`United Ireland ... I don't give a damn'

The Catholic view
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The Independent Online
I REMEMBER red post boxes, a cricket ground glimpsed from the car, a union flag and shops glittering with sweets I had never seen before. Also a motorway which seemed an awesome construction to a child raised in the quiet roads of the south. This was Ireland, my teachers told me, but it felt like another country. The year was 1968 and at the age of seven I was making my first visit north of the border.

I was much too young to have any intellectual awakening; that would come much later. What I did experience was a sense of confusion. The green landscape of Ulster might have suggested a kinship with the South, but I could sense the differentness of the place. My first school was all Irish-speaking and profoundly nationalist in its ethos. The border, we were told, was an affront to our national dignity and the British an alien race who illegally occupied our territory.

I grew up believing that the border was an ugly and emasculating scar and that if you were born on the island of Ireland you were Irish. The idea that there was a separate and valid British, Protestant identity was something we were never taught to consider. The Ireland of the Sixties in which I grew up was still in thrall to its romantic nationalist past, still smothered by the wet blanket of ultra-Catholicism. Our stated dream was a national reunification, not mind you that anybody really wanted to fight for it. We sang the rebel songs and mouthed the slogans but most stayed at home.

Northerners were regarded as trouble. They were different from us. Their sharp pointed accent suggested complaint, upbraiding. To the nationalists we were the cousins who had abandoned them; to the Protestants we were sly, waiting to seize their country. I come from an Irish generation which has travelled all over the world - yet most of those travellers have rarely, if ever, set foot across the border.

I did not go myself until I became a journalist and went to live in Belfast. And then, confronted with the daily reality of death and funerals, the scales fell away from my eyes. As a southerner who had once been happy to pontificate from afar I felt a sense of shame. What did I or any of my compatriots know or understand of these northern lives, circumscribed by killing and terror? Nothing. Let me say it again. We knew nothing. Going home at the weekends I found that people simply didn't want to talk about the north. It wasn't apathy. It was active avoidance. And yet for me that engagement with the north has proved one of the most rewarding of my life. I was privileged to live among some of the most decent and generous people you will find anywhere in the world.

As a southern Catholic I no longer give a damn about a united Ireland. The issue of healing is to me much deeper than any question about lines on a map. We are about to make what the South African writer Nadine Gordimer once described as the essential gesture. It happens rarely in the history of a people. By voting "Yes", the people of the south will collectively affirm a new Irish identity: one that embraces the values of generosity and compassion and salutes the vitality of difference. That is an identity I am proud to share.

Fergal Keane is a BBC News special correspondent. This week he won Bafta and Royal Television Society awards for reporting ethnic conflict.