Does the South really want the North as part of Ireland?

A Note from the Next Door Neighbours (72) 

August 2012


It is difficult to overstate the lack of interest there is among people in the Republic these days in Northern Ireland, and in relations between North and South. As somebody who works in the North and lives in the South, my experience in recent years, as the economic and financial crisis has come to dominate all public discourse, is that people in the Republic simply don’t want to know.

‘People in the South are utterly happy with its 26 county shape: their mental map is the 26 counties,’ says a Southerner who has held senior public office in both jurisdictions. ‘When there was active violence in the North, and people saw the Northern conflict on the television every night, their consciousness was more elevated. Now there is no longer a constituency of the concerned in the South.’

There is a constituency – it is difficult to know how large it is – who would go further and say that after over 90 years of going their very different ways, the two are separate places, and that is the way to keep them. This view was articulated by the young woman  in the audience who attacked Martin McGuinness on the game-changing RTE Frontline programme during last October’s presidential campaign in the following words: ‘As a young Irish person, I am curious as to why you have come down here to this country, with all your baggage, your history, your controversy? And how do you feel you can represent me, as a young Irish person, who knows nothing of the Troubles and who doesn’t want know anything about it?’ (emphases as spoken).

The senior figure quoted above believes that ‘the greatest challenge for the North-South dimension of the [peace] process is persuading people in the Republic of its importance.’ He emphasises the need for more ‘people to people’ cooperation across the border, with a particular emphasis on the unionist community, who will feel increasingly beleaguered as Northern Ireland becomes demographically ‘greener.’ Unionists should ‘not have to leave their British identity outside the door’ to engage in such cooperation, he says. The Irish government needs to pay special attention to unionism, which is feeling less confident than ever, with Catholic pupils and students now making up majorities at every level of the NI education system, the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence and the lack of an obvious leader to succeed Peter Robinson.

The distinguished journalist Olivia O’Leary agrees. At the inaugural Garret Fitzgerald Spring School she urged the assembled dignitaries to re-animate North-South cooperation.  She proposed three ways in which this might be done: through more ‘people to people’ cooperation; more cooperation (to mutual benefit) in the joint provision of public services; and the economic and social development of the often marginalised border region.

For any of this to happen the dominant mood of boredom with and disengagement from the North will have to change, although I don’t see this happening any time soon.  However it does beg the bigger, longer-term question: Does the South really want the North as part of an eventual united Ireland?

Opinion polls over the past decade or so show that a bare majority of people in the Republic now say they want Irish unity.[1] As long ago as the mid-1980s the political scientist Peter Mair described the attitude of Irish voters as: ‘Unity would be nice. But if it’s going to cost money, or result in violence, or disrupt the moral and social equilibrium, then it’s not worth it.’[2] This view was stated again in a 2011 survey of attitudes to North-South relations among a sample of University College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast social science students.  As one UCD student put it: ‘Neither of us want it [Northern Ireland]: neither us nor the UK government. I’d say if you asked the majority of Irish people – yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth. I mean, to integrate Northern Ireland into this state – why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.’[3]

But history doesn’t stand still. If Scotland becomes independent after a referendum in 2014 (or maybe five to ten years later if there is an inconclusive result and the Scottish Nationalists demand a re-run), it will surely only be a matter of time before the English government (because it will be largely English by then) and people start asking themselves what is the point of their continuing constitutional union with the north-eastern corner of Ireland. One doesn’t have to be a Sinn Feiner to wonder what will be the position of the government and people of the rest of Ireland in that eventuality. It is a question that they would almost certainly prefer not to contemplate. But it is one which they need to start  thinking about very seriously.

Andy Pollak

PS  Wasn’t it nice to see Belfast celebrating two local boxers winning Olympic medals for Ireland, and Coleraine celebrating three local rowers winning Olympic medals for the UK?  This is the kind of ‘both Irish and British’ identity we in the new Northern Ireland can begin to enjoy, rather than the divisive, often violent ‘either/or’ of Irish nationalism versus Ulster unionism. And wasn’t it great to see Katie Taylor, a Pentecostalist and evangelical Protestant from Bray, Co Wicklow, winning a boxing gold medal in such thrilling style for Ireland?  There must be a few stereotypes beginning to creak there, particularly in the North.


[1]  e.g. the European Values Survey (1999-2000) found that 54% of people favoured Irish unity.

[2]  Mair, P. (1987), ‘Breaking the Nationalist Mould: The Irish Republic and the Anglo-Irish Agreement’, in Beyond the Rhetoric: Politics, the Economy and Social Policy in Northern Ireland, ed. P.Teague

[3]  De Burca, A. and Hayward, K. (2012), ‘The Agreement Generation: Young People’s views on the Cross-Border Relationship, Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, No.7

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