I remember a couple of decades ago having a conversation with a senior SDLP man. For some reason the question of organisations came up and the SDLP man said something that’s stuck with me. The best of organisations, he said, still depends on, is made or broken by the quality of the individuals who make up that organisation.
I found myself thinking about that this morning as I gird my loins (such as they are) for a visit this evening to Strabane, where I’ll chair a debate (in the Fir Trees Hotel, 7.30 pm) about unifying Ireland. There’ll be a range of speakers from different parties (no, I don’t think the DUP will be there, Virginia, or the UUP) including one very interesting party: N21.
Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the gut-busting jokes about a political party naming itself after a road, about the 21 representing the number of people in it, and the rest of it. What’s significant for me is that its leaders are Basil McCrea and John McCallister. Of all the unionist politicians I’ve met, I’ve found myself warming most to these two men.
I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just that they strike me as decent likeable people. Maybe it’s that you don’t get the impression they’re sizing you up, taking your political temperature with a mind as open, in Heaney’s words, as a steel trap. They seem to respond to others as human beings. And what they appear to be doing with their new party is something that could ultimately be very good or (from a nationalist/republican perspective) very bad.
The very good thing they are intent on doing is something which I suspect chimes with the thinking of many garden-centre Prods. They don’t want to be cut off culturally or any other way from their Catholic/nationalist/republican neighbours, they want to make this state a place that treats everyone with dignity and equal respect, and they believe that the old ways of narrowness and bitterness are a sectarian cul-de-sac that needs its end-wall bashed in.
Which would be good. Anyone with half a brain-cell knows that sectarianism and bigotry take us nowhere. Instead, like revenge, it digs two graves: one for the person that’s hated and the other for the hater. It’s also the case that N21 have made that rapprochement a central plank of their policy. Were they to succeed, it would be a day of great rejoicing among nationalists/republicans.
Or maybe not. Because the ultimate goal, the holy grail sought by Britain and unionism over decades if not centuries has been to have a Catholic population here that is happy to remain British, is not sullenly passive but happily active in supporting the union. When that day arrives, there’ll be no need to garrison British troops here because on that day, nationalism/republicanism will have died.
The N21ers: charming or chilling? I’m still trying to make up my mind.