The theme for the 35th John Hewitt International Summer School was “Finding the national: redefining home and country for a shared future”, which asked how much “home”, “country”, “identity”, and “nation” matter, or should matter in a shared future, and the experience of those who feel excluded from existing political structures. Speaking at the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre in Armagh, journalist and civil activist Andy Pollak presented an appropriate talk, “The South is not ready for unification”. He outlined the issues at stake, with some thought-provoking suggestions for future discussion. Yet Pollak’s reflections of recent conversations he’s had with southerners informed him of the significant chasms of views and outlooks that will need to be bridged.
Andy Pollak was introduced by Stephen Douds, president of the Irish Association, which sponsored the event. Douds put the talk in the context of the revised Irish Constitution, particularly Article 3, which states that all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland are to be united “in harmony and friendship”.
Douds further evoked the spirit of the poet for which this summer school is organised, reciting John Hewitt’s “Conversations in Hungary”:
“… we turned to history:
the savage complications of our past:
our luckless country where old wrongs outlast,
in raging viruses of bigotry,
their first infection.”
Douds put it that the extent to which we make progress in living well together on this island will largely depend on how well we come to terms with “the savage complications of our past” and design new ways of sharing that do not repeat “raging viruses of bigotry”.
Andy Pollak began his talk with what he labelled as his “single transferable message” — that the people of the Republic of Ireland haven’t begun to think about what reunification will mean to them “and are about as far from ready for it as one can get”. He mooted how bringing in 900,000 “largely alienated and contrarian unionists” would affect concepts of Irish identity, nationalist historical myths, 100-year-old political institutions, public spending, the Catholic church-controlled education system, and two-tier health service.
He wants to disabuse nationalists and republicans from thinking that a narrow majority for unity would result in unionism disappearing as a philosophy on the island: “Large numbers of unionists … will continue to withhold their allegiance from that Irish state and will continue to feel, behave, and declare themselves as British. They will wave the Union flag, pledge their allegiance to the British monarchy, and reject Irish language and culture as nothing to do with them.” Pollak said that knows this because of his half-unionist background; his mother was from a strongly Presbyterian and unionist family in County Antrim.
Pollak said that guaranteeing unionists their British ties and identity in a post-unity scenario will be extremely challenging to “the complacent nationalism” of the present-day Republic, and that it is very far from the unitary state that Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail have traditionally been wedded to: “We in the Republic sail blithely into an unexamined future with a brainless consensus that in the end the good guys of Irish nationalism will win out over the Northern bigots and stooges of British imperialism, and then we will live happily ever after in harmonious unity.”
His suggestion is that unity will involve a constitutional system somewhere between federalism and confederalism, with some continuing role for the British government. To this end, Pollak made some “against the consensus” ideas to prompt future discussion, in order to redefine Irish unionism as a positive good, “rather than an unloved relic of hated British rule”:
- a power-sharing regional government and parliament to continue in Belfast
- Irish membership in the Commonwealth
- the reactivation of the British-Irish Council
- a number of Northern politicians to continue to sit as British legislators in the House of Lords
- a reversal of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, so that the British government has the right to intervene to protect the interests of unionists
- amending the Irish Constitution, to codify the recognition of the British identity of unionists
- a new flag (e.g. symbols of the four Irish provinces, or a small Union Jack inserted in the orange band of the current tricolour)
- a new, non-militaristic national anthem (e.g. Ireland’s Call)
- a new, free, single-tier health service “without Catholic Church involvement”
Pollak is realistic that few, if any of these suggestions would be deemed acceptable to southern society. He referred to a 2021 Irish Times poll, which showed over 70% rejection of Irish unity if it meant higher taxes, less money for public services, a new flag, a new anthem, or rejoining the Commonwealth. Pat Leahy, the paper’s political editor, concluded: “This sounds less like a new shared country than assimilation into the existing one … It is certainly true that none of these questions — not to mind the answers to them — have been remotely understood to date.”
Pollak validated this view from his own anecdotal experience with some political science students at Trinity College Dublin. Several of them agreed with the view: “The idea of changing what our country is about to accommodate British colonisers [i.e. Northern unionists] doesn’t sit right with me.” Another student said that she would not want “to adapt in any way to British culture”, even if that was the price of bringing some significant element of unionists into a united Ireland.
However, she added that “we have to make sure that our own sense of Irish nationalism doesn’t recreate [the harms of national identity] to unionists, people who feel British in the run-up to, and maybe in the aftermath of, reunification.” The converse could be seen in a remark by former Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mike Nesbitt, defining himself as a “Brit”: “What I haven’t heard from nationalists is that ‘We want you in this new dispensation and here’s why’; somebody has to explain to me why ‘We’ve gone from “Brits out” to “Brits in”’.”
Pollak concluded his talk with a suggestion that the most difficult discussion will be about what kind of continuing British involvement in Ireland it can live with for the sake of the peace and harmony of the whole island: “That, for many unionists, will be a sine qua non. For many republicans and nationalists, it will be a huge step too far. And of course, this vital dimension will not work if the British, as they move out of the EU into their own strange post-imperial, post-European orbit, want nothing more to do with us.”
In the subsequent Q&A session, it was asked whether the southern political class has considered the scenario whereby northerners vote for unity but southerners do not, in a dual referendum. Pollak replied that that’s probably unlikely, because of an “unthinking, bedrock republicanism in the south”, which will bring out a vote for unity, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, he suggested a logic, particularly argued by Sinn Féin, that a vote for unity is a “final act in the struggle against British imperialism”.
Pollak doesn’t think southerners are ready for a border poll: “Maybe this is pie in the sky, but I would like another 50 years of learning to live together on this island in our separate jurisdictions … doing all of those benign things that came out of the Good Friday Agreement, working on north-south cooperation, and then in a future generation we can talk about unity.” He described unity as too much of a cliff edge, too cataclysmic and existentially destructive for unionists to contemplate.
Pollak thought that a border poll in the next 10 years is very dangerous and what worries him is a violent reaction. However, this was challenged by an argument that pointed to positive social changes in Northern Ireland society and changes in election results (i.e. more votes for the Alliance Party), and that if a series of small steps (such as implementing a form of joint authority or joint sovereignty) can be made, then a peaceful transition is possible. Here, Pollak acknowledged the leadership of Alliance leader Naomi Long, but pointed out research on the persistent lack of individuals voting across communal blocs.
“That tribal thing has to be whittled down over a period of time and maybe the Alliance Party are the people to do it,” Pollak finally remarked.
Images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Cross-posted at Shared Future News.