Looking forward, there is reason to think Northern Ireland is becoming comfortable in its own skin…

Andrew Clarke is a DUP Councillor in Mid and East Antrim.

Late in 1786, a plough pushed its way through Ayrshire fields. Brittle frosts had yet to kill the gentleness of summer, and the soil yielded easily. The plough’s great keel crashed through a simple nest, and its mouse barely scampered to safety. The misfortune of the simple creature moved the ploughman – one Robert Burns – to pity. Yet on reflection, Burns concludes his own plight is worse, burdened not just by present woes, but by memories of the past and apprehension of the future:

“Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But Och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,

I guess an’ fear!”[1]

If anything, we might say that Burns underestimates the human plight: we collectively ‘remember’ events before we existed, and foresee a future we will never participate in. This is certainly so in Northern Ireland. Our perception of the past colours our view of the future, so though we may sympathize with Henry Ford’s belief that history is bunk, it is right that academics and historians have their opportunity[2]. Challenging popular stereotypes can never do any harm: it is good to note the efforts of Lord Londonderry to achieve a shared education system throughout the 1920’s, or the reservation by Stormont of a third of RUC places to Roman Catholic officers.

Looking forward, there is reason to think Northern Ireland is becoming comfortable in its own skin. Certainly in my own council of Mid and East Antrim, there is a focus on making things work. The last two unionist mayors have hosted events to mark Irish language week, while Sinn Fein and SDLP voted to honour military veterans with a silver poppy. More broadly the 2011 census suggested a population with multiple identities, with only a quarter choosing an ‘Irish only’ identify. The UK is, by definition, multicultural: its ability to accommodate identities of Irish, Northern Irish, Ulster Scots or British (besides the tapestry of other identities found throughout the British Isles) is an obvious asset in a divided society. Those who take an ‘ourselves alone’ approach to politics, assuming it is enough to stoke up tensions in a particular ethno-religious bloc, make a huge gamble. The fall of the ‘Red Wall’ in the UK and the significant increase in the Trump vote among black and Hispanic voters warns that political views are not genetically determined.

The Northern Ireland protocol has featured heavily in recent news, and it has rightly been opposed by those supporting a British Isles open to trade and movement. Yet it is lazy to assume that the Brexit experience automatically boosts separatists within the UK. Little Englanders can hardly blame the EU anymore, and the regional governments of the UK are hardly a convincing target. Unless it abandons its EU enthusiasm, the SNP must now persuade the Scots to join the Euro, and to erect some sort of border with England. Ditto for Welsh nationalism. Irish nationalism already had the Euro problem, but now must reckon with the potential of greater East-West trade friction.

The Brexit experience has undoubtedly alerted public consciousness to the difficulties of political upheaval, with once obscure terms now in widespread use. If ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is not very helpful, ‘United Ireland means a United Ireland’ is scarcely more so. This increases expectations of advocates for NI leaving the UK. How would we transition? What is the final destination? The difficulty is that proposed solutions place the actual problems to the forefront of the debate, and solutions themselves are always contestable.

The 1999 Australian Republic referendum offers another caution. Although popular sentiment favoured republicanism, the proposed model of presidential appointment (by parliamentary appointment) alienated those in favour of direct election. Twenty years on the Queen remains head of state. The devil is in the detail. So a ‘soft’ United Ireland – perhaps a federal state, or a state with new emblems, or rejoining the Commonwealth – might attract moderates from a traditionally nationalist background at the cost of alienating republican diehards. A proposed tax hike to fund the new adventure might reassure those reliant on social security while disturbing more prosperous voters.

There is a deeper reason to hope that the next 100 years will see separatism wane. For perhaps the first time the case for the UK remaining together has been made by Irish nationalists. It has been made with skill and passion. Free trade, freedom of travel, peace and security, economic integration, cultural richness and affinity, educational opportunity – this case for remaining in the EU applies, on steroids, to NI remaining within the UK. At the same time traditional justifications for Irish republicanism – national sovereignty, legislative independence or self-determination have been comprehensively dismissed by their apparent advocates. It remains to be seen whether this transferrable argument can break through the calls of generations dead, but it is striking that not one major political party in Ireland now advocates Irish independence as articulated in 1916: in a real sense, we are all unionists now.

The fate of Burns’ mouse is unclear. Yet had it been the reflective sort, it might have noted that looking into the future doesn’t have to bring worry – it can also give us cause for hope. Here’s to the next 100 years!

  1. To A Mouse, Robbie Burns
  2. Challenging popular stereotypes can never do any harm: it can be useful to note the efforts of Lord Londonderry to achieve a shared education system throughout the 1920’s, or the reservation by Stormont of a third of RUC places to Roman Catholic officers. The Northern Ireland Question: Perspectives on Nationalism and Unionism, edited by Patrick Roche is recently published and well worth reading.

High Tide at Whitehead” by Philip McErlean is licensed under CC BY-ND