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17 May 2007 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

History making and the end of empire

Well it’s history in the making. Bertie and Ian at the Boyne last week and Bertie addressing the British Parliament this week, the first Irish political leader to do so since 1921. Wendy Austin the BBC presenter hoped there would be no heckling, a bit like the comments made by the editor of an English daily newspaper some years ago, that he hoped the British Queen was wearing gloves  when she shook hands with the distinguished Irish actor Richard Harris.
Whatever about the imperial, racist comments of the past by many of the English establishment towards the Irish, there is a sense that nine years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Anglo/Irish relations are moving to new political arrangements that will eventually embrace all the people of this small island.
For Unionism, which in the past regarded even the slightest move towards Dublin as a recipe for civil war, the sight of a smiling Bertie and Ian shaking hands on the green, grassy slopes of the Boyne has unnerved many of the party faithful who are convinced  that the Orange holy ground is now slightly tinged with green.
The cosy relationship that has developed between Bertie Ahern and Ian Paisley should not be taken as a move towards Irish unity, even by the back door, for both men are committed to preserving the status quo.
The unity of the country is not even on the radar screen during the election campaign. Of course Bertie and Fianna Fáil believe in a united Ireland but like St. Augustine, it is a case of Lord give us unity, but not yet.
The high profile appearances of Paisley and Ahern have been criticised as an election stunt by Labour and Fine Gael forcing Dermot Ahern to ask whether Ian Paisley would do anything to help Fianna Fáil.
Well yes, Dermot. Both men have a common agenda and it’s called Sinn Féin. Both fear that Sinn Féin, the only party contesting the election on an all-Ireland basis will poll sufficiently well to advance that day.
Paisley, who failed to smash Sinn Féin in the North, realises full well, the implications for the union by an increase in support for Sinn Féin in the Southern elections.
It was no co-incidence that the first unionist motion to the new Assembly proposed joining the Commonwealth Association, an organisation of some 54 countries , with no political power and even less visibility.
Such a motion needs to be seen in the context of the efforts of a group of academics, politicians and journalists in the South to reintegrate the 26 Counties into the British Commonwealth.
The Reform Movement, has listed several demands including rewriting the National Anthem, changing the colour of the tricolour to incorporate the imperial cross of St. Patrick, encouraging Irish citizens to receive titles and honours from the British monarch and downgrading the status of the Irish language.
I don’t think that Bertie will tell the British parliament and the Reform Movement that the sun really has set on the British empire. It’s Sinn Féin who will do that and we know the road map.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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