Irish unification and Scottish independence both ultimately involve a constitutional exit from the United Kingdom, but the northern context of Irish unity differs markedly from the Scottish question.
The debate surrounding the 2014 independence referendum was no romanticised notion of Scotland the brave sending proud Edward’s army homeward tae think again, rather it was a rational scrutiny of Scotland’s constitutional future.
In northern Ireland, however, it is that very “sense of identity” which is an ever-present factor in relation to the constitutional question.
A 2015 Behaviour & Attitudes cross-border opinion poll characterised this, as 91% of Irish-identifying participants stated their support for Irish unity in the long-term, whilst 94% of British-identifying participants wanted to remain within the union for the foreseeable future.
Sinn Féin recently published a ‘Towards a United Ireland’ discussion paper which included some unionist overtures, but it has predictably fallen on deaf ears. Similarly, a March report carried out by academics at the University of British Columbia claimed the economy of a united Ireland would grow in GDP by £25.4bn in the first 8 years after reunification, but it was equally met with unionist derision.
Critics have called out their proposals for a lack of substance, whilst others point out that Sinn Féin aren’t exactly the most unionist-friendly espousers of the united Ireland agenda. It is a struggle, however, to get all that bothered about the particular minutiae of content or of who could possibly be a better suited messenger for Irish unity, for it is all beside the point – northern unionists just don’t want to know.
Unionist outreach on a united Ireland is stifled by the very nature of northern unionism itself, as it is effectively a form of British nationalism. The binary usage of ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ in northern political discourse inadvertently disguises the fact that northern unionism is an ideological nationalism of its own.Political unionism is not just simply a mere pro-union point of view, it’s a culturally-intertwined political identity.
The combined share of the vote for pan-unionist parties in northern elections from 2011 averages out at 48.7%, whilst 48.4% of northerners identified as British in the 2011 Census. It is reflective of northern unionism’s British-centric outlook that the collective vote for political unionism is practically mirrored by those who claimed a British identity. Interestingly, a larger proportion of northerners identify as British compared to the census figures in Scotland (26.7%), Wales (26.3%) and even England (29.1%). This brings us to the ironic position whereby British sentiment exists to a far greater extent in the north of Ireland than it does in the entirety of Britain.
Simon Kuper has said that “places like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands have more symbols of Britishness than many areas in the UK, where ostentatiously displaying union jacks might be seen as old-fashioned or embarrassing”. Kuper’s analogy could be applied just as well to the UK itself when you compare northern unionists to inhabitants of the British ‘mainland’.
The 2015 B&A poll drew a telling result, in that 55% of northerners rejected Irish unification even if there was a financial incentive to support it. Notably, of those with a British identity who participated in this particular question, an overwhelming majority of them rejected it (90%). Contrast this to a 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey which found that if they were £500 richer, only 37% of Scots sampled would still reject independence. This highlights a key distinction between northern Irish and Scottish unionism.
Whereas George Eaton noted that Scots were motivated more so by “self-interest, not sentimentality”, northern unionists exhibit an innate emotional attachment to Britain alone, and so therefore approach the constitutional question through a prism of identity rather than a monetary lens. After all, they are loyal to the Crown, not the pound.
But let’s not delude ourselves about northern unionists, by and large they are just not interested. 40% of British-identifying northerners according to the 2015 B&A poll said they wanted a return to direct rule from Westminster, never mind a united Ireland.
Indeed, Nigel Dodds’ embrace of Theresa May’s plan for a “red, white and blue” Brexit is expressive of a wider “red, white and blue” unionism in the 6 counties that is ideological opposed to Irish unity per se. In light of these differing contexts, the job ahead for united Irelanders is that bit harder and all the more complex when compared to that of Scottish independence campaigners.
– Mark Petticrew