Back in March my article ‘Why Unionism Has a Problem’ seemed to strike a chord with the Slugger readership, so it is natural to follow the intrinsic problems of Unionism with another article that reflects the inherent problems facing Nationalism.
There is little doubt that recent elections have reinvigorated the idea of Irish unity that had been in the doldrums for a few years. There is a widespread feeling, particularly among young nationalists that a united Ireland is not only possible, but inevitable. In order for that to happen in the short-term a sufficient number of unionists must be persuaded to change their minds but if they do not, a Catholic demographic surge will decide the issue in the medium term. However, both these scenarios rest on the assumption that Catholics will overwhelmingly vote for a united Ireland and it is here that things begin to get complicated.
A BBC opinion poll conducted in September 2016 found that only 22% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland. If that stat is even remotely true then a large proportion of SDLP and even Sinn Féin must voters view a united Ireland as something they might desire but are frightened of implementing. This is scarcely surprising given Northern Ireland’s massive reliance on public sector employment. Local administrators will still be required in a post-unity scenario but will they required in such numbers? Not everyone feels strongly enough about the current political arrangements to risk their career, mortgage and prosperity in exchange for an uncertain future.
Everything of course also depends upon whether the Republic would want Northern Ireland to join it. This is often taken for granted but a joint BBC/RTE poll held in 2016 showed that only 32% of respondents in the Irish Republic wanted a united Ireland in the short to medium term compared with 66% who wished to see it happen in their lifetime, a figure that dropped to 31% if it meant paying more tax. It is clear therefore that for many, the aspiration for a united Ireland on both sides of the border is exactly that – an aspiration. People cool on the idea when confronted with the prospect of actually paying for it.
A united Ireland therefore only seems feasible only if it is at zero or modest cost to the Irish taxpayer, something that can only happen if there is massive financial subvention from an outside party such as the UK or EU, or, the Northern Ireland economy dramatically improves in terms of employment, wages and levels of economic inactivity to reduce the burden on an all-Ireland state.
So there’s the rub, a united Ireland might only be possible if Northern Ireland succeeds but if it succeeds too well, many Nationalists might decide no change is required and defer unity to ‘within their lifetime’, which could be forty or fifty years away.
Of course there are many more variables than the ones I have discussed and hopefully readers will comment on these. Unforeseen events such as the effects of Brexit will also shape people’s opinions. At present there are few transfers of allegiance across traditional lines but they do occur, and the younger generation seems less set in its ways than the old and middle-aged.
Politically there is everything to play for. The SDLP’s decline has side-lined it in the unity debate while Sinn Féin has become more pragmatic than in the past. The party is openly discussing continued devolution in the six-county area and how to accommodate a British identity in an all-Ireland set-up. These efforts have achieved minimal success so far and Unionism remains firmly in denial about the need to win over Catholics to offset the rising demographic tide. Mike Nesbitt’s attempt to build an alliance with the SDLP was rejected by elements of his own party and failed to make an electoral impact. The DUP, now clearly in the ascendant, while prepared to divide (a word I have chosen carefully) power with Sinn Féin, remain determined to resist any celebration or promotion of Irishness, a stance unlikely to gain many converts.
Crucially, what a United Ireland would actually look like remains foggy. Are Nationalists prepared to give up symbols that are precious to them, such as the Tricolour and Amhrán na bhFiann, to win over Unionists? Nobody knows and there lies the problem. To use a motoring analogy, who spends big money on a car without researching it first? A United Ireland is within sight but is still covered with a tarpaulin and no one knows what’s beneath it. Republicans tend to think a gleaming new Ferrari sits there just waiting to be uncovered while Unionists fear they’ll be stuck with a clapped-out old banger they won’t even be allowed to drive. Others simply don’t want to risk the adequate but troublesome car they have at the minute for one that might be even worse.
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam