Leading Article: Ireland's faces, old and new

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The Independent Online
THE Republic of Ireland's World Cup victory over Italy and the simultaneous loyalist massacre of six men in an Ulster pub might seem to be worlds apart. Yet these are faces of Ireland today, one a modern aspect offering hope, the other a savage impression that continues to haunt that island.

In the United States, the world sees a team that symbolises the breadth of Irish nationhood and the self-confidence and competence of Irish culture. The image is of a team and fans both famed for good humour, a nationalism stripped of its long-standing associations with violence. This Ireland revels in its internationalism and its (lucrative) membership of the European Union. That once-attractive political introversion summed up by sinn fein, meaning 'ourselves alone', has lost its allure.

Some of the team were not even born in the Republic. They are the children of the diaspora, which demands that Irishness should be broadly defined. Even Jack Charlton, an unreconstructed Geordie, is now an honorary Irishman. His adoption, combined with the support that his team enjoys throughout Britain, shows how deep rifts between the two islands can be gradually healed.

Yet the killings in Loughinisland, Co Down, are a reminder that an identity crisis is occurring within Northern Ireland. Many Unionists feel besieged, alienated and chronically unsure of themselves. These are people who are increasingly attracted to violence out of fear that allies in Britain will betray them while opponents in Dublin overwhelm them. Extreme loyalists remember, just as the IRA does, that killing has often led to political gain for one or other community. The subtext in statements from Unionist leaders is that peaceful politics are becoming discredited.

The IRA version of nationalism, in contrast to the wider pride in Irishness, remains bogged down in its bigotry, its bloody memories and its vicious extremism - and still retains some popular support. But a less chauvinist, more inclusive, modern version of nationalism is supplanting this. The same cannot be said for Unionism, stuck in its inward-looking, defensive and frightened past. Thus the vote for Ian Paisley's resistance to any change was stubbornly high in the recent European elections.

Protestants need a new vision for themselves that will accommodate a unique history drawn from their relationship with Scotland, England and Ireland. Demographic change is reducing the numerical dominance of their community in Northern Ireland. This demands that they agree a far-sighted settlement that will secure their culture and last regardless of whether Protestants are in the majority.

Dublin must reassure Protestants that the Republic not only respects but supports their Britishness and difference. But fresh thinking is needed among Unionist intellectuals. They must liberate the minds of their frightened community. Otherwise a continuing slide into a violence springing from despair seems ever more likely.

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