Deaglán de Bréadún asks if 26 will ever become 32? (subs needed). Although he goes heavy on the caveats, even the formulation of the question hints at just one of many problems facing anyone wanting to build a politically unified Ireland. It implies an enthusiasm for expanding the Republic, that doesn’t currently exist in the southern polity. And as the first leader’s debate in last year’s southern election campaign indicated, the knowledge base amongst leading Northern Irish advocates of a united Ireland is lamentably poor.de Bréadún:
Theoretically, if a relatively small percentage of unionists broke away from the consensus within their community and made common cause with the vast majority of their nationalist neighbours, a united Ireland would follow.
In practice, the majority for unity would have to be considerably greater than that (ideally, there would be a strong majority in both communities) and it would have to be clear that the dissident unionist minority would accept the referendum result in a democratic spirit and refrain from violence, or at least be incapable of perpetrating more than a token level of violence.
Incidentally, at the time of writing, the two main unionist parties occupy only 54 or precisely half of the 108 seats in the Assembly. The remainder is made up of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance as well as two Independents from the nationalist or republican “gene pool”, one Green and one Progressive Unionist. Given the continuance of the powersharing administration in the North, who knows how the unionist mindset might gradually start to shift and reassess the constitutional position? The functioning and performance of the North-South bodies could have a major influence in this regard.
The most obvious caveat to this is that whilst unionist turn out at elections is generally lower than those of nationalists, when there is a large set piece, such as the 1998 referendum it’s probably wise to add the odd 100,000-150,000 on the usual number. The other problem lies with northern Irish nationalism. Whilst there is no doubt that it has suffered political humiliation over the years, it is also clear that through the years of the troubles this has hardened into form of cultural contempt for unionists and unionist culture.
It makes Gerry Adams statement yesterday:
We accept that we have to persuade the unionists of the merits of that. After all it is incumbent on us who have a republican view of the future in which citizens are sovereign to ensure that those citizens who are currently unionists have a sense of shaping that future, a real involvement in it.
Except, there is little sign that this (post peace) process has as yet taken on much substance. In the past there is little doubt that Sinn Fein’s outreach has pre-dated any significant move in the other direction. But it has had little effect other than hardening unionist attitudes. Residual nationalist attitudes in Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist city Derry, still focus unremittingly on the democratic up to and including 1969, with little reference to the massive population shifts that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
The growing bond between north and south is economic, rather than political. Farmers in the in south and west sell increasing amounts of their milk yield in the Republic. The Fivemiletown Creamery gained access to a high level retail market in Paris of all places, partly through the good offices of the southern government.
Critically all of the positives are genuine trust building exercises. There is no politics, directly, involved. Yet, as Frank Millar notes in the last lines of unionism in the newest edition of his book on Trimble, “they need not “expect Irish Republicans and nationalists to take and sustain the cross community initiatives necessary to stabilise and secure Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom”. Northern Irish nationalism, if it is serious about eventual unification, needs to find its own ways around the polarisation of the last forty years.
To do that, it needs more than fine or pretentious words. It needs to demonstrate its intentions with positive and visible actions.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty