ZNetwork staffer Bridget Meehan talks with Claire Mitchell. Claire is a writer and researcher from the North of Ireland. She is author of the The Ghost Limb: Alternative Protestants and the Spirit of 1798, a book in which a group of Northern Protestants retrace the steps of the United Irishmen who led the Irish rebellion of 1798 . In this article, Claire talks about her unusual position of being a North of Ireland Protestant who is also progressive and republican; and she talks about the political situation in the North of Ireland at the moment and what she would like to see emerging from current discussions about Irish Unity , which gives Ireland a chance to create a new State. It might be useful, although not essential, to read Bridget’s earlier essay on Irish Unity.
Bridget: You describe yourself as an “alternative Protestant” and that’s a major theme in your book The Ghost Limb: Alternative Protestants and the Spirit of 1798. Could you talk a little about how that distinguishes you from the majority of Protestants in the North of Ireland?
Claire: I was just looking for a way to distinguish the kind of Protestant I was from Unionism  and loyalism  – a different Protestant tradition from that kind of “PUL” (Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist) identity package. I’m somebody who has always felt very Irish and I was reared in a house of left-wing politics. Those were the kind of things I was grasping at and that I wanted to write about.
I chose the name Alternative Protestants as I hadn’t really seen it anywhere. That’s a little nod to Stiff Little Fingers , bit of a two fingers-up to the whole classification system of Northern Ireland. Some people have taken it up and run with it. They’re not always people who have the exact same politics as me. But there’s something in there about not just being defined by the constitutional question on the Unionist side, and being open-minded and up for creative thinking about Irish unity. I wanted to go with “Dissenter”  initially but an historian said it would be a very bad idea because it’s such a specific religious concept. I think too, that even if people felt differently, they didn’t really have the words or a concept. Like, what are you? Neither? Other? The options weren’t really great. A nationalist? Like, who wants to be a nationalist in the twenty-first century? I didn’t intentionally try to create a vocabulary like “ghost limb”, “alternative Protestant”, but I get emails every week about it. There was one this morning from a person saying I’ve got a ghost limb and I’m an alternative Protestant.
So, I think I gave a softer way for people to opt into something that’s kind of low-key and not publicly visible. I have so many people who keep asking me what can they do now after reading the book and where can they join? But I have ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), I’m far too tired to help set up a movement, and it’s not really my style anyway. But there is such a self-recognition happening with people who read the book which I find so interesting. And yeah, you will get people who say [this alternative perspective] didn’t get dropped off our history and it’s sort of true actually. The Ulster Scots  writers and some Unionists and Orangemen  have kept it [the 1798 spirit] going, but their version of it. And Republicans are excited or have continued to be excited by that history.
So, I just find it quite interesting in the book to wedge myself into that in a way that would make everybody kind of feel a bit uncomfortable but that also felt really true to myself, in that I was a Protestant and I was a republican (as in a civic republican, in the sense of being completely against monarchy and for people’s democracy) and just putting those to together. And, I don’t know, but for myself it broke creative ground and yeah, I refused to let people stop me.
Bridget: I can see your difficulty in being able to define yourself because how do you define yourself in a way that’s going to actually express what you want to get across but not end up being a word that somebody else appropriates or uses to define you how they want. Language and choice of words here [in the North] can be precarious.
Claire: The 1798 spirit has been mostly scrubbed from [history]. In many Unionist areas, the public heritage, the history, the landscape, these are used to eulogise more recent figures such as British soldiers, but in some of those same places you discover that the United Irishmen were active. And while a lot of them were capitalists and merchants, which is very problematic in many ways, they were doing something really, really different. And once you start to pull on that thread, there’s a really vibrant historical tradition. Sometimes living on the same road, there could be people holding vastly different political views, and that’s a brilliant thought.
Bridget: And now that level of diversity doesn’t really exist. The political debate here has become very repetitive and stifled with the same arguments being rehearsed over and over. It doesn’t really inspire much in the way of alternative thinking.
Claire: I struggle to listen to a lot of media in Northern Ireland at the minute because it’s just reducing and framing this tiny little debate, like you say, over and over, and I think that’s what people are reading and listening to, and most people are busy and they don’t have the time to think about possible futures.
