The other day a unionist friend joked about the fact that one of the shared attributes to both communities in Northern Ireland is a shared animosity towards England. His favourite jibe to Republican colleagues is “how bad must you be, if we prefer the English to you?”
Ronan O’Brien who was an adviser in the last Irish government argues that there’s a useful comparison to be made between Gerry Adams’ accurate argument that unification depends on making the Republic more attractive to unionists, and John Redmond:
…the Rising effectively marked the beginning of the end of a search for an all-island solution. As the Irish position became more committed to advanced separation from Britain, the possibilities of any arrangement with Ulster diminished. The Lloyd George initiative of 1916 was possibly the closest we got to an arrangement that might have kept all those balls in the air.
Adams will not like the comparison with Redmond, and it should not be overstated, but there are similarities. The position he adopts is arguably more advanced than that of the New Ireland Forum, the last time these issues were discussed by nationalism.
The difficulty is that while Redmond was open to a more positive association with Britain, Adams is not. Nor is he alone in that. Redmond, like Parnell before him, had underestimated the attachment of unionism to its British identity. But it is well established now.
The challenge, post-Good Friday agreement and the consent principle, is how that British identity can be reconciled with a republican view that nothing positive emerged from our past membership of the UK?
And his kicker is hard to dismiss…
Redmond will be 100 years dead in 2018. The issues he grappled unsuccessfully with are no less complex today. No generation of Southern republicans has resolved them and Adams is grappling with them now. Redmond dealt with them in honour and in good faith, and remained committed to being a persuader for an all-island settlement. In the end Redmond failed, but he has not been alone in that.