It’s a funny old upside down world we live in

Posted By: November 07, 2016

Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, November 7, 2016.

We are told that after losing their last major battle to George Washington’s forces in the American War of Independence the British played a tune called The World Turned Upside Down.

The title comes to mind when considering some recent events on this island. Anyone with experience of the bad old days in The North had to be at least mildly surprised by the joint appearance of Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt at the conference of the Ulster Unionist Party [UUP].

The slogan suggested by the UUP leader: “If you vote Mike, you get Colum; if you vote Colum, you get Mike”, may or may not turn out to be a winner at the ballot box but it certainly reflects a change in the political climate.

Nesbitt’s mantra for the middle ground is a very long way from the sentiments infamously expressed by Lord Brookeborough [ future Prime Minister,1943-1963 ]  at a rally back in 1933: “I have not had a Roman Catholic about my own place… I would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible, to employ good Protestant lads and lassies …”

The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin will dismiss the love-in between the two smaller parties as a case of solidarity between losers who have no future. But in a world full of negativity we must be grateful for positive signs.

The DUP leader got it wrong in comparing Mike and Colum to TV characters Steptoe and Son – in actual fact, they are the Chuckle Brothers Mark Two, successors to “The Doc”[the late Ian Paisley] and Martin McGuinness.

Another positive political development was the fact that, in her DUP conference address, Arlene Foster refrained from attacking Sinn Féin. Heaven knows, the first minister has enough personal reasons for harboring negative feelings about the Republican Movement, or at least its armed wing, but she kept her counsel. Taking swipes at her partners in government might have won a few cheers from the party faithful but it wouldn’t do much to prolong the life of the power-sharing administration.

As well as bolstering her own position as First Minister, Arlene Foster was reflecting a new mood in The North, a more relaxed atmosphere wherein people are perhaps beginning to be seen as individuals rather than members of “the other side”. The change of atmosphere is all the more striking when you note that her speech was made at the location of one of the worst IRA atrocities of the Troubles.

But the most encouraging indication that a better climate might be taking hold,  came in the aftermath of the untimely death of Munster rugby legend Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley. The deeply moving rendition of The Fields of Athenry by the Ulster fans at Ravenhill as a salute to the dead hero has made a lasting impression.

Another world-turned-upside-down moment came with the publication of the latest  issue of the Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht. The headline beside a photo of Theresa May reads: ‘You Brexit, we remain’.

This is the party that has opposed every referendum on pro-EU constitutional amendments in The South, going back to the original vote to join what was then known as the European Economic Community. Some would argue that the Shinners are wrong to alter their policy in this way. Maybe so, but at least their action and all the other incidents or episodes referred to in this article reflect a willingness to change and see things anew. Without any great expectations, I went along to the All-Island Civic Dialogue organized by the government in Dublin last week but it turned out to be quite a useful and informative occasion.

Despite the absence of Unionist leaders Mike and Arlene – maybe we should call them ‘The Other Marlene’ – one acquired a better sense of the impact and implications of Brexit for this part of the world. The southern side of the border is, of course, getting badly hit by the decline in sterling. There is also the sobering reality that The South is only one small member-state among the 27 which will remain after the British have left and that The North is only one small region of the UK. At the same time, just look at how the region of Wallonia in Belgium was able to delay the major trade deal between the EU and Canada. There’s hope for us all yet. But in both parts of this island, we need to start throwing our toys out of the pram. Or, if one may change metaphors: It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

Next day there was the court decision that Britain’s EU membership was a matter for the Westminster parliament and not a referendum. If that is upheld on appeal and Theresa May goes to the country to uphold “people power” then the world really will be turned upside down.