“A border poll on Irish unity has progressed from possible, to likely, to certain.”
Words you might expect to have been said with some relish by a Sinn Féin politician, perhaps, but their author is actually Alex Kane in his praise for Malachi O’Doherty’s latest work. Conventional wisdom in this part of the world would now have you believe that the writing is on the wall – not just in respect of a Border Poll, but also Irish Unity as such. O’Doherty, however, is not entirely convinced. In fact, he is decidedly undecided on both a Border Poll and Irish Unity – and hopes by the end of his book that “a few others are similarly undecided” too.
‘Can Ireland Be One?’ is a largely autobiographical work in which identity features front and centre. O’Doherty takes us on a trip down memory lane where we explore his family history, and later we are introduced to the various people he has met throughout his travels around this island. They all have something in common – they are not those one-dimensional caricatures that we are so often led to believe are our neighbours. They range from Davy – the straight-talking Donegal Orangeman with Gaeilge at him – to Chris Hudson, the Unitarian minister with staunch Republican beginnings who was at one time a go-between between Loyalists and the Irish Government.
O’Doherty leaves us in little doubt that identity here is not a binary affair. It is a Pandora’s Box. A rabbit hole. Having shown us how diverse the contents of Pandora’s Box really are, and how deep the rabbit hole really goes, he devotes much time and effort to exploring if these identities, and the people that embody them, can be reconciled. Ploughing much the same furrow as John Hume, Seamus Mallon, and Micheál Martin – not as lonely as it used to be – he notes that while:
“There is a mechanism agreed in the Good Friday Agreement for uniting the separate jurisdictions on the island of Ireland…there is no sure route to uniting the people.”
Unlike the aforementioned, however, Malachi does not believe that the latter should necessarily precede the former – though clearly he regards “uniting the people” as something good in itself. The Indian polymath, Rabindranath Tagore, is cited approvingly and at length for his belief that “bringing people together” is much more important than merely “creating a nation” within “the boundaries of a single jurisdiction.” Applying Tagore’s ideas to historical Ireland, O’Doherty concludes that:
“Hoping to create an Irish state in which [the Anglo-Irish and northern Protestants] would ultimately and just grudgingly come to terms with was getting things the wrong way round” (Emphasis added).
And later turning to modern Ireland, he reaches much the same conclusion:
“We are talking about uniting Ireland while it still remains impossible to unite these communities. This might be getting things the wrong way round.” (Emphasis added)
We can infer that Malachi would prefer a united Ireland to get things the ‘right’ way round, and why not? This shared aspiration of Hume, Mallon, Martin, Tagore – uniting the people – is widely regarded a noble one. But is it realistic? After meeting O’Doherty’s many stereotype-defying relations and interviewees, we might be forgiven for wondering if a focus on identity, and reconciling identities, is actually biting off more than we can chew. A road to no-where. After all, he concedes on one occasion that “in reality no people is homogenous” – so might division on the grounds of identity be a fact of life, whether we’re in a united Ireland or not? What if a united Ireland which some northerners can only “grudgingly come to terms with” is as good as it gets? Would we be better off putting identity back into Pandora’s Box, coming out of the rabbit hole, and trying to unite on other grounds?
O’Doherty is painstaking in his efforts to paint a picture of identity here that bears much more resemblance to a ‘technicolour dreamcoat’ than to our familiar, black and white caricatures. He is commendably even-handed in his examination of past concerns and injustices pertaining to identity – but compared to the colourful picture he paints, his conclusion is rather more muted in its tone (though perhaps comes as a relief): Identity is no longer a serious obstacle to uniting the people. Once legitimate concerns around religion, culture, and language – that British-identifying Ulster Protests “saw as warranting partition in the past” – are no longer “authentic concerns” in the event of a united Ireland. Likewise, many previous arguments for Irish Unity – such as “saving northern Catholics from discrimination” – no longer seriously apply in Northern Ireland. As far as the whole kaleidoscope of identity is concerned, there is no longer anything to really fear – either in the Northern Ireland of today or the United Ireland of tomorrow.
So where does O’Doherty go from here? What concerns are now authentic? What arguments now apply? The economic ones, certainly. O’Doherty argues, for instance, that “the pension question will be critical”. He is not alone, citing Newton Emerson who argued much the same. Others, such as Brendan Heading of this parish, have also drawn attention this question – though disputing that pensions will be ‘Alright on the Night’ has a track record for being poorly received, which perhaps indicates how far we have to go, never mind O’Doherty. Likewise, reassuring Trever Ringland in an aside, he asserts that the constitutional question is now “surely only a question of administration” – a conclusion shared recently by one Jude Collins, who is normally on the other side of O’Doherty in any argument:
“[Who] is in charge of the state you live in matters…being concerned about the cost of living doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have strong feelings about who’s in charge of the state in which you live.” (Source)
Whatever will ultimately make or break a border poll, then, it will not be the questions of identity that bedevilled us in the past – which is not to say there isn’t value in exploring them, as O’Doherty does so well. Nor is it to say that identity will never present any issues down the line – at one point he half-hypothesizes and half-predicts an “Orange enclave in the new Ireland, an “Irish Gaza” comprised of Counties Antrim and Down that may well prove to be almighty headache. But not to the extent that it makes or breaks a border poll.
