a way that others aren’t. The magnificent Customs House in Dublin still has all his royal insignia reflecting its British roots.

Of course there needs to be balance in all things and naturally given the history of the establishment of the Northern Ireland ‘statelet’, our institutions are often relics of a bygone day when unionism was in the ascendancy and exclusive.

Stormont reeked of unionist hegemony. The statue of the defiant Carson in the grounds and of Craig in the Great Hall are hardly welcoming to non unionists. It’s very much an imperial parliament. When former deputy first minister Seamus Mallon was asked what statue he would like to see outside, he suggested Lurgan’s famous greyhound Master McGrath.

I have sometimes thought that power sharing may have been more successful had the new institutions not been located in Stormont. The building could have been turned into a museum or even an hotel. That said, most of the infrastructure needed for an assembly was there and it had been a completely underused edifice for twenty five years. Unfortunately when unionists re-entered Stormont after the Good Friday Agreement they acted as if it was a back to the future moment. They strutted its marble halls as if they were mini-prime ministers rather than co-administrators.

Even before its collapse, its inmates argued over lilies at Easter and what could or could not be flown on its roof. If the place needed decorated it's unlikely that assembly members could agree a colour scheme beyond magnolia.

Unionists often forget that many Northern Ireland place names and town lands are already derived from Irish. Republicans are sometimes too keen to remind them. But if we are to move on there needs to be a sense of maturity and realism brought into the debate. Unionists need to recognise that Northern Ireland is very much a contested space. In some ways it's worse. It has been balkanised. East and West of the Bann has now real meaning. Unionist MPs don’t represent a single border constituency. This disjoint leads to major cultural misunderstandings not least over Brexit.

Republicans need to show sensitivity too. Equating IRA commemorations to the First World War memorials is far from helpful. To the majority unionist community these IRA commemorations have an equivalent in the UVF and UDA. Both sides try to outdo each other in creating new commemoration seasons - as if we don’t suffer enough from commemoration overload. Equality seems to be measured in looking for and getting something that the other side is perceived to have. There is so much duplication of services it's no wonder that some economists now believe that an united Ireland is very much economically possible.

The Orange Order leadership was and is wrong to refuse to take up on the Sinn Féin president’s offer to meet and maybe to attend an Orange event. Most Orangemen meet and interact with Sinn Féin daily. Councillors who are Orangemen sit in committees with Sinn Féin. They travel abroad for conferences together too. Given they have no problems meeting with representatives of loyalist groups like the UDA and UVF it's also disingenuous position.

Likewise Sinn Féin since the demise of Martin McGuinness seem determined to club the unionist community with culture and language. This is not the way to win hearts or minds. Sinn Féin need to reach over the heads of unionist elected representatives to ordinary unionists. To do that they must embrace and give meaning to their engagement and that includes appreciating what unionists cherish. Equality is more about generosity than equity.

The recent spat over the naming of the new Rapid Transport halt stop at Short Strand is more evidence of how easily our politicians get distracted from real issues. Can you imagine a Dublin TD or London MP kicking up a fuss over something so insignificant?

It’s time to change the narrative in Northern Ireland. Playing to our own side is so short-sighted and pathetic.