No Irish unity to be got from leaning on the idle end of a long handled shovel

Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times has something useful to say on the matter of Sinn Fein’s latest push for a United Ireland. (Remember how we were told last June’s general election was to be a poll on whether to have a border poll?)

In particular, this:

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.

Or at least that’s what the Irish constitution says. Unification was not meant to be easy, even after 1998 and the historic Agreement ratified by people on both sides of the border.

Mr Adams has made a career out of making difficult thing sound incredibly easy and then breaking with his own projected timetables. Somewhere, in the Ulster Museum I think, there’s a poster promising “Victory in ’73”.

Only six or seven years ago 2016 (ie, last year) was to see a united Ireland. After each failure, the rhetoric is dropped only to re-emerge with a new date and timetable. Never enough to win, but always enough to keep the pot bubbling.

Despite its serial failures, SF holds a remarkable appeal to nationalism at large (particularly in Northern Ireland, where fear of the other is far more immediate and pressing), even as the footprint for nationalism has shrunk with unionism.

The issue is far from Sinn Fein’s alone. And in quoting the Bunreacht, O’Toole re-asserts, rightly in my view, the seriousness of the challenge. The still unexplained collapse of Stormont indicates soldierly fantasies of total victory are becoming unstable as well as unsustainable.

The Dissenter blog has an interesting line on how all shades of nationalism have allowed themselves to be captured by the “unselfconscious repetition of communal tropes”:

In 1971, for example, John Hume argued that most unionists concede ‘the inevitability of a united country’. There was ‘little point in evading any further the inevitability on which all are agreed.’

Hume’s view of unionism assumed that its opposition to Irish unity was ‘primarily psychological’. As a politics of maintaining ‘division’ in Ireland, it was really the product of ill-founded fears.

In other words, it was irrational. Unionism, anxiously clinging on to Britain for support, denied its real affinity with the rest of the island.

And because historically, if cynically, the British – for their own reasons – underwrote that relationship, they were and remain responsible for unionist intransigence.

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.

This ‘contempt for the other’ is broad, and has its roots in the reinforcing and recurring experience of past conflicts. Nor is it confined to exclusively to nationalism. The reflexive desire to be governed by only by co-nationals alone remains strong.

In a very different (marketing) context, Henry Jenkins talked about a parallel issue: ie, assumption that people are just dumb transmitters of ideas flooded in centrally and replicated without individual thought. But, he argues:

…culture is not in any meaningful sense self-replicating — it relies on people to propel, develop and sustain it. The term ‘culture’ originates from metaphors of agriculture: the analogy was of cultivating the human mind much as one cultivates the land.

Culture thus represents the assertion of human will and agency upon nature. As such, cultures are not something that happen to us, cultures are something we collectively create.

Quite. This much is evident in Stacy Dooley’s BBC documentary Brian highlighted last week. In these lights, Bonfires are willful (and deeply meaningful) acts of cultural defiance, which only intensify with increased stress.

It is evident too from her bizarre interview in a broom cupboard with two young Sinn Fein Republicans, that the strength with which the inevitability myth continues to set austere boundaries upon the northern nationalist imagination.

The deep conviction that Unionism will inevitably self-harm to the point where it surrenders its own oft repeated birthright leaves northern nationalism in a passive bind, which has led them to cast off the co-operative institutional institutions they worked a generation to realise.

It’s a trope in Washington circles if you are not connected to the problem you cannot be an agent for its solution. The pre-assumption of Brexit failure is appealing to those of us who lost the argument but it is also profoundly lazy.

The UK has deep pockets and considerable economic moment in the world. Leaving Stormont without a nationalist rudder, merely passes all the political capital (the negatives yes, but also the billion pound positives) to the DUP and unionism at large.

On Irish Unity, Fintan concludes that “its friends can serve it best by working to create a Republic of equals that might be worth joining.”

Yes, that and bridges. Yet bridges don’t get built, and health and education services don’t get reformed, and the Republic made more relevant to the daily life of NI, whilst speaking warmly of future unity as you lean heavily on the idle end of your long handled shovel.


  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    That’s not an argument. That’s a blank statement. You’ll need to articulate your argument if unionism is to expand beyond the absolutists. Brexit is fast approaching and new challenges will continue to be faced about the benefits of stating within the UK.

  • 05OCT68

    UK healthcare is “free at the point of use”. It’s paid out of taxation both personal & corporate. Last year my tax summary indicated that nearly 40% of my tax went to Health & Welfare. This notion of “free” has to be challenged, UK healthcare is not free.

  • mickfealty

    When have I ever? 😉

  • Trasna

    Oh scary. Not.

  • Trasna

    Like I said, time to put an end to 19th and 20th century politics in Ireland. You’re either in or out, but let’s end it once and for all.

