Forget the bogus gods and accept the authentic mammon

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(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)

Maybe it’s time to update Winston Churchill: because, ninety-three years after his bleakly cynical observation, it’s clear that it’s not just the ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ which continue to bear witness to the integrity and duration of our differences here.

Oh no – we continue to add to the list. Murals. Commemoration plots and headstones. Painted kerbstones. Street signs. Parades. Our own newspapers, pubs, playgrounds, shops, political parties, schools and housing. Statues. Symbols. Nods. Winks. Football tops. Tattoos. Shibboleths.Languages. Our own doctors and undertakers. And, of course, flags.



We are probably more polarised now than ever before. Indeed, our polarisation has the stamp of authority on it this time – for we agreed to it in a referendum in 1998 and continue to vote for it in elections.

We return the same people, with the same baggage and the same grudges and then feign surprise or shock when they continue to do what they have always done!

We have locked them into a system where mutual hostility is tempered by mutual veto and they’re all afraid to move because they believe it would lead to mutual assured destruction.

My goodness me – and we wonder why there’s been no progress on building a shared future?

We need to face a simple, albeit very blunt reality. Northern Ireland is not in a post-conflict situation. We are not even close to a post-conflict situation. Instead of conflict resolution we have conflict stalemate.

And yes, I do accept that for all of its faults our stumbling, bumbling process has probably ensured that hundreds of people haven’t been killed or injured.

People are alive today because of what we agreed to in April and May 1998. But we cannot continue to kid ourselves that the weary mantra – ‘sure it’s better than it used to be’ – is a sound enough bedrock from which to make the transformative changes we still require.

Let’s focus on just one thing: why are flags important to us? If we really do have a peace process then why does the Tricolour still fly across so many parts of Northern Ireland, while the Union Flag flutters in so many other parts?

The answer is simple: it’s about identity. It’s about marking out territory. We are doing what dogs and cats do: leaving our own scent—indeed, the very essence of ourselves. We are saying, to ourselves as much as to others, ‘this is our land: this is our country.’

And the liberal, supposedly pluralist middle-classes shouldn’t get too snooty when they trot out the clichés about a flag not putting food on a plate. Maybe so, but the pluralists tend to live in their own areas and socialise within their own circles just as much as those who raise the flag or wrap themselves in it.

The pluralists—many of whom have just opted out of politics and voting (and thereby facilitating the institutionalising of sectarian politics in the Assembly) – are just as much a part of this ‘us-and-them’ world as the rest of us.



And the reason we need to mark out our territory and our separate identities is because we have chosen- yes chosen – to divide our territory rather than share it.

We cannot share it because we cannot agree on ultimate ownership.

Those who believe in Irish unity will continue to promote and pursue Irish unity. Those who believe in the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will continue to promote and pursue the Union.

That battle of wills will remain an inescapable fact of political life in Northern Ireland.

Unionists can do nothing to help republicans. Republicans can do nothing to help unionists. It is not in the long term interests of republicans to make Northern Ireland look like a settled, at-peace-with-itself state, because in so doing they weaken the case and the support base for the disappearance of Northern Ireland and the creation of a new, united, independent Ireland.

Similarly, it is not in the interests of unionists to prove how well they can work with republicans, because in so doing—and in removing the old hatreds and obstacles – they risk the possibility of increasing numbers of people thinking that both sides could actually work together quite well in a united Ireland.

And because they can’t help each other (without the risk of damaging their own arguments and core voter base) they are forced to play to their own galleries: forced to prove, on an almost daily basis, that they haven’t reached some sort of touchy-feely, cosy consensus with ‘themmuns.’

That’s why the separate, separating badges and symbols matter. It’s why flags matter – even to those who have never flown one outside their own front door.

So, here’s the 64,000 dollar question: is there anything we can do to create a climate in which flags and symbols don’t matter as much as they do and have always done?


For so long as people do not agree on the political and constitutional future of Northern Ireland then for so long will it remain impossible to reach agreement on anything which could properly and credibly be described as a shared future.

Forms of words will be constructed to suggest that there is movement and improvement. But in precisely the same way that ‘integrated education’ morphed into the much more woolly ‘shared education’ (which often resembles 1950s Alabama bussing without the bus) so too the ‘Together: Building a United Community’ strategy will morph into occasional tea dances at Belfast interfaces.

