On Slugger last week, Barton and David chatted at length on the topic of Irish Unity, so I’ve decided to put a few thoughts out there on the subject for others to pick over.
A united Ireland has never been as close as it is today.
Before anyone gets worked up, it’s not particularly close.
In fact, it’s neither imminent nor inevitable, but it certainly is the case that, from history’s perspective, a number of significant obstacles have been or are in the process of being removed:
- A British veto for military or political reasons no longer applies. In the event of a referendum voting in favour of Irish unity, there won’t be a Lisburn mutiny by British forces and right wing Tories won’t seek to usurp the democratic will of the people by calling for repartitioning (a Dalradian Gibraltar won’t be sought nor approved.)
- Northern nationalism is in a stronger position within Northern Ireland than at any time in history, and this elevation has brought the reality of our differing narratives and interpretations home to many more familiar and comfortable with a solitary narrative historically conferred with the legitimacy of State approval. The pillars of the northern state are increasingly reflective of the Green as well as the Orange.
One consequence of this has been political unionism’s rightward lurch in a vain attempt to roll back history’s tide. That will fail, and time will deliver a Northern Ireland at peace with the reality of competing narratives of the past, interpretations of today and visions for the future.
- The Republic of Ireland is a modern state. It has its fair share of problems, but it stands proudly alongside the other Nations of the world.
- The demographic realities are such in Northern Ireland today that, in 20 years time, everyone under the age of 60 will be in a year cohort which has a greater number of catholics than protestants, with all that entails for demographic parity between our two main religious groups.
Those who publicly ‘tut-tut’ at the mention of religious headcounts are being disingenuous. The state of Northern Ireland was founded on a religious headcount; like it or not, but our cultural and political fault lines continue to correlate with religious backgrounds. This may change, but it is as foolhardy to suggest that a scenario in which Northern Ireland had a catholic majority would not be more favourable for those advocating a united Ireland as it is to suggest that a majority protestant Northern Ireland has no relevance to a discussion on the continuance of the Union.
All of these are positive developments for those interested in pursuing a united Ireland.
But being realistic is important in all of this.
Irish Nationalism has historically benefitted from the millenarian belief in the inevitably of triumph, ensuring that the idea of freedom/unity did not perish. But the self-confidence and assuredness that comes with such faith also engenders a sense of complacency, and Alex is correct to note that, for all the talk about Irish unity, there is very little of substance being said by its advocates regarding the shape of a unified Ireland.
That being said, it would be somewhat premature to produce a 700-page document outlining what a united Ireland would look like at this juncture in our history as I believe we are in a phase where it is more important to lay the foundations for a united Ireland campaign capable of succeeding a quarter century from now. (Stop for a second and consider that we are 20 years removed from the IRA and loyalist ceasefires. Two decades passes quickly eh…)
One of the reasons I am quite optimistic about our future is that I have a firm conviction that making Northern Ireland a success is central to the realization of the long-term objectives of both Unionism and Republicanism. For unionists, it is imperative that an impending catholic majority feel comfortable with the status quo; for republicans, it is essential that Northern Ireland works so that any transition to a united Ireland is as seamless as possible in every sense: politically, culturally and economically.
I believe we are heading inevitably towards an era of persuasion within Northern Irish politics, a ‘race to accommodate’ if you will.
The consequences of this will be a realization on all sides that, regardless of where sovereignty lay, the contested entity of Northern Ireland must remain British and Irish in equal measure, reflecting its people.
I believe nationalists and republicans are closer to fully appreciating the significance of that, which gives us a distinct advantage over a unionist body politic still seeking to corral the PUL wagons.
Those interested in pursuing Irish Unity must invest time and energy addressing the key priorities of building an equal Northern Ireland, reflective and representative of its diverse peoples; Re-orienting politics on a North-South axis to develop a plurality of active voices in favour of Irish unity; Addressing the economic elephant in the room by developing, articulating and implementing policies capable of transforming the northern Irish economy; and putting flesh on the bones of a United Ireland by beginning to address questions about what it would like (eg federal or unitary?) and what constitutional amendments could be devised to enshrine the rights of British citizens in a newly united Irish state.
One of Alex’s observations, in particular, is worth focusing on.
“I hear a great deal of whimsy from those who paint a picture of a united Ireland in purely economic terms: as if employment rates, tourism potential, all-Ireland transport and a new generation of golfing and rugby heroes would make a blind bit of difference to those who were born British and vote unionist. That unionism and sense of Britishness is not going to disappear overnight: indeed, it would probably linger for generations.”
Alex is spot on. His emotional attachment to his British and unionist identity will likely continue to exist regardless of whether or not a new Celtic Tiger roars in the future.
Yet the same rule applies for nationalists and our sense of Irishness, and indeed it has done so for nationalists throughout years/decades/centuries in spite of Britain retaining sovereignty in Ireland.
Squaring the circle can only involve no losers if, ultimately, a form of joint sovereignty is agreed, or if the settlement in a UK or United Ireland arrangement appears to satisfy the political as well as cultural demands of the respective minority community.
Is that a more realistic proposition?