A few days ago, the Irish News’ John Manley carried the story that Alliance had turned down an invitation to this event, on the basis that it is a rally for a united Ireland.
I think Alliance made the right decision not to attend and I fully support it.
I should note at the outset that the organisers of the event respected Alliance’s decision not to attend. Credit is due for this, as it is surprisingly rare that Alliance’s values are accorded any degree of respect by those who disagree with them. This reflects an understanding that any move towards Irish reunification involves bringing people along, rather than scolding them or dismissing them as closet unionists. Unfortunately, this courtesy did not extend to the editorial of the Andersonstown News, or Ireland’s Future board member Brian Feeney who called it a “political misjudgement” in his Irish News column on 28th September.
I’m long past the point where I expect a measured opinion of Alliance from either of those commentators, but their unvarnished views are instructive in understanding where large sections of nationalist opinion lie and serve a useful purpose in enabling people to form their own view of how serious nationalism actually is about securing support for its objectives beyond its natural support base.
The organisers also deserve credit for something which I don’t think has been done before. They’ve been able to get some senior politicians from all the major southern parties to attend a large gathering on the theme of Irish unity.
On the event itself, I think the first thing to say is that, despite active efforts to suggest the contrary, this is not a “conversation”, a “debate”, a planning session, or, as Brian Feeney called it in the above article, an “extravaganza [where] these problems and implications will be examined in detail”. It is billed by the organisers as a “public meeting preparing for a united Ireland”.
Alliance’s characterisation of this as a rally for Irish reunification is clearly quite reasonable. I have no problem with rallies, I’ve attended more than a few myself, and it’s a perfectly valid form of political expression and organisation. But I consider it objectionable that it is being presented as something other than this. The event’s agenda has 14 items, which include speeches, dancing performances, and a couple of panel debates. I understand it is expected to run for around 4 hours, so that’s an average of 17 minutes per item without breaks.
None of that is a recipe for a detailed discussion of anything.
The reason why it is important to be clear on this is because some politicians suggested that Alliance’s considered absence amounted to cowardice, or a refusal to engage in conversation or debate about the future. But it is clear that there won’t be any conversation or debate about the future; instead there’ll be a series of speeches about the need to have a conversation. As I write, the event hasn’t started yet. But I’m pretty sure I know it will say – the same thing that people at these events have been saying for the past few years. Panellists and speechmakers will make a series of emotional appeals around the benefits of Irish unity and how everything will be awesome when it happens. The challenges will be glossed over. A few ex-unionists will be wheeled out to talk about how they’ve been saved. The politicians will call for the Irish government to set up a citizen’s assembly and begin planning for unity. Some of them will even suggest that unity is inevitable and that anyone who doesn’t agree is in danger of being left behind. Nobody will take on the responsibility to deal with the details or the tricky parts.
Nationalists are free to campaign for Irish unity as they see fit. But attending rallies about constitutional matters is a prime example of something that Alliance is not about. I didn’t join the party in 1994 because I thought there was a need for a conversation about constitutional change. I joined it because I understood then, and still believe now, that talk of constitutional change lacks either sincerity or substance, is rooted in tribal politics rather than a balanced consideration of the available options, and serves as a pointless and unproductive distraction from other practical matters such as reconciliation, combating sectarianism, and the need for good government and public services based on sound domestic policy. Alliance is not a party that objects to constitutional change – its members have a variety of views on the matter – it is a party that objects to our politics being dominated by it and nothing else. Campaigning for it – or, indeed, campaigning to strengthen the union or secure other British constitutional objectives – would be running counter to that view.
I’ve noted commentators, including Feeney in his article above, opining that Alliance will, one day, have to take a position on this matter. I’ve been hearing that for decades. Setting aside the limitations of the fundamentally binary proposition that only one question really matters and that everyone has to be on either one side or the other, it’s laughable that people who have no particular views on what exactly a united Ireland should look like or how it can be achieved are demanding that other people take a position on it. It should be abundantly clear by now that nationalism’s fear of splitting itself or impairing its electoral performance precludes it from saying anything about reunification that would divide internal opinion. It is nationalism which is on the fence; nationalism which lacks the courage to build consensus and place on the record what a united Ireland actually is because it cannot face the criticism that will inevitably come from various quarters when it does so.
Aside from the issues that Alliance has about attending rallies, I think it is necessary to give due consideration to questions of transparency. I am not sure that companies limited by guarantee are the best vehicles to campaign for political change, and there is ongoing controversy about this in the UK, where there are high-profile examples of such companies advocating specific positions with little or no detail about their internal structure or funding. Ireland’s Future counts three individuals on its board who have signed nomination papers for northern Sinn Féin candidates. To be fully transparent, I feel that it should publish more details of its donations and should include people who have supported the nomination of candidates from of other parties, or indeed, perhaps public figures associated with parties. Given the organisation’s success in attracting senior representatives from every southern Irish political party to today’s event, this does not seem like an unreasonable proposition.
I also have grave difficulties with nationalist political parties decoupling themselves from the unity debate by trying to push it off to external groups. Irish reunification is, fundamentally, a political matter – a very large and serious one. For political parties to take no serious position on it is untenable. I am extremely dissatisfied with politicians, especially ones who throw around words like “cowardice”, who claim to support a particular view but are unable to articulate any fixed opinion on the implications of that view. They’re unable to take a position on basic questions, such as what should happen to academic selection or grammar schools in a united Ireland, how healthcare should be organised, what the role for Stormont will be, or whether or not the reunified country should join the Commonwealth or change its flag or national anthem.
I ask questions like this about what a united Ireland might look like not because I am hostile to the idea, but because I am more than amenable to it. Far from being a “unionist”, I’m already sold on the idea that a united Ireland can work. I do not require any further persuasion of this possibility. What I want to hear is that pro-unity supporters have moved beyond tribal imperatives and are thinking seriously about the whole matter in the round. I want to be clear that are are not, unintentionally or otherwise, laying the foundations of an all island state that is built on sectarianism.
I am not at all persuaded of the possibility that people are prepared to make necessary sacrifices to achieve this. It is clear that nationalism is running away from its responsibility to consider its own political sacrifices. I have further serious concerns on the theme of sacrifices, chief among these that southern taxpayers who say they support unity have not fully internalized what it is going to cost when it happens. I fear that campaigning organisations are focussing too much on securing a northern border poll to the extent that they’re ignoring the question of what they’re going to do when they finally get it. There’s a distinct possibility of a nightmare scenario where Northern Ireland votes itself out of the UK but the rest of Ireland votes against receiving it.
I’d bet money that the rally in Dublin today will address none of these considerations – but it is not its purpose to do so. It is a show of strength, organised as a demonstration of will that Irish reunification is a done deal. When nationalism is ready to talk seriously about this stuff, I’m up for reconsidering my perspective, but until then, I can be safely counted out.
centre-leftish waffler working in IT and living in Belfast
Alliance, but writing in a strictly personal capacity.