A united Ireland is such a huge issue in Northern Irish politics that it’s hard to believe Tom Elliott hasn’t really thought about it. Ulster unionism’s raison d’être is to maintain the Union, Northern Ireland and avoid a thirty two country Republic. The prospect of a united Ireland drives and haunts unionists. It is never acknowledged as a possibility, but it is always there.
During Patrick Kielty’s excellent programme, ‘My Da, the Peace Deal, and me,’ Arlene Foster said that she would probably leave the country in the event of a united Ireland.
“It’s a very hypothetical situation to be in but if it were to happen, I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here, I would feel so strongly about it. I would probably have to move.”
We all live in our own bubble in Northern Ireland. I was taken aback when people reacted to Foster’s comments with surprise. I’ve heard similar sentiments over the years from family friends and relatives.
The reaction to the comments has been a mixture of mirth and disdain. People responding with vitriol should listen more. It’s important to understand where these feelings come from. Nonetheless, Foster’s comments were disappointing. Once again unionism looks backwards and uncommitted to an inclusive future.
We’ve all thought about how a united Ireland will unfold, if it happens. It will be an international event. The campaign for either side will be fraught and controversial. On a set date the votes will be counted. At some point, probably early in the morning, David Dimbleby will look into a camera and announce that Northern Ireland has voted to leave the Union. If the outcome is a shock, there will be chaotic scenes.
I’d say most unionists have thought about what they would do next. I don’t want unification but I’d accept the democratic vote and I’d try and make the best of it. Home is home.
Some people have weird visions of the future. If a majority vote for unity hoards of Gerry Adams like white walkers will not emerge from the trees and overrun Antrim and Down. Jim Allister won’t need to don his red, white and blue Khaleesi outfit, thanks.
A united Ireland is such a big ‘what if’ that it’s reasonable to be wary or uncertain, especially when it comes to issues like health and the economy. Unionists are right to be worried about the loss of the NHS after unification. People may leave if there’s an economic downturn after unification or massive job losses. If a united Ireland doesn’t deliver a better society for everyone, graduates and families will continue to go elsewhere for a better life. The circumstances at the time will determine how people behave.
The fear of unity is not just about policy but identity. If, like me, you have a British identity, it’s fair to ask, how would I fit into a united Ireland? Is there a place for me? I feel Irish as well but my Irish identity is different to the Irishness of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. If a unified Ireland doesn’t accommodate and welcome the PUL community, many will want to leave. People can’t be expected to stay in country that doesn’t want them. It’s good to see some nationalist and republicans tackle this very issue.
It’s important to acknowledge Arlene Foster’s past when talking about her comments. Members of my partner’s family were treated badly in the Free State after partition. There’s a fear that Protestants and unionists in Northern Ireland will be punished or mistreated in a united Ireland. I don’t think those fears will be realised. I understand that some feel differently based on their experiences. It angers me when I see unionist politicians exploit these fears. It’s infuriating to see them do this while refusing to say that Catholics and nationalists have experienced discrimination in Northern Ireland.
If Arlene Foster is entitled to do what she wants after unification. Her views are still bizarre. If a majority voted for a united Ireland it would be a frightening time for unionists. There will probably be exit negotiations from the union and unionists will want a good deal. You would expect whoever is leading unionism at the time to stay and advocate on behalf of their electorate. Not everyone can afford to pack up and abandon their lives on a whim.
I understand why people are wary of a united Ireland and what it would entail. I don’t think you can make comments like Foster’s and expect people not to be offended. It’s one thing to stay after unification and leave if it doesn’t work out, It’s another thing to say you’d go on principle. Your identity isn’t worth anything if it’s based on supremacy. It certainly isn’t very strong if you can’t stand the thought of sharing a country with people who identify as Irish.
I was heartened to see people respond to the Kielty documentary by saying that they’d welcome unionists into a new Ireland. Most of the critique I’ve read has been fair but it’s sad to see people spout bile, especially after watching a programme about compassion and understanding.
A united Ireland remains an uncertain unknown. If it happens, the country will need strong leaders who can lead the country into a better future. Better to stay and make the best of it instead of cutting and running.
By Sarah Creighton
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