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24 August 2015

Only by admitting to tribalism will we one day conquer it

David Trimble

In the Republic, rather than the polite literary festivals that abound in England there are political fight clubs, otherwise known as summer schools, usually named after a local historical or literary figure whose life offers a springboard for arguments about history and politics.

Many politicians participate, and since in Ireland all politics is local, such confrontations are like a family brawl.

There used to be little public questioning of nationalism and Catholicism, but all that has changed since the disgracing of the Roman Catholic Church, the death of the Celtic Tiger and the Queen's visit.

Schools have proliferated and have served as a safety valve by allowing people urgently to ask of intellectuals, writers, journalists and - especially - politicians questions like: What went wrong? Why did we follow the herd? Was independence worth fighting for? Aren't we now the vassals of the EU? How come none of those who ruined us are in jail? How have we let our failed politicians and senior civil servants slink off with pensions Angela Merkel would envy? And, saddest of all, must we accept that we will always be a country whose chief export is her children?

One of those I enjoyed most was in the lovely little town of Carlingford, in County Louth, about seven miles from the border. It was in honour of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, who lived there until he was eight years old and afterwards had a busy transatlantic life as a Fenian agitator, morphing into a liberal-conservative Canadian statesman who was assassinated at 42.

The year I was there the theme was Fenianism and Orangeism, which allowed for a vigorous discussion about tribalism in which the DUP's Jim Wells was a lively contributor.

Tribalism was the theme of my recent talk in Clogher to the 24th William Carleton Summer School, an event that focuses on the life, times and work of this pre-famine novelist.

Brought up a Roman Catholic, Carleton abandoned his studies for the priesthood and became a Protestant, which gave him a rare experience and understanding of the two Irish tribes.

Having never read him before, I found him a revelation, for he cast a cold eye on the excesses of both the traditions he was part of and did not pull his punches.

The Carleton School is no fight club, being attended mostly by the kind of people who seek to understand others rather than shout at them, so the fascinating discussions I participated in there were without acrimony or insult.

I moved many years ago from John Hume's belief that we are "a divided people" to accepting that on our island are two tribes who think and talk so differently as to cause all sorts of misunderstandings.

David Trimble addressed this in his brilliant speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

Explaining why he was culturally conditioned to be sceptical of speeches "idealistic in intention, but impossible of implementation", he pointed out that his tradition "puts a great price on the precise use of words, and uses them with circumspection".

Irish nationalists - who love visionary rhetoric - thought he was being offensive. He wasn't. He was saying we are very different and the only way ahead was to aim for "possible" solutions rather than "abstract perfection".

He also spoke of the importance in peace-making of "what Wordsworth called, "those little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love" ordinary people perform every day.

Trevor Ringland's One Small Step campaign was on the same lines. You didn't have to do anything dramatic: just open your mind and listen to a Protestant pipe band or have a look at a Gaelic game on TV.

I heard the Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim on the radio the other night talking of his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of young Arab and Israeli musicians. The point was not to cover up differences and make them sound the same, he said.

It was to listen to the differences and appreciate them.

That is what organisations like the William Carleton Society do. We would benefit from more of them in Northern Ireland.

We need to face, admit and talk honestly with politicians and other public figures about how our tribalism affects our thinking.

Platitudes do not make for a lasting peace.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards