The Irish Association and the Ulster Covenant

Where sectarianism festers goodwill is always needed

A body formed 75 years ago to promote better north-south relations is as relevant today as it ever was, says Brian Kennaway

This year, we saw the 14th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement being celebrated. Northern Ireland’s agreed governance is firmly in place and, if policymaking is still proving a challenge to inexperienced ministers, at least we have generally a much-improved public mood.

You would think that, in these more benign circumstances, the need for an organisation that was formed nearly 75 years ago to improve goodwill between nationalists and unionists, between Protestants and Catholics, north and south, would have disappeared by now. Not so.

The Irish Association is alive and well and its purposes have never been more relevant than now: ‘to make reason and goodwill take the place of passion and prejudice in Ireland, north and south.’

In recent years, particularly since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in April 1998, the interest in the work of the association in the south of Ireland has waned.

This is the result of the mistaken idea that all is well and that all inter-communal hostility has ended. Too many people – particularly in the south – regarded Northern Ireland as both settled and solved within months of the Belfast Agreement. The south of Ireland is now so preoccupied with its own economic problems that it is difficult to generate any interest in social affairs north of the border.

There has never been a time that the gap between the two main cultures of this island seemed wider and the need for bridges to be built been greater.

I am not a pessimist, but a realist. What I really see is the deep-seated sectarianism which often comes to the surface in public pronouncements – particularly in the summer months.

Sectarianism – both invisible and visible – still exists today.

It was the rise in sectarianism, as well as the sense of the drifting apart of the peoples of Ireland, which motivated the founders of the Irish Association in the 1930s. That is still our motivation today.

However, understanding our past – and the circumstances which led to the events of the past – is still the key to the creation of a positive future.

As we mark the various anniversaries, in what has become known as the ‘decade of centenaries’, the first is the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant.

In order to mark this event, the Irish Association, in conjunction with the Institute of British-Irish Studies, is holding a one-day conference at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on Saturday, September 22.

This conference will explore the meaning of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant for broader political life in the island of Ireland.

The morning session will address the historical background to the Ulster Covenant and look at its political significance, concluding with a round-table discussion of the role of the covenant in the 20th century.

The afternoon session will examine the implications of political, social, demographic and attitudinal change for values expressed in the Ulster Covenant in the early 21st century.

While Lord Trimble and Michael McDowell will give us a political perspective and Graham Walker and Margaret O’Callaghan an historical perspective, we will progress from the past to a contemporary perspective, being led in our discussions by Paula Devine, Brian Feeney, John Coakley and Ed Curran.

Although the Irish Association was formed in 1938, we continue to seek to promote a generosity of spirit that embraces a new Ireland and a new future for all our peoples.

This article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 29th August 2012