February 17, 2014
Is that Northern Ireland, or the north of Ireland?
It’s a question that has been on my mind these past few days, and brings with it the discomfort of knowing that even the name of our group, the Dalhousie Northern Ireland Dialogue for Peace, has a clear bias to it. Since partition in 1921 when a separate country of Northern Ireland, part of the UK, was created, there has been a huge difference of opinion as to whether the division of Ireland into north and south (referred to as the Republic) was a good thing, or the worst thing that has happened. Republicans, or nationalists, make no apologies for articulating a goal of the future that includes a united Ireland. On the other hand, loyalists, or unionists, see themselves as British citizens with a distinct identity from those in the south.
It’s complicated, and confusing. And to someone who still doesn’t quite understand the difference – and it’s taken me over two years to finally just start to “get” it – it would be easy to miss the subtle difference between Yvonne’s introduction (I’m from Northern Ireland) and Conor’s (I’m from the north of Ireland). Both are making a statement about their identity.
And it’s all complicated by the fact that Northern Ireland as a country is nearly a century old, and has its own distinct history, currency, and government. Some of us heard folks say last year that they believed that there was a new “Northern Ireland identity” that was emerging that was different from the identity of those in the Republic of Ireland, or either the nationalist/loyalist/catholic or unionist/loyalist/protestant identities.
It hit home to me when we had a discussion with Allistair Little and Gerry Foster, both ex-prisoners working actively for peace and transformation, both in Ireland and around the world. Little, whose story is partly dramatized in the movie Five Minutes of Heaven, is a unionist who calls himself a British citizen. Foster, a nationalist, said politically he would be in favour of a united Ireland. However much they differ politically, it is clear that they have a strong friendship that has developed over a decade of working together to help bring about change. There is a lot of pain in their stories, but also humour, and they challenge and poke fun at each other often during the conversation.
When asked about a vision for the future, Allistair said he would prefer to use the word “aspiration” ... and talked about a society where differences are celebrated instead of feared ... where men can let go of their need to be “macho” ... where violence is not seen as an answer to problems. Both men talked about their daughters, and of making the world a better place for them, and about the universal aspect of their work, whether it is Northern Ireland, or in Afganistan, or Israel, or Palestine.
It was a very moving few hours to sit in their company and see that indeed, transformation is possible.
And from the deep to the not so deep, early Sunday evening was spent trying to watch the Canada/Finland hockey game ... after many attempts, the system that finally worked was Skyping Pat Martin in Halifax, having him turn the computer around to the live game on TV ... ain't technology grand?