Rather, O’Doherty believes much will come down to how effectively (or not) the terms and conditions of any future arrangement are spelled out – “I will not vote on the constitution with less care than I would take in signing a contract to buy a car.” In this respect, towards the end of the book, there is a general sense that both Irish and British governments need to get a move on – he predicts at least three years of negotiations will be required before any border poll. Advocacy groups meanwhile, such as Ireland’s Future, are also given something in-between a short shrift and an ultimatum – stop with the love-ins and get real.
O’Doherty’s latest work has much to commend it. He has a knack for simultaneously provoking and pre-empting his readers’ objections. Just when you think he is being unfairly one-sided, and are preparing your counterargument, he beats you to it. At times you feel as though he is debating as much with himself as with his readers – he is undecided, after all. O’Doherty here is perhaps a devil’s advocate above all else – perhaps moreso for those who fall under the umbrella of “Protestant Unionist culture” – his rationale being that:
“I prefer to start by acknowledging the fact of their existence and the need to seek accommodation with them, understanding that if they are dismissed as foolish and irrelevant then, inevitably, they will object to that and become more difficult to deal with.”
Though it is a timely and welcome challenge to our received wisdom, I found myself with a few objections that O’Doherty did not pre-empt. Where he is perhaps weakest is on the language question. He is not indifferent or hostile to the Irish language as such, conceding that it is “important to us”, but I would argue he is at times unduly cynical – of its advocates, of its future. He accuses the “Irish attachment to the old language” as having “nothing to do with communication, which is what languages are actually for”. He similarly criticises the Irish government’s adaptation “to the use of Irish as a communications medium, for which it is not needed”.
But what does “need” mean in this context? We might wonder if O’Doherty would like to demolish the Tower of Babel and have the whole world speaking the same language once again. If we believe the Biblical account, that might even be a noble goal – our myriad of diverse and tricky languages being God’s punishment for our hubris – though I imagine there are few people in the world today who regard their native language as a curse from God, even if talking to our fellow man sometimes means getting to grips with the lingua franca. Why should Ireland be an exception to the rule, just because we can ‘get by’ with English?
Further, O’Doherty at times appears to be unduly charitable to Unionism – perhaps motivated by that earlier “need to seek accommodation”. Take the UUP – who are referred to as “the more moderate UUP” on one occasion. O’Doherty himself relates that former UUP leader Tom Elliot, as recently as 2010, could not bring himself to attend a mere GAA match – a bridge too far. Not a bridge too far for the DUP’s Peter Robinson in 2012, nor the DUP’s Arlene foster in 2018. Whereas it remains a bridge even for Doug Beattie, as of April this year – a bridge too far? Has he crossed it yet? Who knows, but who looks to be the more moderate here?
More generally, Unionism is classed as a moderate form of nationalism, on the grounds that it now “concedes that it can be defeated by a majority vote for Irish unity” – but we can’t help but wonder if the DUP are included here. Prior to the last Assembly Election, for instance, Jeffrey Donaldson seemingly let the cat out of the bag on episode of UTV’s View from Stormont, remarking that he:
“[Can’t] understand why a Unionist party like the UUP, is standing side by side with Sinn Féin and saying there shouldn’t be a Unionist veto.” (Emphasis added)
It follows that he believes there should be a Unionist veto, but a veto over what? A border poll? Everything? Coupled with the DUP’s apparent difficulty when it comes to accepting defeat in the last Assembly Election, never mind a border poll – as demonstrated by their ongoing Stormont boycott, ostensibly on Protocol grounds – it is difficult to square the peg that they are moderate nationalists. Some commentators, such as the aforementioned Jude Collins and Pat McCart, suspect it is precisely a Unionist veto they are fishing for in Westminster – an obviously undemocratic ‘win’ with which to try and ‘win’ the next election. Who said irony is dead? But it would go some way to explaining why they aren’t boycotting Westminster – birthplace of the Protocol – as opposed to Stormont, which had nothing to do with it.
Short of an obstinate refusal on the part of a British government to entertain a border poll, however, which according to O’Doherty would “would face political outrage and legal challenge” if “prospects of success [are] obvious” – there is no point pretending that a border poll is a question of ‘if’ any more. Only ‘when’. We are where we are. Far from this being good news for nationalists and bad news for unionists, O’Doherty impresses upon us that:
“The question of unity will be decided in the most trying of times by those who have the least passion for it. They will vote pragmatically so they will need to know that the country will be stable after the vote.” (Emphasis added)
Passionate, starry-eyed idealism on the part of Irish unity enthusiasts will not cut it, nor will any obstinate Unionist refusal to countenance that the status-quo is nowhere near as secure in 2022 as it was in 1922. Time is limited for either side to set out their constitutional stall, and refusing to set out your stall will be as much of a mistake as setting it out badly. It is this kind of complacency that O’Doherty cautions against above all else. Those pragmatic voters he refers to, who yearn for stability in whatever constitutional arrangement, will not be lending their votes to whatever side they deem to be the biggest chancer – there is too much at stake to take a chance. ‘Can Ireland be One?’ urges both the British and Irish governments, and indeed all of us, to plan in haste and unite at leisure – the clock is ticking.
Blaine McCartney is a Co. Down-based writer