I will be surprised if I see a united Ireland in my lifetime (I am in my early seventies). But the direction of travel is unmistakable. The history-changing reasons have been well rehearsed: the growth of the Catholic population – and particularly the young Catholic population – in Northern Ireland; the new confidence of Sinn Fein-led northern nationalists; the emergence of the Republic of Ireland as a prosperous, successful, liberal country at the heart of the EU; and the decline of the United Kingdom as a world power and a multi-cultural nation, particularly after Brexit, and with the probable breakaway of Scotland (with which many northern Protestants feel a particular affinity) as an independent nation.
I agree with Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy in his analysis of last month’s major opinion poll in that paper on unity and related topics. “If the arguments for unity are to be won, it seems they will be won not with windy rhetoric, but with worked-out and practical plans and probably over a long period of time. In the absence of reassurances that things will change for the better rather than the worse, politically and personally, [southern] voters are likely to follow their conservative instincts to retain the status quo. In addition, many voters in the South would have to be persuaded to persuade northerners about unity through changes and concessions – something they are disinclined to do.” He also warned: “The drum beating for unity is not winning over the growing and likely decisive section of the population of Northern Ireland – the middle ground. It is through them that the path to a united Ireland – if it is ever to happen – will run.”1
How deep is the commitment to unity among people in the South? The answer is: not very deep, whether it is in terms of symbolism, security or economics. Large numbers of voters in the Republic become less likely to vote for a united Ireland if that entity has a new flag and anthem. Nearly half of those polled (47 and 48%) said they would be “less likely” to vote for unity if it meant a change of flag or anthem. An extraordinary 54% said the symbolic gesture of re-joining the Commonwealth would make them less likely to support a united Ireland. Unsurprisingly, a unity which would lead to respondents being £3,500/€4,000 a year worse off would make 48% of people in the Republic (51% in Northern Ireland) less likely to vote for that outcome. 66% chose “whether a united Ireland would be peaceful” as the issue “voters would need to know about to make an informed decision on Irish unity.”
The unwillingness of southerners to make changes in their comfortable society to accommodate northern unionists was clear from the poll’s accompanying focus groups, organised by the two heavyweight political scientists who oversaw the poll, Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania and John Garry of Queen’s University Belfast. Among those focus group participants, “there was a sense of surprise, shock and some distaste that such changes – on the flag, anthem, Commonwealth and political institutions – could happen. Participants essentially assumed that in a united Ireland, the North would be absorbed or assimilated, with little need for change down south.” This is entirely in line with my experience of living for over 50 years in the Republic: when people here think about unity at all, which is rarely, it is with the assumption that life will go on almost as normal.
It is equally my experience that there is little sign of any significant number of unionists being won over by arguments for Irish unity in the short term. In recent months I have been interviewing unionists whom I believe to be liberal, open-minded people, but I haven’t found a single one who has changed his or her mind about preferring to remain part of the United Kingdom. This is in contrast to the magical (some might say delusional) thinking by the northern nationalists of the Ireland’s Future campaign, who have produced a small number of converted unionists and Protestant nationalists at their meetings and rallies in an apparent effort to give the impression of a significant opinion shift north of the border. As one young unionist woman community leader put it to me: “A Northern Orangeman is never going to become a left-wing Irish Catholic – it’s not going to happen.”
So here’s my message to Sinn Fein, Ireland’s Future, and others of that ilk: if you want unity to be as peaceful and harmonious as possible, get on with making it attractive to those most difficult of people, the Ulster unionists. One way to do that is to keep as many British links as possible in the ‘new Ireland’, however unpalatable that may be to you as Irish republicans and nationalists. As Linda Ervine, much loved by gaeilgeoiri for her valiant efforts to promote the Irish language in loyalist East Belfast, says: “I wouldn’t lose sleep over a united Ireland, but I would lose sleep over losing links with the rest of the UK – that would be an issue for me.” None of this is going to be easy, given the current anti-British and anti-unionist atmosphere in the Republic and the stubborn, unmoving and unforgiving nature of unionism in the North. A lot more ‘uncomfortable conversations’ (the title of a Sinn Fein initiative eight years ago aimed at dialogue with Protestants and unionists, which ran out of steam) will be needed, and I suggest this time they are led by parties other than the detested Sinn Fein.
