Friendship our weapon of choice

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One could argue that it has been the ordinary person who has actually best embraced the spirit of the Agreement. While hatred is taught, it can also be untaught. 

Trevor Ringland
17 December 2012

‘What would a genuinely shared future for the people of Northern Ireland look like to you?’ It was a question posed to me by a film crew as I stood on the pitch at Seaview1 football ground in north Belfast, shared by two clubs, Crusaders and Newington FC, each of whom draw their support from different sides of our community. Behind me around 90 kids from across Belfast’s interfaces were competing in the 2012 Belfast Interface Games. 

They were playing the Game of Three Halves, combining rugby, Gaelic football and football, supported by the three governing bodies of Ulster Rugby, Ulster Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the Irish Football Association (IFA), and an indispensable fourth half of community relations engagement delivered by Peace Players International. In the stand above the pitch were the parents sitting together and enjoying the action.


Game of Three Halves at Alexandra Park, Belfast.
From the Peace Players International website. All rights reserved.

Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865–1953) once profoundly said: 

Ireland is a very lovely country. Indeed there is only one thing wrong with it, and that is that the people that are in it have not the common sense to live in peace with one another and with their neighbours. 

Northern Ireland is a beautiful place, as is the Republic of Ireland. The people of both countries are basically good, provided you press the right buttons. Looking back on my hopes in 2005 as I write in 2012, I have to admit I am concerned that having come through some 40 years of conflict we do not appreciate to the extent necessary that we can share this island better. As a result, are we not in danger of making that age old mistake that so frustrates historians, namely, not learning from our past so that we do not repeat it? My friend Dr Peter Shirlow, Professor of Conflict Transformation at the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, puts it more challengingly: 

‘The people of Northern Ireland have to realise that they can now shape their own future’.

Having said that, it is important to remember that so much has changed here for the better. Our society is relatively stable and peaceful and our main concerns – economic – a problem we share with much of the western world. 

At the same time too many in positions of influence seem ignorant of what has been accepted by those who have suffered hurt and loss, in order to create the space for politics to work and our society to begin to heal the wounds caused by that conflict. This is better reflected than anywhere else I know in the words of Michael Longley in his poem, Ceasefire, where he describes King Priam seeking the return of his son Hector’s body, soon after he has been killed by Achilles.

I get down on my knees and do what must be done. I kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son 

Our ‘son’, Northern Ireland, has had its people devastated by the tragic consequences resulting from the actions and words of the two flawed ideologies of Ireland.  The ideologues promoted their narrow and exclusive concepts of Irishness and Britishness in their selfish pursuit of power with little or no regard for the people. Our ‘Pragmatic Peace Process’ has required those who lived through those terrible times and consistently argued for a different way, to accept that which otherwise would be unacceptable in a normal democracy in order – hopefully – to move our society into a peaceful, stable and genuinely shared future.

The two political parties that best represent those flawed ideologies, namely Sinn Féin and the DUP have evolved in their attitudes, adjusting their politics accordingly in their pursuit of power. Their acceptance of more conciliatory and constructive politics is of course to be welcomed, but their expectation of thanks for their strategic shift shows
a lack of understanding on their part with respect to the impact of their past words and actions on the people of these islands, and Northern Ireland in particular. Their political aspirations also seem limited to mere co-existence. A ‘cold peace’ which I feel will ultimately break down.

To add to the frustration of the political ‘middle ground’, the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, with the acquiescence of the two governments, effectively consolidated their positions of power undermining that ‘middle ground’. So, what was the outcome of the change that guaranteed that the leader of the largest party would automatically have the right to become First Minister? It was that each election would become a sectarian stand-off between the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Such a situation is anti- democratic, as even with a mandatory coalition there should be the ability to change the emphasis of the government.

After listening to my expressions of frustration over this, one friend advised me in relation to the much more difficult challenge of promoting a genuinely shared future in such a political environment, to: 

Dry your eyes, and get on with it.

Which is exactly what I, and so many others have done, and will continue to do; each working to influence the part of the world in which we operate in a constructive way, and to build on the similar work of so many others in our past. We were fortunate
to avoid a civil war, particularly in the last 40 years. This was thanks not only to the actions of the police and the army (despite those who argue otherwise) but also those, who, at many levels in our community, continued to build and maintain relationships while others were destroying them.

This is why, in my opinion, the forthcoming ‘Decade of Commemorations’ represents a reminder of the failure in relationships on this island, whether we are commemorating the Solemn League and Covenant of 1912 or the formation of the UVF in 1913 (that is the one that fought and died so bravely at the Somme, as opposed to that founded in 1966 by loyalist paramilitaries, which murdered Catholics in particular as well as others in the period from then onwards). Strangely, it would appear that this UVF was formed so as not to fight, since any action against the British Army would have led to a swift exit from the United Kingdom, courtesy of the parents of those dead soldiers sent back to England, Scotland or Wales and the public reaction that would inevitably have followed. 

Or take the formation of the Irish Volunteers, too often ignored as the men who also fought so bravely at the Somme in the 16th Division. Similarly, I have no doubt, John Redmond, its leader, fully appreciated that the Volunteers could never use violence as a means of uniting the people of Ireland, as doing so would inevitably have ensured precisely the opposite outcome.

Then in 1916, the Easter Uprising (approximately 450 dead) made that threat of violence a reality; and as a result I believe, introduced a poison into the relationships of this island, whose consequences we continue to suffer.

The Anglo-Irish war of 1919 to 1921 (approximately 1,400 dead) was surely an unnecessary war, which again further alienated a significant proportion of the people of the island who saw themselves as British and must have reinforced in their eyes the need for partition. 

To compound matters, between 1922 and 1923, a pointless civil war then occurred with further loss of life (strangely there does not seem to be a precise figure for the number of dead but it appears to be somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000) and the partitioning of relationships between many of the new state’s citizens. It was a battle of egos, again with little regard for the welfare of the people. 

As we look back at that troubled period one could reasonably argue that there could have been no worse way of conducting those relationships between the people of all persuasions of this island and these islands; and yet, we want to commemorate them, instead of highlighting the obvious failings to our children.

What is tragic is that in many ways we have remained prisoners of that history, leading to intermittent periods of violence since the 1920s, yet more deaths, and ultimately the breaking out of the Troubles from 1969 to 1998 (approximately 3,600 dead). 

I recently discussed with my father whether or not, when we lived as a police family in west Belfast before the Troubles, there was any indication that our society was about to degenerate into violence in the way it did. He said, No, none whatsoever. 

Partition of the island was something that was regretted by many unionists, including Lord Edward Carson. In many respects it could be argued with some justification that it was wrong, except that the actions of Irish Nationalism and Republicanism since it occurred, have done nothing other than prove that it was right. Violence was not and never will be the way to build relationships between the people in Ireland, North or South. 

As I said to my friend, the late Paddy O’Hanlon, in a discussion we were having on equality, ‘What definition of Irish are you using and does it include me, as my definition of British includes you in that its main constituent parts were English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish?’ 

He said he would get back to me, but never did. 

Many years later I told that story to members of Sinn Féin. They laughed and said they would get back to me, but I am still waiting.

So perhaps, as a first and most important step, the people who have to share this island, much like the alcoholic admitting that he has an addiction to alcohol, need to face up to the failures and wrongs of our past and in particular to the fact that the threat of, or use of, violence has always proved counter-productive. 

If we do this, we can then continue the long journey to bring the people of this island together, even if constitutionally they will probably remain apart. A creation of a genuinely shared future in Northern Ireland and on this island should be seen as an imperative.

If we commit to such an endeavour, I would argue that there are a number of issues to be addressed, each of which it is possible to do, except one. Yet dealing with the others may at least assist us in going some way to helping with the last. These are the overarching issues generally described as fostering sectarianism/cultural racism in an anti-Irish/British sense, whose main components are as follows.

1. Exclusive concepts of our identity 

To create exclusive concepts of British or Irish identities ignores the reality of the existence of two main traditions on this island. To be Irish in the 21st century means accommodating a multitude of different ethnic groups including a British tradition that makes up around one fifth of the population of the island. To develop an inclusive concept of who we are is achievable and this was recognised by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, who did say (on the first visit of an Irish head of state to an Orange hall) you could be both Irish and British. 

Increasingly, young people in Northern Ireland see themselves as Northern Irish with an identity that includes those from many different ethnic groups who regard it as their common home.

Sport illustrates well how this can be achieved. In the London 2012 Olympics we had athletes from Northern Ireland competing for both Team GB and Team Ireland. Some time ago it was accepted that athletes from Northern Ireland could compete for either team, no matter what their opinion was on the constitutional question. Why this is achievable is that both teams were striving to be inclusive. Those same athletes often represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games. 

There has also been the work of the Irish Football Association (IFA) through its Football for All programme. 

After the appalling sectarianism on display at the match against the Republic of Ireland in Belfast in 1993 and further exposed in the intimidation of Neil Lennon in 2002, the IFA, through its Community Relations officer Michael Boyd and the fans themselves, led by amongst others Jim Rainey, recognised their sectarianism and that it was destroying the game they loved. And so they set about tackling the problem. They turned the terraces from red, white and blue to a sea of green and replaced sectarian songs with others such as We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland.

That work continues, but as a consequence there is now a family friendly atmosphere at Windsor Park, big crowds, a team that clearly wants to play for its supporters and the fans themselves who have won international awards for their work and their behaviour.

In turn the GAA has continued to build on its outreach work in the section of society that previously felt alienated from it, including modernising some of its rules. They have adopted an anti-sectarian policy, opened up Croke Park for use by other sports and welcomed the Queen there on her visit to Ireland in 2011. 

When England played the Irish Rugby Team at Croke Park in 2007 it was a momentous occasion with God Save the Queen being played and respected by the crowd. As one friend later told me, he turned to all those around him and asked ‘What’s it to be, all three (Soldier’s Song, God Save the Queen and Ireland’s Call) or none?’ They agreed on all three, with assistance readily given to those who did not know the words.

The media, meanwhile, had been stirring controversy around the match, and I was involved in a number of television, newspaper and radio interviews. Rightly or wrongly I expressed the view that in the world of sport nothing unites the Irish better than playing England! This seemed to work well until a radio interview was heard by one
of my English brothers-in-law; but as friends we agreed to disagree!

That event signified a maturing of the relationship between the Irish of the Republic of Ireland and their English neighbours. 

The visit of the Queen built upon that and I for one was duly convinced that a friendship that had gone wrong was being rediscovered to mutual benefit; and that this in turn was having an impact in helping to mature the improving relationships in Northern Ireland, particularly amongst many of our young people. 

In many ways that sense of inclusion emanating from the GAA represents an Irishness comfortable with its own identity and prepared to expand its sense of community to include the British tradition. It is epitomised by the words of the Ulster Director Danny Murphy who said, ‘When Down play, they represent all the people of the County, no matter what their background.’ A simple gesture, but so important in a culturally diverse society striving to build a sense of interdependence, and especially one emerging from the consequences of conflict. 

Finally there is the impact of Irish Rugby, which I feel managed to get relationships right on this Island when others failed: an Irishness that can accommodate its Britishness and vice versa. Yet it struggles to maintain that position at a time when one might have thought things would be getting easier. When I played rugby for Ireland, ‘ the Deal’ was that when matches were played in Dublin the anthem of the Republic of Ireland would be played and respected by all: similarly if matches were played in Belfast, then that of Northern Ireland would be played; a position of mutual respect appropriate to an all-Ireland sport drawing support from all its people. Yet when Ireland played Italy in Belfast in 2007, ‘the Deal’ was not reciprocated. I can understand all the reasons for not doing so. But it is important in a sport that is not only all-Ireland but is also one for all its people, that its symbols are inclusive and properly representative.

Such matters are vital as we continue to build relationships on this island. I suspect, for example, that the implications of the pursuit by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) of young footballers from Northern Ireland and its acceptance of their right to do so by FIFA have not yet been fully appreciated.

