At that time nationalists north and south, contemplating the deepening crisis of the Northern Irish state and the increasing if reluctant involvement of the UK government in its affairs, hoped that there could be relatively rapid progress towards unity.
While it’s possible to uncover many statements and strategies to that effect you have to ask what they amounted to. My view at the time from many contacts and since is that constitutional nationalists were overbidding to try to redress a sense of helplessness in the face of political drift, on top of the armed insurrection, sectarian counterattacks and military occupation in their midst. Unionism had moved from complacency to paranoia almost in a single leap after October 1968 when the main focus of politics shifted to the streets and stayed there for decades. The first real political test of all sides’ positions after collapse came when Garret FitzGerald in particular tried to call everyone’s bluff from 1973 onwards ( including his own probably). All were found wanting. Yet whatever the aspirations (including those of British governments, the consent principle never came under serious threat.
On today’s “well educated unionists” I hope Henry’s right. In a diverse and quasi –federalising UK, I suspect they will make little impact if they cling to a narrow and outmoded model of unionism, and put all their eggs in a right wing British basket. The ground of “British Ulster” is far too narrow. Crucially it fails to reflect how people actually lead their lives. Today’s younger unionists would be well advised to work seriously in a cross community direction and contribute – as many their predecessors of long ago did – to a diverse Irishness as well as Britishness. This is a half-forgotten but essential unionist insight which should be rediscovered.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London