Gerard O'Regan: 'Ashdown's parting sentiments point to unity of purpose forming in North'

It is one of the saddest things. Nobody intends it to be so. But in the age of all-pervasive social media, it can be a kind of unintended goodbye from somebody who has just died.

Reading the tweets of the recently departed has a poignancy. It’s impossible not to zone in on every word. Those final thoughts are a kind of last testament. Sometimes there is a chance to grasp the fleeting presence of a life once lived as it neared its end.

Paddy Ashdown was laid to rest on Thursday. The one-time leader of the Liberal Democrats has long been regarded as a steadying voice in British politics. Aged 77 and enjoying robust good health, he died just two months after a diagnosis of bladder cancer. Given the Brexit-dominated times, his reasoned moderation will leave a void in British politics.

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He may have been on the periphery of events in recent years. But on television and radio programmes, his contributions had the calmness and insight of a man who had certainly been around a bit.

His last tweet was on November 26 – just 30 days before he died. It was on Brexit, a subject which exercised him greatly. He was scathing about “vipers” in the Conservative Party, determined to stop at almost nothing in trying to get the UK out of the EU.

And in the second-last tweet before his death, he was even more forceful about the Tories: “Bad judgement, poor timing, overgrown egos, fantasy politics, prep school tactics – they are less a political movement, more a ‘Beano’ comic strip about Lord Snooty’s little rag-tag gang – throwing ink-balls at the headmistress.”

Ashdown was an unusual mix given his somewhat unorthodox family background. It was claimed he had a lineage linked to the 19th century political icon Daniel O’Connell. His father was a “lapsed Catholic” and his mother a Protestant. Born in India, he spent much of his childhood on a pig farm that his parents bought in Co Down. He was always called by his real name, Jeremy, before he was sent to boarding school in Britain. However, on account of his Irish accent he attracted the sobriquet ‘Paddy’. It remained for the rest of his life.

His father had been in the British army and Paddy joined the royal marines. Ironically, he spent the last years of his military service in Northern Ireland; at one point he was involved in the arrest of future SDLP leader John Hume. Yet he insisted he was proud to describe himself as an Irishman. But he found the tribal nature of politics north of the Border a chilling experience. He also realised discrimination against Catholics, in housing and jobs, would inevitably lead to rupture in a fractured society.

Now the cross-mixing of British and Irish identities is being played out once again. And a few weeks before he died, Ashdown wrote this tweet: “A wonderful beauty is being born (sorry Yeats). Ireland is becoming an advanced modern EU state. The effect on Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. My grandfather signed the Ulster declaration. But if the UK brexits and I lived in Northern Ireland, I would be hard-put not to consider re-unification.”

In one sense, the tone is condescending. It’s as if Ireland until recently was not a sophisticated place. Yet, as a result of recent events – the backstop and all that – Ashdown was clearly impressed with the way we are now disporting ourselves.

The views of this ex-British army officer from the unionist gene pool are worth noting. Hardline Brexiteers may be unwittingly prodding things in the direction of some form of unity of purpose on the island of Ireland. The fact that many Northern farmers and business people – deeply committed to the UK – are so unhappy with the DUP cannot be ignored.

David Lidington, effectively Theresa May’s deputy, has now warned a no-deal Brexit could threaten the link between Britain and Northern Ireland. “I want us to remain in a situation in which people living in Northern Ireland – who identify themselves as Irish but have fairly moderate political views – continue to support the union,” he said. “I am hearing from moderate people on the nationalist side, who have been content with the union, that they are becoming more anxious, more hardline, and more questioning of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.”

Such cautionary asides chime in with those final fateful words from Ashdown. Arlene Foster should take note. The old mantra ‘Ulster Says No’ is surely of another time.

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