Ten years ago, I was a guest at the Lord Mayor's Ball in Belfast. Sammy Wilson was hosting it. Sammy always struck me as a weasel-faced pup whenever I watched him on UTV. I felt uneasy as I entered City Hall.
I felt uneasy looking at the torn WWI pennants and the reminders of Belfast's loyal past. I felt that this was not a building for a southern taig like me. I was in a foreign country.
Initial misgivings gave way. People from the predominantly DUP gathering fell over themselves to make my group welcome. Sammy was the most genial of hosts. He spun around the dance floor like a rock and roll dervish. I liked him.
I had always suspected that TV's DUP monster must be human – and he was. I was still in a foreign country though. The pennants and sashes were as foreign to me as tricolours and rosary beads were to him.
I thought of those Somme-soaked pennants when I read about McDowell's reflections at the MacGill Summer School last week. Michael McWho? McDowell. Remember him? The Rottweiler. The PD leader. The Tánaiste. He's been locked in the attic since his defeat in 2007 and now wants back into the political fray. "I haven't gone away, you know!"
McDowell spoke about our Orange neighbours. The Republic is not inclusive enough of their tradition. The Twelfth of July should be added to St Patrick's Day as a national holiday, he said.
I nearly dropped my bowl of shamrock.
The Twelfth? A national holiday here? That glorious day of picnics in the sun? The day when all traditions bond in a spirit of harmony to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne? I rummaged through my pile of old newspapers. I saw the faces of protestors in the Ardoyne wreathed in smiles as the PSNI removed them from the street and the joyful raising of a glass or two – to those unfortunate constables' heads. The Glorious Twelfth – it always brings out the best in people, doesn't it?
Does McDowell seriously think we need to adopt this as a national holiday? He rightly says there are republican "psychos" who want a Balkans in the north. Is making the Twelfth a holiday going to stop them?
To correlate Patrick's Day with the Twelfth is bizarre too. It's a shared Christian celebration. Protestant and Catholic can both identify with it. The Twelfth celebrates one religion's victory over another. The state has recognised, through constitutional change, that the north is a foreign jurisdiction. The Twelfth is a foreign holiday. Why not make D-Day a holiday too? Why not make France's Bastille Day a public holiday? Or America's Fourth of July? We took our lead from those Republics. What has Orangeism ever done for this island but divide it?
Has McDowell forgotten about all those who head south to avoid the Twelfth? Has he forgotten the three Quinn children murdered in a Loyalist arson attack during the Garvaghy Road protests in 1998?
McDowell says he is a Republican who believes in inclusion. So do I.
I'm happy to see President McAleese host her Twelfth parties. They show Loyalists that we are happy to co-exist with them and respect their religious and political views.
Where McDowell's argument falls down about the state officially celebrating Orangeism is that the Orange Order doesn't want to embrace our state. It's a bigoted, anti-Catholic organisation that refuses to move into the 21st century. It is intolerant to the core. It won't even accept its own Assembly's blueprint for changing the way contentious parades are managed. Why should our Republic celebrate intransigence and the effect it has on morons like the ones in Ardoyne? Or at Drumcree? Or at the Love Ulster Rally in Dublin in 2006?
I don't want Orangeism foisted on me in the name of inclusion or republicanism. I don't want to be associated with bigotry, sectarianism or hatred – whatever colour it comes in.
I don't want Republican or Orange extremism celebrated in my name. The Twelfth is synonymous with all that is bad – on both sides – about the north's history. Respect for the opinions of others is the cornerstone of real republicanism. That also means respect for the opinions of people here – and I'm going to hazard a guess that most southerners don't want to be associated with the Twelfth.
McDowell's lofty idea would be easy to dismiss as the intellectual ramblings of a failed politician if he wasn't shaping up for a political recovery. Last week, he refused to say whether he was about to form his own political party or join Fine Gael.
Even his detractors admit he is a man of principle. There may still be a political role for him to play. However, if this is the best he can come up with to win support then he needn't hold his breath.
On the same day McDowell made his Twelfth suggestion, justice minister Dermot Ahern spoke about a "difficult" decision the government has just made.
It is discontinuing funding for Justice for the Forgotten. The group representing victims of the Dublin/Monaghan bombings says it will cease to exist at the end of the month as it has no money. The 33 dead and 300 Forgotten victims are to be forgotten again.
How about a public holiday to commemorate them, Michael?