In yesterday’s News Letter, Alex Kane, in effect, calls ‘bullshit’ on Sinn Féin’s latest pronoucements on a new united Ireland… and, perhaps, the political psychosis that underlies their thinking. That’s without addressing the question of the authority to offer any such constitutional guarantees and/or the willingness, or ability, to deliver them. [It’s ‘Blue Sky’ thinking! – Ed] Of course it is… From the News Letter article
I was on a Féile an Phobail panel with Michelle O’Neill last Wednesday evening, discussing the prospects of Irish unity in the wake of Brexit.
She admitted that she was, “neither naïve nor insensitive about unionist unease on Irish unity,” then added, “constitutional change can be achieved without sacrificing identity or citizenship. For me, upholding, protecting and respecting the rights of all citizens must define a new, agreed and united Ireland. That means upholding the rights of citizens to be British and unionist.”
Here’s my problem with that. I am a British citizen: by birth and by choice. I am a unionist by choice, too; someone who believes that the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland will be better protected within the United Kingdom than in a united Ireland. In the event of a border poll producing a majority for ending the Union (triggering years of negotiation against a background of uncertainty and instability) how does she, or anyone else, uphold my right to be British and unionist in the resultant united Ireland?
As he goes on to point out
It is not possible to be British and unionist in a united Ireland in the way that it is possible to be Irish and nationalist in Northern Ireland. Irish unity shuts down unionism – because the fundamental purpose of unionism is to protect and promote a union with the United Kingdom. Voting to end the Union and then withholding the opportunity to rejoin the Union at some future point means that unionism ceases to have a purpose. What role would there be for the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party or any other unionist party?
Partition didn’t rob Sinn Fein of a role and purpose. But Irish unity leaves nothing for political/electoral unionism.
So I’d like to know – and I touched upon the issue when I was guest speaker at a Sinn Fein ‘Uniting Ireland’ conference in Dublin in January – what part of my unionism or unionist identity would be protected under Sinn Fein’s proposals? I won’t be able to campaign for the restoration of the Union. I won’t be offered a border poll. I’m pretty sure that unionists wouldn’t be given a veto over legislation to match the veto that nationalists have in the Assembly. I’m equally sure that there wouldn’t be a form of mandatory power-sharing involving unionists in future all-Ireland governments.
I would also like Sinn Fein to thoroughly address Michelle’s claim that, “constitutional change can be achieved without sacrificing identity or citizenship”.
How? What would it mean to be a unionist in a united Ireland? What would it mean to be British in a united Ireland? If the Good Friday Agreement – with its right to be British or Irish (or both) – wasn’t good enough for Sinn Fein, then why would unionists want a constitutional settlement in a new united Ireland which robs them of role, purpose and the ability to reverse the result of a border poll? If a border poll doesn’t deliver Irish unity then Sinn Fein will keep on demanding another one. If a border poll does deliver a united Ireland then unionists will be told to ‘suck it up’.
Identity is a bedrock for most of us. We know who we are. We know who we want to be. That’s why nationalists – many of whom have lived their whole lives in the United Kingdom – want a united Ireland. They feel Irish. They want to be Irish. They want their state to reflect their identity.
For the same reason, unionists – who live in a place with Ireland in the title – reject the primacy of the Irishness in favour of the United Kingdom; because they, too, want a state that reflects their identity. So, in just the same way that nationalists in Northern Ireland can’t permanently settle for their Irish/nationalist identity being simply recognised and accommodated in part of the United Kingdom, unionists wouldn’t settle for their British/unionist identity being simply recognised and accommodated in a united Ireland.
I welcome the fact that Sinn Fein seems ready to extend the unity debate (and I hope mainstream unionism will engage); but they really need to move beyond positions and guarantees for unionists in a united Ireland that Sinn Fein wouldn’t themselves settle for in Northern Ireland.
Don’t hold your breath, Alex…
But it’s a point that helps illuminate the challenge Mick highlighted in Fintan O’Toole’s Irish Times op-ed…
In the context of Ireland’s future, 50 per cent + 1 is not, as Adams claims, “what democracy is about”. That kind of crude, tribal majoritarianism is precisely what the Belfast Agreement is meant to finish off. Again, the new article 3 of the Constitution is a good guide:
“It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions. . .”
Harmony, friendship, diversity, multiplicity, a unity not of territory but of people – not: “We beat you by one vote so suck it up and welcome to our nation.”
Irish democracy has to be “about” the creation of a common polity in which minorities of different kinds can feel fully at home. We’re not remotely there yet – on either side of the Border.
…as well as illuminating the Dissenter’s reference to “unselfconscious repetition of communal tropes”.
To nationalists/republicans (patronisingly), unionists simply don’t understand their own condition: they believe the British ‘connection’ is necessary for their well-being when all it denotes is their dependence; either unionists become enlightened enough to free themselves; or the British government should persuade them to act according to their real interests; perverse unionist suspicions, self-doubts and prejudices should not stand in the way of the inevitability of a United Ireland.
On this ‘side of the Border’, bridges are still not being built. [There’s no votes in bridges! – Ed] Longley, once again.
“peace is the absence of war: the opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization.”