For me growing up, the border felt like a fault-line in our family’s life. I grew up in North Down but the place I most related to was the tiny Atlantic side farm on the north coast of Donegal which had been my dad’s family’s home for over 100 years before.
In the early 60s you only slowly filled in the clues that this place was somehow different to our northern home (some considerable distance to the south of the Fanad Peninsula): the US style diamond roadsigns, and queues at Customs.
But family bonds meant it felt like another home. I felt bound to the epic struggles of my forebears in that windy spot, bringing up generations within the Irish language, only to see them move away to some far flung part of the English speaking world.
For me the island felt like two places within one. In many respects, even before the UK and Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, many of the pre-existing divisions were starting to melt away. Car-side interrogations about “contraband” being one.
Paradoxically as we all get closer, the imperative for closing a deal on political unity has receded. We can see as much in recent polling on Irish Unity in which southern society expresses it contentment with the symbols of its independence and freedom.
The southern state’s journey (politically, but also socially and economically) has been of an entirely different character to that of Northern Ireland’s and, not withstanding the pain involved, its one that most ordinary southerners take real pride in.
The effort of the southern state to modernise its economy, let alone its ethical and public moral life has been arduous. But the transformation of the state and its capacity to provide its kids with a world class education, for instance, has been radical.
Travel times to Cork from Dublin have been cut massively in the last 20 years: ditto Galway and Newry. Yet in the 60s, it took two or three years for the County Council to build a single lane road for just seven kilometres between Kerrykeel and Milford.
With regards to a border poll, as Fintan O’Toole pointed out on Saturday, recent polling shows that no one in the south is even close to contemplating unity as a remote possibility…
A malign interpretation of these findings is that Irish people don’t actually believe in the pluralism of their own Constitution, with its aspiration to embrace the people of the island “in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. Rather, they expect those in the North who have a British identity to become “people like us”.
A more benign, and hopefully more accurate, explanation, is that they haven’t yet given this whole thing much thought. But we don’t have the luxury of thoughtlessness. Events are in motion – demographic change within Northern Ireland, the crisis of Britishness – that could force huge decisions on us in the 2030s.
There’s an iron rule of politics: don’t trust anyone who tells you that you will get what you want without paying any price for it. If they’re not lying to you, they’re lying to themselves.
Most people accept in their own lives that good relationships are founded on give and take. It’s time to wake up and realise that there will be no marriage of true minds on this island that does not start with the same acceptance.
Despite some misreporting in the last year, there is likely to have been an increase in north south trade, but the main consumer border remains the one across the North Channel (as we Nordies call our bit of the water between Ireland and Britain).
If there is the political will to fix that, what’s on offer through an amended protocol is the means for Northern Ireland to add real commercial advantages over both Britain and the Republic whilst maintaining porous borders in both cardinal directions.
That would be, you might think, a huge win for unionism in the making. But as ever, unionism rarely knows when to call a victory a victory, allowing the backsliding end of nationalism to claim that calling for a border poll that never comes is a win.
Returning to Paddy Kielty, who gently points out that what we are already doing well in Northern Ireland is getting along. Not as in a love in, or always unity of purpose but enough to allow something else other than permanent enmity to grow.
It is a work in progress (even when things don’t actually seem to be moving). Newly freed from the fanatic-led violence and political intolerance (our parallel northern burden of much of the last 50 years) means new choices are slowly emerging.
The question is can we build on that? Can we rise to the occasion (or not) through the resonance and resilience we can create by using data and narrative to uncover the options we need, rather than reinforcing the ones we’ve inherited from our past.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty