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

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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’.

  • Alanbrooke

    “Partition hurt northern nationalists more than any other grouping on the island”

    really ? I’d have said maybe Southern Unionists would have a better claim to that unhappy title since they’ve effectively been wiped out as a distinctive identity.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, yes. I guess that’s a fair challenge.

    Though the numbers were and are much larger in the north and their predicament has created much larger disruptions and widespread misery for all concerned.

    I just hope this doesn’t mean we’re all going to head back to the past rather than take a long steady and hard look at the imperatives of the future?

  • Alanbrooke

    I think history will show the twentieth century as a wasted opportunity for Ireland. Too much wallowing in our own grievances and not enough thought about how to make life better or live alongside our neighbours. It’s only been in the final decade that we have manage to look at the sacred cows we brought with us and send a few of them to the abbatoir. The island as a whole would be better if we could dispatch a few more, maybe we should celebrate the various anniversaries coming up with a big ox roast and grill.

  • Ruarai

    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. – Cowen

    For good or ill, that is simply not the way northern nationalism thinks or operates -Mick

    Nor is it the way any serious person or organization thinks about anything. Let’s just “go on a journey”? People say the line between the profound and the trite can be thin. Well, not so here. Comments like that from Cowen are a classic example of triteness dressed up as deep thinking.

    We all know FF have form treating politics as a “let’s just go on a journey”. We’re cleaning up the mess of that now, in the 26. It will take a decade minimum.

    That no serious white paper was produced by the southern state in decades on how a UI might work or could work is exactly the type of non-thinking that contributed in its way to drift. Hell, even a paper on why it “can’t work, at present”, would at least have been more constructive than that.

    It’s one thing to say that there are no inevitable outcomes. It’s quite another to say, “let’s just go on a journey”.

    One of the real reasons parties like Alliance will never take off is because people want leadership and clear thinking. Say what you will about SF and the DUP but at least there is no question about what they’re trying to achieve.

    Northern nationalists, for example, have an obligation to be very clear about where they think the country can go, how we can get there together and what confidence-building and life-improving steps can be taken in the meantime. Steps that can help the pursuit of this objective that do not threaten unionists, i.e. steps to stabilize NI, are the name of the game.

    Southern based nationalists are unlikely to respond favourably to demands from northerners to do anything so I’d just suggest that since their primary contribution to the whole situation was to intensify Ireland’s ancient sectarian divide by agreeing to partition and then demonstarting in subsequent decades that unionists had great cause for fearing the influence of the Church, of ignorance about business and about how they’d be treated in a “free” Irish state, their own contribution to the stability of the country ought to be (1) speeding up the belated secularization of the south, (2) working to achieve economic stability in the south and (3) working to integrat southern planning in areas like security, tourism, law and order and FDI than can better be served with all-island thinking.

    “Let’s just go on a journey”. Give me strength.

  • BarneyT

    It is correct to say that Northern Ireland has to work and be seen to work before they were welcome at the UI table. This will inevitably require nationalists and republicans to fully recognise NI as a state, which some may feel undermines their integrity and sense of self.
    The reality is that Northern Ireland as a jurisdiction politically and legally exists and the entity needs to be formally labelled very quickly by its current owners.

    It is not a country in its own right.
    It’s not the North of Ireland (politically).
    It is not Ulster.

    A clear official definition of the region must be rubber stamped and ratified. Some will see this as giving it the identity it deserves and other will see it as a statement of the very problem. From this baseline, collective requirements can be drawn up for progress.

    One side saying the North and the other calling it effectly the Country of Ulster is not helpful

  • BarneyT

    ….and another thing…we need to determine just how thick the border is :-)

    Once we find this, we need to expand the thickness 15 miles in both directions to create a north-south strip.

    Unlike the division in Cyprus, this zone will be occupied and inhabited and like the one in Palestine it will be named after a footballer.

    It will be called the Gerry Armstrong Strip and will have its own police service. They’ll will perform a normal service and act as an interface between the PSNI and Garda Síochána however their main purpose will be to search out illegal fuel plants and they will go by the name, The Strip Seachers.

    I need to iron out a few wrinkles, but you know I am on to something here!

  • GavBelfast

    The writer’s position just seems like basic common sense to me.

  • DoppiaVu

    ok, so I wouldn’t go as far as the “let’s start a journey and see where we end up” approach. But the project manager in me sees some benefit to a slightly looser approach to solving a problem.

    One of the common things that I have to deal with as a project manager is being approached by people with wonderfully designed schemes and being asked to comment on them. My first question is: what are you actually trying to achieve? Too often people jump straight into designing up a solution without actually fully articulating and understanding what they are trying to achieve.

    A decent project manager doesn’t jump straight to a solution. Instead, a project manager identifies the benefits they want to achieve. In my organisation we refer to them as Desired Outcomes. Once we’ve figured out our Desired Outcomes, we then try to investigate ways to achieve as many as these as possible.

    Applying that to the NI context, it seems like those espousing a UI are jumping straight to a solution without identifying what the desired outcomes actually are.

  • BarneyT

    Its kind of the direction I was heading (excluding the redesign of the border)…i.e. what are the requirements and needs. MoSCoW.

    Imposing the “ultimate UI solution” now could trigger a new round of problems…and Dublin and other towns in Ireland may experience a different taste of ulster altogether.

    NI should work with their ROI neighbour in agriculture, infrastructure and many other industrial and cultural areas (cross border initiatives are the way to go).

    Any all Ireland initiatives towards tourism (the gathering) should be welcomed by all in the north by all. Equally all of Ireland can benefit from NI tourist initiatives.

    All of this will lessen the significance of the border and maybe open up the ROI to those in NI who dare not venture south of Banbridge. Equally there are those in the ROI who refuse to travel in a straight line between Monaghan and Louth for fear of entering into South Armagh and the dangerous north.

    Combine this will a unniversal corporation tax on the Island and reformation in both regions with regard to Chruch and State and we have a progressive recipe for success

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, you did almsot sink the whole thing with the sentence, but will leave it with endosing Alanbrookes response.

    Might I suggest the roads to a United Ireland and remaining in the Union are not as diverse as people think, lets say its a bit like driving out of Dublin and one person want to go to Coleraine and the other wants to go to Londonderry, take the M1 indicates Coleraine, and the N2 indicates Derry, but its is easy to switch back and forwards almost the whole way up. Maybe we will settle for Limavady some day instead?

    Three other factors will have a much larger impact I would predict, 1. how the EU pans out, 2. how UK devoloution pans out, 3. how the UK Irish relationship pans out. Anyone of which could drastically change the destination.

    I know that at each junction the two sides will push for their direction, but in the long game we havn’t even crossed the Boyne yet, the questions is are we at Slane or Drogheda?

  • Greenflag

    If you don’t know where you are going you will end up someplace else -which may or may not be an improvement on the status quo .

    The problem for both states is that they are where they are now because Irish late 19th and early 20th century nationalism and unionism were ‘undecided ‘ as to political objectives . LIberal Unionists and Home Rulers might have cobbled together a formula which would have kept the island within the union with enough ‘home rule ‘ to satisfy most nationalists without irking too many unionists .

    In the end it was the parties with the two clearest objectives – full independence and preserving the union – which won out . The fact that these two objectives were diametrically opposite and mutually incompatible eventually had repercussions which are still with us today .

    Getting beyond the historical legacies will never be easy and for our politicians probably impossible except of course in ‘words ‘.

    Mr Cowan is probably not the best source for ‘wisdom’ re any journey particularly one in which a positive destination is envisaged . Admittedly Cowan was merely handed the steering wheel when the vehicle was beyond control and the abyss beckoned .

    From a ‘neutral ‘ perspective the biggest issue facing the Republic re any prospective UI – is the remote possibility for Northern Ireland of decreasing subvention and reliance on London exchequer . Behind all of the blather of ‘innovation ‘ and ‘ corporation tax ‘ I would hold that if you scratched the entire DUP , SF, SDLP , UUP and AP set of politicians in the Assembly you would’nt find one who believes that reducing ‘ reliance on the London Exchequer ‘ is a preferred economic policy objective other than in theory ?

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “Liberal Unionists and Home Rulers might have cobbled together a formula which would have kept the island within the union”

    GF, Thomas Sinclair, a Liberal Unionist, was a leading figure in the Ulster Unionist Convention of 1892 and the initiator of the 1912 Ulster Covenant.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I’m not sure with regards to Germany, the Germans have a wider diversity of people with regards to people in Ireland.

  • NOT NOW JOHN

    “One of the real reasons parties like Alliance will never take off is because people want leadership and clear thinking. Say what you will about SF and the DUP but at least there is no question about what they’re trying to achieve.”

