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Neighbours, not invaders


ON A MISSION An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Queen’s University Belfast last week, from left: Professor Richard English, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Internationalisation and Engagement at Queen’s; Taoiseach Leo Varadkar; Professor James McElnay, Acting President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s; Mrs Wendy Galbraith, Acting Registrar and Chief Operating Officer and Stephen McCrystall, President of Queen’s University’s Students’ Union.

Commentators’ criticism of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s visit to Belfast last week was nothing more than politicising and posturing about an issue that should no longer be part of this country’s narrative. His remarks at the Orange Order’s centre in east Belfast that he had come ‘as a neighbour and not an invader’ may have been a clever sound bite written by one of his spin doctors but they resonate deeply.
The fact that he was the first sitting Taoiseach since the foundation of Saorstát na hÉireann to visit the Museum of Orange Heritage was highly significant and didn’t deserve to be overshadowed by polemics about his officiation at Féile an Phobail in west Belfast.
The symbolism of our leader reaching out to the grassroots of two communities – deeply divided culturally, socially and politically for decades – must be welcomed. The fact that the border issue is so embroiled in negotiations about Brexit adds to the significance of this cross-community visit.

Responsible citizens
WHAT was the benefit of highlighting the fact that the theme of this year’s community festival was marking the Maze prison escape of 1983? Just like the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the ensuing Civil War, Northern Ireland’s Troubles – with all its horrific sectarian atrocities by both sides in the political divide – are part of our history now. Despite the collapse of the Northern Executive, and the intransigence by the leadership in the Democratic  Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, we must honour the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, as responsible citizens.  Even when political leaders fail to show proper leadership, we must remain filled with hope that the democratic process will ultimately prevail and power-sharing will be resumed in the interests of the 1.811 million people living in the six counties.
By all accounts, Féile an Phobail has broadened its parameters and, while still a celebration of the culture of the republican  community, its pluralist appeal has been strengthened year-on-year.
Symbolism and pageantry
OVER the weekend, Taoiseach Varadkar was criticised for indulging in ‘pageants designed to wish away genuine political complications’. While this comment by Eilis O’Hanlon in a measured opinion piece in The Sunday Independent has a certain cogency, other commentators over the weekend were not quite so fair. We must acknowledge that pageantry is a real part of the political process. In this case, it may well open doors  for the real dialogue necessary in the coming months and years over the border issue, the tricky sovereignty issues that bedevil the two communities and, moreover, the fall-out economically (in particular) from Brexit.
Of course, in the realpolitik world where jostling for party-political supremacy is the modus operandi there is a dance being ‘deftly choreographed’. Sinn Féin has new leaders in the north and the south. Neither Michelle O’Neill nor Mary Lou McDonald are tainted by terrorism. Should that not be embraced by our media influencers? Has, then, Mary Lou McDonald not the right to make overtures to other political parties about possible future coalitions? Is it not way past time for histrionic headlines that beat to the bodhrán and the Lambeg drum to be replaced by constructive and bold  words that extol progress and reconciliation?    
Here in the south, Sinn Féin politicians repeatedly prove themselves as able and articulate performers in both houses of the Oireachtas and on radio and television. In this constituency, Senator Rose Conway-Walsh was one of the stars in the chamber of Áras an Chontae in Castlebar  – the first woman to be elected from the Belmullet area since the foundation of the state – where she represented her constituents from 2009 to her appointment to the Seanad in 2016. Indeed, Co Mayo is very fortunate with the calibre and real impact of all its national political representatives.
Again and again, our politicians are being forced to learn that its citizenry is ahead of the curve regarding tolerance and openness. Recent referenda have categorically shown this. It is well past time for some of our loud-mouth media commentators to act responsibly to ensure, in the words of our national poet, WB Yeats that ‘peace comes dropping slow’.