The Irish Republic has just elected a northern Irish nationalist as president. But far from illustrating strong cross-border ties, it underlines the cultural gulf between north and southby John O'Farrell / December 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Mary mcaleese was elected President of Ireland on the promise of “building bridges.” Most people took that to mean bridges to northern Irish protestants; but another divide is that between northern and southern nationalists. McAleese, an ambitious Belfast nationalist, has highlighted the cultural effects of 75 years of partition. Most southerners have no understanding of and little sympathy for the grievances of northern nationalists. The anger caused by Orange marches, the loathing of unionist politicians, the frustration with British governments, the sense of betrayal by the Republic, not to mention the understanding, if not sympathy, for those who joined the IRA, are alien emotions for most southerners.
But McAleese’s role as hate-figure for middle class unionists is also instructive. Many of her type-catholics who have escaped the ghetto and grabbed a piece of the professional pie-are the catholics who unionists fear most. Sinn Feiners tucked in the grim estates of north and west Belfast are easily demonised; “Taigs”‘ escaping the ghetto and entering business, law, the civil service, the BBC and Queen’s University are a real threat to the economic Ascendancy. When McAleese was appointed head of Queen’s legal department in 1987, questions were raised in the House of Commons. That the runner-up for the job was a law lecturer called David Trimble was pure coincidence.
Tales of glass ceilings are legion among catholic professionals, many of whom escape south to pursue their ambitions. Once there, they find a wall of incomprehension about their tales, and a consensus that they should stop whingeing. If southerners feel so distant from northern nationalists, how can they possibly grasp the emotional makeup of northern unionists? The logic of the Stormont talks is that partition has failed politically, but 75 years of separation has ensured it has succeeded culturally. (Not that a united Ireland is remotely on the cards, to the relief of much of the D?il and almost the entire Dublin civil service. Anyone who doubts this should ask the Irish government exactly what their contingency plans are for adapting the economy, the electoral system and the functions of the state to the reality of a unitary state.)
McAleese was elected by less than 70 per cent of less than 50 per cent of the eligible vote. It is conceivable that the 65 per cent of those in the south who voted for anyone but McAleese, or no one at all, were expressing opposition to voting for a northerner. But there is little evidence to support such a belief. British commentators who find it perplexing that a citizen of another state could preside over the Gaels do not realise how easy it is to become Irish. One distant granny is enough for half of London to get an Irish passport. Anyone born on the island is entitled to full citizenship, even David Trimble.
Since the Robinson presidency, this office has taken on a wider significance, as a symbol of New Ireland International with its cultural capital of U2, Roddy Doyle and Irish pubs. New Ireland has guardedly abandoned the relics of its past: rural poverty, anti-intellectual boorishness, begrudgery of success and suffocating catholicism. Despite the gulf in southern-northern understanding, an elite operator like McAleese can fit in comfortably enough with most of this. But southern liberals are suspicious of her track record as a spear-carrier for the catholic hierarchy in the 1980s. The 1996 divorce referendum in the south illustrated the minuteness of the gap between those who feel religion is fine for consenting adults and those who want a central role for the church in political and social life. Had 7,000 voters changed their minds the result would have been a victory for the closed society of De Valera rather than the open, celtic tiger of Robinson. Will McAleese re-open this split? Who will she have “round for tea at the Aras”?