None of it has anything to do with the reality of our situation: it’s simply a smoke and mirrors PR operation (like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on ice) to convince potential investors and assorted national, international and EU funders, that all is well in our wee world.

But all is not well in our wee world. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness travel the world together to fly the flag for the ‘new era’ Northern Ireland: yet it’s a flag that neither of them actually cares about.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein and DUP supporters fly their own flags in their own areas and conferences – and that’s the only flag that really matters to them. The flag that sums up their identity: an identity which deliberately excludes the other side.

Let me offer a suggestion: and no, it’s not a solution. Why don’t we just stop pretending that we want a ‘shared future’ negotiated by the DUP and Sinn Fein?

If we really did want all of the political/social/educational integration which everyone seems to chitter on about (and seem obliged to plonk somewhere in their party manifesto and Programme for Government) then we would have seen evidence of it happening of its own accord.

But we haven’t. And I suspect we won’t.

So why don’t we just get on with ‘rubbing along’ together and see what happens. Let the Assembly and Executive confine themselves to the big issues (health, employment, investment et al) which don’t come down to ‘us versus them’ votes and petitions of concern every other day.

And maybe if they can be seen to be making progress there, it will help repair the disconnect and disengagement which is undermining the process and reducing confidence in the institutions.

At the moment we have the worst of both worlds: incompetent, uninspiring and often irrelevant government and a seemingly congenital inability/reluctance to address legacy and shared future issues.

So let’s just concentrate on the everyday aspects of government. Let’s, to paraphrase Louis MacNeice, concentrate on the authentic mammon and put aside the bogus gods.

If the time is ever right and people feel comfortable enough to lower their flags and push their symbols into the shade, then I’m sure we’ll realise it.

But let’s not force the issue or imagine that we can legislate them into liking or respecting each other, let alone building a shared future together!

(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)


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About Author

Alex Kane is a columnist for both the News Letter and the Irish News and a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph. He is also a frequent guest across a range of BBC, UTV and RTE programmes--specialising in political commentary.


  1. Michael McLaughlin on

    Why not simply have a referendum with 3 choices.Status quo where NI remains part of UK , reunification of the 32 counties or Independence for NI to allow it to govern itself.Winner takes all , losers either adapt or leave. Democracy in action.

  2. Glenn Bradley on

    The GFA (Belfast Agreement) is not to blame. For the first time since partition, it enshrined the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom providing the majority of people here wish that to be the case. The union, for now, is safe however that constitutional position is ‘a flux’ that could change through peaceful democracy, and demographic change in the future.

    The Agreement also cemented respect for Irish nationality, traditions and culture. Unlike Great Britain, here, is different: it is possible to be an Irish National, embrace gaelic or celt culture, and hold no affiliation or loyalty to the British Nation or it’s multi-cultural peoples despite the present constitutional reality.

    The Agreement provided a peaceful democratic platform for all to participate in politics, and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. Importantly, it permits any one to pursue constitutional goals through peaceful democracy. There is nothing wrong with Unionists working with Republicans for the better good of the people here while at the same time, aspiring to their constitutional positions, but it takes maturity.

    To date that maturity has only been winked at. Leadership has been redundant and the Parties (all of them, not just DUP-SF) failed to deliver on core essentials:

    a) the eradication of community segregation

    b) the establishment of a bill of rights

    c) the removal of armed paramilitary groups of the streets

    d) the acquisition to a sustainable financial peace dividend from HMG, IG, EU, USA & UN that benefits our most deprived areas.

    e) the repair to our tiny economy with a priority on what they can control (for example utility costs here, child poverty here, emigration or human rights for elderly)

    f) lastly, a programme for an ongoing shared future

    In the absence of these fundamental requirements for the people here, especially the working classes of both communities and coupled with the worst recession since the Wall Street crash of the 30’s, is it any wonder a minority of people choose to cling to what they perceive has protected them in the past – their heritage, identity & culture?

    Through reconciliation work I have come to meet some Republicans, and I am convinced that a minority still seek a ‘victory’ and the pursuit of a ‘purist’ agenda. What they failed to achieve through bombing and shooting they continue with in a political mindset of ‘war’ – they deliberately use the respect element cemented in GFA as a means to attack the symbolism of the UK constitutional position (and not as a right to promote an Irish identity).

