It’s probably true that the main flow of people and commercial traffic within and between these islands has been for some time on an east west, rather than a north/south axis. Dublin London and Belfast London account for substantially thicker traffic flows than Belfast Dublin. In a survey conducted a few years back 84% of people in the Republic had visited London, whereas only 50% had been to Northern Ireland. Fionnuala O’Connor gets to the heart of a rather awkward matter: despite the pretensions of nationalists north and south, the quality of cultural relations between the two parts of the island is poor (subs needed):
The two jurisdictions have much in common: they are also strange to each other. What are VHI and the Mahon tribunal to scratchily peaceful Northern Ireland? Who in the Republic can sympathise with northerners insisting RTÉ Radio One keeps its time-honoured wavelength? Alienation, that’s the word. But mutual, and lack of passion can be a good thing.
Wishful thinking is not going to mend the tear of partition:
The two cannot be made one without a cost that nobody wants to pay, even without consideration of revived, potentially murderous, loyalist reaction, even if the Tiger gets its stripy legs under it again. The GAA is the only unifying agency on the island, though a mystery to most northern Protestants – and a few Catholics, it must be said. It is the experience the Irish in the North have traditionally craved, the feeling of oneness with the separated brethren down the road, ever harder to sustain. Sentiment rarely trumps economic self-interest, and the sentiment has been fading for a long time.
And the last year delivered yet another sobering reality check for Republicans:
Sinn Féin’s gunk in last year’s Dáil election was the sharpest revelation of distance for them to date, the nastiest contrast with Northern success. It does not really matter that the contest between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael relegated the smaller parties. Effect was more important than causes. Republicans are still struggling with the death of the “transitional” dream, of gradual reunification via North/Southery with SF ministers on both sides of the table.
Unionists may not know what to make of modern “Ireland”, the name most use for the neighbouring state. But then Northern nationalism is equally at a loss – and what is Irish nationalism today?
The first was the delivery of the results of the 2001 Census, in which, as Henry McDonald so memorably put it at the time: “…the straight-talking statisticians at the census office metaphorically ripped off Santa’s beard last Thursday and exposed the ‘Count the Catholics’ theory as a fake.” Or as Graham Gudgin put it back then (December 2002), “Sooner or later, though, there will have to be a re-assessment.”
Tom McGurk was more sanguine: “Partition in everything except as a line on a map was thereby [the Belfast Agreement] ended. Importantly, this was not by territorial acquisition, but by the creation of a new political superstructure whose very purpose was to eliminate the crisis originally created by the territorial imperative.”
In truth, much attention in the intervening period has been taken up in the management of various crises, so that there seems to have been little time or space given, publicly at least, to the questions thrown up by the census figures, or the sense of drift that has continued between proponents of Northern Irish nationalism and their counterparts in the Republic. Even the much speculated upon (and always prospective) merger between Fianna Fail and the SDLP, one suspects, is not likely to offer, of itself, any kind of magical formula.