    Remind me. What is it that SF and the DUP are trying to achieve?

  • DC

    Unification sounds like it is going the way of socialism, but I think it’s a bit rich building for unification or attempting to build for unification whenever in the actual ROI a significant number of its working population bugger off to Britain anyway and take up jobs there.

    It all sounds a bit weird while that kind of migration is going on in the background, if not actually politically demoralising in terms of trying to create any new unification project or push (never mind adding in the EU into the mix and its governance from above, Europeanising a lot of life in the ROI).

  • Mick Fealty

    Nice link Nev, well worth following for those less familiar with how the home rule movement was experienced by Protestants across the board.

  • Neil

    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.

    That’s just a continuation of the whole ‘they don’t want you down there’ argument for which I have never seen a scintilla of proof.

    Every poll that’s ever been carried out in the south has concluded that the people would vote for unification. That was true during the Celtic Tiger years, and it’s true now.

    As for it being a bit ‘weird’ given people’s migration out of Ireland, that’s another recurring event which has had little or no impact on Republicans wishes on both sides of the border. In the 80s people left, in the 90s and 00s people came here to work (including many English) and now things are tough people are leaving again. It’s cyclical, and has no bearing on people’s wishes regarding a UI.

    The basic, blunt truth of the matter is that if we vote for unification (50% + 1) then that’s it for the manufactured state in which we live. The South will also vote yes, and any future ‘Unionist’ referendum to repartition will occur in a country with 7.5 million CNRs and 1 million PULs. I believe this to be inevitable, only the timescale is in question.

  • Professor Yattle

    In that case, Neil, you must also believe the inevitable shooting will start – along with justifications for it that will be mirror images of republican justifications for the Troubles.
    Think harder.

  • Neil

    Yattle,

    the threat of violence (and the actual violence) didn’t succeed in subverting democracy last time round either. Think harder.

  • Neil

    Just out of curiosity, what – over and above a democratic vote to end the Union – would you suggest is enough? Obviously in my hypothetical the majority have voted for unification. You say ‘think harder’.

    So how do you reckon Unification can come about if the majority of people voting for it North and South is not enough? I it simply a case of ‘never never never’? Or are you suggesting a greater margin than 50% + 1? Just curious as to what, over and above a democratic vote, Unionists might think they can demand?

  • Professor Yattle

    That doesn’t make any sense. You object to partition and the GFA as a settlement. Both are products of violence on both sides, and certainly ‘subverted democracy’ from a republican perspective. Further absolutism will produce further violence, and presumably further arrangements not to your liking. Compromise is required, on a basis that can be permanent.

  • Professor Yattle

    That last post and reply to your previous. A 50%+1 will be a legitimate vote for unity, but without further work on social integration – or some multi-cultural alternative – it is just a recipe for renewed violence. I am aware that many republicans believe this won’t happen because all loyalist violence was due to ‘British collusion’. It strikes me that this theory is a little too neat on which to risk all our futures and God knows how many of lives.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    From the Thomas Sinclair/ECONI link above:

    Home Rule it was believed would lead to the running of this great industrial city being placed in the hands of farmers and economic incompetents.

    Home Rule and the Irish question a century ago would appear to have some parallels with Devolution and the Northern Ireland question now ;)

    Thomas Sinclair was a Liberal Unionist whereas Henry Cooke in the early days of Unionism in the 1830s and 1840s was a Conservative one; both were ‘awkward’ Presbyterians ;):

    Cooke was one of the first to link together this economic prosperity and the Union. During his exchange with O’Connell in 1841, he memorably said, ‘Look at Belfast and be a repealer, if you can.’ source

    This source suggests that the chief source of sectarianism in Belfast was Armagh and the influx of farmers from that county to the city during the early days of industrialisation.

    I see Hugo MacNeill is chairman of the Ireland Funds, a body that embraces the American Ireland Fund. The membership of AIF would be opponents of Northern Ireland’s continuing membership of the UK; it would be cherry-pickers of the 1998 Agreement.

  • DC

    As for it being a bit ‘weird’ given people’s migration out of Ireland, that’s another recurring event which has had little or no impact on Republicans wishes on both sides of the border. In the 80s people left, in the 90s and 00s people came here to work (including many English) and now things are tough people are leaving again. It’s cyclical, and has no bearing on people’s wishes regarding a UI.

    Don’t you think it’s a bit rich if not bizarre that Irish nationals are comfortable about benefiting out of the current British Union by for example working or looking for work there etc, yet are encourage by Republicans on the other hand to do away with it?

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “Don’t you think it’s a bit rich if not bizarre”

    DC, in these parts, I think sentiment and the herd instinct trumps economics, irrespective of class or creed.

  • Mick Fealty

    Prof,

    There’s another aspect to all of this. The peace is already bringing ‘social integration’ of a kind, which in turn breeds a long moderation.

    This seems to be poorly recognised by the current leaders of northern nationalism.

    I remember talking to an old school friend a few years back when we were both totalling the complete numbers of offspring.

    I made some offhand reference to the outbreeding Catholics thing, and he pulled me up short, saying “Catholic yes. Nationalist, not necessarily.”

    Catholics are not sheep. Well, not any more. Forget, for a moment, about Catholic unionists. Ten per cent of any tribe, given a free vote, will always default from the tribal norm.

    The reasons will not matter, they’ll be many and various. And, I think you could count on holding it down to just ten per cent without too much sweat.

    Unless the Catholic population rocks up to the late 50s/early 60s, then success on the 50% +1 scale, will require Protestant support.

    That’s why the business of making NI work first is critical to the success of any longer term plan for north/south integration.

    Fianna Fail understands this implicitly. The SDLP and SF signally do not.

  • Neil

    Don’t you think it’s a bit rich if not bizarre that Irish nationals are comfortable about benefiting out of the current British Union by for example working or looking for work there etc, yet are encourage by Republicans on the other hand to do away with it?

    No, because we’re all in the EU, with the common benefits and drawbacks that brings. I can work in London, or Amsterdam, or Paris etc. So the ‘British Union’ has nothing to do with it.

    Ten per cent of any tribe, given a free vote, will always default from the tribal norm.

    Presumably then those good folks will be cancelled out by the ten per cent from the other tribe who will also default from the norm? Anecdotal evidence is not something I like to do (makes it too easy for people to best your argument) but I know more Protestants who support a UI than I do Catholics who support the Union.

    Aside from that, we have no clue what way the numbers would play out, as you know about a third of the elecorate is off the roll. So realistically anything could happen. It could very easily boil down to which side is more likely to get off their arse and register to vote.

  • Barnshee

    “Anecdotal evidence is not something I like to do (makes it too easy for people to best your argument) but I know more Protestants who support a UI than I do Catholics who support the Union.”

    Hard to take that one– in 50 odd years I have never met a prod who supported a UI and the last 40 yrs odd have only moved a lot of them further (if that`s possible ) in the other direction

  • PaulT

    Is the Germany referred to the one the was created in the 1870’s, got a severe trimming around the edges in 1918, expanded a bit in the 1930’s and got chopped in half in the 40’s.

    Said a lot for the quality of the arguement that that was the best example he could thing off, but guess he was under pressure to bash out 5000 words on something and thats all he could think off.

    Not to mention that East Germany was in turmoil as the USSR was breaking up, the key moment happened out of the blue when its Berlin inhabitants rioted and took sledge hammers to the (Peace) wall.

    Of course today the tensions remain with many in the East missing the old security of communism.

    There was a much better parallel in both countries, not least the security of life in the East, a promise of a job, a home, a car (all of which were not great quality, but are sorely missed today) all given via a central government elsewhere (sound familiar)

    The other missed point that could have been made was how both Germanies (similar to both Irelands) grew apart culturally, Niall Ferguson covered this fantasically at the Hay Festival a year or so ago (he included Korea and other divided countries)

    Stability is a red herring, culture is created by your environment and how the state is structured around you, so even a stable NI would be in turmoil in the event of a united Ireland.

    As evidence, we had in-laws at an event in Ireland this year from a number of countries (and backgrounds) they were in both parts of Ireland, they all commented on the stark differences in peoples attitudes in both parts (NI did not come off well)

    Minor points like been continually cut up by other cars in NI, well lorries etc pulled into the hard shoulder in Ireland, in fact for some it started at Belfast Airport.

    So, it’s not stability, no country has been reunited or split in a stable environment, things like that happen in times of big events (read the Shock Doctrine)

    The issue is that culturally both parts of Ireland have grown apart, reunification needs to address stitching them back together, but that would be a long term issue, not a box to tick beforehand

  • DC

    No, because we’re all in the EU, with the common benefits and drawbacks that brings. I can work in London, or Amsterdam, or Paris etc. So the ‘British Union’ has nothing to do with it.

    The UK is in the EU, but less so than Ireland as the UK isn’t in the monetary union.

    However, your example still isn’t sound. Perhaps a more fitting example would be to have say a million Poles working in Berlin while at the same time Poland had a party that was appealing to Poland’s national side and wanted to have parts of Berlin subsumed into Poland (Berlin-Brandenburg is the only bit of Prussia that remains German after WWII – Poland taking the rest and Russia taking East Prussia).

    So given the countries waring past, I couldn’t see the Germans putting up with that especially with the doors being opened under a European (not national) project; a European project that creates a situation that the host nation has other ethnic nationals that potentially want to do away with parts of the land that it has sovereignty over would be bizarre. Politely, you could call it a poke in the eye of the member/host nation. It also goes against the grain of EU values.

    The trouble with unification is that it has to date come under the banner of ‘Irish’ unification, an exclusive ethnic sort of unification. It could be possible to have a broader unification project based around greater cultural inclusivity and deeper democracy and democratic control over social and economic issues, controls which ever since WWII seem to be moving further amd further away as each year passes, further away from the ordinary person and off to far away lands to Brussels and into the hands of global corporations.

  • Mick Fealty

    PaulT,

    There are no perfect analogies. But the German example is useful, if only for the fact that highlights the fact that what nationalists want to do hasn’t been done before in Ireland, except under British rule.

    You make a strong point about the divergence of culture, which may be more problematic than issues of governance. I agree it is one for the long term. But the key challenge MacNeill poses is that you ought not wait to tackle that until afterwards, but rather foreground it and create a consonance out of your pre-unification politics.

  • antamadan

    No point talking about a united Ireland or even polls until the south gets sorted, but still:

    DC: I do believe that ‘voting with their feet’ is a good picture of how good a state is, and you are right that young people are leaving the south for Australia NZ Canada, England etc.
    who chose to live in the south, than southerners that chose to live in the north (26000). This gives a somewhat different picture of live on the island of Ireland, under independence and under British sovereignity

  • antamadan

    Sorry. Meant to post that there were twice as many born in the North living in the South (51000) than the other way round. Maybe London is better than Dublin or Belfast, but as Belfast is not attracting more people from Dublin than the other way round, it doesn’t seem that being part of the UK magically makes any part of Ireland more attractive than being independent.

  • Greenflag

    Nevin @ 29 November 2012 at 7:02 pm

    A belated thanks for the link . I did use the word ‘might ‘ in the cobbling together . The events of 1912 , WW1 and 1916 -1920 did of course put an end to any ‘might have beens ‘ from any combination of Home Rulers , Liberal and Southern Unionists that might have averted partition .

    2012 is a different world and a very different Ireland /Northern Ireland from that of the early 20th century .

    I’d agree with Drumlin Rock’s comment above
    @ 29 November 2012 at 5:50 pm

    ‘Three other factors will have a much larger impact I would predict, 1. how the EU pans out, 2. how UK devolution pans out, 3. how the UK Irish relationship pans out. Anyone of which could drastically change the destination.

    I would add that

    1) The EU will continue despite losing a Greece or two .
    2) Scotland may or may not opt for independence ‘inside ‘ the EU .
    3) The UK will remain in the EU .
    4) UK Irish relationships will continue to improve regardless.

    As to NI demographics determining the outcome I would hold that fact will remain as per Horseman’s demographic futuring on his site.
    http://ulstersdoomed.blogspot.com/search/label/Demography

    As to the actual outcome ? Que sera -not worth spilling blood over from either side .

  • IrelandNorth

    What is the common denominator between independence and codependence. Interdependence presumably. Unless people give up on absolutes, a centre ground can’t be formed. As in previous generation before, the struggle between idealism and pragmatism prevails. With shifting demographics, shifting constitutional plates are equally happening, and the Mayan calendar may be more applicable to NI/ROI and GB than to Chile or Peru. To refloat a provincially federated IreAland, in confederation with a federated GB, in a strategic ‘Alliance’ (ahem!) in the EU, and partnership of equals in the Commonwealth of Nations. Failing which, I’ll seriously considered joining a Trappist monastery in the Swiss Alps, or a Hindu ashram in the Himalayas.