Nationalists need to have an honest conversation about a New Ireland

Brian has already outlined the story in The Times that has been talked about today.

Theresa May has been quoted as believing that a Border Poll could be winnable for the Nationalist side and I agree with her that in one attempt, Northern Ireland could be taken out of the United Kingdom via a referendum.

Over the past year, Nationalism has made many gains in terms of vote share and the ability for the first time to construct an economic and social narrative that makes Irish unification so much more attractive. Being the underdog in the constitutional set up has in my view, never been a burden for Nationalism, it was always an opportunity. A mindset of addition and building comes to the fore, instead of an “not an inch” mentality that forces the advocate to turn inward.

The fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, reportedly acknowledges that victory for a Unionist campaign is not certain is another step forward and hopefully there are many more gains to come.

However, at this stage it is important to remember that Republicanism is not exactly match fit for a border poll and the rigours of a campaign. For those of us who argue for Irish unification, we are deluding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that many of the gains made over the past 18 months have been because of the missteps of Unionist leader and their representatives.

They have over their approaches to Brexit and some social issues dropped the ball and we have not always been ready to pick it up and run with it.

I am not arguing that we don’t have many strengths. We do. Our product is Ireland PLC, the fastest growing economy in the European Union, with internationally ranked high living standards and a much more open society. All of this is a world away from the country that my father would have lived in. For the first time since partition, in both social progress and economic development, it is republicanism that is on front foot.

Colum Eastwood spoke today at the need for an honest conversation about a United Ireland and he’s right. Sinn Fein and the SDLP, need  to start laying out proper proposals for how a “New Ireland” is going to operate.  They need to do so in the knowledge that some of these ideas will require some amendments (that’s okay) and will make natural supporters feel uncomfortable.

A key piece of this debate that can make natural supporters uncomfortable is recognising the nation building tradition of our Unionist counterparts. I am thinking of Edward Carson, when he spoke of governments respecting minority rights and rejecting factions, Lord Londonderry with his radical education proposals and William Grant, who gave Northern Ireland universal healthcare. These are things as an Ulsterman, I am proud of and we need to hold on to these institutions and say to our Unionist countrymen and women that these are some of your contributions to our New Ireland and they will be the first of many.

I see some musings online about “well if it’s a capitalist Ireland….or if it doesn’t have ABCD then count me out.” This logic is self defeating and misses the point. A New Ireland is not about the base instincts of one particular section or individual. It’s about enhancing everybody’s input into a new system on an all island basis. If you cannot see the difference between having 2% of the voting power in the House of Commons compared to 26-28% in Dail Eireann then I am stumped. If you want a socialist panacea or a capitalist utopia, your ability to change your society is dramatically enhanced outside the UK.

When Nationalism has been at its strongest in the past, it has been when socialists, conservatives and liberals put down ideological blinders and recognised a common goal. Leave the debates about taxation, class and other issues for a general election.

An honest conversation also requires us to look out to parties such as the Greens and Alliance for their support in this endeavour. Not everyone who will be won over to this idea will know all of the signatories to the proclamation, nor will all of them care and that’s okay. An argument for a progressive, prosperous island within the EU is something that can help win many of these supporters into our broader coalition.

Let the conversation begin, just hopefully we won’t go round in circles.


David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs