Irish Unity forums are not a new phenomenon, they have existed for many years but in recent times calls for Unionists to attend these events have started to amplify. These calls were made again this week at an “Ireland’s Future” future event held at Westminster; however, the calls came from an unusual source. Stephen Farry from the Alliance party used his platform at the event to outline how his party would help “shape the conversation” and warned Unionists that they could not stay out of the unification discussions indefinitely.
Important that the ref. question is multi-dimensional. Unionism cannot stay outside of the debate indefinitely. A border poll has to have a very clear proposition and when that is put forward, we may see some unpick it – that may bring unionism in to convo says @StephenFarryMP
— Patricia MacBride (@IRLPatricia) May 18, 2022
This is not the first time that the Alliance party has attended these types of discussions, however, their attendance does present a confusing juxtaposition for a party that goes out of its way to not discuss the constitutional future of Northern Ireland and highlights instead how people from Northern Ireland want to focus on other issues rather than the old “green and orange” battles.
Unionism has come in for much criticism for refusing to participate in these discussions over the years with some pointing out that by doing so in the event of a United Ireland, they will be left behind. I thought it would be useful to examine Unionism’s position on these discussions and what it could or should be doing.
What are Unionism’s Objections?
The primary issue around many of the discussions organised by movements such as “Ireland’s Future” and a multitude of similar groups is that the outcome is predetermined with the final landing point being Irish Unity. There is no obvious ending point for these groups that would stop short of full Irish Unification. Observing some of the comments from this week’s Ireland’s Future event underlines this point further:
Claire Hanna discussed the Good Friday Agreement being the framework for constitutional change. John Finucane stated that Unity was inevitable and demanded the Irish government prepare for a border poll. Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond called on his government to establish an Oireachtas committee on Irish unity ahead of a potential border poll. In addition to this Ireland’s Future chief executive Gerry Carlile last week said that the result of the May 5 election had made the argument for a border poll more compelling.
Within this framework, Unionism can’t enter in a meaningful way. Giving a pro-Union view would be deemed by many at these events as “Unionists burying their heads in the sand”. Conversely, if Unionism joined these discussions and outlined their vision post-Unification, this would not only undermine their Unionist credentials but would be construed as Unionism having entered the conversation which would be interpreted as a win for those seeking Unity. Furthermore, if some of Unionism’s input made it into an Irish Unity manifesto, it would be very difficult during a referendum for Unionism to campaign against this and if they did, opponents would undoubtedly pounce on this fact.
There also does not appear to be a clear exit path or endpoint at which Unionism could decide to leave, instead, it seems to be an endless series of discussions. For example, if Unionism attended one or two of these events to counter some of the narratives around Irish Unity and presented a pro-Union vision and then left the discussions, would this be acceptable or would Unionism be inevitably accused of running away from the inevitability of Irish Unity?
Another key issue with these forums is that they’re effectively toothless talking shops. They have no power and despite each of the discussions being billed as “significant” or “hugely important”, the level of achievement appears to be low and without being underwritten by either government, the value of attending one from a Unionist perspective is negligible.
Ultimately these discussions are aimed at bringing to an end the Union and whilst this is a reasonable aspiration, it’s an equally reasonable aspiration for Unionists not to facilitate such events. Perhaps the organisers should be confident enough to have a real debate with Unionism in a neutral setting without the destination being predetermined?
What can Unionism Do?
There is an endless list of things Unionism can and should be doing but at present, they are not. As discussed, many times previously, with the infighting, division, and lack of direction, Unionism must have a long-overdue internal discussion with itself to address some of the divisions and plot a better route forward.
Unionism should also be confident enough to challenge those at these Irish Unity discussions to participate in a real debate in a neutral format, Unionism should not be afraid of discussions as long as the framework is not a predetermined destination.
Whilst a long way off and perhaps a better vehicle for civic Unionism to drive, there should be forums set up geared around improving Northern Ireland and strengthening the Union. Unionists, who are critical of Alliance for attending Unification events often ask if they would attend a pro-Union event? At present this is an absurd question as such events do not exist, it’s certainly time to turn words into actions on this subject.
There are some groups such as the “Shared Island” initiative which do not have Unity as its underlying raison d’etre, this is a platform that Unionism should be comfortable joining and engaging with. Working with others on items that are mutually beneficial across the island whilst not aiding the dismantling of the Union seems a sensible approach.
Redefining Unionism for the 21st century is another necessary task, it currently seems angry, disorientated, and stale, all the whilst declining. There needs to be a realignment within Unionism around some common goals and principles that appeal to Unionists and non-Unionists alike, too little is being done on this front and instead, Unionism is being allowed to slowly decline in a “respectable manner”.
It’s unfair to expect Unionism to participate in what seems like an endless series of events that seek to bring about its cessation. If Unification did come to pass, Northern Ireland Unionism would be a defunct entity as there would be no pathways back into the Union, and post Unity Unionism would have to redefine itself into a different movement or fade away completely. Unionism has so much that it should be doing but participating in Unity discussions with no exit points and a panel that has already made up their minds does like not seem a productive use of time. I would also encourage those on these panels to understand why Unionism doesn’t take part in these discussions and instead focus on how you would seriously address this complex and varied demographic including Unionism, Orangeism, Protestantism, Loyalism, British, and everything in-between being absorbed into a single state and not being a fringe player but central to many communities and potentially wielding significant influence in the national government. What are those on these panels prepared to offer Unionism if Unifications comes to pass or does the real power lie with the population in the Republic of Ireland which seems to only want Unity but not the costs and changes that will accompany it? Also, dialling down the rhetoric of Unionism being “left behind” would be a beneficial move, Unionism is unlikely to respond positively to this type of threat.
My final point is to the Alliance Party and Stephen Farry in particular, most people accept them not taking a position on the constitution but equally, they must understand why Unionism doesn’t want to join discussions aimed at ending the Union. Perhaps the real conversation could start with Stephen Farry himself, someone who has attended several Unity events. Rather than criticising others for not attending, Mr. Farry could outline where he currently stands on the question of Unity, after all these discussions, he must have formed some opinion…
Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman