Writes Ciaran Dineen
It took just 10 days into 2020 for two incredibly significant moments to occur on the green fields of this Island, reminding us all that we are far from ‘united’.
Plans for a controversial commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were deferred by the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, following a significant backlash from much of the public and other political parties. The Government had been forced into a corner and had no alternative but to concede to a sobering U-turn, having seemingly misread public opinion on the matter, not ideal preparation heading into an election to say the least.
Throughout the debacle Fine Gael, headed by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, have remained resolute over their stance on the now postponed event. Nevertheless, despite this solidarity the executive only have themselves to blame as it was later revealed that a list of commemorations for 2020 made its way to Cabinet before the Christmas break, but that there was no mention of the RIC event. Subsequently Mr Varadkar somewhat reluctantly admitted that “perhaps things could have been handled differently”. Upon the announcement of the event, which was due to take place on the 17th of January, the Government and Minister Flanagan were immediately criticised by vast swathes of the public, with many suggesting that this highlighted a failure to understand public sentiment.
The RIC were established in 1914 and operated with around 10,000 officers until 1921. While many of those that were a part of the force would have identified themselves as being Catholic and Irish, the RIC’s link with the Black and Tans has damaged their reputation. 100 years later it seems that many Irish people have not moved on and still hold the officers and organisation with contempt. Minister Flanagan later said that he felt the commemoration was “the right thing to do”, suggesting that it is important to recognise the Irish people who served, even if they did so to protect British occupation of Ireland.
Up the road in Belfast there was much better news as it emerged that after over 1000 days of absence, Northern Ireland would finally see a Government form in Northern Ireland. Included in the negotiations was An Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, who continues to maintain his credible record in office, spoke to the Andrew Marr Show following the announcement on Sunday morning. He was keen to make the important point that this was a very important moment for relations between parties in Northern Ireland and with the wider United Kingdom.
A resolution through compromise seemed to be key and Mr Coveney suggested that this was the only way to achieve “true reconciliation in Northern Ireland”. He was also quick to dismiss the observation made by the host, Marr, who suggested that the DUP no longer had any alternative, following the results of the UK General Election. The Tánaiste was intent to get his message across on the situation before being cut-off and he went on to say, “I’ve been on your show a number of times over the last few years and most of the time we’ve been talking about tensions and differences between the UK and Ireland. Can I just say this weekend we are celebrating something that is hugely positive and that both British and Irish Governments have worked together on and we should celebrate that”.
At a time when the future relationship of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK has been so uncertain following Brexit, this triumph in Stormont should be celebrated. However, with Ulster Unionists criticising Minister Flanagan for his back-track, the champagne has gone back on the ice, perhaps indicating that we remain far from ‘United’. Speaking to the University Express was Dr Anthony Costello, from the Department of Government in UCC. Dr Costello, who has interests in Northern Ireland and conflict resolution, responded to comments made by the Taoiseach on how the reaction to the event potentially damages prospects of a ‘United Ireland’. He said, “I believe our nation needs to reflect deeper on what a United Ireland actually means. It is near impossible to envisage a United Ireland where we could claim to peacefully integrate with Unionists, when we can’t even accept a mere commemoration for those many men of the nation who served in a colonial police force nearly a century ago. If the word traitor still hangs over the graves of RIC men, then what word will hang over the heads of living ‘Unionists’ in a United Ireland?” The response reveals that there remains deep cultural divisions on the island and when this was suggested to Dr Costello he replied, “I think that if a United Ireland became a reality anytime soon, ‘true unity’ would be confined in a geographical and constitutional sense only. Here in the Republic, reactions toward the commemoration tells us that the complexity of our political history still divides our people.”
As the days have past it has become clear that this was a ‘solo’ effort by Mr Flanagan, one that he and his party could rue when it comes to the ballot box in just a couple of weeks. However, given the hatred emanating from social media in particular for the RIC, and the failure in any way to consider their independence from the oppressive Black and Tans, perhaps there are more to blame than just Minister Flanagan.