The ‘mass grave’ and the ‘New Ireland’ – thinking beyond the Good Friday Agreement – By Brian Rowan

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Northern Ireland in 2021 is not the place of celebration unionists had been anticipating.

Beyond Covid, whenever and whatever that might be, the next big political conversation is waiting – the what next after the Good Friday Agreement.

It is the debate on Union versus Unity; a ‘New Ireland’ conversation that many will want to avoid, but that can no longer be dismissed as idle talk.

The political sands are shifting.

Thus far, this centenary year has not been a cake with 100 candles; more the next crossroads and nightmare in a troubled history, and in a still divided place.

The conflict years have not been healed. An unanswered past, the competing narratives of what happened and why and the deep hurts of those decades of killing fill the ‘mass grave’ of our past.

That description of a ‘mass grave’ emerged in the thinking of the senior police officer Tim Mairs – one of the first recruits into the Police Service of Northern Ireland and now serving with Police Scotland.

He has that ability to make and leave an impression and at 42 he is on a journey – at pace – to the highest rank.

Everything else in this place moves slowly. The past still part of the present – those broken stones on a different path and in a different time, still the fall points and the reference points today.


To get to the ‘New Ireland’ you have to travel through  the ‘Old Ireland’.

Numerous attempts to establish a legacy process built on historical investigations, truth-recovery or information-retrieval, story-telling and reconciliation have crumbled.

The latest and continuing row is the attempt by the London Government to try to exempt military veterans from the same scrutiny and accountability expected of others – a play for different rules when it comes to any excavation of that conflict period and the so called ‘Troubles’.

Once again, the past is at a legal spaghetti junction and Boris Johnson’s government cannot get away quickly enough. If they could they would leave the past of this place miles behind.

In my book – Political Purgatory – the former Presbyterian Moderator John Dunlop details a conversation he had several years ago with the late Martin McGuinness.

“I met him in Derry some months before his illness,” Dunlop explains.

“At that time, I said something to him to the effect, ‘Martin, I choose not to focus on the things which you did or didn’t do in the past, but I am interested in what you are doing now.’ I believe the time has come to be generous and care for victims but stop focusing on and enquiring endlessly about all that happened before the Good Friday Agreement, for many of those who know the truth will never tell what they know.”

Dunlop is right.


Not in terms of fine and absolute detail.

All sides, including military, police and intelligence, have skeletons in the closet.

The so-called ‘dirty-war’ and ‘dark side’ are parts of that hidden past – the parts the government want to bury.

Is a ‘New Ireland’ possible without some serious attempt at healing and some process of reconciliation?

This, I think, has to be part of a dialogue that begins with a blank page, and is chaired internationally; a negotiation such as that leading to the Belfast Agreement of 1998 that has everyone in the room and everything on the table.

Not just the past, but the future.


What is Britishness, unionism and identity within this conversation?

What is the political construct in the North?

What is the island-wide Health Service?

How does education work?

Is it economically viable and credible?

How do we access the best expert advice and information on all of the above?

What is the transition period?

Ten years before Good Friday 1998, the SDLP and Sinn Fein began party delegation meetings, which developed into the Hume-Adams talks.

It was Hume who spoke then of an ‘Agreed Ireland’. If there is no agreement, then it is not agreed.

Jake Mac Siacais

Jake Mac Siacais

The one-time senior IRA figure Jake Mac Siacais, who 40 years ago gave the ‘H’ Block oration for the hunger striker Bobby Sands, believes 2021 “offers us an opportunity to close the book on this final chapter of Stormont’, but he also knows the challenges: “If you bring an alienated, demoralised, broken unionist minority into all-Ireland arrangements, then you’re simply creating a stick for your own back.”

Thus the need for that ‘blank sheet conversation”.

Beyond the Good Friday Agreement, the steps are about so much more than a border poll and the vote.


The Northern Ireland of 2021 is even more fragile than usual – a political eggshell further damaged by the reality of Brexit; that earthquake that has left cracks across the Union and made louder the calls for Unity.

It is not the year that many had imagined.

Winston Irvine

Winston Irvine

The concern – perhaps the danger of the moment – is evident in these words from the Belfast loyalist Winston Irvine:

“We are being guided to and along different paths, moving towards very different destinations, the outworking of which means we are locked onto a collision course. Sooner or later, these two entirely legitimate political aspirations are certain to clash.”

You can sense the trauma in the unionist/loyalist community – the post-Brexit nervousness that has dampened the centenary celebration.

Politics in this place is never a straight road.

At Stormont, the Executive again hangs by a thread, and the mood on that political hill rolls down into and poisons everything else.

That next big conversation has arrived too soon for some – both north and south, but it is here.

Who will lead for unionism – be best placed to sell the benefits of the Union?

A few days ago, the commentator Alex Kane suggested this is the key question for all of unionism right now.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. Gearoid MacSiacais on

    Barney says ‘the sands are shifting’. They have rather shifted completely and irreversibly. In the year I was born there was one Unionist Party and in that election year they had 81.8% of the vote as opposed to a nationalist vote total of 18.2%. It was the last time Nationalists failed to secure a Westminster seat. Contrast that with the last election. Unionists had a combined vote of 42.3%. Nationalists had 38.6%. We are at tipping point and like snow on a roof in a thaw change is imperceptible until the lot gives way. I hope rathervthan expect that Unionism will produce a leadership which can chart a path based on reality. Watch for the 2022 census results.

