Some questions for Northern Nationalists…

There’s an interesting discussion on Hearts and Minds this week that is certainly worthy of further discussion on Slugger (as soon as we complete the move and re-open the comments I may push this story back to the top of the blog to encourage such). Dennis Kennedy of the Cadogan Group faces off with Mark Durkan and Mitchel McLaughlin over the future of Nationalism. Two things strike me about the encounter. One, how difficult it is for someone from a broadly Unionist background to successfully engage with the political pre-occupations of Nationalists. And the other countervaling aspect being the difficulty our politicians have in expressing the basic nature of their own dearly held political values.

Kennedy has done some work in this area and in the programme is largely pulling from one of the Cadogan Group’s recent pamphlets, Beyond Belfast, which is posited on the idea that the Belfast Agreement has been an abject failure. It goes on to suggest that nothing can move forward until Nationalists accept the status quo of Northern Ireland within the UK. Nothing short of that, it argues, will allow for the stlong term stability of the polity.

It lays out some interesting questions specifically aimed at Nationalists:

• Is an unrealistic adherence to Irish Unity worth more decades of communal antagonism?

• Is it time that more discussion was held on the linkages between the aspiration to Irish unity and communal mistrust and the street level sectarian outrages practised by extremists on both sides but particularly by loyalist paramilitaries and their supporters?

• Does ‘Irishness’ have to be linked to an independent Irish political entity? Many Irish people remain thoroughly Irish while living in Great Britain or other parts of Europe, or America or elsewhere. How much easier could it be to be Irish in that part of the island called Northern Ireland, linked culturally and in a thousand other ways with the rest of the island, just as many, including Protestants and even unionists, have already found?

• If it is felt to be impossible to be fully Irish without being able to give full allegiance to an Irish state, the same would be true of unionists if they were forced against their will to be part of a non-British state. What answer do nationalists have to the charge that this would merely substitute one injustice for another?

• If Northern Ireland exists by virtue of the will of a majority, as the Belfast Agreement says, then its existence is legitimate. Can an argument based on the injustice of Partition remain valid? If it is not, then what is the basis of a demand for unity?

• All nationalist politicians continue to insist that if 50% plus one voted for unity in a referendum, it should happen. What would be the moral argument for incorporating, without their consent, the 50% minus one opposed to it in an Irish Republic at some future date?

• Would the action of exchanging a disaffected nationalist minority in one jurisdiction, the UK, for a disaffected unionist minority in another (the Republic) solve anything? Would not a demand for re-partition of Northern Ireland have a stronger moral base? Is the aspiration really territorial rather than a wish for a culturally Irish people to live in an Irish state?

• Could it be that the policies of both nationalist parties put short-term triumphalism based on unionist discomfiture above the real interests of the nationalist community?

This last one might be levelled at both major blocks, since the parliamentary inaction of the last three years has been to a certain extent negatively colluded at by both Unionists and Nationalists. Others clearly stem from a particular Unionist view point.

And yet, in the heat of the conflict there has been little opportunity for politicians and thinkers to critically examine the value of Northern Irish Nationalism, or to give thought to the means by which a unified Ireland might arise, other than (as in this case) the re-assertion of personal belief that the Belfast Agreement creates the opportunity to achieve that objective.

Is it ironic or simply inevitable that this (largely) useful set of questions arises from a (largely) Unionist group of thinkers?