December 4, 2023
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Tread softly, Mary Lou, when you tread on unionist dreams

It is more than 30 years since Dominic Murray published Worlds Apart, a book that has stood the test of time as a revealing and insightful study of sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

It concentrates on the education system and has a section devoted to attitudes at neighbouring schools in the greater Belfast area – one Protestant, one Catholic .

They got on well enough, with staff and pupils regularly visiting their neighbours for sporting or cultural events. But relations were civil rather than friendly. There was always an undertow of suspicion, caused by an almost total failure to understand how ‘the other side’ thought and why they did the things they did.

The Catholic school, like any Catholic school, had a variety of religious statues and icons around the place, including, near the entrance, a large statue of the saint the school was named for.  Neither staff nor pupils were aware of them.  When asked, not one teacher could describe the statue that dominated their hallway

Visiting teachers from the Protestant school did notice the statues, however, and saw them as in some way threatening.  “It’s hard to escape the view that a special show is being put on for our benefit,” one told Dominic Murray.

The Protestant school had a British Union Flag flying in its grounds. Students and staff were as unaware of it as their Catholic counterparts were of the religious icons. They didn’t know when or why it was flown; some didn’t realise it was there at all.

But the Catholic school’s teachers did. “They fly the flag to show they are more British than the British themselves,” one told Murray.  “It is also to let us know that they are the lords and masters.”

Symbols matter in Northern Ireland, for what they mean to those who display them and for what others think they mean. They matter in a way which is unimaginable on this side of the border.

For the first 50 years of its existence the only symbols allowed  in Northern Ireland were unionist. The electoral system gave unionists a complete hold on power in the old Stormont and they were not prepared to share any of it.

This unionist dominance spread way beyond the political field. Almost any declaration of Irishness was met with hostility and, sometimes, legal sanction.

It was illegal to fly an Irish Tricolour and the Irish language had no status at all. Some parents who wanted to register their children with such commonplace names as Siobhán and Padraig were told: “We can’t record  names in a foreign language – what’s that in English?”

This refusal to share power, and disrespect for the people with whom they would not share it, led to the upheaval which eventually ended unionist dominance.

Now unionists face into an Assembly election from which Sinn Féin seem likely to emerge as the biggest party. It will be a testing time for unionism and Sinn Féin should be careful not to make it any more difficult, by adopting the sort of supremacist approach taken by unionists in their days of power.
Winning  the election will not give Sinn Féin anything like the control unionists had in the old Stormont.

It is not certain that they can get the Executive running again, but if they do they  will have to share authority for the important things, like public health, housing and education.

But as the biggest party, Sinn Féin will have control, or at least an influence,  on some of those little things that in the north can matter almost as much, the symbolic  things that influenced relations between Murray’s two schools:  flags, emblems, parades and commemorations. And the party will be in a position to set the pace for their cherished ambition of a border poll.

I hope they will not try to turn the tables on unionists  who behaved so badly in their days of power. They can start by showing a little restraint when the election results come in. Shouts of ‘up the ra’ or ‘tiocfaidh ár lá’  will not get the new era off to a good start.

Unionists are not an easy people to love, with their sashes and drums and seventeenth century politics. But they are a part of our country, the orange third of the flag they once banned. Their aspirations should not be disrespected nor their fears ignored.

Yeats warned us to tread softly when we tread on the dreams of others. I hope Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill remember that when they are celebrating election victory.

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