Although, I think this break in Stormont , this collapse, feels different to me. It feels like all the rest [of the breaks] have been spent wanting to make Stormont work and get it back. But it feels to me that this break is prompting a lot of people to do some quite radical reassessments, and if you listen carefully you can hear that leaking out.
Bridget: I wanted to ask you about Brexit  in the context of Irish Unity. Brexit has been a mess, how it’s unfolded, and even for people like myself who wouldn’t be particularly fond of the EU – it has problems and needs reformed – but Brexit wasn’t an answer to that. However, Brexit has brought the whole issue of Irish Unity back onto the table. I don’t think since Partition, in my view, that it’s been discussed with any seriousness. But Unity is being taken seriously now and for instance, the Ireland’s Future initiative exists as a result. What do you think about Brexit and its role, if any, in the Unity debate?
Claire: I’m pretty radical in my politics, or in my head anyway [laughs]. I was raised with different, left-wing politics. But I would also say that Brexit radicalised me, in a way. Like you, I think the EU has so many faults and I have very nuanced opinions on it. But it was clearly a terrible plan for the North to think that Brexit would be good for us. I have vivid memories of watching the BBC Parliament channel and all the key votes in the Commons and there was this adrenaline rollercoaster with Theresa May, and I was thinking this has fucking nothing to do with me, this is, [with incredulity] I have absolutely no power. So for me, it just really crystalised the democratic deficit [in the North]. It was so stark. In the Commons, they were talking about taking back control and I was here thinking, I have never had less control of my democratic future. That is definitely the moment the book sprang from. It was like a kind of urgent itch to speak to the lack of democratic power that we have as citizens.
I think that Northern Ireland is at this point probably a failed State. I don’t feel like I have any mechanism to be represented. All we can do is rearrange deck chairs and people aren’t even up for doing that. So for me and a lot of people I know, Irish Unity is nothing to do with a sense of Britishness or the upsurge of loving Mother Ireland. Like the United Irishmen, it’s about democracy. I’ve never really voted for anyone who is able to change anything. I think it is the most logical question in the world to be looking at all of the different options, and Unity is one of them.
There’s a way to ask that question [about Unity] that is not motivated by ethnic politics or nationalism, just rational, logical, future planning. I think that seed has grown in lots of different ways. Organisations like Ireland’s Future are doing good practical work on the nuts and bolts, for example social security, health, equalities and rights. But it can sometimes feel quite top-down and I’m not sure it’s yet a grassroots movement that is creatively imagining all that reunification could bring. I think Sinn Féin  are also trying but I think they will need to have broader, messier, more imaginative conversations about Unity, so that a wider range of people feel included.
I think actually Matthew O’Toole  gave a great speech the other night which was beginning to ask some of the questions that would be on my mind, just taking things on a few further steps.
Bridget: And what are those questions that you’re asking, the questions you feel need to be addressed?
Claire: Well, it’s like this idea that we’ll go from a neoliberal Union and a neoliberal peace, into a neoliberal Ireland. And there’s the assumption that this will be funded by a tax surplus and Sovereign Wealth funds and Foreign Direct Investment funds; that we’ll change a few flags and anthems; we’ll cater for an imaginary Unionist and think up the imaginary ethnic symbolisms that they might want; then put all that down in the plan and then switch Tories. And that does absolutely nothing for me. I think it would be a disastrous form of Unity because that model is based on promises of growth in a time of catastrophic climate change and I cannot process [expressing disbelief] how huge economic claims can be made without that context. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
What you’re saying in that model, to loyalists, is that this is going to uproot everything you’ve known about your life emotionally, your [national] identity, all your sensibilities, and we’re gonna tell you life will get better; but within 5 years you’ll notice that everything is has gotten worse because everything is going to get worse unless governments get out in front of that problem. So, I think the sunlit uplands of Brexit was clearly a disaster, and to promise sunlit uplands with reunification would also be a disaster.
I’ve participated in Ireland’s Future events – like, if there’s any stage where anybody hands me a microphone, I will speak into it – and I think that’s a good way to start the conversation. But we need to get further than neoliberalism and imaginary Unionists because I can’t see it working. And would I even support it, I don’t know? I’d need to see what’s being said about the climate. If a Border Poll  was going to take place in 5 to 10 years’ time, I mean, think of the climate in 5 to 10 years time?!
Bridget: I get that. I come from a Irish Republican family, several generations of them, and it’s always been so important to me that we remove the British presence from Ireland and have a united Ireland. I’ve always believed strongly in that, but now I think, if we don’t even have a planet we can live on, if we’re dying as a species, it doesn’t really matter if there’s a 32-county [united] Ireland. What matters more right now is tackling the ecological and climate disasters that are happening, and doing something about the gross wealth and income inequalities we have, problems that are connected to capitalism. So, I agree with you, the idea that we’re considering maybe having a Border Poll in 10 years’ time is pointless. In 10 years’ time we might not even have a society as we know it.
Claire: The meaningful part of it for me, the kernel in it, is we need in the North to be part of a larger administrative unit, quickly, and one that is functional. I mean, I’m big into grassroots democracy and co-ops and the commons, and that’s the kind of politics I would like to see soon. But I think that we do need to be in a State that can take state-level actions very, very quickly. Like you, I grew up really believing in reunification as a kind of arc of justice and I still believe that. But, practically, I just don’t think that with the terminal neglect we have from Westminster, and the kind of structures that we have in the Agreement , and the embeddedness of the sectarian divide, I just cannot see that situation being climate-ready, equality-ready, or anything-ready, in 5 years’ time. Nor can I see Unity being in place by then either.
Some people say having the conversation about Unity is divisive at a time like this but I actually think it opens things up because if you have the idea of a blank sheet, you can start having creative conversations about reunification. And our only hope is to get those concerns taken on board.
Matthew O’Toole said a few things about reconciliation and about redefining Irishness. That needs to happen immediately; it’s already happening anyway: Protestants being Irish, refugees being Irish, and so on. But, we should be thinking about the language of [national] identity and independence. I mean, instead of an ethnic Ireland in which Protestants would be ‘welcome’, why don’t we aim higher? Why are the Unity movements not talking about food sovereignty and energy independence? And using the language of Denmark or the Nordic models? And reframing ourselves as an island State with drawbacks and opportunities for wind energy? And taking a leaf out of Scotland’s book?
So, there’s two things we should do. We should open up [national] identity to be civically inclusive, saying you’re here, brilliant, what can you contribute and what can we do together? And then we should redefine that old language of independence. I mean, what does getting rid of Britain even mean? We’ll need to do geoengineering projects, probably, and we share seas with Britain and we’ll need each other. So, getting the Brits out, as much as it can be satisfying for some people to say that, ourselves alone is not the way to go. We are interdependent. There’s just such an opportunity to rethink an island economy and democracy and gosh, nobody’s talking about that.
Bridget: I’m interested in what you said about having this different language, and that challenges me, from my background. We have to move away from language we’ve been used to because it’s divisive. I like that idea you talked about where we could have language that’s common sense and that speaks to the problems we’ve got now rather than trying to create a State that’s based on something from the past.
Claire: And there’s the Unionist issue. I live in a Unionist area and I’ve worked before with the UVF . No, I don’t mean I’ve worked for the UVF [laughs], but I did some post-conflict work with them in the early 00s, the days of David Ervine and Billy Mitchell . And I still do quite a few events in Unionist and loyalist areas and I have lots of friends there. And whilst nationalists and Republicans and the South have this imaginary Unionist in their heads whose life revolves around loving flags and being British, if you go and talk to people, it’s helplessness and hopelessness they’re feeling – the same as me. [National] identity and symbolism matter too of course. But I think the root problem is the powerlessness. That’s where Brexit came from, you know, late capitalism, take back control, people feeling that they’ve no control over their own lives and that real sense of loss. And the only language being offered to frame that loss at the minute is the loss of Britishness, loss of [national] identity, community. But actually, people are right to identify the loss of community and the loss of social bonds.
So, I really think that a redefined Unity is needed. You could do the flag bit, British citizenship, BBC, joint whatever, 12th of July , no problem. But have it be a new Ireland accompanied by a Green New Deal or some climate-ready, future-ready transformation that has a language of self-sufficiency and equality and jobs, where you’d go to Larne [an extremely loyalist town in the North] as well as Leitrim [a county in the South] to recruit young ones to be green technology engineers. If you’re not addressing the hopelessness of late capitalism and the isolation of it, you could honestly be genuflecting to the King and have a new anthem and it wouldn’t be enough for some people. Nothing would be enough. But it might be less traumatic if people could feel a bit of hope for their future.
