Many unionists have been given a ‘lundy bollocking’ over the past few years but it’s bizarre to see it happen to Peter Robinson. Robinson’s crime was to suggest that unionists should prepare for a united Ireland. He said, “I don’t expect my own house to burn down but I still insure it because it could happen.”
Robinson’s words have generated outrage with unionists like Sammy Wilson and Reg Empey lining up to tell the former First Minister to put a sock in it. Wilson said that Robinson’s words were, “an invitation to republican arsonists to come in and burn our house down.” Wilson and Empey are part of the old guard of unionism that I talked about in a previous article. They just don’t believe a united Ireland will happen. To even entertain the idea is to give it credence.
Unionists don’t have to promote a united Ireland. Nationalists and republicans are the ones who need to outline a vision of their future. Sammy Wilson was right to say that unionists should be trying to sell the union instead of talking about a united Ireland. The irony is that Sammy’s crowd of unionists couldn’t sell the union if they tried. I’d argue that Brexit, Wilson’s favourite project, is making the United Kingdom less attractive.
Robinson still wasn’t wrong to say that unionists should prepare for a united Ireland. People like Sophie Long have made similar arguments. If Brexit has taught us anything it’s that we should be prepared for all eventualities. Doing so doesn’t mean that unionists are accepting republican and nationalist arguments. Unionists should have been talking about this issue a long time ago.
There is a section of the British-Irish Agreement that doesn’t receive enough attention.
Article 1(v) states that the governments
“affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people…….and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities”
The section suggests that the Agreement will still bind the two governments after unification. The wording “the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there” could apply to the Irish government in the event of a united Ireland.
Unionists should be asking the question: how is the Irish government going to have just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of unionists?
Thoughtful, considerate conversations have taken place about this issue, but I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that this is a weak spot for nationalism.
This isn’t a criticism but part of the identity of the Irish Republic comes from a rejection of Britishness. How is the state going to accommodate a significant minority of people who identify as British? How does the Republic accommodate unionists without losing its sense of self?
Sinn Fein published a document in 2016 called, ‘Towards a United Ireland.’ There’s a section on building an inclusive Ireland which suggests things like a new constitution and new emblems. You have to ask whether these proposals would be acceptable to people in the Republic. Unionists should be confident and come forward with their own ideas.
For instance, unionists often retort that they can’t be accommodated in a united Ireland because their aspirations can’t be realised. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides a mechanism for Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland via a border poll. That poll is a one way ticket out of the union. Should Northern Ireland have the option to go back? Would providing a democratic, peaceful way for unionists to rejoin the union stave off violence following unification? I’m wary of the idea but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dipping a toe into the discussion.
Wise unionists would engage in this conversation. There’s no doubt that it will be easier to do so during a border poll campaign when the topic is at the forefront of voter’s minds. At the same time a scrambled, half hearted conversation at the last minute is not beneficial to any unionist in Northern Ireland. Those who duck the conversation for political convenience are putting their communities at a disadvantage. We will all suffer for it if there is a united Ireland and the issue of inclusion is not dealt with properly.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.