When I wrote here last week about the spirit of the “Chuckle Brothers” being needed for a resolution of the impasse that has left Northern Ireland without a government and without a functioning assembly, I was not conscious that Martin McGuinness was about to join Ian Paisley in eternity, although I knew he was very unwell.
Long before the St Andrews Agreement which finally got the Good Friday Agreement into operation, I had met Ian Paisley at a summit in Leeds Castle; he looked as if he had just days or weeks to live and Martin McGuinness was then in the whole of his health.
And yet they went on to build on the St Andrews Agreement and get power-sharing up and running. Each of them appeared to relish that task which fate had most unpredictably set for them together.
Regarding the legacy of Martin McGuinness, I will hold back comment for the time being. The old Latin maxim, De Mortuis Nihil Nisi Bonum is wise counsel for the present. There will be plenty of time for a sober reflection on his part in a half century of strife on this island and his part in bringing his own campaign of violence to an end. Of all the Provos, he was, however, the most socially adept and amicable in political dealings; and that was helpful. I don’t think Paisley and Adams could have done the deal or made it work.
But when I mention the spirit of the Chuckle Brothers, I am not talking about the faux amicability, glad handing and back-slapping that characterises so much of the footage from EU Council meetings, with Jean Claude Juncker clowning about in “high spirits”..
I am talking about more than a minimum threshold of respect. I am talking about a genuine realisation that we share a common endeavour and a common responsibility – willingly and loyally.
Real republicans, as distinct from dogged sectarians, know that the greatest challenge to their political vocation is the relentless pursuit of reconciliation in this island’s people and affairs. And that vocation of reconciliation demands generosity of mind – even when it is not readily reciprocated. There has to be an element of patience and relaxation in the process of turning mere co-existence into shared citizenship and reconciliation.
My grandfather Eoin MacNeill, in his 1913 article The North Began which led to the foundation of the Irish Volunteers was, I think, genuine when he wrote that he hoped that soon men of “every creed and party would join in celebrating the Defence of Derry and the Battle of Benburb”.
When you think of it, the idea that we have two separate sectarian histories and cultures is not very republican at all. To the majority of Southern Irish, the Battle of the Boyne still seems to be part of our history in a purely negative sense. We find it hard in many cases to see it as a partial triumph of liberty over absolutism; it is far easier to see it as the harbinger of the Penal Laws. But it was both.
Indeed, William’s victory over James was regarded as a victory of an eclectic anti-French alliance of the Catholic Emperor of Austria, the Papacy, and the Dutch Republic. Hence the famous singing of the Te Deum in the Catholic cathedral in Vienna.
We have, then, a good deal of “chillaxing” to do if we are to get into the mind-set of reconciling republicanism. It isn’t just a task for “the two sides up there”.
If the tricolour of Green, White and Orange is the very symbol of our republican state, we have to ask ourselves – each and every one of us – “what exactly does the Orange panel stand for?” Why is it there? Who does it represent? What does it represent?
This is especially true now that the “Home Rule is Rome Rule” mantra is demonstrably false. In the modern Irish state, religious sectarianism means little or nothing to the great majority. Catholics are happy for their children to attend Protestant schools. We have to work on a view of Orange-ism that embraces its values and outlooks.
Perhaps, we should also reflect on Christian-Islamic sectarianism and its implications for a genuine republic. There is a civil culture of the republic that must be shared by all its citizens.
Accordingly, I would like to hear every Irish Muslim leader state unambiguously that no-one should believe or defend the proposition that apostasy – wherever it occurs in the world and not just in Ireland – can ever justify killing or imprisoning the apostate. If there is a problem with an unambiguous declaration to that effect, then, sadly, we Irish are left with a “problem” with Islam. And Islam. In turn, has a “problem” with a tolerant , secular republic which we are entitled to know about.
Free practice of religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental constitutional rights and essential ingredients of Irish citizenship. Anyone who asks for and accepts Irish citizenship undertakes an explicit “fundamental duty” of loyalty to the State including loyalty to the concepts of freedom of conscience and free practice of religion.
We have moved a long way from the Ireland of my early childhood where it was not only possible but common to advertise even menial jobs in small ads in newspapers with the “R.C.” or “C.of.I” inserted to disqualify applicants of the wrong religion. We so easily forget that when we remember the “No Irish” notices in Britain and America.
But we cannot just leave the process of reconciliation to a process of gentle decay. Generosity involves a little more than studied indifference. We have to go the extra mile of inclusion and real esteem for the good in every tradition and identity rooted in genuine republicanism. We have to honour each other’s dead – not just the memory of “our own” martyrs.
The context of Brexit makes all of this all the more important. The new demography in the North also demands new commitment to reconciliation and understanding of our fellow Irish men and women’s values, fears and aspirations.
Brexit is hugely problematic for us. Will it bring out the best in us? Or will we miss this opportunity?