The long and winding road to Irish unity

“Of its nature this is a long-term policy, requiring patience, understanding and forbearance and resolute resistance to emotionalism and opportunism. It is not the less patriotic for that”

TK Whitaker, Note on North-South Border Policy, 11 November 1968

There is no denying that the idea of a United Ireland has more momentum now than ever before. Out of the Brexit chaos, and the Stormont vacuum, it tempting to ask: is the time for patience is coming to an end? And is the time for exploring the details of a long-term policy of a United Ireland finally upon us?

Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that there is now something in the water. The glare of the Brexit spotlights on the Irish border of all places, the resulting scrutiny of the constitutional arrangements either side of it, and the fact that a growing majority of people in Northern Ireland absolutely don’t want what it will likely entail, are prime and obvious factors as to the sudden emergence of what was until recently, a dormant, almost extinct, notion even for many nationalists. Another is the almost total sense of disillusionment with Stormont, and its seemingly never-ending cycle of failures and disappointment. Rapidly-changing demographics and social and political attitudes represent another limb, as is the increasingly unfavourable comparison of the North’s economy with the South.

Suddenly, envious glances southwards are coming from all directions – even recent sporting success in Hockey and Rugby can be used as very real examples of what the Island can achieve by North and South working together as part of the same team. And what makes the growing public discourse so fascinating is for once, it’s universality; interest in a New and Agreed Ireland, and what it could achieve, is for the first time, looking capable of grabbing significant numbers of votes from previously unthinkable places.

History can make a fool of anyone, but as Northern Ireland’s centenary slowly approaches, it feels as if important initial milestones have already been reached when former leaders of the main Unionist parties, and no less than the British Prime Minister herself, have even recognised the threat to the Union in various ways. In purely statistical terms, the 44% of all respondents surveyed in Lord Ashcroft’s June polling who indicated that they’d even vote for unification if a vote was held the very next day is remarkably high. Of course, polls are there to be disputed, but even a sampled margin of 5% for remaining in the UK must be uncomfortably close for any Unionist. More surprisingly still, a clear majority preference was expressed from the all-important and supposedly middle ground voters of the Alliance Party to leave the United Kingdom (42% against 30% for staying) – an almost unimaginable development back in 1998. If taken at face value, it is staggering that such high figures could potentially vote to join a new Irish State without the slightest idea of what it would even look like or whether they’d be materially better off within it.

And yet, almost all of the debate to date has been confined to competing suggestions, even from the same individuals at times, on whether a border poll should be held, and if so, when. If discussions are ever going to move beyond newspaper articles and summer school speeches, and deep into the political and public mainstream, then surely, ideas on what this New Ireland is going to look like are long overdue. Of course, Sinn Fein and the SDLP have committed to this one way or another: the former published its own “Discussion Document” back in 2016, while the latter has promised to “flesh-out” it’s somewhat vague concept of Progressive Nationalism into some sort of hard proposals sometimes soon. Who knows, perhaps the long-promised announcement between the SDLP and Fianna Fail in the autumn will see the first intriguing attempt at a cross-border initiative in this respect, amongst other things.

In the meantime, it is worth recalling that an official, non-party-political, and fairly comprehensive analysis on Brexit and its impact on the unity question was already carried out for the Irish Parliament back in August 2017. Twelve months on from its initial review on these very pages, it remains the most authoritative analysis we have to date on this question, and in light of recent developments, it seems an opportune time to revisit its contents to see what it can teach us about the possible next stages of the debate, and what details may start to emerge from it.

First and foremost, the report makes it clear that any one claiming that this New Ireland is somehow inevitable, really needs their head checked – to use the local parlance here. The scale of change identified as needed by the report plainly shows that this process, if it ever comes to fruition, will be a long and arduous one, fraught with risk and thick with detail, and whose scale and challenge cannot be so airily dismissed. This in itself helps explain why the two main Northern parties have struggled, so far, for any of their ideas to take hold beyond their current safety zones of well-meaning rhetoric. It also explains that while, by and large, the main Southern parties (outside of Sinn Fein) may have shown varying degrees of sympathy for the project across the years, they are not afraid to openly acknowledge its scale and challenges, and have tended to stress on the need for more patience as to when the right time will come. This doesn’t mean they aren’t in any way interested, as is sometimes claimed; it is equally clear from the report that this is a project into which much careful thought has been given by many people in the South for some time now, and is not something which has just emerged out of thin air following the Brexit referendum vote.

