Unification depends on first undertaking a journey rather than waiting for a single redemptive act…

The Irish Times series on Northern Ireland has given an refreshing focus to the viewpoints of southern nationalists. Today’s op ed by Hugo MacNeill is a good example of a line we’ve heard before, not least from former taoiseach, Brian Cowen:

The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe.

The problem with our ideologies in the past was that we had this idea about where we were going but we had no idea how anyone was going to come with us on the journey.

We have now all decided: let’s go on a journey and forget about the destination – the destination isn’t really important in that respect. We can all work for what it is we would like ideally to see, but this is not something that can be forced or imposed upon people on either side of the island. [Emphasis added]

For good or ill, that is simply not the way northern nationalism thinks or operates. After the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements, the northern obsession remains with re-unification. In effect it’s like defining an instrument before you have even agreed what the problem is.

Additionally, as MacNeill goes on to highlight it utterly ignores the sensibilities of the middle classes on both sides of the border, who in any future plebiscite on either side will the ones to determine Northern Ireland’s long term destination:

A stable Northern Ireland is also an essential prerequisite for any closer constitutional relationship with the South. Without stability the people of the South have no interest.

Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others pursuing constitutional change have to build such a new society, respecting an “identifiably distinct people”. The South has to rethink its attitude to the North in a way that genuinely reflects today.

There has never been an integrated, independent united Ireland. This would not be a restoration after a “temporary” deviation such as that of east and west Germany. Essential elements of identity of all parties would need to be reflected. How would that be done? Do people prefer the status quo?

The people of Northern Ireland have to lead the building of a new society. Generosity of spirit from all is required for a better future – a shared future unlocking the tremendous potential of all its people.

Easy to say from the south, perhaps. Partition hurt northern nationalists more than any other grouping on the island, thwarting them politically by throwing them into a permanent and powerless minority. In the process furnishing them with a fulsome set of social and economic grievances.

But there is no cavalry to come over the hill and rescue them from the ‘horrible unionists’. A united island will not drop into their lap either as gift from the Brits or by dint of one (or even a dozen) more revolutionary heaves.

Rather – if MacNeill is right – it implies a lot of hard work and imagination. And work which, by necessity, will have to begin at home.

Home is where the power lies to remake relations on the island by, for example: decreasing the subvention and reliance on London exchequer; creating the basic outline of a sustainable economy; and a shared sense of stability and equality of citizenship before the law.

Most of these things are also (publicly at least) desired by unionists. None should provide anyone with the excuse not to get on with undertaking a journey into the future. And, in the jargon, without preconditions.

The challenge for nationalists is to broaden their definition of citizen to include what Kipling once described as in one particularly short and quirky poem, the They and the We.

That means foregrounding the task of making NI work first and then letting the journey that ensues help define its own destination by engaging a much broader (and genuinely Republican?) set of ‘We’.