A sign that the interest in the conflict in Ireland amongst those living in Britain had survived the darkest years of British state censorship policy was illustrated last month at a conference in London organised by the Irish Studies Centre University of North London. Largely uncovered by the media, the theme of the conference Northern Ireland: What Next? drew a full house to the London Voluntary Resources Centre where the conference itself took place.
Over the course of two days the topics up for discussion covered the constitutional models for change in the North, a new Irish identity, the relationship between British politics and unionism, the economic consequences of political change, the issue of consent/veto versus self-determination, the role of culture in a changing Ireland, civil liberties and the future of policing, Ireland and the wider world and 'Northern Ireland' in the year 2000.
Speakers included prominent academics, politicians, journalists and observers of the conflict. Political representatives from all the Northern parties attended but as was par for the course David Trimble pulled out at the last minute because of the presence of Sinn Fein. Other unionists however, undoubtedly sensing the precarious nature of their position in the eyes of those abroad, desisted from pursuing the Georgie Peorgie approach of Trimble.
In the opening session Chris McGimpsey, filling in for Trimble, seemed all at sea. It was clear that the unionists had no idea what to make of the Framework Document and were relying on good old 'NO' to get them by. Which of course it did not. And there was a distinct feeling around the conference centre that the grass was growing under the unionist feet and getting greener by the day.
This was made all the more pronounced by the polished performance of Martin Mansergh on the same platform who captivated his audience with a stage by stage account of the development of the Irish peace initiative from the perspective of Fianna Fail.
The best session was kept to the closing plenary when the platform hosted Mitchel McLaughlin, John Hume and Paul Bradford of Fine Gael. One member of the PUP commented to a reporter from AP/RN that he envied nationalists for the vigour, panache and style their politicians could bring while 'the best we can do is dull David'( a reference to Trimble not Ervine). There was little doubt that for the audience McLaughlin was the big attraction. While some may have found his views not compatible with their own, they nevertheless took the opportunity to hear a voice for too long denied them.
Such conferences are a vital means of communicating a message to those in Britain most likely to act on the strength of what impressions are made on them. The Irish Studies Centre University of North London, and in particular Dr Mary Hickman deserve whatever commendation they receive for staging the event. As a source of imparting knowledge this particular university honoured its vocation to the full.
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