Tuesday’s Ireland edition of The Times led with a story in which the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, was quoted as reiterating his support for Irish unity.
An Irish nationalist expressing support for Irish unity.
Newsworthy? Perhaps, as a holiday season column inches-filler buried inside a paper.
Except for the fact that the newspaper’s editor took the angle that such a statement risked “alienating Unionists.”
Here is how The Times reported the story:
“In an interview that risks damaging already strained relations between the DUP and Dublin Mr Varadkar said that he wanted to follow the idea of John Hume, the former SDLP leader, of an “agreed Ireland”.
Worse was to come in The Mirror, which screamed that Varadkar’s “comments are likely to spark fury among unionists in Belfast.”
But my personal favourite had to be the Daily Express, which ran the story on Twitter with this headline: IRISH CRISIS: Anger brews as Taoiseach admits he wants a UNITED Ireland.
Crisis? Anger? Admits?
The layers of arrogance implicit in the headlines and subsequent commentary are troubling.
It is premised on an inherently supremacist mindset which somehow deems support expressed for Irish unity in and of itself as provocative in a manner that would never be said of a British politician declaring support for the union.
On the many occasions in which British politicians have expressed support for the preservation of the union, I can think of no time when it was deemed provocative, controversial or made a front page story on the basis that such a perspective would risk alienating nationalists.
In all of the articles cited, impending unionist fury/outrage/anger was predicted on the basis of DUP Leader Arlene Foster’s equally ridiculous comments late last year, criticizing Simon Coveney as being “quite aggressive” for having the temerity to support Irish unity. Foster’s assertion that this stance undermined cross-community relationships in Northern Ireland was part of an insidious attempt to suggest that supporting and working for Irish unity was incompatible with developing good community relations within the state.
If that is indeed a prevailing view within unionism, then we are in more trouble than we realise.
This is a crucially important discussion at this juncture, when support for pro-Union parties is at an historic low and when Irish nationalists across the island are exploring the practicalities of pursuing unity as never before.
In the first instance, the arrogant and inherently supremacist assumption in much of our political and media commentary that voicing support for the Union is legitimate in a manner distinct from vocally supporting Irish unity must be challenged and effectively exposed as utterly inconsistent with the Good Friday Agreement and the very basis of a shared and equal society.
Ironically, the article was more newsworthy for once again highlighting the dangerously flawed thinking in the as yet only surface level unity rhetoric being flirted with by the Fine Gael leader.
The agreed Ireland vision of unity floated by Varadkar, in which unionists are to endorse and support Irish unity is, quite frankly, a nonsense.
By the same logic, we don’t currently live in an agreed United Kingdom.
By definition, unionists support Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom and nationalists support it becoming part of a united Ireland.
The issue of sovereignty should not and can not be contingent upon any other basis than the principle of consent as defined by the 50%+1 principle.
If 50%+1 is good enough to preserve the Union, than it equally must be good enough to usher in Irish unity.
Accommodation and not persuasion must be the focus for pragmatic Irish unity advocates, just as it must be for pragmatic supporters of preserving the Union with Britain. That’s not to say that persuading people from a unionist background of the merits of Irish unity should not remain a priority; rather, it is to accept the reality that our constitutional allegiances are deep rooted and command respect on that basis, as opposed to being merely wished away.
Last October, the Taoiseach made a silly comment when he seemed to suggest he’d not want constitutional change on a 50%+1 basis but rather hoped for something closer to the 70% figure support achieved for the Good Friday Agreement in any future Border Poll.
Irish unity supporters have begun to move beyond the abstract and into the concrete in terms of exploring and discussing the practicalities of unity. An early step in that process will be to accept that unity will rightly happen in spite of, and not because of, Ulster’s pro-British unionist population.