ONE of the more entertaining things about the New Ireland debate that is gathering pace with every clink of a Downing Street glass is the spectacle of unionists refusing to join in the debate – by joining in the debate.
A Belfast Telegraph headline declared: ‘Doug Beattie: Unionism shouldn’t engage in a united Ireland debate, with poll at least 30 years away’ – a reference to last week’s episode of the BBC’s Sunday Politics in which he debated a united Ireland with presenter Tara Mills by saying unionists shouldn’t debate a united Ireland.
On Twitter, Arlene Foster approved. “I agree that engaging in a UI narrative gives it a legitimacy it does not have. Far better to look at how the Union is good for all.” So there’s Arlene debating with Doug about why it’s not a good idea for unionists to debate a united Ireland. While debating a united Ireland. And missing the very simple point that when you’re explaining why something is a bad idea you’re in the debate just as much as somebody who thinks it’s a great idea.
Arlene’s former spad Lee Reynolds joined in the non-debate debate with a double-barrelled tweet outlining why unionists should not be engaging in that oul’ united Ireland talk,
“There have been 100 years since NI formed. Irish separatists have had 100 years to prepare/plan/ think/strategise for what they say they want. They have zilch. The so-called conversation is not meant to fill the gap but an attempt to hide the gap.”
(Squinter’s gotta stop here and say how much he loves Lee’s use of the word ‘separatists’ here – heavy CIA coup vibes jumping all over the place.)
He continues: “This makes any argument doubly pointless. Those with a pro-UK and pro-NI viewpoint have plenty of better things to be doing than discussing the abolition of Northern Ireland. We have a new century ahead of us, let’s focus on making it better than the last one.”
The first thing that needs to be said is that Lee is showing a very welcome degree of realism in his vision for the future.
Given that the last hundred years haven’t exactly been an endless stream of banter and giggles, making the next century of partition better than the last is quite possibly the easiest job that unionism has ever had to do. Although of course there is no guarantee that they could or would pull it off.
The ‘better things to do’ argument – also known as the ‘away round your own door’ gambit – is a weird one for unionism to make when the things that needed to be done have been left undone for a century. But describing an argument as “pointless” when you’re one of those keeping the argument going is a strange kind of take. It’s not the most complicated concept in the world, is it?
1. Engaging in a debate.
– Hi, you want to talk about a united Ireland?
– Why would I? It’s a horrible idea.
– Why’s that?
– Well, we’re financially better off within the UK and the health system is better.
– Okay, let’s talk about that.
– Not a chance. And by the way, our Tayto’s better than southern Tayto.
– You think so?
– Yeah, and I’m more interested in making Northern Ireland work.
– Okay, let’s talk about that.
– I don’t want to talk.
– Tell me, what exactly is it that you think we’ve been doing?
2. Not engaging in a debate.
– Hi, want to talk about a united Ireland?
– Hello, anyone there?
– Okay, bye.
The simple fact of the matter is that for a variety of reasons it’s an objective fact that a united Ireland, a new Ireland, a changed dispensation – whatever you want to call it – is part of the political discourse to an extent never seen before. And while it’s not a conversation that unionists want to have, it’s hard if not impossible for them to stay out of it. It’s like sitting on your own in the pub and the people at the table next door to you are talking between themselves about your house – and not necessarily in a good way. You’re likely to want to get involved at some stage – and not necessarily in a good way. And like Father Dougal standing beside a big red ‘Do Not Press’ button and struggling to comply with the order, you know Doug and Arlene and Lee are going to crack. Again. And again.
Hitting the right anthem note proves difficult
FORMER Northern Ireland football team manager Michael O’Neill put the rebel cat among the loyal pigeons when he told a UTV documentary that playing God Save the Queen at the start of matches was a “disadvantage” to his players.
Speaking on ‘Up Close – A Game of Two Halves’, O’Neill said: “I felt we were at a disadvantage in the anthem, because I could see how other countries would either sing their national anthem or display real patriotism, a real togetherness, real emotion during the anthem and we never really got that. When I came in I could see that a lot of the players from nationalist backgrounds would stand with their heads down. So we made sure that the players linked, first of all. It was very important. And that the nationalist players were requested that, whilst they may not sing the anthem, that they would respect it and they would stand with their heads not bowed.
“I think what we saw was a much better version of that. And I felt it was important for those players to respect the lads in the squad who did regard it as their anthem. And so not to have body language, which would appear disrespectful as well.
“I just felt we needed something that potentially we could use as our identity the same way as if you ask someone from Wales or Scotland where they’re from they’ll tell you they’re Scottish, or Welsh, they won’t say they’re British. When you’re a small nation as well, there’s something that you have to harness and it’s something that I still think could be looked at.”
O’Neill’s call for a rethink on playing God Save the Queen before Northern Ireland games was echoed by actor James Nesbitt, Ulster and Ireland rugby legend Rory Best and, perhaps most tellingly, the current NI and Cliftonville women’s captain Marissa Callaghan – the only person interviewed in the film to have what might be called skin in the game..
“You know it’s quite sad,” she said. “Northern Ireland don’t really have their own identity.
“As a Catholic player, unfortunately I don’t get that experience of standing tall and singing the anthem as loud as you can.
“But it doesn’t take away the pride and the passion and what it means to put on the green shirt. It will take someone to think outside the box, won’t it? And be brave enough to move it forward.”
To say that the film tossed a grenade into the Our Wee Country changing room would be gravely to play down the wounds that this caused to the keepers of the Parc de Windsor flame.