  • james

    Historical fact, mate. Obviously, I wouldn’t wish it on Ireland – just pointing out that the IRA basically massacred civilians here because their radical viewpoint was rejected by sociert as a whole. If a poll passed in NI but was rejected by a wide margin in Ireland it isn’t unreasonable to ask whether militant Republicans might try to force it on them. Personally, I don’t think they would – but they were certainly more than eager to murder Irish people in ‘the north’ towards that end.

  • james

    Granted, the IRA were mostly a rabble. But a moron with a gun is a dangerous moron.

  • Karl

    I find it interesting that while unionism refuses to engage on discussions for an agreed Ireland, that you are waiting for political nationalism to provide you with what the new Ireland will look like.
    Likely, as has happened with documents that have been produced recently, the first response from unionism is ‘this is rubbish because there was no unionist input’.
    Nationalism wont wait, especially now with Brexit. If unionism refuses to engage, then it cant expect to shape Irelands future.

  • Alan N/Ards

    “Likely, as has happened with documents that have been produced recently, the first response from unionism is ‘this is rubbish because there was no unionist input’.

    I assume that you are aware that I’m not unionism. I’m just an individual, from that community, but who is totally fed up with the ungenerous behaviour of the so called leaders of unionism. I’m also someone who is disheartened by Brexit and the antics of the DUP in promoting it, and selling their support to the tories for a few pieces of silver.

    If nationalism has any sense, they should talk to the pro remain unionists who are fed up with Arlene and her cronies. I mentioned Harold Good and his comments the other day. There are many like him , who are generous and able to compromise, unlike our so called leaders.

    Unionism is not just the politicians, although they like to think that they speak on our behalf, but many of us are able to think for ourselves. Political nationalism needs to give us something to listen to.

  • james

    My lot?

    Well, either way, I see your point that “triumphalism in this restored scenario isn’t going to do anyone any favours.” – but there’s no triumphalism from me, nor should there be from anyone. I’m a unionist and I don’t see the need for a hardened border, presumably nationalists don’t want that either – so everyone’s a winner.

  • john millar


  • john millar

    “Someday Unionists are going to have to come up with a better argument for staying in the UK than “We’re so expensive no one else can afford us”. ”
    Disabuse yourself of that canard
    1 Unionists reject a UI largely because of past experience – with a sharp eye on the ” final solution” result of their co-religionists in the ROI. and their first hand experience of the last (say 70 odd) years .
    2 NI costs – indeed it does – I suggest you examine where the burden of those costs fall

  • lizmcneill

    Fortunately the Irish government have more respect for international treaties and their existing citizens than you do.

  • Timothyhound

    Nasty stuff. Lots of good reason to fund projects in the North. The awful A5 for example – everyone benefits.

  • Thomas Girvan

    This is an oft repeated misquote.
    Check it out.

  • The Saint

    final solution in Ireland?where do you guys get this material?

  • The Saint

    Referencing opinion polls prior to the calling of such a referendum is worthless. Scots Indy polls in 2004 are in and around 20 points at variance from indy 14.

    Ironically uk won that with the promise “the only way to stay in the EU is through us”

    I think many in n.Ireland have learned an important lesson about English promises since.

  • Trasna

    Drop the grandparent rule most definitely. Reserved for Irish born in the Rep of Ireland only, not the Free State.

  • Trasna

    If the UK leave the Europe courts of justice, it’s ‘what Treaty’.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    For what it’s worth, on the few occasions I’ve made suggestions to nationalists regarding ways to make a united Ireland more appealing to the unionist-lite demographic I’ve been met with hysterical “WHY SHOULD WE PANDER!!!??” type responses.

  • james

    “If unionism refuses to engage, then it cant expect to shape Irelands future.”

    Therein lies the problem. Unionism has been fairly clear and consistent over at least the last hundred years that we don’t want or expect to shape Ireland’s future – largely because we know we won’t be a part of Ireland’s future, just as we are not part of its present.

    I wish Ireland all the best will in the world for the future – just that it doesn’t involve me. I’m a UK citizen, was born and brought up in the UK (county of Fermanagh) and confidently expect my future to be in the UK, too. Irrespective of whatever hyped-up ‘crisis’ the hardcore Republican gremlins can dream up for next week.

  • james

    AG, the fundamental reason why a UI couldn’t work (and thus, this being obvious to rational observers, why it will never happen) is that a UI would have to somehow incorporate (an estimated) 50-90,000 of the worst elements of Irish Republicanism. Essentially, these are fundamental malcontents who have been ‘radicalised’ by the Gerry Adams generation as a useful & unthinking baying mob. They have a purpose in the current situation (blind hatred of unionists which provides cover for the excesses and incompetencies of Sinn Fein, as it once provided cover for the IRA’s sectarian murder campaign) – but in a UI (after the likely emigration of a fair slice of unionists, and marginalization of the remnants) what would become of them?

    Protestors, with occasional acts of violence, now directed against the government in Dublin for its not caring enough about the ghettoes and deprivation in ‘the north’ (egged on by the forever-a-bridesmaid goons in Sinn Fein)?

    My hunch is just that – after a 6-12 month honeymoon period, the chronic malcontents of Irish Republicanism briskly revert to type.

    You just can’t change what you are – especially given the self-righteous hypocrisy that is endemic to the Irish Republican character.

  • Croiteir

    What is meant by making power sharing work?

  • mickfealty

    Harold has been telling how it is for years, then gets it in the neck from his own folks because his interlocutors show no sign of having understood never mind internalising what he’s told them.

    They give every impression of believing what anyone who is not bought into their project thinks is irrelevant. Meanwhile the deadlines keep slipping, even as they consolidate around the dream. Seems not to occurred to them that dreams need diggers too. And that’s where their opponents (and erstwhile partners in government), the DUP are a lot more focused and together. Stormont or direct rule.

  • mickfealty

    Not running out like a scalded cat when you don’t get your way?

  • lizmcneill

    It’s the ECHR not the ECJ and Irexit is not likely to happen.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Jobseekers Allowance in NI is £72.40.

    In the Republic its €193.

  • Tochais Siorai

    The old Republic was too religious. The current one is too liberal.

    Ye’re a hard bunch to please,

  • Croiteir

    Ah – that’s that it means – maybe, just maybe, if unionism had not an extremely liberal interpretation of keeping their agreements people would not run from them like scalded cats. Me? I would prefer not to even attempt to make partition work and would not have been there in the first place to get the hand taken out of ye.

  • Croiteir

    Not quite how I would have presented it – but fair enough

  • mickfealty

    I wouldn’t call it liberal. It’s a very narrow and conservative view of the arrangement. No one said power-sharing was going to be easy, but the St Andrews Agreement tightened the arrangement and made it virtually impossible to work between two political parties as ideologically rigid at the DUP and SF.

  • Croiteir

    You are using liberal in the political sense Mick, which is fail enough in a political orientated blog. I wasn’t. And there was always going to be a squeeze between the big tow no matter who they were, the result of a stalemate between to blocks whose main division is division of the nation.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Thankfully, you’re in a very small minority on that viewpoint. Never ever heard anyone express anything like it before.

  • Tochais Siorai

    The vast bulk of those 250,000 would be very annoyed at being described as Unionists.

  • mickfealty

    I wasn’t.

  • mark vincent

    Just because we live on an Island doesn’t mean there is only one nation in Ireland, Britain is an Island but there are 3 separate nations living there united by the consent of its people.
    The Scots are a minority on the Island of Great Britain but that doesn’t mean the English can use their majority status to make Scotland English, this a lesson Nationalists need to learn.

  • mark vincent

    Do you really think people go to the doctor just because it is free.

  • mark vincent

    The problem is that the Irish identity is an invented one as there has never been an Irish nation as such, their identity is basically that they aren’t British,hatred of Britain is no substitute.
    Regarding people who aren’t Catholic as not Irish shows that they can only identify with each other through their religion.
    The arrival of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland was a catastrophe for the people.
    As there is no indigenous Irish culture as such the only way they can identify themselves as a separate group is through their religious identity.
    Ethnically the Irish are bog standard Northern British which is a mongeral mix of various genetic strains which is why their Catholic identity is so important ,without which they would have no real sense of Irishness.

  • mark vincent

    The republic sponges of the EU to which the UK is a nett contributor so if anything the Southerners are the real spongers.
    Without the EU handouts the South would be knackered.
    Where does this delusional sense of economic and social superiority of the South over the North come from?
    Once Brexit is achieved the South will realise the economic realities of life, they need to export to the UK and they also need to use the UK to export their goods to Europe so if barriers go up who do you think will come off worst.

  • Trasna

    Nazi clown.

  • Trasna

    How parochial, don’t the 4.7 million other Irish people have any say at all?

  • Trasna

    Oh really, have a border poll or Ireland vetoes any trade deal How’s that for an option.

  • james

    I think most people in Ireland proper are happy enough that Northern Ireland, with all its inherent problems, is not a part of their country and thus not their problem.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If barriers go up the UK come up worse because ROI loses trade with 1 country and the UK loses trade with nearly 40. If the UK creates new barriers with Continental Europe and Ireland it becomes more efficient to trade away from UK either straight to France or Spain.

    NI cannot bring imports from the United States through Dublin airport without costs either.

    Also the hard border will be as much the UK’s fault as the EU’s, if not more the UK’s fault for poor diplomacy.

    So Mark Vincent, I’m looking forward to some hubris and serenity from the British. Economic realities are not founded in the heads of jingolanders who’ve never had to produce anything in their life but their toxic opinions, who have done nothing but live off EU handouts e.g. Nigel Farage, Daniel Hannan.

    Seriously, did you even read your own argument?

    Perhaps the Republic may get a taste of its medicine, but that’s only because it’s easier to import it into the local economy than export to a fortress Britain isolating itself from phantom migrants and people who speak in foreign languages who do things much better than them.