I do feel the conversation is progressing, though. I think after Brexit, people didn’t really know how to talk about Unity and it was dominated by anthems and flags for maybe the first 5 years. That’s all fine, but now conversation has deepened. It seems obvious to me that there are other conversations going on, though not in public. People are talking about equality and jobs and putting social class back into the debate. Those conversations that might begin to solve the problems are starting to happen. Not all the problems because there are still people on the fringes who will never be ok with Unity, but it will go a long way [to addressing the problems].
I think there’s a hard line constituency in loyalism, there’s criminality there, a bit of fascism there, and a bit of the online influencer effect there as well. I think some have just accepted this brand on face value, and think that’s what loyalism actually is. But loyalism is so much more diverse than this. There are still many progressive loyalists on the ground, doing good work. Far right politics is actually a cross-community activity on the island of Ireland, you know, the fascism and the right-wing, social media personalities. There’s a lot of common cause there and you do see the fringes of it moving in lockstep, for example the Catholic pro-lifers  coming together with people on the fringes of loyalism to protest something like Drag Queen story-time . I honestly take Unionist and loyalist concerns about [national] identity and loss very seriously. But I think we can give too much reverence to a certain element within loyalism that is just basically very right-wing and that’s a global issue.
Bridget: That’s a good point because you’ll be aware anyway of the growth of fascism in the South, which just makes my mind boggle. The racism that’s coming through, it’s disgusting. Ireland’s never been really challenged by racism because we’ve had a history of emigration rather than people from different countries wanting to come here to live. But that’s changing and more people from different countries are coming here to live, and then you see how some Irish people react. It’s actually shocking. So, I think you’re right that it’s not just loyalists who have these attitudes. Fascism can be anywhere, it’s Make America Great Again, it’s Trump, it’s what’s going on in the South [of Ireland], across Europe, in Argentina, you can see that every country has that fascist potential. I agree that there’s commonality between those people and it displays the most disgusting, base characteristics of human nature.
Claire: That’s one way that I think having an open, reframed reunification debate could actually be of use to the South. I do think the South leans toward discursive discussion, like their Citizens’ Assemblies  have shown. The South has an ability to have good national conversations. I think that having to accommodate Protestants [from the North] starts to redefine Irishness. What I’m getting to is that we need to be ready for climate refugees really soon and getting people excited and hopeful, rather than defensive, about a civic Irishness or whatever you want to call it. But that’s the ground we need people to be on quickly.
It’s very interesting, Patrick Costello [elected representative of the Green Party in the South] was talking about the 12th of July as a public holiday. Initially, I was like, why did he say that, you can’t talk about that without a nuanced debate about the 12th and all its connotations. But, actually we don’t really have time so he just threw it out there and the South had to go, oh shit, and realise maybe they’re not as open as they thought they were. And even the Listowel conversation  where it was said “could you not find anybody Irish to do it?” Hopefully those incidents will spiral off in a way that means people do take a look at what the category of Irishness is.
Bridget: What kind of institutions would you like to see in a United Ireland, your ideal institutions economically, politically, socially, environmentally? I know you’ll not be able to go into great detail, but even to touch on some of them, those institutions you think should be there, how they should look, what would be their key priorities?
Claire: Obviously, in terms of issues, the ones that we’ve identified. They all go back to climate really, the collapse of late capitalism, overconsumption, and adapting to climate chaos very quickly. So, those should be key priorities and they have social implications, such as climate refugees. They lead me to certain conclusions about economic models that point to degrowth. Not that we should all be hunting and gathering, we can’t do that, but yeah, taking a look at what some of the more interesting countries are doing and thinking of our own ideas, though I don’t see anybody championing that [change] politically.