Throughout, it is acknowledged that some seriously emotive issues would need to be brought out in the open, notably the various common-sense accommodations needed for Northern Ireland’s Unionist and British-identifying population. Much is made about Northern Ireland’s intractable sectarian divisions, but at a basic level, we all have more in common than is sometimes understood, although you perhaps have to have lived outside Ireland to fully appreciate just how similar we really are to other people. Our accents, humour, basic decency, marching and dancing traditions, cultural symbols, our history, our interests in sport and music, and even love of a drink and a good yarn, are all quintessentially comparable to the outside eye, and in an ideal world, that would be celebrated, and made it into an asset rather than a source of division. It’s doubtful that anywhere near enough people would want to impose something that almost half of our fellow citizens would have good reason to feel completely alien in it. Some valid points are made on how a British identity could be accommodated as reasonably as possible in a unified Irish State, how Unionists could be encouraged to take pride in the rich and varied contributions of Irish protestants and Ulstermen to Irish history throughout the ages, and crucially, that British influence in Ireland is not just something confined to the Northern parts of the island alone.

The sections covering what specific symbolic and cultural elements could or should be reconsidered probably make for the juiciest reading: covering, amongst others, the Irish Flag, the National Anthem, potential membership of the Commonwealth, continued hereditary British citizenship for anyone born in Northern Ireland, official constitutional recognition and protections for Orange traditions and culture (including special national holidays in the North), and the status of the Irish language as the official language of the Republic of Ireland and its Constitution. Arguably, the latter shouldn’t even be seen as a uniquely unionist concern. The issue of the Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland is well known, but would a majority of Northern Nationalists or middle-ground voters be happy for almost every level of administrative and civic machinery in Northern Ireland to be rebranded in Irish as it tends to be in the South, from An Post, to the Garda Síochána, to the titles of its political representatives and even its main institutions, which many of us, if we’re being fully honest, would struggle to spell? Probably not.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has went on record to suggest a lot of this should be on the table, but the flip side of this, as the report acknowledges, is that entertaining fundamental change on the very political culture of the Irish State could meet a degree of resistance that will surprise many, no matter how well-intentioned such initiatives are. Compared to the Good Friday Agreement, which resulted in the amendment of a mere two articles, following through with some of this would require a wholesale recasting of the Irish Constitution and the fundamental nature of the Irish State itself. Never mind the political establishment in Dublin, would people from the slopes of the Mournes to the coasts of Kerry buy into this? Clearly, common sense exceptions for Northern Ireland would have to be agreed on all of this, and sensibly, the report focuses on recognising the potential for these rather than prescribing solutions. For example, a nod to the South African example is given on the potentially divisive issue of revisiting the Irish Flag and Anthem, or how a more federal approach could provide the flexibility needed for a dual-identity approach to Northern Ireland across the board.

And what about the all-important political arrangements? In fact, many of the ideas espoused in the report will be familiar to most people having figuring in recent discussions somewhat (such as joint-authority), and having their origins in the Anglo-Irish consultation process known as the New Ireland Forum back in the mid-1980’s. Of these, and they are just about all here, the obvious, minimal disruption option is clearly the continuation of Northern Ireland as a regional political entity within a dual-jurisdiction Ireland – much in the same way as it does now is within the United Kingdom. The analysis on this focuses in some depth on the viability of this under the existing structures of the Good Friday Agreement – pointing out that this is not only politically desirable and legally feasible, but a central plank of the SDLP’s current vision, and something that Sinn Fein, for now at least, claims to be open to.

Yet, while it is possible to envisage some broad consensus emerging around this, it is equally possible that things could go horribly wrong as the details of this are ultimately fleshed out and awkward questions spring up around it. For example, how exactly would Stormont report to a higher Dublin Parliament and what degree of autonomy would it have? Would Unionists get a weighted veto on cultural and identity issues, or dare we say it, a petition of concern? Could the British government have a consultative role much in the same way that the Republic does now? There are no easy answers to any of this, and clearly, some major cross-border consultative process and creative solutions would be needed, admittedly something Ireland tends to specialise in. Above all, Unionists would need to feel fully involved with it, and so better title than “New Ireland Forum 2” might be a better starting point, given the association of the first instalment with what became the hated Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the depth of anger that still lingers within Unionist towards it. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, that entire process can be seen as something of a foundational stone for what ultimately became the Good Friday Agreement, and was ultimately vindicated with time. However, while no one expects a leading DUP figure to invade a small village in Monaghan in protest this time, the point of understanding Unionist concerns and not being seen to go above their heads again in this respect remains as prescient as ever.

