Working towards Irish Unity




The Two Elephants in the Room

Former Lib Dem spokesman on Northern Ireland Stephen Lloyd argues that the DUP and Catholic Faith schools are a barrier to progress in the North of Ireland.

Much has been written about the numerous challenges democratic politics faces in Northern Ireland. This article is not about those myriad challenges but focusses on just two of the specific, yet deeply ingrained blocks, which need to be addressed if Northern Ireland is ever to move forward positively, across the different communities, into the 21st century. 

The first is the long-standing intransigence of the DUP, and other hard core Unionist parties. The second, less talked about but equally problematic, is the ongoing insistence from the Catholic Church, supported by the nationalist politicians, that they retain wholly exclusive faith-based education. 

Addressing the Unionist issue first, and by this I mean “hard core” Unionism. By any strategic calculation they have lost pretty much every battle they’ve dug in against over the last thirty five years. From the Anglo Irish Agreement in the 80’s to, likely, the Protocol today, and yet, again and again, they keep repeating the same behaviour. 

The question isn’t, to my mind, so much about the merits or de-merits of each of these issues, but the why? Therein lies the problem, and this is where successive British governments must take their share of the blame. Since partition the stock response of HMG has been to acquiesce to Unionist demands –  either because they agreed with them – mostly Conservative governments; or they lacked the will to stand up to said demands – mostly the old Liberal Party or Labour.

For seventy years or so this intransigence proved to be a success from the Unionist perspective, they got what they wanted, however, as a consequence a large proportion of the voters (and politicians) have such implacableneswholly imbedded into their DNA. “Just say No.”

The problem is what worked for decades stopped doing so thirty five years ago, but the mindset hasn’t shifted; it’s stuck. And unusually for most mainstream political parties, their core voters are just as obdurate as their politicians, if not more so. It is a brave Unionist politician who tries to inform their voters of the modern reality of Northern Ireland, because it’ll soon lead to him or her becoming an ex politician! I bring to your attention that the DUP, nobody’s idea of a pragmatic political entity, now being outflanked by their even more reactionary cousins on the right; the TUV. 

So where does this leave Northern Ireland Unionism? Up a cul de sac, frankly. I struggle to imagine hard core Unionism ever shifting voluntarily, because emotionally they just don’t know how, so I suspect the UK government will have to face them down, again, with all the inherent risks this will bring. 

The second block is equally challenging. The Catholic Church’s insistence on faith based education in Northern Ireland. Let’s be blunt here. This stance leads to pure sectarianism. It is also supported by all the Nationalist parties, not just Sinn Féin. I won’t expand on the historical rights and wrongs of this position, that’s for another day. What is undeniable, though, is that it causes significant concerns for many Unionists. It also continues to entrench the community divide in Northern Ireland. 

Furthermore, and here’s the rub, outside Unionism, polite society in England and Ireland do not give the issue the attention it should receive. I’d even go as far to say it’s mostly swept under the carpet. Unionists see this, even the more moderate ones, and they’re not happy. Rightly so in my opinion. It is a huge block to breaking down deep rooted barriers between the two communities; and just because it may be used, at times, by ultra Unionists to deflect from their own inflexibility toward equality in Northern Ireland, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. How can any society expect successful co-existence when half the population’s children are allowed only to be schooled with those of their own faith? It cannot. 

I believe it is incumbent for some of the more serious and dare I say, brave, Nationalist politicians to call the Catholic Church out on this. I would hope similarly courageous Church leaders also act accordingly, for  both the good of their flock and for the future of Northern Ireland. 

Ignoring both these issues, or focussing on just the one but not the other, ain’t going to work,  If we want a cohesive united Ireland and for it to be a success for all its citizens, we first have to address these two huge elephants in the room.

Stephen Lloyd is the former Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne. He was the front bench spokesman for Northern Ireland for a time during the coalition.