    • Nationalists and republicans have been preaching this ‘doctrine of inevitability’ for years regarding a united Ireland… yet even after a century, those who will actively vote for the latter in a poll still can’t break the 40% barrier, meaning a lot of Catholics support the Union as much, if a lot less vocally, than their Protestant neighbors!

      Partition happened for a reason, and one of those reasons was Irish nationalism’s unwillingness to consider Irish unionism’s very real concerns about Home Rule. It would appear nothing has changed in the intervening 100 years, alas…

      • Gearoid MacSiacais on

        Are you for Real Steven. You should read the actually history of the Home Rule Crises and the history of the first twenty years of the 20th Century. Indulging on Arleneisms where ‘fact’ are produced because she says it’s so might be comforting but it’s not real. We do have an opportunity to have a real dialogue based on facts not fantasies.

        • You didn’t rebut a single thing I said, much less with any facts.

          But hey, if you think a UI is imminent, then just sit back and wait for the inevitable.

          You might be waiting a while though…

          • Gearoid MacSiacais on

            Carson did a good job of rebutting you.
            “What a fool I was…..”
            The Home Rule Act of 1912 was finally enacted and amended in 1914, the amendment introducing the notion of a temporary exclusion of Six years for the Six North Eastern Counties.
            Facts are incontrovertible and to say that partition came about because Nationalist wouldn’t listen to Unionists is patent nonsense. Randolph Churchill and his ilk used Unionism for very selfish reasons. Saying things over and over won’t make them true. The tide of history moves on regardless I only wish there was enough vision for all who share this Island to share our homeland free from the shackles of English self-interest.

          • Regardless of what Carson said or what perfidious Albion did, the fact is that northern Protestants did not want to be under a Dublin devolved parliament… and they got what they wanted; permanent exclusion from such a legislature… end of discussion.

            Again, ask yourself why exactly Unionists feared Irish home rule… I think those fears were justified in the ensuing decades thereafter.

            Here endeth the lesson.

  2. Barry Fennell on

    I do think that the ‘blank sheet conversation’ should be happening – it is time for a different type of dialogue to take place here. The challenge however with such an approach or concept here is that meaningful dialogue – the genuine capacity and willingness to suspend your respective opinions and to really look and hear the perspectives of others – to listen and suspend opinions and to see what all that means and looks like is fraught with difficulty – basically the reality of segregation, conflict and legacy. If we could really see all narratives and perspectives, we may then be able to move more creatively in a different direction. There is no doubt that dialogue can provide the opportunities for alternatives – it can help communities to be heard and for needs and priorities to be taken into account – but are there those here who are capable of this? I’m not so sure.

  3. Gearoid MacSiacais on

    There actually began the lesson. They used the threat and actuality of violence to get their ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People.’ A festering sectarian backwater which ensured continuing conflict, systemic discrimination, denial and denigration of Irishness, sectarianism and communal hatred. It was capable only of survival on a British military life-support system. Surely with good will and a bit of imagination and generosity we could work out better arrangements freed from what you call ‘Perfidious Albion.”

    • “Surely with good will and a bit of imagination and generosity we could work out better arrangements freed from what you call ‘Perfidious Albion.”

      I happen to be of the opinion that Ireland as a whole granted independence with Dominion status in 1922 (nominally under the Crown but with a republican Constitution) would probably have been the better option for us all these last hundred years, but it was never a realistic option as Unionism genuinely feared for their identity and northern industries in a mainly agrarian Catholic majority state, whether devolved or independent.

      And just for the record, I find carving out the territory of a state based purely on an ethno-religious headcount to be a moral obscenity, and it never ends well for anyone as history as shown.

      I disagree with your assessment of 1921-72 NI as being a “festering sectarian backwater”. The nationalist myth of widespread discrimination has been proven to be just that – a myth – by independent reports, one of which clearly stated that many of the accusations of discrimination “were greatly exaggerated”. Actual provable instances of overt state discrimination were relatively few and almost all at local government level. If anything, Catholics had a much better standard of living than their compatriots across the border. Many of them chose not to engage in the new state, at the behest of their church, it has to be said.

      That being said, I dislike greatly the undue influence of the Orange Order on unionist politicians… then and now, Protestants had no right to complain about the influence of the Ancient Order of Hibernians when they themselves took marching orders from their own fraternal organization, and even do so to this day, as we saw with the Grand Lodge effectively killing both the Parades Commission reform plans in 2010 and the Stormont agreement of February 2018, alas… the Grand Lodge was never appointed as the Upper Chamber of the NI legislature so some unionist politicians need to stop pretending that they are, ’nuff said.

      I’ll not get into the reasons behind The Troubles as not only would you undoubtedly disagree most strongly with my analysis but also for the sake of brevity, so I will say this; I at one time would have been sympathetic to the idea of a united Ireland, but the more I see the secular theocracy that Eire is becoming these days, I think I’ll stick with wee Norn Iron for all it’s faults. I despise the continued betrayal and backstabbing of NI by Westminster politicians, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to commit our future to the wild card of a unified Irish Republic… yet… nationalists need to realize that before even thinking about a potential border poll and what it could mean if they win it.

      bíodh ceann maith agat.

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