By Ian Marshall
In Armagh, throughout ‘the troubles’ Dublin often appeared to be far away, only 80 miles by road yet feeling like 800 miles away, it was disconnected from us, often seeming irrelevant, and even at times appearing hostile and unwelcoming. A place that held little interest for many ordinary people in Northern Ireland, across many communities where people wrestled with division and hatred, in a toxic environment of mistrust and animosity, tirelessly trying to co-exist and participate in some degree of normality whilst focusing on the problems that faced them on a daily basis.
This image of NI is a distant memory, and this was a different time, thankfully long gone. Unrecognisable today when we look at a province where peace and reconciliation are order of the day, where equality and social inclusion are of paramount importance and where the ‘next generation’ are focused on education, jobs, housing, health, quality of life, and most of all, the future. Peace as we know it has become the reality and to lose it as a consequence of Brexit, Covid, or any tensions on the constitutional question would be a dereliction of our duty.
There is no desire to return to the past, or to revisit a time when a gulf of knowledge, understanding, and mistrust developed between Belfast and Dublin. A time when there was a distinct lack of communication and education about different cultures and identities and how ‘the other half’ lived across the island.
…a disconnection and misunderstanding clearly highlighting the importance of bringing a different perspective and an alternative narrative to the debate in the Senate to gain a better understanding of each other.
A disconnection clearly demonstrated now by the fact that a significant number of Northern Irish citizens are completely oblivious to politics in the Republic and not familiar with any elected representatives beyond a Taoiseach, a Tánaiste, and a President. Supported by the recognition that equally as many people south of the border would be unable to name many elected representatives in Northern Ireland beyond the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and possibly a few of the more egotistical characters continually in the media spotlight.
A disconnection and misunderstanding clearly highlighting the importance of bringing a different perspective and an alternative narrative to the debate in the Senate to gain a better understanding of each other.
Recognising this need for a different perspective and more inclusivity, 2018 saw the first northern Ulster Unionist elected to Séanad Éireann, or the Irish Senate for those with a preference. An election that brought with it some criticism from a small number of commentators within Northern Ireland who defaulted to the old ‘lundyisms’ and small ‘u’ unionism labels signalling their opposition to a philosophy that it’s better to be inside the debate than outside and missing the point that representation is the best mechanism to have your voice heard.
However, the level of cross party support was overwhelming at the time, as was the cross community support north and south from individuals and organisations who viewed this as a long overdue development and a demonstration of good neighbours working together, a signal of better cooperation and a sense that we all needed a greater level of understanding of each other.
And so the work began in Leinster House to be http://fourstreetschichester.org.uk/ ‘a unionist voice, and not the voice for unionism’. To break down barriers, dispel the myths, to engage, inform, listen, and get others to listen and to end the misunderstandings that many had about a Northern Irish culture and identity often misrepresented and portrayed in the worst light though press and media. Good people across many communities often unfairly viewed through a prism of history and heritage portrayed as a group who were stuck in the past and who only existed in a political bubble built on mistrust and insecurity. Not remotely representative of the vast majority of people living and working across NI 23 years on from Good Friday Agreement. A progressive society where many examples of cross community work are already underway, with communities working together to build a better future in projects often going unreported and overlooked in a media frenzy battling for ‘scoops’ and scandal, disagreement and disorder and with an insatiable appetite for negativity.
The time for hollow words, empty gestures and tokenism is over.
As a political conversation intensifies around the language and rhetoric of ‘sharing an island’ and ‘engaging with unionism’ it’s never been more important for this engagement. Brexit and Covid exposed the disconnect and the necessity for interlockers wherever possible. Luninyets The time for hollow words, empty gestures and tokenism is over.
This is a time for cool heads and strong leaders and for the voice of the silent majority to be heard. It’s no longer about insecurity of identity but must be about pride in heritage and culture and an acceptance of difference and diversity. Unashamedly and unapologetically standing up for what you believe in and what you stand for, in an inoffensive and respectful manner, irrespective of your politics or perspective.
We need more voices to be heard and more people to understand the ‘other side’ (see Choyaa13 ‘Unionist Identity in Ireland’, Shared Ireland, 4th February, 2021), where conversations can take place outside the echo chambers, where listening becomes the priority.
The Senate is about opportunity and building trust. Opportunity for business and trade across the island and between two islands. It’s about opportunity for the agri-food industry across farming, food manufacture and food processing, with job creation, business development, and wealth generation for the benefit of everyone. In addition, it’s about benefits and cooperation across areas such as education, healthcare, tourism and hospitality and a future living and working together across the island.
It’s about mutual respect and parity of esteem for everyone, an opportunity to unite people, to build trust and understand other perspectives whilst ‘opening doors and opening minds’ to possibilities. A voice for everyone is now more important than ever!
Ian is a friend of Shared Ireland and has done two previous podcasts with us here and also more recently here highlighting the excellent work he has done in Seanad Eireann working on cross border initiatives.
Lancaster Ian Marshall is a farmer and public representative from Markethill, County Armagh, He was previously an elected member of Seanad Éireann, and is a candidate in the upcoming elections. He was previously President of the Ulster Farmers Union and is active in the agrifood sector, in particular with the Institute for Global Food Security. You can find Ian on social media here, and the IGFS here. You can find lots of his contributions to the Seanad on his website https://www.ianmarshall.info/