There may never be a United Ireland. But, equally, there could be one very soon. Historical inevitability is a fallacy best left to ageing Marxist university lecturers. So ubiquitous is forecasting the fate of Northern Ireland through the glacial process of demographic change, we forget that in revolutionary times, previously robust assumptions can crumble in a day.
The night the Berlin Wall was accidentally opened, a panel discussion on West German TV discussed the stunning events of the previous hours (on YouTube here). The right-wing journalist Gerhard Löwenthal, long a figure of ridicule on the left for his histrionic anti-Communist rants, confidently predicted that reunification would soon follow.
He was dismissed not only by his fellow panel members, but by a supporter of the East German opposition who was enjoying his first night with freedom to travel by joining the audience. The Easterner noted that not one placard calling for reunification had been seen among the street demonstrations of millions taking place over preceding weeks; there were smart people in the ruling SED too, and they would work something out with the opposition. He would be going back East the next day to play his part. Liberal journalists in the studio cooed with delight. For most of the West German élite in November 1989, reunification was a fantasy to be feared, not an emerging reality to be embraced.
As well all know, the supposedly reactionary Löwenthal not only called the macro-political situation correctly on that very night, he even correctly estimated the percentage of East Germans who would support even a democratic version of Communism at roughly 15% (the rebranded ruling party polled 16.4% in the free East German elections of March 1990).
Unionists would be rightly outraged if I were comparing Brookeborough and the B Specials with Honecker and the Stasi. My point is rather that it would be as foolish to bet the Union on the scepticism of Fine Gael voters towards rapid Irish reunification as it was for the reformist faction of the SED to depend on the scepticism of West German Social Democrats to see off German reunification. The West German centre and left did indeed blow cold on reunification until it was a fait accompli and were consequently blown away by Helmut Kohl in the first all-German elections of December 1990.
Among the ten schoolboy summers I spent with a family in a Catholic, CDU-voting, village on the Dutch border were those of ‘89 and ‘90. The transformation in mood was tremendous. In August 1989, as tens of thousands camped in the West German embassies in Prague and Budapest to eventually be whisked ad occidentem on sealed trains to a new life, people on the far-off Rhineland sympathised, but surely it wasn’t a good idea for all these people to think their problems would be solved in the West? If all the young and able people left, perhaps the Soviets might intervene brutally to stem the flow, as they had in 1961? A council estate in sleepy little Emmerich-on-the-Rhine was understood to be particularly down at heel as that was where they were rehousing ‘all the GDR citizens’.
By the World Cup summer of 1990, Germany’s triumph on the field was the symbol of a nation coming together, redeemed, no longer an icon of tyranny but of humanity’s triumph over tyranny. The partying crowds that thronged every market town from the Black Forest to the Oder Delta after Andy Brehme’s late penalty put a turgidly defensive Argentina to the sword were celebrating much more than a football tournament.
Tectonic shifts in geopolitics led by a superpower performing about turns from positions once defended with force, against the backdrop of the global carnival of football. It all seems very 2018, doesn’t it?
The DUP’s Strategic Failure
Of course, there are huge differences between the partition of Germany and the partition of Ireland. East Germany only existed because of the Soviet Union; the attempts to create a sense of East German nationhood look mawkish and clumsy in retrospect.
Most Unionists in Northern Ireland either think of themselves either as decidedly ‘alt’-Irish or not Irish at all. There is no deep desire for reunification waiting to burst out from the streets of Carrick or Ards.
There is, however a sense of unhyphenated Irishness among Nationalists that has remained uneclipsed despite 96 years of partition. That now seems to be awakening, and will be in full cry on both sides of the border should there be any vote in Northern Ireland in favour of reunification. Unionists depending on Southern scepticism to save the Union would be very unwise.
So too would be depending on the latest DUP wheeze to avoid looking reality in the face, the supposed legions of conservative Catholics willing to vote to stay in the UK to prevent abortion being legalised in NI. Even if these people exist in more than tiny numbers, and I’m sceptical, this will be an issue only as long as a Westminster government depends on the DUP to stay in power. Once that no longer appertains, some form of legalisation will be imposed on Northern Ireland. British parliamentary opinion will not tolerate the current legal situation for much longer.
This week’s Ashcroft Poll shows how badly the DUP has mismanaged its curatorship of a Union that seemed impervious just eight years ago when Peter Robinson made his ‘hug a Catholic’ party conference speech. Nationalists are now in virtual lockstep behind a vote for Irish Unity. Remarkably, Alliance voters are almost evenly split between Irish Unity, the United Kingdom, and the undecideds.
As I noted in 2014, long before Brexit seemed a possibility, “[i]ncreasingly, the Union is dependent on the votes of people who don’t see themselves as British and lean towards Irishness culturally. Unionist politicians seem determined to alienate them.” Even without Brexit being imposed on an unwilling majority of Northern Ireland voters, the DUP is wedded to a range of policies, from the Irish language to marriage equality, that seem designed to make Northern Ireland a cold place for all but DUP voters. Their refusal to compromise and constant hiding behind the Petition of Concern makes Northern Ireland look incapable of internal reform.
There is not yet evidence of an imminent majority for reunification but one major external shock, that shifts another segment of Alliance and even liberal UUP voters, could bring it about. We live in revolutionary times. Only a fool would rule the possibility out.
Unionism in a Changing UK
One such possibility is brewing in Scotland. The SNP’s walkout from the House of Commons has had plenty of coverage. What is more important, if less commented upon, is that Labour and the LibDems in Holyrood also voted to withhold legislative consent from the EU Withdrawal Bill. Given the tremendous bad blood remaining from the Independence Referendum between the SNP and the two centre-left Unionist parties, that is a remarkable position. And in the unlikely event the NI Assembly is reconvened, it is inconceivable it would give legislative consent to Brexit. The biggest constitutional change in the UK in generations will have to be rammed through in a way that destroys the internal UK constitutional settlement that emerged after 1998.
How all that plays out with Brexit negotiations heading for either disaster or UK capitulation, with neither main UK party remotely coherent, I don’t know. But the UK feels more like the late Habsburg Empire with every passing week, all the more so given the inability of the London chattering classes, of whatever political stripe, to even comprehend to the radical shifts taking place in Edinburgh and Belfast, let alone their own contribution to making that radicalism seem the only sensible option.
And to go back to that Scottish Independence Referendum, a 55% vote to maintain the UK was not some sort of triumph of Unionist logic against adversity, but a result so poor that no opinion poll before the final weeks of the Indyref campaign had come close to seeing it possible. The result was less a vindication of the Union than a portent of its weakness.
In her prophetic 1992 work, Britons, Linda Colley noted how the idea of Britishness that had emerged in the 18th Century had been grounded on twin foundations: the economic opportunities presented by the Empire; and Protestant fear of the continental, Catholic, other. With the Empire gone and Western European Christianity in any form in retreat, she wondered already a generation ago whether the UK had any firm foundation.
Brexit has revealed what existed before then, and that is a remarkably different sense of nationhood and relationship with the continental mainland in Scotland and Northern Ireland than in England. Brexit has brought those ancestrally different understandings of nation and international relations to centre stage. Without God or the Empire, what holds the UK together beyond a crisis-bedevilled NHS and sheer inertia?
Republicans in an Endgame Northern Ireland
There is still hope for preserving the Union. Ironically, that hope is largely supplied by Sinn Féin. For it too has been caught on the hop by the crumbling of once solid ground. Rather than the gradual ‘greening’ of Northern Ireland through demographic change on which the IRA’s disbandment was sold to its most ardent volunteers, they are facing an unprecedented opportunity for reunification that can only be delivered by people whose views are a long way from its own.
Sinn Féin has invested tremendous energy and political capital in efforts to legitimise an IRA campaign receding rapidly into the past. It has also bossed its way into an overwhelming dominance in Northern Nationalism, with even the SDLP leadership questioning the party’s continued relevance. Yet, if a United Ireland is possible in the near-term, it is deliverable only with the votes with people who reviled the IRA and, in many cases, actively worked to oppose it as members of the security forces.
If there is to be a United Ireland in the near future, it cannot be delivered without the votes, among others, of many former RUC men and British Army officers who firmly believe that, whatever was done by bad apples, they held the line for decency and democracy against a murderous and anarchic IRA. It depends not only on them but on tens of thousands of others who broadly share their worldview. There are plenty of hawkishly anti-Provo moderates for whom a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil-led Ireland seems an attractive alternative to a United Kingdom being led to disaster by Tory and Labour extremists – as long as Sinn Féin are kept well away from power.
Sinn Féin can be a staggeringly self-obsessed political party. So, for example, Chris Donnelly (of this parish, and usually one of the more level-headed Republican commentators) on the day of the abortion referendum claimed the result “vindicates Mary Lou McDonald’s first major decision as party leader to position Sinn Fein as the only major party full square behind Repeal”. This despite the fact that Sinn Féin has as many abortion refuseniks as Fine Gael, that every party leader supported repeal, and that Sinn Féin opposed abortion reform in the Assembly as recently as 2016. The real heavy lifting – and it was emotionally and personally heavy work – was done by non-partisan civil society campaigners.
Sinn Féin activists are inclined to think that everything is about them. They had better hope that a referendum on Irish Unity is not all about them, or else the campaign will disintegrate into being a referendum on the IRA, which would deservedly be lost.
Is the dominant party in Northern Nationalism – and one which tends to see itself in terms of manifest destiny – capable of the leap of self-awareness to realise that it is the worst advertisement for Irish Unity that can be imagined? Ultimately, “[l]ife punishes those who arrive too late”, as Mikhail Gorbachev warned the East German leadership in that era-defining autumn of 1989, to no avail. If tectonic plates are shifting, then all elements of the old order are subject to obliteration.
Or, as Christ put it, “Ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” Few could then, as few can now. In what is still an unusually Christian society, the future may well belong to those with the courage to be like the grain of wheat, and go into the ground and die (John 12:24). Both the DUP and Sinn Féin have made themselves repulsive to those who will decide the future in Northern Ireland; will either take the risk of crucifying themselves for the sake of their central objectives? Or will both simply be blown away by forces outside their core market and therefore beyond their control?
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