Former First Minister turned GB News pundit Arlene Foster airily dismissed the calls for a debate on the anthem. “The anthem issue is overblown,” she said. “It’s something that people latch on to as an issue because they want to make it an issue.”
To which Squinter can only reply, Wha’? People bring up an issue because they want to make it an issue? Well, of course they do, Arlene, because not bringing it up would mean it’s not an issue. And if they do bring it up it becomes an issue. Just as you bring up issues all the time with your gammon-flavoured nightly audience of hundreds. Bringing up issues, indeed.
• “Oi, mate. You were on the wireless complaining about the cost of tickets to NI internationals, weren’t you? Stop mentioning it, you only want to make it an issue.”
• “Hey, you there! You in the sleeping bag holding out that empty coffee cup to passers-by. Stop bringing up homelessness – you only want to make it an issue.”
Perhaps we should all stop bringing issues up for fear of being accused of making them issues. Or maybe we should run them by Arlene so she can adjudicate on whether they’re really issues, or only issues that are being made issues.
Moving along the gammon gamut, in the News Letter Editor Ben Lowry made his thoughts known on the matter not long after he had delivered a raw and emotional defence of God Save the Queen on the wireless. Ben approached the issue via the scenic route, variously visiting 1968 church attendance figures; the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979; the 1981 hunger strikes; Dennis Taylor’s late-night snooker World Championship win against Steve Davis in 1985; and Gerry Armstrong’s goal against Spain in 1986. But he got there in the end.
First of all he addressed the suggestion by football agent Gerry Carlile that God Save the Queen and Amhrán na bhFiann should be played that National Stadium. “This would be completely unacceptable because it would strike at the heart of what the NI team is about – which is a team that represents the northern jurisdiction of this island, the existence of which republicans themselves finally came to accept in 1998.”
Squinter’s clearly been getting duff information. He’s been told time after time that the NI team is about something more than a statement of cold jurisdictional fact. He’s been told it’s about bringing together a divided community in a spirit of sporting togetherness; he’s been told that the team’s relative success on the pitch has made Windsor a warm house for Catholic players after the cold, dark days of the ’80s and ’90s; he’s been told it’s about ‘Football For All’. But if Ben – a decorated veteran infantryman in the Green and White Army – says the team is in fact first and foremost a statement of existential geopolitical consciousness, then who is Squinter to disagree from across the M1?
Ben then went on to recruit the NI men’s and women’s teams to lead another charge in the new and bitterly-fought Hundred Years War. “The mere fact of the Northern Ireland football teams (now including the women’s one) present a considerable challenge for republicans, because those teams have very widespread and instinctive support, even among people in NI who are apolitical. They are, indeed, one of the last representations of Northern Ireland that are openly embraced. Think of what has happened with the centenary. Republicans have in effect thwarted any celebration. Beyond the front page of the News Letter, barely any local institutions have dared to so much as say Happy 100th! – not even ones that have Northern Ireland in their name.
“While London has slightly stepped up its support for the centenary at the end of the year, the anniversary is still largely invisible. If the football team is undermined, another plank of Northern Ireland life will be removed.”
Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to Ben that one of the reasons there might not be a great appetite for celebrating the 1921 Victory of the Gunrunners is because 100 years on young Catholic players at Windsor have to be told to keep their heads up when God Save the Queen is playing. As for the NI team being “one of the last representations of Northern Ireland that are openly embraced”, Squinter hates to break it to you, Ben, but take that short stroll across the M1 (minding the traffic), head up past the traffic and have a look inside the Rock Bar and the West next time Windsor is rocking and there’ll not be a hell of a lot of NI embracing going on, open or otherwise. In all his years of watching sport in local hostelries – and they are legion – Squinter has never seen a single person wearing a Northern Ireland shirt, never mind supporting the team. So while Baraclough’s Boys may indeed have “very widespread and instinctive support”, it’s widespread and instinctive only in a very particular cohort.
Another former Ireland rugby international entered the fray in defence of Her Majesty’s place on the Windsor sward. Trevor Ringland was recently appointed ‘NI special envoy to the US’, although he wasn’t appointed by anyone actually from NI, he was appointed by the Tories. So it’s hardly surprising that he has a strong affinity with the unionist Mother Country and the old Nellie Deane. On Talkback he was asked by presenter William Crawley whether it might be a good idea to have a second anthem, rather as the Ireland rugby team plays ‘Ireland’s Call’ in a nod to the sensibilities of unionist players. “Maybe we should reflect,” he told William, “that we do have one [a second anthem], Gerry could maybe agree with me – ‘We’re Not Brazil We’re Northern Ireland’”.
Much as he admires Trevor’s cross-community sporting credentials, Squinter’s not sure that telling the other team before kick-off that you’re not very good is a winning strategy. Then it was put to Trevor that an NI-only anthem might be a good idea, since it’s the only part of the UK that doesn’t have its own bespoke regional anthem. One of the options brought up by a caller was ‘Danny Boy’. Trevor gave this due consideration before coming down against it. “It’s a wee bit slow,” he said with some conviction.
Sadly, it falls to Squinter to point out to Trevor that God Save the Queen is not exactly an Ibiza dancefloor-filler. Indeed, no less a personage than the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has described GSTQ as “very boring” and offered to write a new one. “The national anthems of other countries, such as France and Germany, are a lot more impressive and tend to have a more galvanising effect on their peoples,” he added.
Of course it’s a meaningless debate, because with loyal Ulster having declared a Fury Code Red about the Protocol, another internal assault on the Precious Union© might light the red, white and blue touchpaper. Fleg protests, Protocol protests, anthem protests – the front of City Hall would be booked out solid on a Saturday for the next ten years if the anthem went.