An excellent piece by Belfast Barman recently asked why, since the dream/ threat of a United Ireland allegedly defines our politics in Northern Ireland, we rarely hear the details of how exactly it would work discussed by those in favour or the precise, alleged horrors of such a thing debated by those strongly against.
In an even more recent post Colum Eastwood, however, starts to think – in broad terms – about what might be needed to bring about a United Ireland through “Progressive Nationalism”.
Colum’s speech also includes a very interesting aside: namely, that there are “many” people in Northern Ireland who no longer subscribe to the mainstream political labels of Unionist and Nationalist. And that aside leads to an even more interesting question, namely that since a United Ireland continues to poll low, since non-voters make up a huge slice of our population and since, in my experience, some Unionists are increasingly Northern Irish in their thinking, are we not living in the most fertile time we have ever seen for a third option, a new idea, on the constitution of Northern Ireland itself?
Politics in Northern Ireland tends to assume that there are two options: a United Ireland and an unchanging Union. But this assumes that a party political vote means an unflinching position on either option and excludes those “many” people without those main labels. It assumes that people are already voting on the issue of ‘the border’ and assumes that a person’s culture equates to a firm view on the Union/ United Ireland.
Not only does it do this, but it fails to look too closely at, for one example, HOW Unionist a Unionist voter might be and therefore ignores the question of just how open to compromise people in Northern Ireland might be to a third idea on Northern Ireland’s constitution.
Much of Unionism and Nationalism seems to be about identity and recognition, not solely about the Union or a United Ireland. So if orange and green are starting to look distinctly tangerine and lime around the edges and if “many” people are outside the standard political boxes, what would happen if that third option – what that option could be is not important for this exercise – was put to people as readily as we assume their uncompromising position on the Union or a United Ireland?
Are we honestly saying that only two options on the border in Northern Ireland exist? That only two options will ever exist?
If the answer is negative to the latter is this not, then, a time when parties and people in general should also be thinking about shaping a third option, with all that they would wish to see within it, instead of adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to the shifting sands of a changing Union and a changing Northern Ireland.
It is generally accepted that a United Ireland continues to poll low at the moment. Meanwhile, we had the emergence of the ‘Northern Irish’ in census results and within some Unionists I have noted – anecdotally, I’ll admit – Unionist voters and non-voters known to me who, on issues like National Anthem at Windsor Park and on questions of British identity, are a lot less Unionist than I might have assumed and a lot more Northern Irish that I could have ever thought.
How do we know how many of these assumed-Unionists would actually want their own Northern Ireland identity through a third option, which would safely contain their cultural unionism and leave space for the cultural identity of others? How we can we assume they’d reject this option given the chance to do so?
And with a United Ireland generally off the political table at present, we now have very changed society in Northern Ireland for Nationalists/ Republicans (meaning – you’d hope – a new confidence and a different climate for Unionists too).
Some blocks of voters begin to look very powerful in this context if a third option became the goal:
– Loyalism: Does a third idea on the Union exist which gives Loyalism, working with others to shape that option, more recognition from all?
– Republicanism: Most of the current thinking reminds me of a child banging on a sweet shop window instead of figuring out with his mates how to pool their money and actually go through the door. Would it not be better to drive a third option with others than hope for a single outcome?
– Nationalism/ Unionism: How many voters take a softer position on the Union/ United Ireland than is assumed and are therefore open to a third idea? We have an entire post-ceasefire generation in our midst; we could we be underestimating, thanks to our pre-ceasefire political boxes, an appetite for compromise and cementing their peace even further?
And that’s not to mention Alliance and the very large number of non-voters.
Are people generally uncompromising in their view of the Union and United Ireland? The main parties would like us to think so: after all, it defines their existence.
So they would say that.
But if someone was to propose a third option on the Union/ United Ireland or if a group of voters were to talk to – say – Loyalism or SDLP voters or even non-voters about combining their support to build the ideal ‘Northern Ireland’ they really wish for, what could be created within that third idea?
The last article I read which went into serious detail about how a United Ireland would work was written some time ago by the Conall McDevitt, so it is great to see the SDLP starting to open the subject up properly again.
What if all ‘sides’ went into the same detail and set out their stalls but for the benefit of each other, trying to buy each other in and create something new? Ultimately, they could end up working together on a third idea instead of against each other on old ideas.
One of the best Radio Ulster Thought for the Day speakers I ever heard (would appreciate a link) read a list of how the great world powers had changed over the years. His simple, brilliant message: ‘Empires change’.
And Alex Kane spoke at the Slugger Review of the Year in December about the need for a new kind of politics. That’s very much agreed. To take it a step further: how many people are waiting for a third option, a new kind of politics on the Union/ United Ireland itself?
What is the theoretical silent majority actually thinking? What would they say in a United Ireland referendum if an option instructing politicians to find a third way was included?
And how many people would be willing to take their hands off the political tug-of-war rope simply by being offered a different option and asked ahead of time what they want the new game – perhaps an inevitable new game – to look like?
What if many people feel a lot more strongly about identity and are capable of a lot more compromise on the Union and United Ireland than we think?
DEAL OR NO DEAL
Take Donegal, for example, where the concept of nationality, views on the Union, culture, language, sport and religion are apparently more fluid and free-flowing than anything most of us are used to. Would people in Northern Ireland adopt the same thinking if released from the boxes of party-political position on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ concept of a United Ireland?
Perhaps this third idea is the equivalent of the time travel paradox which tells us that if time travel was possible someone would have appeared from the future to tell us so: ie, if a workable option did exist it would have taken root by now. That is, of course, unless our political parties are defined and exist on their basis of those boxes “many” of us don’t subscribe to.
Could a third option be the ultimate game of Deal or No Deal? You get to bring the whole debate to an end for good; but you settle on the banker’s deal and shake hands with finality. Your old enemy may have won a ‘payout’ of much of their ultimate wishlist; but so did you. And you get to know that their perceived encroachment on your aspirations is settled forever.
I’d like to see it put to the test and to know what people, not parties, would think of a third option which could even give us our increasingly less different identities within a single identity.
With attitudes to a United Ireland and life in modern Northern Ireland very different from just a few years ago, the concept of the Union itself facing change sooner or later and the difficulty in assuming that a person’s cultural politics equate to an uncompromising view on the border, is it time for someone to take a harder look for the Northern Ireland politics of the future and begin to lead voters, and non-voters, forwards in a new way on the constitution itself?
Or maybe it is all just an idealistic pipe-dream.
Sure they said that about the SNP.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net