I read two interesting pieces this week. One was by Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist and long-time critic of the US government. The other was by Declan Kearney of Sinn Fin, who is a leading figure in his party's out-reach programme.
Central to Chomsky’s talk to the Geneva Press Club is the validation of Edward Snowden, the young guy who released files showing that the US National Security Agency had been accessing the email, Facebook accounts and videos of citizens all over the world, not to mention phone records of millions of Americans. Now the US government wants to get its hands on him; there’s talk of him being tried for treason for endangering government security. Chomsky’s line is that the only threat to the US government is from the people themselves: they might tell their government “Enough is enough!”
Central to Declan Kearney’s piece is the call for people here to confront the things that divide us and see what we can do to eliminate them. He contends that while both the Orange traditions and British identity deserve respect, so too do Irish identity and republican traditions. He’s called for a revival of the Civic Forum with a view to mapping the road to mutual respect.
Both men face huge difficulties. Chomsky needs to bring the US government from its present position, that Snowden is a traitor, to acceptance that Snowden has performed a public service. Will he succeed? It’ll be an uphill task, to put it mildly.
Kearney faces the difficulty of persuading unionism, including the Orange Order, that equality is not a threat and ultimately is to the benefit of everyone. Will the Civic Forum be re-established and will he succeed in changing unionist thinking? It’ll be an uphill task, to put it mildly.
There is only one way that the US government can be brought to heel, and that is when/if Chomsky convinces enough Americans that their government must, no ifs and no buts, abandon spying on and threatening anyone who doesn’t agree with their thinking. Did I say uphill? Sheer cliff face might be a better term.
Meanwhile in this little cul-de-sac there are some grim facts to be faced. Unionism to date has not been thrilled by the changes that have been implemented. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were introduced as the Chuckle Brothers, but a blind man on a galloping horse could have told you that the DUP generally thought republicans around the Stormont place was a very undesirable if unavoidable state of affairs. Likewise republican attitudes to flags, parades and the past. Ruth Patterson is a nice example of the DUP unzipped.
At the same time there is some logic to the unionist position. Once you see the Troubles as having been brought about by a group of murderous thugs, you’re going to resist any calls to respect the culture of said thugs and/or their colleagues. Instead you’ll look for signs of a ‘cultural war’ between unionism and republicanism, and believe that your culture must be protected from all tampering and no ground conceded.
But there is one major difference between the people Chomsky must deal with and the people Kearney faces. The people Chomsky faces may be stony-faced in their attitude to his ideas, but they haven’t emerged from thirty years of armed conflict within the state. Unionism, in contrast, has, and this makes it that much harder for them to accept notions of equality/parity of esteem.
There is one hopeful factor. Unionism in Ireland has always had one great dream: to develop an Irish Catholic population which was content within the Union, or even felt they had a stake in its maintenance. Maybe the thought of that will encourage unionism to engage in the kinds of discussion which Declan Kearney is urging. With polls suggesting that a lot of Catholics are happy to remain UK subjects indefinitely, unionism may see the concession of equality to Catholics/nationalists/republicans as the best road to a settled union.
The fly in the UK ointment is that republicans have never made any secret of their twin goals: equality now, independence in the medium/long term.
It’s uncomfortable living in a state which refuses to respect your culture and beliefs in a myriad of ways. It must be even more uncomfortable to live in a state where you’re constantly peering at the horizon, trying to see what that big vague Celtic shape is, coming towards you at such frightening speed.