I had been invited there to speak at a seminar as part of the Creating Space for Learning and Sharing Programme, put together by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, and financed by the International Fund for Ireland. These days I try to speak at public events as little as possible, much the same for TV appearances. Unfortunately the Boston College affair intervened, compelling me to rise from my self-imposed torpor and go and bat at the crease. I have been told I have a good face for radio so I don’t mind doing that so much.
Since moving South the value of anonymity has made itself felt. There is much to be said for a quiet life, free from rows and controversy: a setting where children can walk the streets or go to school and not be made to feel uncomfortable because their parents don’t vote Sinn Fein.
Seeing no future for the republican project as an answer to the question of partition – and having grown disenchanted by the amount of energy and resources expended by so many in flogging a single dead horse – the need to further comment on republicanism just never seemed as pressing. Even post-Blanket blog writing was rarely carried out with the same enthusiasm or rigour: a certain lackadaisical property had embedded itself in the psyche, and in my mind my own writing had gone off the boil.
These days it is a rare occasion that I put in an appearance at much: my dubious logic for being an inveterate funeral evader is that as I won’t be going to theirs because they won’t be going to mine.
But yesterday I did turn up at Newtowncunningham Orange Hall, having been invited to speak there on the topic of independent republicanism. I arrived after a four hour bus journey the previous evening from Dublin to Letterkenny during which I finished off Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft and then immediately started a review copy of You're Mine Now by Hans Koppel. On the blurb the husband of the central character is called Lukas, whereas in the book he is Magnus. Unproofed but hardly unread. My passion for Scandinavian crime fiction remains unbounded. The thought of meeting Donegal Orangemen was not going to prevent me from going down my traditional reading route.
That evening in the Donegal home of a friend he and I drank whiskey and chewed the fat on all manner of things, even theology. I told him I hadn’t seen him in years to which he responded I had seen him in Belfast in January. Memory and its vagaries! I no longer trust it as I once did.
I had no sense of trepidation about speaking in an Orange Hall. If they listened, they did; if they hooted and tooted, they would do that too. Either way I would deal with it. Ultimately I anticipated no hostility and was not proved wrong. The hosts were graciously hospitable, brimming with rural charm and bonhomie. They served up a scrumptious breakfast before the business of the day began.
After a brief introduction to the history of Orange Lodge 1063 by two of its members, I took the podium. I gave a 20 minute talk which I had prepared in advance. It was a collection of ideas that I had given expression to over the years but had not pulled together in one piece. I sought to address what I considered to be the redundancy of the republican meta narrative and to outline one, inter alia, independent republican position. It seemed to go down well enough if the question and answer session that followed was anything to go by. I sensed that the Orange Order in Donegal felt it was tolerated rather than accepted as part of the community; that discrimination was insidious.
I was followed by Quincey Dougan, a marching bandsman from Armagh’s Markethill. He explained something of the culture of these bands of which he had been a member for 27 years. He readily acknowledged that he was a loyalist, even an extreme one, although what he had to say was delivered without any of the venom we have come to associate with extreme loyalism. Here was an articulate advocate of loyalism making arguments that republicans and nationalists at least need to hear before they decide to deconstruct and dismiss.
While listening to Quincey I got a phone call from the Irish News, which sort of surprised me as I thought they were not talking to me these days. While I might have problems with policy and procedures at the paper I would never snub its journalists and remain prepared to talk to all at the paper if they talk to me but not down at me. The journalist in question wanted to talk about Priory Hall. While not expecting to be treated fairly by the paper these days, I still spoke to her. I see no reason not to talk to any particular journalist if they are news gathering. Later I was told I should have given it a miss as they would stitch me up. That remains to be seen. I am more than capable of battling my corner. But I didn’t feel I could stand speaking in an Orange Hall and get all high and mighty when asked to speak to a journalist from a paper I have some as yet unresolved difficulties with.
After feasting on some tasty Orange cuisine for lunch I wondered how it was possible that there could be any slim Orangemen. I was tempted to ask facetiously if we were simply the papists being fattened up for the kill that afternoon by a blood curdling mob screaming ‘for God and Ulster.’ The staff for the day were the essence of hearth and home.
Tommy McKearney took to the podium immediately after lunch addressing from a different angle the theme of independent republicanism that I had tried to cover in the first session of the morning. His argument while not altogether dissimilar to my own was more upbeat, stressing the plurality of key strands within republicanism; that it was not partition fixated. His emphasis was shaped by his strong affinity with the Left. I wondered to what extent some people were eager to speak rather than listen, if they even followed the news or simply wallowed in their own prejudices. Tommy was told that his party, to which he has never actually belonged, had only 2% of the vote. Some people might not always go back as far as 1690 but they seem to prefer the past to the present.
The last speaker of the day was Gary Moore, a former UDA prisoner. A somewhat pronounced Ballymena accent and an affected shambling demeanour did not disguise a very astute intellect that outlined the work he was doing in the loyalist community, much of it in the area of Ulster Scots. It was easy to detect a disdain in him for big house unionism as he narrated his impoverished upbringing. One point that struck me was when he spoke of the killing of Robert Bradford and how that had impacted on perceptions. He fully understood how republicans viewed Bradford and his death but 2 elderly women, one of whom was his granny, if I am right, said that ‘if they will kill a pastor they will kill us all.’
The impact of that on a child growing up can only be formative. From that moment on life in an armed loyalist body was the pathway he felt destined to tread along. Republicanism will be enhanced by trying to understand the multiplicity of factors that feed into the motivation behind people embracing loyalism.
Time to leave, when it came, was hopefully only a temporary parting of the ways. I had met too many unionists in my day to think they were all monsters impervious to reason. I am as easy in their company as I am in the company of others I disagree with politically. There are many from the unionist community who happen to be much more liberal in outlook than some I have come across on the nationalist side. No side can claim a monopoly on tolerance and intellectual pluralism.
Apart from the virgin territory of an Orange Hall there was nothing new in it to me. I have been exchanging views with loyalists and unionists for two decades and have spoken to unionist audiences. The Orange were probably less familiar with it than ourselves. They had agreed to welcome two former IRA prisoners into their hall, and then found they got two atheists as well. If it was a bit much for god fearing, devil dodging Ulster Protestants they didn’t show it, bantering and joking with the rest of us. What did strike me perhaps more than anything else was the sense of humble pride they took in their own history: proud of their family and proud of their lodge. Neither brash nor boastful, they were people I could feel absolutely no enmity towards.
On departure, rather than spend four hours on the bus from Donegal I took a lift over to Monaghan Town where I could catch the Letterkenny bus on its return leg to Dublin later in the evening. On our way there I asked Tommy to show me the Omagh street where the effects of armed republicanism were all too poignantly felt in 1998. I had visited many republican graves in Tyrone with Tommy shortly after my release from prison and curiosity rather than any sense of balance prompted my request on this occasion. Yet, visiting the street where republicans had wreaked so much devastation, I felt that if ever there was a spot to anchor the never again sentiment it was surely there. Perhaps the greatest besmirchment to the memory of the dead of Omagh was that physical force republicanism did not die the very same afternoon.
The events of Newtowncunningham Orange Hall reminded me not to mistake the margins for the centre. Northern society is a wide ocean where each side looks across at the other, seeing the turbulent waters that separate them as being of either an orange or a green hue with each trying to dilute the colour not to its liking. Yesterday’s seminar sends only a small ripple into the vast turbulence, and one that might as easily be forced back to shore come the next tide carrying a surfing flag waver of whatever colour. Peace there might well be, but it is far from tranquil.
Still, I thought it worth a shot ... of a different type.