Nolan, Prime Time & a United Ireland: Three challenges for pro-Irish Unity advocates

I was a contributor to last night’s novel joint BBC/RTE production, Ireland’s Call, which brought together two of Ireland’s most famous broadcasters, Stephen Nolan and Miriam O’Callaghan, to look at a range of issues and how they are perceived by people across the island and from both political traditions in the north.

I thought it was a useful exercise, though I’d quibble with a number of things.

Polls conducted in Northern Ireland are notoriously unreliable, and this one at times stretched credulity to its limits- the figures for national identity for the city of Belfast were highly suspect, with a city populated by a greater number of nationalists than unionists apparently registering a 56% British and 29% Irish/ 10% Northern Irish profile.

But that’s to be expected.

Polls like this are more useful for raising questions, framing discussions and analysing the differing responses from the world of politics and beyond.

I thought the angle taken from the outset by both presenters missed the point in relation to the short and medium term objectives favoured by all groups of people- nationalist, unionist and southern: namely that bedding down the system of devolved government in the contested entity that is Northern Ireland offers both the best opportunities to secure a better, prosperous and peaceful future than all remember from the past, but also that both unionists and nationalists recognise that a successful and stable northern state is a prerequisite for the securing of their longer term objectives of either sovereignty residing in an all-Ireland context or continuing to reside in a UK context.

From the perspective of an Irish republican and northern nationalist, I was completely at ease with the poll outcomes, for reasons that I’ll now outline.

I believe that northern nationalists are, and have always been, very relaxed about the time frame for the attainment of their ultimate political objective of Irish unity. This lack of urgency has been further encouraged by the deeply held sense that northern nationalism is experience something of a halcyon period in its existence. The age of turmoil that characterised the onset of partition, when northern nationalists found themselves crushed as a hapless minority in a Protestant British state, constructed in the image of Unionism, abandoned by a southern nationalist elite preoccupied with the daunting task of state building, has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Northern nationalism now sits increasingly as an equal in the northern state, its past narratives, perspectives on the present and visions for the future finding an airing and legitimised alongside the traditionally superior (in terms of presentation and official legitimacy) British and unionist narratives like never before. Northern nationalism has now firmly established itself within civil society and predominates many professional fields in the north. This generation of northern nationalists have confidently asserted their sense of Irishness like never before. For nationalists, Irish unity may be in the distance, but things are moving the right way- and that’s what counts.

Yet we aren’t remotely approaching the point in which a credible campaign for Irish unity could be mounted and won in the short term, and that not only needs to be accepted but also provide the  incentive to act for political parties and others committed to achieving Irish reunification.

As someone strongly supportive of a united Ireland, my interest in this blog is to outline what I have believed for quite some time now to be the imperatives for united Ireland advocates in the time ahead.

The mission of the current generation of pro-Unity political leaders is three-fold:

  1. Reorient politics onto a north-south axis by developing all-Ireland political parties who, by their nature, will devise, articulate and seek to implement policies and initiatives which are to the betterment of the people of Ireland as a whole, bringing together north and south and pro-actively highlighting the benefits of politics beyond the border. From last night’s programme, it remains apparent that only Sinn Fein have the desire at present to do this, and having invested a generation into cultivating support for the party across the southern state, Sinn Fein is now poised to register its greatest electoral performance in the southern state since 1918, with the real prospect of being in government in north and south simultaneously either in the 2016 Leinster House election or the subsequent election. Fianna Fail have publicly committed to begin contesting elections in Northern Ireland from 2019, and such a development has the capacity to transform all-Ireland politics, with the arrival of the South’s Establishment party bringing with it a knowledge of governance and broadly centrist/centre-right vision which would compete with the all-Ireland leftist vision and politics of Sinn Fein. The competition for votes ensuing can only be a good thing for the nationalist project, which requires a plurality of all-Ireland voices articulating the case for unity through real political ideas.
  2. Make the north of Ireland into a viable and economically successful political entity. That statement might appear to stand traditional republican rhetoric on its head, but in reality it has been the logical assumption driving mainstream republican strategy since Sinn Fein signed up to a Good Friday Agreement incorporating a Stormont assembly and power-sharing Executive. For the record, it is nonsense to talk about the South not being able to afford the North. Of course it could, and the peoples of both states would remain relatively affluent citizens of the First World. A more accurate context and therefore challenge for nationalists is to create the conditions within which the transfer of sovereignty from a UK-context to a united Ireland-context is one which does not significantly impact in a detrimental manner to the wealth and quality of lives of the nation and its people, a scenario in which it would be much more likely to win the battle for hearts and minds on the doorsteps in any unity referendum. That means bringing Northern Ireland to a place where it is almost self-sufficient, with all that entails in terms of transforming the economy over the forthcoming political generation.
  3. Writing into the United Ireland narrative a formal place for the perpetually contested entity that is Northern Ireland. Another sacred cow for some, but for thinking republicans one thing is clear: winning a united Ireland referendum will not be possible unless the vision of what Irish unity might look like moves from the abstract into the concrete. This includes dealing with how to address the reality of the rights and entitlements of the British and unionist people of the north. To that end, I would contend that the answer is already with us. Whether we like it or not- and I include unionists in the ‘we’ as well as nationalists-, we were left behind by the British of Great Britain and Irish of the 26 Counties to continue a quarrel over identity and place some 95 years ago. The north is now, and will continue into perpetuity to be, a contested entity, a hybrid state peopled by stoutly and proudly Irish and British communities whose identities may overlap but may also continue to remain completely separate. In order to address that reality and allow for the rights and entitlements of the Irish nationalist and republican people to be respected in a UK-context, the Good Friday Agreement provided for constitutional and political architecture to respect all three strands of identities that pertain in this society: British, Irish and Northern Irish. Winning a united Ireland referendum will involve demonstrating in a comprehensive manner how we aim to provide for the same safeguards for the British and Unionist people. The answer, to my mind, is staring us in the face. The continued existence in a jurisdictional sense of the northern state, with some regional powers, in an all-Ireland framework would allow for the minority rights currently existing for nationalists to be provided for unionists, removing the ‘fear’ of the unknown which always plagues those articulating the cause of constitutional change but also providing an effective means of ensuring that those more comfortable with a northern Irish identity, multi-layered or stand alone, would feel respected and attracted to a united Ireland model.

But that’s just my thoughts. Let’s hear yours.