When I attended University College Dublin in the 1960s, the boys from St Columb's College, Derry used to hang around together. They were a bright bunch but they felt a little intimidated by the free-talking southern students, especially the ones from Dublin. So they (and include me, alas) used to gather at the radiator inside the main entrance at Earlsfort Terrace and scoff among themselves at the people who ran things in UCD - Henry Kelly, Anthony Clare, Sinead Cusack, Patrick Cosgrove. These people dominated the L and H debating society, Dramsoc and any other clubs and societies that required you to stand on your hind legs and address an audience. "Bloody idiots!" the Derry boys would mutter, then go back to doing the Times crossword or reading an old edition of The Derry Journal.
I thought of them and my younger self yesterday when I was out at Stormont at the Poc Fada competition. It was blessed with good weather, it was a good laugh, but most of all it was a good PR exercise by Sinn Féin. It told anybody present that nationalists and republicans had finally arrived and were clumping all over the good lawns, once the sole preserve of solid members of the Unionist party. There wasn't a unionist in sight, except you count the security man who asked some of those coming in "Are you here for ...the...event?" Or maybe the stony-faced cop who moved around not speaking but looking as authoritative as he could. But while you could argue the Event never happened because there were no unionists to witness it, you may be sure they knew it had happened. It was on the TV, it was in the newspapers, it caught the media's imagination the way a good PR exercise should.
The kids playing hurling, the celebrity poc fada, the Edward Carson trophy - none of this changes the north's constitutional position within the United Kingdom. But Events like this have a subversive effect: they hollow out unionism as a dominant force. If people you've been taught to see as your enemy begin to share all the authority and spaces that were once exclusively yours, it gets a bit bewildering. You begin to think that while their day may not have come, yours in some significant sense has gone. What a pity we hadn't the gumption back in the Sixties to leave the sidelines and transform UCD in a similar, final way.