Back then, in a life that now seems like another life to us, we had these almost mythical cousins who lived in the city of Armagh, whom we very rarely saw. My father’s first cousin ‘Tom Fitz’ had flown to Limerick and later to Armagh.
We also played for Ulster in the Railway Cup. In those Camán days of the Limerick Famine, we took what we could get.
My father, a fervent nationalist and Fianna Fáil voter, occasionally reflected on an aspect of his cousin’s life when he was transferred to a teaching post in the North.
“They never pay as much as a pencil parer or a notebook. School books, copies, notebooks, pencils, everything is free. So we’re paying a couple of Bobs to fly that tricolor and have green mailboxes,” he said from time to time.
Mind you, he also reflected on the need to restrict free schoolbooks against occasional bigotry and sectarian tensions. And all of that was before the explosion of what we would later call the troubles, also known to any decent person as murder and mayhem.
Today we understand that in the 2023 budget, the “free state” will emulate these “occupied territories” and provide free textbooks to elementary school students.
A gradual step towards a united Ireland could come at a time when some of our more fervent nationalists and self-proclaimed Republicans are clamoring for a border poll. Indeed, possibly not, even as a footnote to a very long list.
Yes, a century after Partition became a cruel reality on this island, free elementary school textbooks are a small step toward evening cheer north and south of the border. This is also very welcome in an area of education where the poorest of the poor often have their only chance at education.
Going forward, if there are any bobs in the coffers at all, it will be hard to deny its expansion into secondary schools. But that is an argument for another time and place.
For now, getting back to the discussion of the prospects following last Wednesday’s announcement that Nationalist/Catholics in the North outnumbered Unionists/Protestants by a mere fraction. Yes, lest anyone misunderstand, this is a big deal and indicates a change in the wind.
But this change may not be what many, particularly on the ardently nationalist side – including this author – ultimately would like.
I spent part of last weekend slowly reading through the memoirs of my old Brussels pal Tommie Gorman. After we parted ways in Euroland he spent two decades in Belfast covering Northern affairs.
He’s one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met, and in everyday life he’s reaping the rewards of his optimistic approach to things. Like me, he is a nationalist and a supporter of the United Ireland, so his caution about the prospects of an imminent end to partition is worth noting.
One of the big messages I took away from what he had to say was this. Yes, there are big differences in health care in the North and South.
Then there are London’s 15 billion annual subsidies. There are questions about what status Parliament and Stormont’s administration might have and so on ad infinitum.
But ultimately, a lot of these problems are Mandarins’ business, and they’re usually good at what they do. If the political will of the population is present, these often become detailed administrative issues that have to be dealt with behind the scenes.
The more popular point I took from my old friend’s thesis is Irish unity or the future existence of Ireland
Partition, may well turn on the better standard of car available at better prices in the north.
Now hands up here. The point also alludes to an old prejudice I have, based on what another longtime friend from Derry who spent a long working life in Dublin has often told me.
This friend, too, is an ardent nationalist and never a lover of division. But he’s a teetotal realist when it comes to considering the likelihood of ending the cursed frontier on this island.
My friend from Derry would often tell me, laughing, how he would drive ‘home’ for a weekend and find a lot of gossip and rants about his rusty old bean can from a car. He would later be grilled about the prices of new and used cars in that jurisdiction, with a subsequent vow that they would never give up their beautiful vehicles for a tricolor and green mailboxes.
But that was all before I read Tommie Gorman’s account of the Motability Scheme up north, which few of us south of the border knew about. These include a free new car, scooter, electric wheelchair or wheelchair accessible vehicle for people with certain categories of disability as a benefit of the UK government. Insurance and maintenance and things like changing tires are also free.
In the four years from 2018 to 2021, this program accounted for a third of all new cars sold in the North. In some of Sinn Féin’s core countries, three out of every four new cars came through this system, and representatives of that party are busy detailing how it all works for their constituents.
The Motability Scheme has implications for the new and used car markets and the standard of cars in the North can actually be a real factor in deciding the future of the division.
It could prove to be a stronger factor in a likely frontier poll than you would immediately think. As the late Albert Reynolds used to say, sometimes it’s the “little things” that get you.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/why-little-things-like-free-schoolbooks-and-the-price-of-a-car-could-be-key-to-end-of-partition-42018784.html Why “little things” like free school books and the price of a car could be the key to ending division