What I would like to see and going forward, I’d love to see more grassroots economics, co-ops, commons, people getting land access back, building big wind energy projects and community energy projects. A friend down the road from me has a field and he’s set up a community farming co-op and it’s working well; you’ve got to have a field to do that and so not everybody can do that particular thing. But everybody in the community is bucking in their surpluses and we’re getting to know our neighbours a bit more and people who have time are going up to work on it. I think we need to do more projects like this. I mean, we’re actively poisoning ourselves at the minute. The Lough Neagh situation  is just so terrifying. Forty percent of our drinking water comes from Lough Neagh, yet we’re living in this kind of lawless State where no one’s taking responsibility.
A new model [for a United Ireland], some parts of that model need to look at energy independence. Surely somebody would have to take that up in a meaningful way at some point and soon, because it’s just a no-brainer. But there are entrenched economic interests. The North and South of Ireland are heavily entangled with vulture funds and global capital and extraction. I’m not sure if much changed with the energy crisis because of Ukraine last year, not in the North anyway. Do we need 5 more of those crises [to make it change]? I think it’s actually incumbent on all of us to start talking about those things and as often as we can, put those ideas into the conversation.
In terms of structures, it’s really interesting because you would always assume, and certainly the academics’ assumption and the politicians’ assumption is that Stormont would be in place still in a reunified Ireland maybe for 10 years, maybe longer. I’ve always hated that idea because I think Stormont is totally dysfunctional and institutionally sectarian and it’s quite hard then to square having Stormont with wanting grassroots democracy. I’d be happy for a free-for-all in the Dáil . I think there’s plenty of Tories [North and South], there’s plenty of coalition partners informally, and that leaves room for more progressive Left coalitions to come forward. I think British people should be guaranteed all sorts of protections in law, with rights, inclusion and equality – whatever they raise as important. But I’d be extremely wary about building in a formal, explicit idea of Unionists having permanent special representation That doesn’t allow for the fluidity of [national] identity and political change over time which is normal. What we’ve learned to do, or rather what we haven’t learned but should have learned in Northern Ireland, from the peace process, is not to institutionalise blocs because they freeze people and identities in time. There’s no room for organic change and flux. We’ve hung onto them for too long in the North, so I wouldn’t be keen to see similar blocs built into any reunified State.
The logical idea is that if you get rid of Stormont then do you give local councils more power? That could be an interesting model. But then local and district councils, North and South, are also pretty dysfunctional. I can imagine a scenario in Unity where a Unionist dominated Council could become very focused on [national] identity and symbolism, to the detriment of ordinary politics. That said, Councils could be a way of helping people feel more empowered in areas where people did not vote for Unity. I would love to see the cultural work being done upfront, in the planning and preparation, so people can get on with the urgent work of coping with climate ruptures, developing secure food and energy sources, making sure we can survive as a species.
Bridget: The bottom line is that you’re talking about having somewhere that’s actually fit for purpose for now, that’s dealing with the real challenges we’re facing now, that’s trying to neutralise the language as much as possible and quickly deal with the cultural and [national] identity issues. If the cultural and [national] identity issues get hold, they’ll dominate the conversation and then you’ll never get to talk about the other issues. That seems to be where we’re stuck right now. And I actually think that situation suits a lot of people because you don’t have to think when everybody’s arguing over flags and allegiances; you can just let that happen and nobody will ask the hard questions about the economy, about what’s going to happen with our environment, about how we’re going to deal with energy insecurity, with food insecurity, how we’re going to deal with climate migrants.
Claire: I think this is where the money comes in. There is a surplus  at the minute and if there was a Sovereign Wealth Fund, you could take a Unionist borough council and give them say a million pounds this year to get going on, but it has to be ring-fenced, for example, to train 200 engineers in renewable energy and to find a site for a community energy project so you can start selling energy back to the grid. So, the money is actually really important, you know, getting back to the ‘Ireland’s Future’ idea. This way you’d get two for one: a transformed economic model and a more peaceful North, if you fund this work that we’re going to have to do in 10 or 15 years anyway, when it’ll be worse by then.
Bridget: Well, I think we could probably end it at this point. Thank you for giving up your time to talk to me. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
Claire: I have too, thank you.
 1798 refers to a rebellion that took place in that year against British rule in Ireland. It was organised by the United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions. The United Irishmen were formed by Presbyterian radicals angry at being shut out of power by the Anglican establishment. They were joined by many from the majority Catholic population.
