Public Affairs

Negotiating the relationships of the future

The Future Relationship Conversations project, conducted by the Derry-based Holywell Trust, has courted controversy due to allegations of Irish Government funding for research into the media of Northern Ireland. eolas examines the goals of the projects, the claims, and the counterclaims about its research.

It is the fourth of the Future Relationship Conversations project’s four goals that caused such furore in the Northern media and among unionist politicians.

The project has stated its goal to “review and assess the impact of the use of language by Northern Ireland based media and the positive/negative contribution that this makes to addressing division and deepening understanding of the constitutional issue”; coupled with its status as a project that has received funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of its attempts to fund broad engagement with Protestant and loyalist communities through its Reconciliation Fund, some have used this opportunity to allege that the Government is funding projects aimed at undermining the Northern media.

The Reconciliation Fund has been in operation in one form or another since 1982 and currently has an annual budget of €3.7 million. It awards grants to organisations “working to build better relations within and between traditions in Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between Ireland and Britain”.

DUP leader Jeffery Donaldson MP stated that the Government’s funding of the project was “politically toxic” and that it appeared to him to be “an attempt to influence language and drive forward reporting which is sympathetic to nationalism”. It would later emerge that the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, of which Donaldson is chairman and an unremunerated director, received €66,700 from the Reconciliation Fund between 2015 and 2020.

Paul Gosling, the writer and broadcaster who also serves as policy officer for the SDLP’s Sinéad McLaughlin MLA, serves as one of the leaders of the project. He told the BBC that there had been a “significant misunderstanding” regarding the Irish Government’s involvement, which he stressed was limited to funding and not to the selection of topics.

“We have never said anything about it being about [media] bias. It is actually an idea that came from Protestant, unionist engagement. It has to be stressed the idea came from engagement with unionists.”

Paul Gosling

“We have never said anything about it being about [media] bias,” Gosling further explained. “It is actually an idea that came from Protestant, unionist engagement. It has to be stressed the idea came from engagement with unionists.” He further stated that the project is about “how we have a sensible, rational, fact-based conversation about the future of the island”.

The project put its four ideas out to tender in order to appoint four organisations to carry out the research. The submission window for this process closed on 10 September. The first of its topics, proposing research into the Protestant community of the Laggan Valley in east Donegal stands to be an interesting topic, interacting as it does with the constant discussion of identity and how citizenship of a certain state can mould a community’s understanding of its identity.

Edward Carson, born and raised in a 32-county Ireland under British rule, famously spoke the Irish language, played Gaelic games, and saw no contradiction in thinking of himself as Irish and unionist. However, 100 years after partition, such behaviours are seen by the majority of unionism as incompatible with their political ideology, and the inverse is also believed, that unionist culture such as Orange marches are incompatible with Irish identity.

Topics being researched by the Future Relationship Conversations project

  • Attitudes of the Protestant community in the Laggan area of east Donegal (and their family members in Northern Ireland) on their acceptance within the Republic since partition and related issues, including the constitutional question.
  • Review, summary, and assessment of the main findings of existing literature on the constitutional issue compiled to date through a range of sources (to be agreed with Future Relationship Conversations Advisory Group) and to identify gaps for potential future research and study.
  • Comparative assessment of current key health service information on both sides of the border: cost of access, overall budgets and waiting list information. Research to include proposed changes to systems in both jurisdictions, Sláintecare and Bengoa reforms, their cost and progress on delivery.
  • To review and assess the impact of the use of language by Northern Ireland based media and the positive/negative contribution that this makes to addressing division and deepening understanding of the constitutional issue.

Standing as a case study in how a culture can be preserved while its people are made to feel a part of their State are the Protestants of the Laggan Valley, who descend from the Plantation of Ulster like their brethren over the border. Orange marches for the “Donegal Twelfth” are held each year, free of controversy, typically in places such as Rossnowlagh. In a 2001 survey by Derry and Raphoe Action, 86 per cent of a representative sample of 14,000 Donegal Protestants identified with Irishness and the Irish State, with just 9 per cent identifying with Northern Ireland and 96 per cent of those surveyed stated that they mixed socially with Catholics. In a contemporaneous comparison, 2 per cent of Northern Protestants stated that they felt a sense of Irish identity in a 1996 survey. “We can be Irish and we can be Orange,” Newtowncunningham lodge secretary Keith Roulston told The Irish Times in 2019.

The project’s third area of interest, healthcare, is also one that has been a constant in discussions about the future of Ireland. Waiting list information will cast neither jurisdiction in a positive light, neither will the progress towards the Sláintecare and Bengoa reforms. How the proposals for changes to the health systems on either side of the border are formulated will be of significant interest to those invested in conversations about the future of Ireland, who, with long-standing issues in both delivery and reform on both sides of the border, could formulate a universally popular foundation on which to base these conversations.

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