I had a private dream that the anti-sectarian work carried out by IFA together with the fans would in the not too distant future help us achieve a situation in which a match could be organised between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which would be attended by over 40,000 (both groups acknowledged internationally as the best- behaved of fans) in an atmosphere of friendly rivalry, with the proceeds being shared between the associations and various charities. After all, sport teaches us how to compete without destroying a relationship.

Unfortunately such an event is now a long way off and I suspect the FAI do not even understand the damage they have done, or to what extent their actions are perceived as sectarian or racist, and how this perception risks undermining the work of the IFA in tackling our sectarian divisions. The development of an inclusive concept of our identity is achievable, both North and South, but we need to remain wary of that which narrows what is otherwise an enriching confluence.

2. Religious intolerance 

I am often reminded of a statement made by Gandhi to the effect, ‘When I read the scriptures I see Christ. When I meet Christians, all too often, I don’t.’ I suspect if Gandhi had visited Ireland he may well have felt compelled to make a similar statement.

Throughout our history there have been many examples of our different churches failing to promote the simple Christian message of ‘love your neighbour’ and ‘treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated’. Too often they have acted out of self-interest rather than abiding by the obligations emanating from those words.

So as we look to the future let us reflect on the words and actions of those such as Ray Davey and John Morrow and others connected to Corrymeela and the work they carried out in building relationships throughout a time when others were destroying them. Or the small but significant personal gesture of the late Terence Donaghy who each week would attend his own church and then another of a different denomination in his local area. There is also the relationship of the Rev. Ken Newell and Father Gerry Reynolds and the congregations of their respective churches, again living out their Christian obligations.

Add to that the leadership of forgiveness shown at crucial times, whether by Gordon Wilson after the Enniskillen Remembrance Day atrocity in 1987, Patrick McGurk after the McGurk’s Bar bombing in 1971, or the clear Christian leadership of the Rev. William Bingham at Drumcree in 1998. Each made very Christian interventions at crucial times to avoid our society stepping over the edge of the abyss into an all-out civil war. 

Yet the churches could and need to do more, challenging themselves where they maintain or promote division. If they adhere to their core principles they should be a powerful voice for the building of a shared future across these islands. 

However, probably the single most significant gesture that the churches could make to our society is to reach agreement with respect to the relationship between our Christian churches and our schools – in Northern Ireland in particular, but also across the island. This would help free up our education system to move to a more shared structure, enabling our children to build the sort of normal relationships that the current structures prevent them from developing. 

3. The demonisation of the other. 

A thread that runs through the events that we will spend this decade commemorating is that of the demonisation of the other. There is the clear anti-Britishness of the republicanism of Eammon DeValera, Michael Collins and others which became interwoven with Catholicism. 

Anti-Irishness was not as prevalent in Unionism but there was a strong undercurrent of anti-Catholicism. 

President McAleese stated in an interview after she visited Auschwitz: ‘They gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics.’ 

Her mistake here was not to balance her comments by including the same hatred being promoted by some from the Catholic/nationalist/republican section of our society. She apologised accordingly and in doing so challenged the people of this island to stand against the attitudes which fed our hatreds by saying, ‘ ...and I should have gone on to say, and Protestants, because the truth of the matter is that, of course, sectarianism is a shared problem.’

Throughout her Presidency she constantly worked to build relationships across the island, with considerable success. The visit of the Queen to the Republic of Ireland was a personal triumph, for which she deserves much credit. But too often we permit those in positions of power and influence to demonise the other. A challenge has to be launched and maintained to counter such attitudes. 

What counters the hatred of the extremes is the many small steps being taken throughout our island that build relationships. Such actions too often go unpublicized. Yet one could argue with some justification, that while politics did deliver a political settlement in 1998 which was endorsed by the people of this island, it has been the ordinary person who has actually best embraced the spirit of the Agreement. What we do see time and again is that while hatred is taught, it can also be untaught. 

