Irish unity could be an attractive option if the new nation is socially liberal, outward looking, multi-cultural, European and economically successfully, while respecting both the Irish and British cultures and traditions, believes Will Glendinning. To be economically successful it may need support from both the European Union and the United States, he adds. Will is a former chief executive of the Community Relations Council, has been an Alliance Party MLA for West Belfast and was also a member of the UDR. He was talking in the latest Forward Together podcast from the Holywell Trust.
Will’s family history brings together different traditions of Northern Irish politics. His great grandfather on his father’s side was Sir Robert Glendinning, a Liberal MP at the beginning of the 20th Century, who was a supporter of Home Rule for Ireland. But a grandfather on his mother’s side was a Unionist MP in Stormont, who had opposed Home Rule. “There was a marriage that occurred in the middle of the schism,” he observes.
It might be argued that there is something of a parallel between the point in history that debated Home Rule and contemporary politics, where Irish unity is beginning to be actively considered. It is a topic Will is seriously engaged in. He has concluded that a change in the constitutional settlement could be positive. “I have reached the position that someone from my background could see myself voting for a united Ireland, or for a new Ireland, if what was on offer was beneficial.”
Will explains: “During my time in politics, I always argued for the issue of consent. That was one of the big advantages I saw for the Good Friday Agreement, that the issue of consent was fully recognised and indeed that consent was an all-Ireland consent. The thing that I think is important in this debate is that unionism was given an opt-out from any all-Ireland structures because it saw itself as a minority in the island of Ireland.
“But the problem for unionism is that it never treated the minority in its own midst with the generosity it should have done… and indeed opposed issues of equality all the way through the development of fair employment laws, and right up to same sex marriage and abortion.”
Will is concerned that, despite this, republicans need, where they have power in local or central government, to demonstrate a much greater generosity of spirit towards unionists than was shown to them.
“That’s one of the reasons why I was very taken with Seamus Mallon’s book ‘A Shared Home Place’, because he argued very strongly that if there is to be a change in the constitutional nature, the danger is that it is 50% plus one and that therefore you end up with a [disaffected] minority in the island of Ireland….
“Mallon doesn’t argue that you have to have a majority of unionists. What he does argue is that you have to have a sufficient number of unionists. I would take an analogy back to another change process that we had to undergo, which was the change in policing. Policing, if it is if it is to be effective, needs to be by consent rather than by force. One of the big changes was a whole change in structure from the RUC to the PSNI, a whole change in ethos, changes of symbols and also changes in the recruitment process to bring about an increase in the number of people from the Catholic and nationalist community into the PSNI.
“Now we can argue about how effective or ineffective that has been – numbers inside the police still do not reflect the make-up of the of the population. But I think before we come to a point where we have a referendum, we need to have the discussion about what the new Ireland would look like – in the same way that in the Republic they had discussions over the same sex marriage referendum and particularly over the abortion referendum, where they developed a consensus on what was on offer – [in the same way there must be discussion] across the island about what was is on offer [in a new Ireland], and only then do you reach the position of having a referendum on any future. So, in other words, you know what is possible.
“From a unionists’ point of view, to enter into those conversations it needs to be recognised that they are entering into them in a position where they can come out the other end – if they go in knowing they are going to lose, whether it is five-nil or three-two, is not a way for those conversations to take place.”
As discussion has advanced over the possible form of Irish unity, so the question arises whether Stormont should be retained or abandoned – and if it is retained whether it should be for the existing six counties of Northern Ireland or the nine counties of the Ulster province – and whether the other provinces should also have their own legislative assemblies. Will argues: “There would still need to have a devolved legislature inside Northern Ireland…. There would need to be a recognition of the position of the monarch.
“And, also, there would need to be, as with the unification of Germany, a guarantee of funding for a period of time until the two economies got together. A further thing, there would need to be discussion of the issue of dealing with the past, through the 1960s and 1970s, up to the 1990s.”
Will believes that politicians present more of a barrier to progress than people within the communities of Northern Ireland. “I have seen many examples of situations where people from very different backgrounds have been prepared to listen and talk, to hear the stories from the other side. And I think that sometimes, actually the community is further along than the politicians are. I recognize that that is not the case in the most deprived areas. Not in the case sometimes in areas where the degrees of segregation, etc., remain as high as they did [during the Troubles].”
This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of peace and reconciliation charity Holywell Trust. It is funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is author of ‘A New Ireland’, ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and other books. He is part-time policy advisor to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.