Chris Donnelly is right to believe that Brexit will give an immediate boost to the cause of a United Ireland and he expresses it in terms well removed from the old Sinn Fein mantra.
In the longer term, Brexit presents an unexpected opportunity for many in nationalist Ireland to develop a vision of an Ireland embracing an interdependent role and future amongst European peoples, in contrast to a unionist vision of a United Kingdom increasingly standing apart from its European neighbours.
This needs unpicking. What is the vision of Ireland in Europe? And will his narrow view of a unionist vision (does he mean NI unionist or English Brexiteer unionist) prevail? Whatever the DUP’s political reasons for supporting Leave, there is no vision of Britain without Europe. And while remaining committed to the EU, Ireland is an unlikely enthusiast for fiscal integration. The diaspora may be sophisticated but its cultural anchors are in the Anglo or the Anglo-hyphen sphere. Additionally the tendency of republican advocates to obsess on identity and generally neglect complex economic arguments is a serious weakness.
The next question is whether the first flush of enthusiasm will lead anywhere. If anything Brexit makes the calculations for future Irish unity more problematical and dangerous than the earlier visions based on reconciliation and coming together.
While the Dublin establishment can spot an opening to unity long term, their collective wish is for a British relationship with Europe as close as possible to what we’ve got. Like Ben Hur at the end, they are astride more than one chariot. And – just possibly despite all the disavowals – they hope the whole thing will go away by following the Irish precedent for a second referendum sometime.
Do not doubt that the GFA status quo is very attractive to southerners. In general they do not subscribe to the relentless Clausewitzian dynamic of unity which may still be Sinn Fein’s approach and Donnelly’s prophetic vision. My betting is that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will make accommodating moves at some point but will finally decline to become active persuaders for unity for fear of upsetting the precariously loaded applecart.
And what of the British establishment, if it still exists? The British union is certainly vulnerable. Just now the English Conservative majority seems quite prepared to see Scotland hive off, never mind Northern Ireland. But Scotland complicates rather than simplifies the calculation about Northern Ireland. Will British opinion ride to the rescue of the Union at the last minute, Northern Ireland included?
We can be sure one thing Foreseeably , the constitutional agenda will not be driven by eager Northern opinion whether unionist or nationalist. Looking through a glass darkly to the future, the contours of the issue remain remarkably constant. .
When we get an inkling of the terms for triggering Article 50, the Irish government ‘s priority will be to win tolerable terms for the island in collaboration with both sides of the negotiations, rather than dwell on aspirations for unity. Making whatever emerges work will last for decades. Where it matters, there will simply not the energy to indulge in visions of unity.
The only real scope lies in a Brexit disaster. Who apart from the greatest fanatic would want that? A disaster for Ireland would create ferment and could threaten stability. That is what the establishments fear and why they are likely to hold tight to the existing British-Irish relationship. They will use it to navigate through any shift of opinion accompanying a Catholic majority in the medium term. There is plenty of scope here for unionists to come out of denial and acquire a little wisdom about developing closer relations with the south. But Northerners whether unionist or nationalists will not call the shots on the fundamentalist question.
The Irish Times have recently ran a fascinating series “ Britain and Me” on experiences of shifting identities, followed by readers’ reactions at home and abroad. The paper’s own summing up captures the overall flavour of warm feelings towards Britain and the conclusions that can be drawn from them.
The sterile alternatives of an Irish nationalism looking to break the connection with England versus a West British identity are largely outmoded. They have been replaced by a sense that Ireland (and increasingly Northern Ireland) are comfortable with their own distinctiveness but also happy to enjoy the benefits of being part of “these islands”.
Those who campaigned for Brexit seemed oblivious to its consequences for the North and for Anglo-Irish relations. All we have heard from them now that they control the political agenda are emollient reassurances. Their desire to sustain a relationship that has improved beyond recognition is undoubtedly genuine. But this time both history and geography impose a duty to think much more seriously about what they are doing.
From West Belfast, there was one exception, to spoil the party as it were… He was reacting to Newton Emerson’s “I do not feel Irish in the slightest “ – (a provocative columnist’s view rather than a typical one).
We were the generation who finally rejected the partitionist statelet; we felt the full terror of British army storm troopers kicking in doors, murdering innocent women and kids, no-jury courts, state collusion and death squads, Long Kesh and hunger strikes. We didn’t need anyone to tell us that it wasn’t our army or state; we fully understood and rejected the failed partitionist basket-case entity – and we definitely weren’t British.
Within our community our Irish identity prevails: Casement Park and Gaelic games; the flag of the Irish Republic flying proudly on Andersonstown Road; Irish-language classes and Gaelscoileanna in every area; schools where Irish, not British, history is taught.
While Emerson looks to “the mainland” (whatever that is) we always looked to Dublin, the capital of Ireland. So the experience of a 15-year-old nationalist in 1970s Belfast was entirely different from the experience of Newton Emerson, post-conflict, around the trendy bars on Lisburn Road.
Belfast is an Irish city, with a nationalist-republican majority, that has been dragged kicking and screaming from a sectarian wasteland into a trendy modern city of equals, still divided but definitely not looking to the “mainland”. Maybe it has looked more to Europe than Dublin in the modern era, but it was never “as British as Finchley”.
Not quite the whole story perhaps but who could blame him for presenting a picture that is so much better than it used to be?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London