4. The flawed politics of the island 

On one view, our politics – whether you consider Fine Fail, Fine Gael, the Unionist Parties or Sinn Féin and the SDLP – has remained in a time-warp emanating from the events of a century ago. All of them to a greater or lesser extent endorse the flawed ideologies that I would argue have to a considerable extent failed the ordinary people. It is surely time that we became far more demanding of our politicians and the policies they promote. 

They say that politics is about the pursuit of power. They should add the qualification that this power should be used constructively for the benefit of the people they are elected to serve. Simple populism or flag-waving should be exposed for its superficiality and we should be intolerant of those who promote intolerance of the other, victimhood, hatred, fear, exclusion, division or exclusive concepts of nationalism. 

There has been too much tragedy as a result of our failure to challenge such base politics. 

As to the constitutional question, let it be pursued by the open building of relationships whether inside Northern Ireland, on this island or between these islands. To argue for a Northern Ireland for all, or a North of Ireland for all, is first and foremost the right thing to do, while also making sense strategically. 

Moreover, it would be a pity, Northern nationalists and republicans having demanded the structure of a government of shared responsibility – if they failed to take on such responsibility. If you want to prove that a United Ireland could work, then make Northern Ireland work. It is not the contradiction that it seems. 

5. The structures of division

In Northern Ireland we need to strive harder to break down or remove the structures that divide us, that are often the visible manifestations of the failures in our relationship from our past. 

It has been proved by the integrated education sector that integrated schools do work; or that a local structure can be built, such as in Limavady, that ensures greater sharing of schools and hence contact between our children. 

Shared housing estates, as in Antrim, have also been piloted and again prove that, when proper leadership is given, the people are prepared to make the necessary compromises to ensure such projects are successful.

Our ‘Peace Walls’ remain in existence, but much debate is taking place between those on either side of the walls as to how better relationships can be built, so that at some stage in the future they can come down. 

There are also the socio-economic divisions right across the island. As we try to manage the current economic problems, it is so vital that we maintain and, where possible, create employment. That needs a strong and vibrant financial economy, But it should not be forgotten that its success is also linked to the social economy. Poverty and unemployment are fertile ground for extremism. 

6. The consequences of violence

While these issues remain in our society that fed the conflict in our history, each can be tackled with leadership and commitment at all levels in our society. This is what I have so far tried to outline. The one matter that we cannot undo is the hurt and tragedy that has been visited upon too many by the failure in our past relationships.

Some of the families involved have a high public profile while most have remained quiet and many from all sides have shown what can best be described as grace, to permit the space to open up for our peace process to evolve and politics to begin to work. 

In some ways it may ultimately be understandably impossible to somehow ease the hurt caused to too many families. There are also those, who, while regretting their past actions, feel they were somehow justified, a position which is unacceptable to many others, nationalist or unionist.

But we have an opportunity now to create that different, better and genuinely shared future in Northern Ireland, on this island and between these islands, which is perhaps the best tribute we can pay to those who suffered loss and tragedy. To grasp it we have to learn to care about each others’ children and value them as if they are our own, standing resolutely against those who continue to promote the flawed ideologies of old, using our friendship as our weapon of choice. We must have the courage to believe that we can create that different future.

Perhaps in this ‘Decade of Commemorations’ we could all reflect on one missed opportunity that occurred during that same period, the Christmas Truce in 1914 along large sections of the Western Front in northern France. What if those soldiers, on both sides, having met the other, had had the courage to stay in their ‘no man’s land’ and not let their leaders force them back into their trenches?



1 Seaview is owned by Crusaders FC, but is shared (under a formal ground-sharing arrangement) by Newington FC. The two clubs, under the ‘Mes Que un Club’ (‘more than just a football club’ – strapline ‘borrowed’ from Barcelona) initiative have jointly developed a shared space comprising offices and a training suite/hospitality space under the Seaview North Stand. Still under construction, but due to open soon. The ‘Mes Que un Club’ initiative aims to undertake cross community work through sport – meeting educational, social and other goals.


This article was first published in October 2012, in the fourth volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler. She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series.


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