And what part of County Antrim are you from?” Okay, I know a golden rule of journalism writing is don’t begin with a quote, but I’m breaking that rule as these were the first words which former IRA commander turned Stormont deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness, said to me during my time as a freelance reporter with BBC Radio Foyle in Derry in 1983.
I recall his warm handshake, soft-spoken voice – and his icy cold eyes. Some two decades later, I had another meeting with McGuinness at Stormont when he was Sinn Fein’s education minister in the power-sharing Executive.
My dad was an Ulster Unionist MLA and Stormont Commissioner. I was his press officer. We were in the basement restaurant in Parliament Buildings. McGuinness was looking for a space to sit and was on his own; he paused beside me; I offered him a seat. We didn’t chat about politics; just our respective love of fishing. He was polite, courteous and friendly – but the same icy cold eyes remained.
As I reflect on my personal relationship with McGuinness along with the current political impasse at Stormont, it becomes clear that what is needed is not a change of strategy or tactics by the DUP or Sinn Fein – but a rethinking of their respective ideologies of Unionism and Republicanism.
Some pundits portray McGuinness as the man who moved his ideology from the bomb to the ballot box; replacing armed conflict with democratic debate. Others suggest he never left the IRA, merely placed more emphasis on the Sinn Fein peace strategy than IRA violence.
Whatever the McGuinness legacy to the peace process or Republicanism, one fact is inescapable: republicans and unionists will have to rethink the direction of their ideologies as they prepare for a post Brexit island. The status quo cannot continue, otherwise Ireland as an economic entity will descend into nothing more than a third-rate banana republic.
For Sinn Fein, it needs to create a new brand of Republicanism which will never again embrace the tactic of a terror campaign. That bomb and bullet campaign may have made it the majority voice in Northern nationalism, but with the centenary of the bloody Irish Civil War only a few years away, terrorism commemorations are a non-starter if Sinn Fein is to be a major player in a future Dail coalition administration in Dublin.
The future Sinn Fein ideology can only take Republicanism in one viable direction – back to its founding roots of 1905 when Ireland was part of the British Empire and dominion status was the political solution preferred by the party’s founding father, Arthur Griffith. The revolutionaries of 1916 may have championed the cause of a 32-county democratic socialist republic, but a united Ireland as envisaged by Rising leader James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party is pure political fantasy as Brexit looms.
Sinn Fein must accept the bitter reality that dominion status for Ireland is the best it can hope for. All other options will only spark a second – and even more bloody – Irish Civil War with Northern loyalists.
Sinn Fein must also come to terms with the wishes of about a million Unionists in Northern Ireland, as well as the fact that the Southern Protestant population is starting to increase again after decades of decline following partition in the 1920s. Republicans must also recognise that their battle with the Catholic Church in Ireland for the hearts and minds of nationalists is over, given the Church’s dire record of child sex abuse. The iron grip which the Catholic Church once had as one of Europe’s greatest bastions of Catholicism outside the Vatican has crumbled as a litany of child sex abuse scandals rock the institution.
But what of Unionism? It has a moral duty to rethink it’s ‘Not an Inch’ and ‘No Surrender’ mentality. Unionism has got to redefine its ideology of loyalty outside the six counties of Northern Ireland. That does not mean it becomes a carbon copy of the liberal, secularist thinking of the centre ground Alliance Party, it means Unionism must start thinking on an all-island basis and also develop a Southern Ireland identity. Primarily, it must devise an ideology which allows it to re-engage with its traditional roots – the Protestant Loyal Orders, the Christian denominations, the marching musical bands fraternity, the loyalist working class, the so-called ‘Garden Centre Unionists’ who support the Union, but are too politically apathetic to bother to vote.
If Unionism is to remain as a viable political ideology in Ireland, it must ditch the secularist liberal thinking which has polluted the pro-Union parties for the past decade. It must adopt a clear Christian socialist agenda which its founding fathers achieved when the Ulster Unionist Council was launched in 1905.
If ‘normal’, ‘stable’ politics are to return, Unionism and Republicanism need to forget about the tactics of ‘playing hard ball’ and go back to their respective 1905 roots.