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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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