I met a woman for coffee this week. I had known her a little, meeting her in person only once, being in touch via social media and deciding that we should meet up and chin wag was a fantastic decision.
This lady comes from a different place to me. She describes herself as Unionist, and also Irish. She states this island of Ireland is where she is from and where she gets her grounding.
She has lost a close loved one through the conflict but is most certainly not defined by that. She has had an extensive professional career that is grounded in community activism. She is a feminist and is dismayed that the lack of attention to and resources for women living in working class unionist areas.
We talked about loads of different things. Our kids, our communities, mutual friends. We talked about the dismay we both feel at the emphasis that is so often placed on what divides us and a negative approach to the challenges that face the body politic.
She definitely knows county Meath better than I do, but then again I’m a Dub, we don’t really do Meath.
And she challenged me. She stated very clearly and pointedly that when those advocating a united Ireland refer to her, and those like her, as not being equally Irish, as being from Planter stock or colonial stock, that puts her off the entire argument regarding a United Ireland.
I listened to not only her words but also how it had clearly hurt her. She is Unionist but she is Irish. She is not a “Planter”. She is an equal Irish citizen. She feels republicans who use that language discriminate against her with that language.
My granda was from Leicester. He spoke in his lovely English accent until his dying day. He came to Ireland and married my republican Kerry nana. He became fluent in Irish. He cycled more miles in our country than I have driven. Because he was from England does that mean my mother or I or my kids are not Irish enough? It never crossed my mind before my coffee this week. Not once.
Does the same argument extend to those we call “New Irish” who have immigrated in recent years? No, it doesn’t. In fact, some of those who use language like Colonists and Planters embrace the idea of an Ireland of all colours and backgrounds. Why on Earth would we “other” our friends, neighbours and relatives whose ancestors came in different form and who practice another religion, telling them that this is not “their” home the same way it is “our” home. It might be couched in historical and political analysis, but it comes pretty damn close to sectarianism.
Whether intended or not that “othering” is doing damage. It is closing the positive space where we can debate with respect and honesty what a new Ireland might look like.
Mary Lou McDonald in interviews and statements yesterday spoke of this island being her home and Arlene Foster’s home. She challenged us to think of a new Ireland that will have Irish and British citizens living in it, based on new relationships. That is new thinking and I think very positive and welcome.
I saw the journalist David McCann challenge the type of attitude that would prevent new thinking online just today, and he was right. We need to challenge each other constantly and respectfully.
We all call this island home. We are already sharing it. We need to find better ways to do that. I think that will ultimately be in a United Ireland and I want the journey towards it to be enriching and something to be proud of. We have had enough hurt and pain because of occupation and partition. Hurting each other is something we have all left behind in favour of resolving our differences peacefully. That transformative decision should inform how we continue from here.