Claire Byrne United Ireland Debate: What Was The Point?

Daire McHugh

Earlier this month, it was announced that RTE would broadcast a special edition of political talk show “Claire Byrne Live” with the topic of discussion billed as a United Ireland debate.

The Stage Was Set: RTE host Claire Byrne, with Sinn Féin leader Mary-Lou McDonald and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. RTÉ

The idea behind the television discussion was met with much fanfare and publicity, especially to people like me who live in and are from Northern Ireland. During the course of the debate, current Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, and former Taoisigh, Leo Varadkar and John Burton each made earnest contributions. Dubliner and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald articulated a predictable yet consistent refrain. A rather timorous Andrew Trimble lined out the role of “slightly Unionist, but certainly would be up for a good stag-do in Dublin” (this apparently is now the current demographic which will determine if and when the Green Field is returned).

Alliance leader, Naomi Long, also joined the fray, presumably hoping to pass the membership application form to Andrew Trimble as swiftly as second phase ball from Ronan O’Gara. It was Gregory Campbell MP that the DUP chose to be their voice at the debate. Gregory resisted the opportunity to educate us on the greatest a Capella gospel groups of the last five decades. Instead, viewers were met with a time-honoured and sneering restatement of 20th century unionism: not an inch and no surrender. For about ninety seconds, barrister and all Ireland winner Joe Brolly, Dungiven born and bred, attempted to express a view, but his appearance was prematurely cut short (more of this below.)

“Of all the groups likely to have their say on a United Ireland, during a programme on prime-time TV in Ireland, surely the voice of a noisy Nationalist Nordie ought to have been heard?”

After reading the list of panellists, one would be forgiven if they asked, aren’t we missing something here? Is there not a reasonably important player missing from the dramatis personae? Where, pray tell, was the voice of a Northern Nationalist? Maybe it is just me, but of all the groups likely to have their say on a United Ireland, during a programme on prime-time TV in Ireland, surely the voice of a noisy Nationalist Nordie ought to have been heard?

Which takes us back to Mr. Brolly and his treatment during the programme. Joe has history with RTE. As a Sunday Game pundit for many years, his vibrant, argumentative mannerisms have tested the patience of his superiors on more than one occasion. Whilst typically providing incisive analysis, Brolly occasionally allowed his views to degenerate to ad hominem attacks. Readers not all that familiar with RTE or The Sunday Game might want to YouTube a particular nadir when he excessively grilled Tyrone legend Sean Cavangh. RTE failed to renew his contract several summers ago and since then, one understands, there has been something of a frisson.

The Clash: Claire Byrne silenced Joe Brolly after he made a number of accusations against the DUP.

So, what does this tell us about what it meant to the debate? Presumably, Claire Byrne, from the outset, was under Starter’s Orders: make sure Brolly is kept on a tight rein as it is unknown what the man could come out with. And, before he had even got warmed up, with barely two touches of the ball, Byrne moved in with a straight red. Apparently, Mr Brolly had said uttered unpardonable phrases which may or may not have been associated with DUP politics. But with Gregory Campbell not present when Joe was speaking (I believe he was catching up on his favourite episode of “Songs of Praise”), the host cut off Dungiven’s finest before he even got going. He had started by asserting something which is self-evidently correct: English Tories have no “kinship” with Northern Unionists.

If you doubt this, some rudimentary research into comments made by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, are highly instructive. On a different theme, Brolly sought to impugn some of the DUP’s more controversial policies, to demonstrate their unreasonableness and, by extension, how difficult it is to imagine them embracing something as radical as a United Ireland. I am certain he had much more to say on the matter. I am also sure some of that would have been interesting and relevant. But we never got it.

Still, they are bound to have someone from the SDLP, for instance, on after the break. Aren’t they?  Matthew O’Toole MLA has written to RTE querying the basis of his party’s evident exclusion from the show. John Hume has frequently been lauded in RTE broadcasts. Notably, he won an RTE poll in 2010, hailed as “Ireland’s Greatest.” But, in 2021, has it become uncomfortable for RTE to put up individuals from the North who express orthodox, constitutional pro- United Ireland views, lest they embarrass those within the D4 establishment bubble who shudder with dread at the very thought of such an eventuality? Claire Byrne Live may have occupied ninety minutes of airtime ‘debating’ the prospect of a United Ireland. However, without any Northern Nationalist input, one might cynically pose the question “What was the point Claire?”

From my point of view, a United Ireland is an idea that should be about differences and not division. It is a remarkable opportunity wherein all the citizens on this so small yet so varied island can come together as one and embrace the social and cultural differences we have faced for too long. We are in an ever-progressing era of change in 2021 and diversity and inclusivity are now key features of what is deemed a properly functioning state. Democracy must be at the heart of it.

To me, a United Ireland would offer all of these in abundance, but that is a question for another article (or TV debate). To finish with a quote from the timeless wisdom of John Hume, “when people are divided, the only solution is agreement.”

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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