‘The omerta since 1998 has ended.’

The post-Brexit period has witnessed a number of pronouncements on all-Ireland matters which have provoked a range of responses, some more deserving of greater scrutiny than others.

Whilst Sinn Fein representatives have been a consistent voice calling for an Irish unity referendum, before and after Brexit, references to the context within which such a border poll might be called by other nationalists, north and south, has sparked renewed media interest in the topic.

There are a number of good articles worth reading on the theme of a united Ireland in recent days, including this from Newton Emerson (on the idea of a return to an Irish pound) in The Irish Times and another from David McWilliams in the Sunday Business Post.

But Justine McCarthy’s Sunday Times article is perhaps the most interesting because it touches on a subject which, to my mind, will be the most significant in terms of the enduring legacy from the recent upsurge in interest regarding Irish unity that has been prompted by the fallout from Brexit.

In her piece, McCarthy correctly notes that, with the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin both floating the issue of Irish unity, we have finally moved on from the era in which the objective of Irish nationalists and republicans was an idea that dare not be mentioned by its supporters, apart from the one political party most avowedly dedicated to its achievement, Sinn Fein.

McCarthy suggests that this has been a consequence of a desire to avoid upsetting unionists:

“Probably the biggest factor has been the Republic’s inscrutable silence on the question of a united Ireland. This speak no evil gag, despite the state’s constitutional aspiration for unification, was motivated by the necessity  not to alarm Northern Ireland’s unionist majority. Any collateral offence caused to northerners wishing to belong to an all-island Ireland was deemed to be one of the prices of peace.”

McCarthy is right to highlight the rationale proffered for an approach that remains prevalent within the southern Irish political class. But whilst some may have argued it was necessary in order to bed down political institutions in the immediate post-Agreement era, it nevertheless is reflective of a mentality utterly contrary to the word and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement- and, again, she correctly identifies the ‘collateral offence’ caused to northern nationalists.

As I have written before on this site, Unionist ‘fears’ (or related synonyms like ‘concerns’ and ‘sensitivities’) have for long been employed as a strategy to act as a bulwark against moves to make northern society more equal.

If people have ‘fears’ then, naturally, there is an onus on others to examine if they are indeed causing this condition to arise, acting in an inappropriate manner which has a detrimental effect on others.

The inaccurate and indeed loaded (intentional or otherwise) use of the term to describe unionist attitudes to items for discussion discourages analysis of the motivation of unionist political leaders and puts the onus on others (namely nationalists) to examine if they are acting in a manner which creates or exacerbates unionist ‘fears.’

Stripped back, these fears are, in reality, nothing more or less than mere opposition to ideas articulated by others. Not liking and opposing something is quite different to genuinely fearing it.

Empowered by the prevalence of this assumption, Arlene Foster’s reaction to the twin ideas floated, of an all-Ireland forum to discuss an Irish response to Brexit and the possibility of a border poll at some non-specific time in the future, make sense.

The DUP leader declared the comments to be ‘unhelpful’, stating that they had caused ‘instability’, suggesting the two most senior politicians on the island should avoid airing such notions at Donegal summer schools in the future.

Whilst Arlene Foster, as a determined unionist, would be expected to oppose any campaign for Irish unity, the arrogance behind her comments can only be understood if one accepts as the premise that unionist attitudes should somehow be deemed superior to those of their neighbouring nationalists within the north. Indeed, her comments echoed those of prominent Alliance MLA, Stewart Dickson, who made the extraordinary claim just two months ago that Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin’s support for a united Ireland, if shared by others in ‘wider society’, could put reconciliation efforts at risk. Incidentally, the same arrogance can be detected in purportedly moderate Unionist Basil McCrea’s ridiculous claim that allowing Irish citizens residing in Northern Ireland to vote for the Irish President would “cause huge problems for us in Northern Ireland” and “unleash unwanted forces..by raising issues of nationality.”

Foster’s sense of entitlement in this regard has been nurtured by the continued prevalence of this mindset, reflected again in former Progressive Democrat frontbencher and one time Minister of State, Liz O’Donnell, who wrote this past week about how bad Mr Taoiseach was for even mentioning a border poll.

In her own words:

“Which makes me gasp at the timing of the Taoiseach’s musings about a border poll on Irish unity as part of the Irish Brexit discussions. Thinking out loud about a poll on Irish reunification at this juncture is not helpful to Anglo-Irish relations. True, a united Ireland remains a legitimate aspiration in our Constitution on the basis of consent. Article 2 Annex A of the Good Friday Agreement states that the Northern Secretary can trigger a poll on the matter “if at any time it appears likely to him/her that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland”.

The Taoiseach accepts the conditions for the holding of such a border poll are not in place or even proximate. So why poison the well of goodwill needed with unionists and the British government by bringing this up? We should not take political stability and peace for granted. It is not so long ago that removing the Union flag from Belfast City Hall prompted loyalist riots and sustained street protests. Overreaching by nationalists on issues which touch on sovereignty or allegiance is ill judged. The Government should focus on practical trade and travel issues and a soft border which are essential factors in Anglo-Irish relations post-Brexit and leave constitutional issues alone for now.

It is wrong and provocative to conflate a Remain vote in Northern Ireland with a contingent support for Irish unity. The two issues are totally separate.

Constitutional issues need diplomacy and long lead-in times. Central to the peace process has been a respectful partnership between the two governments as custodians. The new prime minister has stressed her desire to preserve the Union and will not be impressed with a poll on Irish unity being so casually and prematurely thrown into the mix. Touting it was bound to aggravate unionists, particularly after their earlier rejection of an all-island forum on Brexit issues. We know from long experience that unionists are deeply suspicious of creeping cross-border initiatives, however benign.

The northern executive, led by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, needs to work together with the two governments for pragmatic solutions to Brexit challenges and not be distracted by hypothetical and needlessly divisive propositions. Let sleeping dogs lie.”

It is hard to know where to begin with such a statement.

According to the gasping O’Donnell, the Taoiseach “poison(ed) the well of goodwill” by simply referencing the possibility of a border poll at some non-defined point in the future.

Furthermore, her interpretation of the flag dispute is wholly consistent with that element within unionism which continues to resist changes aimed at making Northern Ireland an equal state and society for its peoples.

Incredibly, and without any sense of self-awareness, O’Donnell references British Prime Minister Theresa May’s declaration of support for the Union without at any time seeking to understand that one can not validate such a pronouncement from a British Prime Minister on matters constitutional without also affording an Irish Taoiseach the same right. Following her own logic, O’Donnell should have castigated Theresa May for seeking to strengthen the Union on the basis that it might raise nationalist ‘fears’ in the north.

Justine McCarthy is correct in her claim that a Rubicon has been crossed. One of the legacies of 2016 is likely to be that Irish nationalists finally begin to explore in a substantive manner how the aspiration of Irish unity can be turned into a reality. That won’t mean a border poll any time soon- there is plenty of other work to be done to take Irish unity from an abstract ideal into something tangible, and lessons can be learned from the Scottish experience.  But one of the first battles for Irish unity advocates will be to confront a lingering mindset amongst the southern political class which fails to recognise that, in our new political dispensation, there is no justification for that collateral offence to continue to be caused. In fact, it does more harm than good.