Unsurprisingly, the report doesn’t shirk the necessary economic considerations. Staying away from the 150 pages given to Brexit as a founding impetus, a considerable amount of ink is spent trying to answer the most obvious questions of all: will Ireland as a whole, and particularly Northern Ireland, be better off within this New Ireland? The result is a veritable avalanche of statistics and detail that is broadly to the affirmative – the sort of stuff BTL commentators could have a field day arguing back-and-forth about. However, as the Brexit referendum has shown, rather than getting bogged down in such interminable debates, the key to this is can this plethora of information be distilled effectively in such a way as to speak to peoples’ hearts as well as their heads?

Based on a modelling against the German unification process, one particularly revealing finding is that Northern Ireland, as the smaller entity in the relationship, would stand to gain the most from this mini-bonanza. In theory, and it remains of course a theory that not everyone will agree on, this would be driven by an assortment of inter-related factors: Northern Ireland’s immediate adoption of the euro and a lower corporate tax rate, automatic re-entry into the EU and the full range of its internal market and funding structures, a fully-harmonised All-Ireland Economy, the emergence of Belfast and Derry as potential additional recipients of the much greater levels of Foreign Direct Investment currently enjoyed by Southern cities (particularly Dublin) – all helping to greater a general currency, investment and productivity boost for Northern Ireland relative to the rest of the UK and Europe. Plainly, Sinn Fein and the SDLP are less comfortable arguing the economics than they are with their bread and butter ideology, but surely, if a unity debate is to become more serious, then this needs to change and fast, as its one area where the real gains and meaningful arguments can be made across the traditional divides.

Other aspects of the report are no less important. Something clearly has to done to prevent Northern Ireland going to bed one night with its law being set and enforced primarily in London, and waking up the next day to having it set and enforced in either in Belfast or Dublin, and the report gives some due consideration of lessons from the German experience again as to how this could be realistically be brought about and what interim period would be needed. Like it or not, preparations would also be needed to mitigate the risk of a minority element of loyalist unrest – however remote that may seem. There is much, much more, but only so much can be summarised here.

Of course, even a report as detailed as this cannot cover everything: to cite some obvious omissions, issues such as NHS, transport reform, agriculture, education, policing are not really mentioned. In fact, the report offers a surprisingly stark admission as to why this is: the more specific details could only realistically be dealt with and fleshed out as and when Unionists are sat at the negotiating table to discuss them. And it’s hard to argue with that logic in some ways, as at present, it has to be acknowledged that this day is far from a reality yet. However, it would be hard to deny it has arrived when nationalist parties start to record significant electoral majorities, the southern parties enter the fray to help develop a broad cross-border consensus, and the writing is well and truly on the wall rather than on internet forums and newspaper columns.

Getting to that point is clearly going to be a hard, lengthy-process, and rather than assuming that an unavoidable tide of history will sweep us all towards it, nationalists would do well to apply Peter Robinson’s advice to their own cause and turn their focus to preparing for and “fleshing out” some of the basic details – and starting with this report is as good a place as any.

How this will all look, and sound of course, is anyone’s guess. However, for anyone who watched it, a tantalising glimpse of this future was given in the recent “leaders debate” at the Feile an Phobail, during which political leaders and representatives of all the main parties North and South shared a platform together, and faced this very topic coming at them first off the bat. I’ll admit, as something of a undecided voter myself, the sheer novelty and dynamic of seeing our well-known politicians having to up their game before a Belfast audience with professional and heavyweight operators such as Simon Harris from Fine Gael, and Lisa Chambers from Fianna Fail, seemed like another milestone in itself: like journey-men football players getting a taste of the Champions League for the first time, and the results were fascinating. Currently, there’s a massive political crisis blowing up across the water, but outside of the Northern Irish aspect to the Brexit debate, the wider machinations of British politics – which cabinet minister said what, who is plotting against who, and who’s next in line to be sacked – has never really felt relevant or spoke to me in the way this did. It was fresh, exciting, and the audience loved it; in short, a world away from the tedious drudgery and never-ending pettiness that has put many of us off any real interest in Northern Ireland politics until Brexit came along and changed everything. And I watched it, I thought to myself, for the first real time in my life, is this what this debate is going to look and sound like? And has some degree of All-Ireland politics already arrived?

Only time will tell, but it would be nice to have some more detail to go on in the meantime.

By Chris McKee

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