Why the bitter tribalist form of “bi-communalism” provides no viable route to a united Ireland

The low-level (but pinchpenny) controversy over the playing of God Save the Queen at the Irish Cup Final raises the question of identity once again. Talk of symbols sucks a disproportionate amount of energy out of the NI room.

At the height of the flags dispute, I wrote about how the middle ground still retains critical value. Then, I noted:

…policy is little in evidence anywhere in Stormont. Nor has there been any clearly articulated ambition to focus on solving real world problems through new policy formation at the political level. The non arrival of CSI and a long promised anti poverty strategy from OFMdFM is indicative.

In the absence of meaningful content, politics is reduced to a series of controversies over Orange parades, the flying of flags, the naming of play parks. Unnoticed, and largely unrermarked upon, the intimidation of minority communities continues on a low level and out of sight of the TV cameras.

And into this, walks Brexit. As Newton Emerson notes in today’s Irish Times, a decision to back Brexit (apparently very lightly) could bring the DUP some heavy responsibility if it goes wrong. He concludes…

Now it [the DUP] is facing the fact that even this level of influence cannot offset the centrifugal forces unleashed against the union.

Did the DUP bring this on itself? Certainly. But that cannot have been its intention. Like the big beasts of Brexit it thought it could play with, the DUP has never had a plan.

That’s how it looks from an NI point of view. But once a deal is set (whenever that is), speculation will end and everyone will have to resolve the loose ends. In the meantime, most of the DUP’s statements actually look fairly anodyne and inoffensive.

They cannot risk getting caught in any domestic row in the Tory party between the pragmatists and reflexive unionists (many of whom are also instinctive Brexiteers). And so far they haven’t been.

In contrast to the apoplexy of last summer when many feared the UK had been co-opted into the 16C, Arlene sounds reasonable and mature. The DUP’s illiberal reputation is getting washed in a stream of UK coverage that has been much kinder than the ‘kicking court’ in NI.

Possibly because the original caricature was too extreme to ever have been entirely true.

As one senior nationalist commentator told Slugger yesterday, “she’s being cast as Miss Northern Ireland”. “What’s galling” he added, “is that she is represented as speaking for the whole of Northern Ireland when in fact she speaks for far less than half”.

It’s a position gifted her by the absence of a nationalist voice above the rank of councillor for the first time since partition. Which brings me to Dan O’Brien’s piece in the Indo yesterday:

Discussion of unification should include not only the usual suspects – Sinn Fein and those sympathetic to that movement -when it comes to the minority tradition on this island, their republican credentials, as republicanism is understood outside these islands, are not strong.

Underneath a veneer of fashionable inclusivity is a hard core of illiberal anti-Britishness. As such, Sinn Feiners are far from convincing persuaders for unification. They are, in fact, quite the opposite as they continue to celebrate acts involving the taking of unionist lives in the pursuit of a united Ireland.


If unification is to happen smoothly and inclusively, the onus will be on the majority tradition on this island to reassure the minority. Rather than lecturing unionists on how they need to face ‘realities’ and engage with a process designed to bring about an outcome that they don’t want, as Denis Bradley unwisely did in The Irish Times last week, the island’s majority tradition needs to say what we are prepared to do as part of the grand bargain that unity would involve.

In NI border poll talk is embedded within an austere dogma of pre-destination that hopes Brexit will trigger a polarisation of the Northern Irish population into Catholic sheep and Protestant goats: ie, a bitter form of bi-communalism in lieu of actual unification.

Lay aside the fact that such a scenario fails to take any account of the effects of a more modest breach with the EU, it also ignores some of the core dynamics of Northern Ireland’s painfully slow unfolding demographic story:

In 2011, the gap between Catholics and Protestants may have narrowed to just 3%, but that was predicated on a fall of 5% of those identifying as Protestants and a modest 1% rise in Catholics. As the sectarian arms race slows, more are simply opting out of identity culture.

This important point is missed in most (but not all) of the discourse around reunification. As a consequence, much of it lacks perspective. This is exacerbated by SF’s abstentionist ethic spreading from Westminster to Stormont.

O’Brien is right to argue that if nationalism wants big changes, then it must change too. But the precise shape of that change will be dictated by how well, or how badly, the current governance structures are focused on that strategic outcome. All bridges require hard standing on both sides of the river.

So far it has been the south that has followed its own instinct and undertaken a huge amount of economic and social change. It has become it a more open, diverse and convivial space for the would-be or unconformist Irish to live.

North of the border, very little of any practical concern (bar the absence of large-scale civil unrest) has actually changed, primarily because so little of any practical concern has been done to convivialise the idea of moving towards a UI.

Abandoning the political space to unionist voices only – or worse believing that unionism can only ever make stupid mistakes that hand you your dinner without any assistance from you – is scaling the worst possible view of the need to build a shared society.

“We measure the universe by our own miserable foot-rule. When we are slaves, we think that the whole universe is enslaved. Because we are in an abject condition, we think that the whole of India is in that condition. As a matter of fact, it is not so, yet it is as well to impute our slavery to the whole of India. But if we bear in mind the above fact, we can see that if we become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.” 
― Mahatma GandhiHind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule


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