The Story of Us…

Every country in the world has its founding myths or stories. America had the Pilgrim Fathers and the War of Independence, Sweden has its tales of the Norse Gods and Rome had Romulus and Remus raised by a wolf,

What is the story of our country?

If you ask this question in N. Ireland the response you receive will probably fit into three broad categories.

Some will say that our story is long tale of linked island nations coming together over centuries of development, of Richard the Lionheart, Henry VIII and the reformation, of Queen Elizabeth repelling the Spanish Armada and later of our country standing alone against a potential Nazi invasion during the London Blitz.

Others will tell a very different story of how brave rebels sought liberty from the oppressive colonisers, how heroes willingly sacrificed their lives so that others could be free and how a world power was finally forced to let them go, but still holding a small part of the country prisoner.

For some, the focus will be more local and involves young men in their late teens and early 20s (Apprentice Boys) behaving rashly and deciding to close the gates of Derry and fight against the troops of King James. It is a tale of resistance to the European influence of the Papacy, the rejection of Home Rule by signing the Ulster Covenant, followed by the great sacrifices of young lives at the Somme and then of remaining loyal to Britain during the Blitz.

It is quite likely that many of us will believe parts of each of the 3 versions above, but does it matter which story resonates most with you?

The Importance of Common Myths

In his wonderful book ‘Sapiens’, the historian Yuval Noah Harari explains the important role of commonly agreed stories in enabling human beings to cooperate in larger groups. Go to a Christmas Carol Service in any European church over the next weeks and you probably will experience a sense of kinship, of belonging. Even if you no longer believe the story that lies behind the service, it can still have power over you.

Similarly, during any war you will see young men act together to risk their lives or die for the security of people they have never met, because they believe in the patriotic story of a common country. Dr Harari points out that we accept as real and important, many things that only exist in stories that people tell each other.

A time-traveller from 70 years ago might assume I was shoplifting if they watched me take groceries from a shop without approaching a shop assistant to pay, instead merely pressing my mobile phone against a machine before leaving; you and I accept this behaviour because we believe the story of electronic payments. Paper and electronic money only have value because people have faith in them, once people stop believing in a currency it becomes valueless (as Germany discovered in the 1930s). Dr Harari argues that our ability to accept common stories is vital to allowing people to cooperate in large groups; he provides compelling argument that without commonly trusted stories there could be no money (electronic or paper), no nations, no laws, no justice, no Gods and no human rights.

The Story of N. Ireland

At one time it looked as though we in N. Ireland were developing a commonly accepted ending to the story of us. Irrespective of which of the 3 stories at the start resonated for you, or where you stood on Partition or the Troubles, it became commonly accepted that the end of our story was about how our little corner of Ireland, having endured 30 years of violence, bravely made difficult choices to permanently end our violence. The emotional resonance of that story was perhaps best illustrated in the last episode of Derry Girls with its Dream soundtrack from the Cranberries.

Unfortunately, with the repeated collapse of Stormont, that dream seems to be fading and with it fades the stability of N. Ireland. Within unionism we have had talk about unionist unity, but very much in the mould of ‘circle the wagons’ and keep the enemy out. The inclusive Beattie/Nesbitt message of reaching out to nationalists is still alive, but is not flourishing. The dominant alternative unionist message lacks clarity, but seems to involve rejecting the GFA consensus that the stable solution was a N. Ireland that was culturally and economically close to the Irish Republic, but still legally British.

The Last Chapter

Surprisingly, those wanting a swift Irish Unity do not currently seem to be able to capitalise on the damage to GFA consensus by creating a compelling final chapter to the story of N. Ireland, where we all embrace Irish Unity. Their insistence that their competing end to our story requires an acceptance that politically motivated violence was a necessary and heroic part of the path to Irish Unity places too many obstacles in the way. However, this could change and Sinn Fein could make a tactical shift in language that removes this obstacle and makes a stable Irish Unity more likely than a stable British N. Ireland.

Unionists who are feeling complacent and determined to hold out until after the next general election could find that someone else takes up the pen and writes the final chapter of our story.

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