A noble illusion perhaps, but unity and reconciliation are not compatible

Writing in the Irish Times, Robin Wilson has eloquently identified “a cosmopolitan vista of “unification as reconciliation” among diverse individuals on the island…. as the current Tory government disappears down the Brexit rabbit hole”.

Amid fears of a renewed, Brexit-induced hard Border, a plebiscite would be a blunt-instrument (and one-sided) response – less discussion, more sectarian headcount. A more sophisticated approach, less likely to lead to highly unwelcome consequences, would be to redefine the process of north-south co-operation recognised by the Belfast Agreement in two ways:

The first would be to remove the limits on that co-operation, in terms of designated implementation bodies and areas of co-operation. The second would be to render its extent a matter for evolving decision-making between restored democratic institutions in the North – if and when they can be reinstated – and those in the Republic.

Instead, in other words, of a German-style, once-and-for-all takeover of a region by a state – the legacy of which remains in Germany in far-right support concentrated in the eastern Länder – the vision would match that of ( former EU Commission President Jacques ) Delors: an evolutionary process, driven by reconciliation rather than nationalism, characterised by dialogue and mutuality throughout.

It would be experienced, over time, simply as the organic fading of the British link as north-south integration proceeded in the European frame. And it would be associated with a tapering over decades of the Westminster subvention to Northern Ireland, currently running at some £5,000, or more than €5,700, per person per year, as hitherto UK public programmes became transposed into an Irish context, rather than the shock to the Irish fiscal system a sudden reunification would pose.

 

This process would go with the grain of the now extensive economic and civil-society co-operation across the island. And it would reflect a growing appreciation within the North that the region will indefinitely stagnate, or worse, unless it remains open to the wider Europe, in a way that only an Irish corridor may now provide.

The vision has undoubted appeal.   In many ways, northern and southern societies have less and less to divide them except division itself. The switch in economic fortunes between north and south needs no underlining. There are old unities to build on, in agriculture, sport,  the arts, academe, the churches, some trade unions and even the RNLI; new ones like energy interdependence and the eastern corridor;  and others aided by peace, the EU and the GFA like police cooperation  and mutual recognition of regulation for professional bodies. But how many of these unities stop at the Irish Sea? 

As for “the British link,” it is all too true that itlacks sympathetic defenders. “Whatever it finally means, it cannot rest on “Ulster” nationalism.  Parity of esteem has controversially reduced the  display of British symbols  from monopoly to the occasional in many areas and to virtual zero in others. The Border” may be Irish but it is seen across the water as a GB problem quaintly illustrated on the ground.

The metropolitan British commitment to Northern Ireland in the Union is  benign neutrality at best.  Brexit is unlikely to affect it very much. In the currently congested UK News agenda, the Stormont stand-off  barely figures.  The consent principle that unionists hold dear and the GFA requirement of rigorous impartiality in exercising governmental responsibilities are formal inhibitors even if the British wanted to go further.

Even before the Brexit referendum, devolution had blurred the idea of a single defining  UK idea.   But as we know very well,  unionists are out of tune with the British self image of a diverse and tolerant society. Their emphasis on wartime nostalgia and their own folk traditions marks out their separateness even more.

But this is the deficient version of Britishness that dominates politics.  There is a far more generous cultural alternative  which recoils from the sharp edges of identity politics, that calls everywhere in these islands home and may continue to command a majority.

On the other hand, powerfully boosted by GFA relationships, peace at home and reconciliation with Britain, involvement at elite level in northern affairs by a transformational and outgoing Republic has significantly increased since the early days of the peace process  after decades of lip service and evasion. Northern nationalists need not fear:  that involvement can only increase after Brexit.

The trend is indeed Robin’s “organic development”. But I have problems with its political expression. First,unless NI remains closely linked to it how does “the European framework” work? Is it now as successful as it was in Delor’s day?

Some advocates positively need Brexit to be a disaster. But if everyone gets most of what they want, the tides of anxiety will recede. Heroic assumptions about the cost of Irish unity are not widely shared in the Republic, even with British transfers that may not be as generous as some blithely take for granted.  And nothing should jeopardise the rights of Northern EU and Irish citizens whose rights at present  in GB are “as British as Finchley”.

Robin’s “more sophisticated approach” sees unity coming about through “organic fading of the British link”  How does this abstraction translate into politics?  Would the people have any specific say yea or nay? At present the elites  cling like leeches to their own rival interpretations of the Agreement. Any fading of the British link would surely have to be transparently voted on and negotiated, rather than purely  *organic”  (which seems to mean secretive). Politicians would smell the rat a mile off and we would quickly be driven back to the zero sum game.

Robin begins his analysis with the border poll of 1973 which was designed to appease unionists after the shock of direct rule.  The border poll has been revived as Sinn Fein’s rallying cry for putting heart their own cause and a bogey for unsettling unionists.

The issue is left hanging. Little wonder.  Robin is right: “a plebiscite would be a blunt-instrument (and one-sided) response.. amid fears of a Brexit- induced hard border.” But if not after Brexit in five  or so years  under what conditions  would  it become a refined instrument of two sided response? Surely as Robin would agree ,only when this deeply polarised society has advanced much further down the road to reconciliation.

But a border poll is hardly a benign instrument. How could it not inhibit the organic development many of us would like to see? Any foreseeable adoption of it is likely to provoke more of David Trimble’s crude and alarmist response. As elites are  to be in charge, the two governments should discourage the very idea at least until the conditions for a settled outcome look promising and criteria for judging the demand for a poll  can be agreed by all significant parties.

Hypothetically in the long aftermath of Brexit, a Conservative government would be likely to campaign for the Union after all the trouble they’d taken on the border issue. Faced with significant unionist dissent, it would split Westminster and raise tensions with the SNP.   As for the Irish, with the GFA provision for a concurrent referendum in mind, would they welcome the northern tail wagging the southern dog?

Can anybody honestly see any likely government moving on it beyond rhetoric? What would be the incentive? Why bother if  British-Irish relationships stabilise as they must?   While all sorts of  north-south synergies should be developed,  how would they actively be served by cutting the British link? Would their open ended development morph into a natural unity apart from Britain? Perhaps. Brexit has enhanced the appeal but the result now is unknowable. Why then  take the risk of so politicising reconciliation?

It is better surely to follow the money and the people and see where they get to, than to identify too closely the nature of the Promised Land.

Unionism and republicanism in the North are the surviving outliers of old metropolitan traditions which are fading.  To soften their sharp edges  London and Dublin together will need to stay involved in our affairs for a long time to come. Remove one of them and the threat of a relapse into some sort of chaos is very real.

In any plausible conditions the cause of unity is at odds with the prospects for reconciliation.  Whatever the genuine idealism behind it, it will be seen as the ultimate move in the zero sum game we must leave behind. Why should we  be forced to choose between our own two States? Brexit is a regressive move; idealism should concentrate  on strengthening links not breaking them.  If idealism is a false front for coercion, then it is playing with fire and should be rejected.

Our settlement which although it provides for unity should remain within the flexible bonds of  the Good Friday Agreement, the historic compromise through which most people get most of what they want. The two governments should have the courage to tell them so. As the late Maurice Hayes put it, “the nation has been liberated from the state”.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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