Aaron Murray, political researcher working in London. He is also on Twitter @aaronmurray87
Engraved on the Canongate wall of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood is a phrase Alasdair Gray described as ‘inspiring but not boastful’. ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ it reads. Widely attributed to Gray, it is the creation of Canadian poet Dennis Lee from his exploration of citizenship, Civil Eligies. In recent years it became a credo of the Scottish nationalist movement in advance of 2014’s independence referendum.
The call encapsulates what inspired so many in the movement for an independent Scotland. Often branded as narrow-nationalists, the Yes movement was not without fault, but in its ranks were those who sought not just a different state, but a better nation. Even the most hardened unionist would find it difficult to critique the work which went into imagining a new Scotland. The case for independence was often branded idealistic and naive, but only because those behind the movement refused to limit their vision to a new passport and a more powerful parliament.
In Ireland the constitutional question is back in a way few could have foreseen even a decade ago. The hedgerow border, so irrelevant over the last two decades, is threatening to make a return and on a weekly basis we hear personal stories of how it could divide hinterlands, halt economic cooperation and ruin some lovely gardening if erected in its former guise.
High time, you would imagine, for the endeavour needed in the early days of that better nation. But nationalism in the north, where any debate on unity will ultimately be held, seems high on confidence, but bereft of ideas, filled with outrage but short on solutions and where flexibility and new coalitions are required, it tends to its old guard and die-hard believers.
At August’s Féile an Phobail in Belfast Deputy Leader of Sinn Fein Mary Lou Mc Donald delivered a talk titled ‘A United Ireland is inevitable’. Inevitability is the descriptor of choice in nationalist circles. Content with organising the victory parade before securing qualification, proponents of unity are using language which is at best premature, at worst exclusionary and arrogant. What does talk of inevitability say to loyalist communities who fear the imposition of a united Ireland? It says little of a shared journey to a new Ireland which would protect all persuasions and cultures. It fails to recognise the body of work required to put flesh on the bones of the nebulous concept of Irish unity. And, ultimately, it sends a tacit message to believers to sit back and wait for the promised land without moderating their own views.
Within nationalism there are sporadic takes on persuading the majority of the citizens of the north who look sceptically at unity. Sinn Fein’s Matt Carthy wrote convincingly on the subject last year. Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, has recently written on the distance left to travel toward unity. But these debates lack a coherence and the apparatus around Scotland’s movement for independence is not in place in Ireland. Where is Ireland’s National Collective or Business for Scotland? Who is formulating answers to the questions on bread and butter issues? And what of Ginger Groups and think-tanks which could be working across the island to engender support, test policy and unify the disparate nationalist voices under one roof? If unity is indeed inevitable then why are no preparations being made for the political, social and economic upheaval it would bring about.
These boasts of inevitability have led to northern nationalism appearing reluctant to grow its base. The major players are timid in confronting their core support on issues which lead many to reject nationalism as an ideology which would merely produce the same problems under a different flag. While Sinn Fein have brought their base with them on policing and handshakes with Queen Elizabeth, their transformation is far from complete. Council leaders refuse to ‘go down the road of condemning’ the Enniskillen atrocity. On Brexit the party has vacated the spaces where it could enjoy leverage. It preaches ‘Brits out’ but leaves nationalism without a voice in the chambers and committees of Westminster and the manner in which it has accepted direct rule suggests that it would rather not be governing when the hard decisions have to be made. Recently, when finally given the chance to speak in a legislative assembly to a key European figure, Gerry Adams marked Guy Verhofstadt’s visit to Dail Eireann by regaling him with Sinn Fein’s criticisms of the EU. It is not fatalist to presume that voters will look bleakly upon those who abdicate responsibility when they come asking for permission to build a country anew.
The SDLP, meanwhile, are looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movements as a chance to reassert their role as the champion of the vulnerable, but they continue to support an intolerable position on abortion. In wedding the party to the small-c conservatism of a bygone Catholic Ireland the party is not so much absent from today’s civil rights battles, but actively in opposition to those who seek to extend the basic rights of healthcare and reproductive agency. Electorally, voters who seek progressive solutions to Northern Ireland’s problems have begun to look to the Greens and People Before Profit come election time.
Nationalism’s approach to building consensus – give us the referendum and then we’ll make the case – is not only strategically unwise, but back to front. The Agreement is clear: the referendum will only be called when there is evidence that a consensus has formed in favour of unity. The referendum Sinn Fein demand at every turn will not come about through repeated pleas to the secretary of state, but by engagement with those who oppose unity.
The great shame is that opportunities abound. In the south we have witnessed greater constitutional imagination in the last year than we have since partition. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are competing on nationalist ground and an all-party committee of the Dáil has ratified a report titled ‘Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland and its People in Peace and Prosperity’. In the north, scant attention was paid to the surge in support for a United Ireland among Alliance Party supporters. In 2014 8% backed unity, a figure which rose to 21% in 2016. Few demographics will be as instrumental come a referendum as those currently agnostic on the national question.
For nationalists, preaching inevitability to the believers, the engraving on Holyrood’s walls is not applicable to Ireland. In their mind, the nascent days of the new Ireland begin the morning after a glorious 51% vote for unity in the north. While the nation faces existential questions over its role in the world, that hubris has never been more inappropriate. In 2017 Irish nationalism has reversed Gray’s take on the phrase he’ll forever be associated with – it is boastful, but lacking the inspiration so desperately needed in these early days of that better nation.