 Ireland was an English/British colony that won partial independence in 1921. At that time, the country was partitioned into two jurisdictions: 1) the North or Northern Ireland, made up of 6 counties, and with a majority Protestant population that remained under British rule; and 2) the South or Republic of Ireland, made up of 26 counties, and with a majority Catholic population that gained freedom from Britain. Following the Brexit referendum in 2016, Irish reunification has for the first time since Partition, become a meaningful subject of debate. People all over Ireland are beginning to take it seriously with organisations like Ireland’s Future being established.
 Unionism in Ireland is a political tradition that favours union with Britain and professes loyalty to the crown and to the constitution of the United Kingdom.
 Ulster loyalism is a strand of Ulster Unionism that supports the continued existence of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and opposes a United Ireland independent of the UK. Loyalists are loyal to the British monarchy and have conditional loyalty to the British state so long as it defends their interests. Loyalism is usually associated with loyalist paramilitaries.
 Stiff Little Fingers is a 1970s punk band from the North of Ireland.
 In Ireland, Dissenter is the term used to describe Protestants who refused to conform to the Church of England. Dissenter is often used interchangeably with Presbyterian. The United Irishmen, who were largely Presbyterian radicals, worked for the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.
 Ulster Scots are descendants of Scottish and English settlers who drove out the native population during the Plantation of Ulster during the 17th century.
 Orangemen are members of the Orange Order, a fraternal order that is conservative, British Unionist and Ulster Loyalist and which is largely sectarian, triumphalist and supremacist. It is named after King William of Orange, of Battle of the Boyne fame – see note 16 below.
 Stormont became the seat of the devolved Assembly or governing body in the North of Ireland in 1999, after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It operates under a cross-community, power-sharing arrangement but has very limited legislative and fiscal powers. Ultimately, political power still lies with the British government in Westminster. Stormont has been suspended on multiple occasions since 1999. The most recent suspension was in May 2022 and at the time of writing, it remains so.
 Brexit is the shorthand name given to Britain’s Exit from the EU. The Brexit referendum took place in 2016. Both the North of Ireland and Scotland voted to remain, while England and Wales voted to leave. The leave vote prevailed.
 Sinn Féin is an Irish republican and democratic socialist party founded in 1905 and which operates across the whole island of Ireland.
 Matthew O’Toole is an elected representative from the SLDP or Social Democratic and Labour Party, a social-democratic and Irish nationalist political party based in the North of Ireland and founded by John Hume.
 A border poll is the term for a referendum on Irish reunification.
 The Good Friday Agreement was the peace agreement signed in 1998 that formally brought the Northern conflict to an end. The conflict had been going on for about 30 years and was waged by Irish republicans against the British with the aim of ending British rule in Ireland.
 The UVF or Ulster Volunteer Force is a loyalist paramilitary organisation.
 David Ervine and Billy Mitchell were members of the Progressive Unionist Party, a left-of-centre unionist party whose main support base is the loyalist working class communities of Belfast. Linked to the UVF, they are the only party in the North representing paramilitary loyalism.
 The 12th of July is an Ulster Protestant celebration commemorating the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 where Protestant King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II, ensuring Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. For Catholics, no king, Catholic or otherwise, would have been acceptable.
 Pro-lifters refers to Catholic pro-Abortion campaigners.
 Drag Queen story hour is where Drag Queen performers read children’s books to young audiences and their families. The books that are read sometimes also feature LGBTQ+ characters.
 The Citizens’ Assemblies were established in the South of Ireland in 2016 to consider several political questions including the constitution of Ireland, abortion, fixed-term parliaments, referenda, population ageing, and climate change.
 The Listowel conversation refers to a remark made by a local man in Listowel, Co, Kerry. When introduced to the new Writers’ Week curator who was from Belfast, he said “could you not find anybody Irish to do it?”
 Lough Neagh is the largest lake in Ireland. It’s a freshwater lake that supplies 40% of the North’s drinking water. It is owned by the English peer, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and has been mismanaged to the point of ecological collapse.
 The Dáil, or Dáil Éireann, is the name given to the parliament and seat of government in the South of Ireland.
 Surplus refers to the record high fiscal budget surplus of €8.5 billion recorded by the South of Ireland in 2022.
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