Will unionists ever imagine a more generous vision than Orange culture to match Sinn Fein’s on unity?

Showing good timing and a big bunch of confidence, a warm house for Unionists in a united Ireland within the EU has been imagined once again by Matt Carthy of Sinn Fein.

Political positioning, based solely on opposition to Irish unity, is unsustainable.

Although he can hardly expect an immediate favourable response,  his pitch   is directed  towards  the other participants in the interparty talks.

People in Belfast, Derry or Fermanagh need answers to everyday social and economic problems. As the North changes, wrapping everything in the union flag will prove an increasingly threadbare political policy.

There now exists a potential for a progressive consensus among Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Greens, People before Profit, and individual MLAs.

Laying out a vision of what a united Ireland might look like is crucial in allaying fears among unionists of reversed  discrimination or cultural marginalisation in a united Ireland.

 

Carthy is reacting to a speech by commentator Alex Kane  at  the first of a series of  Sinn Fein conferences in Dublin where Kane described himself as a “an unashamed, unambiguous, unembarrassed unionist.” This in itself was revealing and not just to this audience.   Aware unionists realise there’s something not entirely respectable  about the traditional unionist case, even 40 years after the old monopoly government was abolished. Siege mentality and all that.

Carthy  assumes – usurps? –  the role of magnanimous spokesman for majority Irish opinion to a recalcitrant and fearful minority. He paints a doleful picture of unionist isolation in contrast to  Sinn Fein’s  vision of a new Ireland.  And it is well credible. He speaks for a generation that will leave the pike in the thatch and forgets exactly where.  Just now, never mind the strategy- this is the vision thing.

The North has been transformed in recent years. No longer an Orange state, all the old certainties of unionist political establishment are gone.

The recent Assembly election delivered seismic change. The idea of a perpetual unionist majority in the North is now also gone.

Meanwhile, Brexit has changed everything. The prospect of the North being dragged out of the European Union against the democratically expressed wishes of people there, has horrified citizens across the political spectrum and turns on its head the “principle of consent”.

The main unionist party, the DUP, is out of step with people from both communities, not just on Brexit, but on a range of issues, including marriage equality, a Bill of Rights and an Irish Language Act.

Leaving aside  on this occasion dubious assumptions about finance,  Carthy is really  aiming at the other Dail parties to follow what he claims is Sinn Fein’s lead.

In the changed circumstances we are witnessing, it is imperative that the Government too prepares a plan for unity.

One step would be an Oireachtas all-party group to bring forward a Green Paper on the issue.

Plans should be developed for an all-island national health service and all-island public services through a “United Ireland Investment and Prosperity Plan”.

Brexit, the prospect of Scottish independence and the recent Northern election are harbingers of further change, challenges and opportunities.

It is time for all political parties, the media and citizens to engage realistically with planning for Irish unity.

Whether or not the other Dail parties are impressed , more power to Sinn Fein for arranging open debates on the constitutional position. Can you imagine unionist parties doing the same?  Or any UK national party, even at a time when the Union is under threat?

A unionist response based only on defending the narrow ground of Orange culture has gradually dwindling appeal.  Unionists need to work on positive reasons for not cutting the British constitutional link rather than positive reasons for not joining the rest of Ireland. This  should be part of their new reality, now that the political implications of a Catholic majority are being frankly discussed at last.

In the talks and  generally, creative unionist thinking is notable by its absence, apart perhaps from random observations from Mike Nesbitt who reminds me  just a little of a better educated modern Terence O’Neill.

Ironically, by taking several leaves out of Sinn Fein’s book, unionists would  be aligning themselves closer to the broad trend of opinion in GB, UKIP notwithstanding. The DUP would be very ill-advised long term to put all their eggs in the basket of the Conservative right wing.

An outward looking unionism is badly needed. Part of it is about realising that all-island  coooperation is an economic survival strategy and not a threat to the constitutional position.  Admittedly a stretch, but if it came to it,  customs checks at the ports and airports would be the acceptable cost of keeping the land border open.

The trouble is,  the sort of pragmatic  unionism that would accept such solutions is the life experience of  people who think of themselves as reluctant voters  and basically apolitical. Their sense of  nation crosses seas and borders easily and accepts sovereignty where it’s claimed. They wince at the sound of most politicians.

Confident in their ownership of the world language, they’re at ease with Irish signs, names, music and sport. They do not contemplate the absurdity of a border for writing and the arts and seek no bogus symmetry between a flute band and the glorious revival of Irish music, or between the Irish language and a local version of a lowland Scots dialect. They cross the water to live and work  without thinking of it as emigration. Belfast is their region’s capital, Dublin their island’s and London is their great metropolis.

Without making too much of a fuss about it, they’re proud of their own considerable heritage and know they are one of another with their similar thinking neighbours. They  react against over-categorisation.

Nationalism on the rise is more consciously political yet often seems more willing to accommodate.

For everybody, despite Sinn Fein’s frustrations, all the options are available within the GFA. National allegiance has become a matter of choice than perceived necessity. That makes its future all the more unpredictable.

 

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