    Similarly, as a man who came from a working class active Loyalist family, and as a former member of GOLI and the RBP I know that some Unionists hold supremacist views. Some actually do believe in “We are the People” – they behave and treat others with an almost racial contempt as inferior, and have a perception of ‘what is British’ that contradicts the reality of our multi-cultural, pluralist UK.

    In December ’12 as I looked on, it was almost like these two antiquated minorities, along with the failed political delivery from Stormont, worked in covert tandem to the flag dispute however there can be no ‘lets ignore those people and move on’ stance because failure to address minority concerns will further generate resentment.

    However populism is no substitute for truth and as a great Loyalist leader recently said, “if we don’t live together, then we die together”. Blunt, straight to the point and a ground truth. There’s no point marginalizing – the risk is to great.

    So, where do we start? … we in every thought word & action analysis by:

    a) Busting myths & propaganda eradicating fear and ignorance

    b) Look at the past from the perspective of us living today

    c) Moderate from colloquial language & culture to a more international mind

    d) Cease the politic of bigger flag waving

    e) Implement all outstanding from GFA

    Moving on, recognize the harsh reality that without jobs there is no sustainable anything for the future. The priority must be on tackling –

    1) Youth unemployment

    2) Creating blue collar jobs in industries that don’t need a Masters degree

    3) Creating jobs, here, to support in the evolving Global bio-technology industry

    4) Build the economy

    This North East region of the tiny Island of Ireland within this Atlantic archipelago of Europe can mature into the 21st Century, it will move forward with maturity, confidence and be of an embracing disposition. It can recognize that diversity makes us stronger … why … because the majority want it that way and their is a wave of change against ‘same old, same old’ – parties must evolve or be lost with the tide.

  3. Everything apart from integrated education across the whole country, is only playing at it.
    Transfer tests should be made illegal, according to a recent report. Why not outlaw segregated schools instead. Eamonn McCann, a contributor to these pages, said only last week on Steve Nolans TV show, that the RC Church is the biggest obstacle to integrated education. Will OFMDFM please stand up.

  4. Chris Williamson on

    Alex Kane correctly highlights the shameful reality that “conflict stalemate” is currently more prevalent than “conflict resolution” in Northern Ireland.

    And perhaps he is being deliberately provocative when he asserts that we cannot share territory because we cannot agree its ultimate ownership. But I think his conclusion is much too fatalistic because it overlooks the important dimension of time. Alex seems to imply that nothing useful can be done in the period (which could be decades or centuries) before the “ultimate ownership” question is settled.

    In my opinion, one of the most positive elements of the Good Friday Agreement is that it provides an a framework for a series of accommodations between the various sections of our society. The nature of those accommodations can evolve over time and the Agreement incorporates a democratic mechanism for periodically testing views on “ultimate ownership”.

    in other words, the Good Friday Agreement means that the constitutional question can be “put on the back burner” for significant chunks of time, during which we should give priority to promoting reconciliation, sharing and – dare I say it – conflict resolution.

  5. expat antrim lad on

    Looking at Northern Ireland from afar nowadays, i am amazed that its people still have not found any sense off unity. A situation will arise in the near future, which will over ride the catholic/protestant, British Irish question. Islam is sweeping across europe with ever increasing speed, and no where more than the UK mainland. Immigration is set play a big, if silent part in the Scotish referendum, with scots very worried that their culture will follow England’s be forced to flee to a far off land. The feeling is England could decend into a civil war of sorts within 10 to 15 years if the current imagration goes unchecked.
    Islamics will not start until they have reached a position of strength, but they will start, because islam is a religion that beleives its their duty to fight and with increasing radical views coming the norm, its not if but when!
    So back to NI, and hopefully you see my point by now. Unite in what every form you want to or can do. An Independant NI would be the best solution I think. Unlike the Troubles or preceeding few hundred years of Irish internal warfare, Islam will sweep through Ireland like a cancer if you put up anything other that a united front, whatever colour your flags, walls and curb stones are painted.
    A very short fuse has been light, and your to close to the bomb its connected with to not get at least some of the blast.

  6. Kevin Breslin on

    Let’s look the devil in the eye here:

    The Authentic Mammons here were what happened when both sides were effectively left to their own devices, The Free State and The Orange State … Big church Republicanism didn’t work you had the Civil War, you had the marginalization of Protestants, you had Trade Wars … Big Church unionism didn’t work either, you had marginalization of Catholics,

    Is it any wonder why people are looking for bogus gods?

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