‘Unionism’ isn’t about the Union Flag, the 12th and ‘Britishness’

Belfast Barman’s tongue-in-cheek look at what a United Ireland might look like got me thinking. Humourous as it was it perhaps wasn’t far from the truth on some counts, but of course nobody really knows what a United Ireland would look like.

Plenty of people have their own visions, but Sinn Fein and the SDLP do not (quite understandably) offer voters a blueprint for what an all-island state would look like.

There is no need of course. Their voters want a united Ireland whether today, tomorrow, in a decade’s time or in half a century’s time, because of a range of factors.

But the lack of that blueprint should be a positive for Unionists because a united Ireland would probably not look very different to what we already have today.

Rather than negatively argue for the status quo (or in the case of a number of elected Unionists, the status quo of 1922) articulating a vision about a new Northern Ireland can help to turn people off a 32-county state.

Doing so is unlikely to change the mind of the most ardent Sinn Fein voter, but Unionism is never going to appeal to anyone, in the same way liberalism or socialism will never appeal to everyone.

Keeping Northern Ireland within the union should not just be about appealing to 51 per cent of voters, but painting a picture of the reality of a united Ireland may help to convince a more sizeable majority to favour the constitutional settlement as it stands.

Let’s examine what we could realistically expect from a united Ireland.

One of the few things both Sinn Fein and the SDLP are clear about in the case of a united Ireland is that a northern Assembly would remain, almost certainly sitting at Stormont.

So either the Assembly will improve in the eyes of the public in the future and people will be happy being governed by it, regardless of whether fiscal policy is decided in Dublin or London, or it will remain an unpopular institution which voters will be stuck with either way.

What advantage a united Ireland?

In the case of a negotiated settlement for an all-island state we would not see the 1916 utopia Sinn Fein dream of being drafted together. Unionists would have a strong hand to play and it is fair to assume the Irish government (and the northern Nationalist parties) would be willing to make considerable concessions to reach a lasting settlement.

It does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to see Ireland entering the Commonwealth of Nations, alongside other republics like India and Pakistan.

Nor does it seem ridiculous that the devolved state in the north would have its own flag, perhaps even its own anthem (its own sports teams? Perhaps- there is precedent for this).

Given the proximity of Great Britain and Ireland it seems unlikely that the BBC could stop people in Ireland picking up its channels, likewise with RTE. A health service free at the point of access would continue in the north.

Northerners (perhaps all Irish citizens) would continue to be entitled to British citizenship if they wanted it. The 12th and 13th of July would remain public holidays.

I could go on- but you get the point. Of course I acknowledge these are only assumptions, but none seems to me to be completely out of the realms of possibility.

On one hand Nationalists could sell this as reasons why a united Ireland is nothing for Unionists should fear, but Unionism has more to gain by selling this vision.

A Northern Ireland where Unionism isn’t about the Union Flag, the 12th of July and ‘Britishness’ is a Northern Ireland where Nationalists will feel, at worst, comfortable and at best proud citizens.

They may well still have a soft desire to see the border removed and partition ended but is that enough to sway them in a referendum? For many I think not.

By building a Northern Ireland that would be little changed by Irish unity Unionists can preserve its place in the United Kingdom. It will take compromise and concession but the end result will not only be the preservation of the union, but a Northern Ireland where the majority of the people are happy with the (new) status quo