Because, in contradiction to what I have said above [“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – Emerson], there is evidence of new thinking among some intelligent unionists. Two years ago, Dennis Kennedy, an unusual unionist in that he is a former deputy editor of the Irish Times, wrote: “Perhaps it is time to look again at advice once offered to unionists by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Writing in 1999, he proposed ‘a deal with constitutional nationalism to avert British surrender of Northern Ireland to violent republicanism’. He meant inclusion in a united Ireland, an inclusion agreed on negotiated terms which would safeguard the vital interests of the unionist community. But even Conor could not have envisaged that the day would come when Sinn Féin, still glorifying the IRA’s terrorism, would be in government in Belfast and very close to being in government in Dublin. But it has.
“Today there is at least a possibility that in a Border poll the North would vote for Irish unification. No poll, or a vote for staying in the UK, can result only in continued deadlock, possibly with unionists a minority in the Assembly and in the province, with an enhanced threat of violence and the bleak prospect of years of political deadlock, a divided society, minimal government in Belfast, and an increasingly unsympathetic one in London. And possibly a United Kingdom in disarray or collapse. Are there in the broad unionist community those who can see that such a negotiated union [with the Republic] would be better for all than those prospects, or being forced into a union by losing a referendum?
“We already have some of those guarantees Conor hinted at. The Belfast Agreement lays down that, in a united Ireland, government ‘shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities…”
“The real gain for all would be that a negotiated deal would have to result, not in some form of continued partition with devolution for the North, nor in reserved places in government for special categories, but in a new agreed Ireland, with an agreed national narrative, neither the present one of the Republic, nor that of Northern Ireland. For a majority of Northerners another bonus would be re-entry into the EU, which in turn might be expected, along with a relieved UK, to give financial aid to the new Ireland.”2
This is broadly good advice, although I wish I shared the belief that a future Sinn Fein-led Irish government would move towards “an agreed national narrative, neither the present one of the Republic, nor that of Northern Ireland.” Given the views of the Republic’s citizens about changing as little as possible in the South after reunification, and Sinn Fein’s determination to impose its anti-British and violence-justifying version of recent Irish history, this appears to me at the moment to be ‘pie in the sky’.
Another view is that of Brian Walker, a former BBC Northern Ireland political editor and Radio 4 current affairs editor. He urges Northern nationalists “to engage on an open agenda on the future. While this would fool nobody about the ultimate aspiration, it should encourage unionists to present publicly an agenda for maintaining the British link and a shared future for all Ireland that all could accept. In other words it would be the fulfilment of the main body of the Good Friday Agreement, the best of both worlds, not the only part of it that is a zero sum.” He believes that for unionists this would be preferable to the other two main options: to wait for an Irish government offer they might or might not refuse; or to frighten the South off by “becoming as troublesome as nationalists were in pre-1998 Northern Ireland.”3 But are unionists (let alone the DUP) ready for such an ‘open agenda’? I have serious doubts.
The most interesting unionist contribution to this debate I have read recently was one by a Belfast historian and blogger, Samuel Thompson. In a post on the Slugger O’Toole website last month, he wrote:
“In the push for a Border poll one thing that is largely being ignored is what unionists might do if they lose it. Arlene Foster is already on record as saying she may pack her bags, and while some may say ‘good riddance’, what about the rest? Those with the money to move will probably be the least affected by any change, and home is home. For those without funds, becoming a refugee in Glasgow or another British city is hardly an enticing project. The vast majority of unionists are likely to stay put just as nationalists did in 1921. What they do next is the key issue.
“The DUP seem to be preparing a contingency for losing a Border poll. We constantly hear ‘cross community consent’ in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, but I suspect it has more to do with setting a precedent whereby major constitutional change cannot take place without the consent of the majority of unionists, or in other words, never. This is a very dangerous game and encourages fantasies of reliving 1912, and also gives a massive boost to republican groups still engaging in violence. How can we spend decades persuading republicans to play the political game and then move the goal posts if they look like winning it?
“I have no doubt there will some kind of violent reaction to a lost Border poll, but how much? Demonstrations and riots can be taken as read, but the level and severity of violence will depend on what is actually been voted for and the margin of victory. An undefined vote for change like the Brexit referendum, with a similarly small majority, is a recipe for chaos. My guess is there will be a Good Friday-style proposal with significant detail on pensions and finance and a poll will not take place unless the outcome is close to a foregone conclusion. This will be after a succession of pro-unity election results, not one or two opinion polls. In those circumstances unionism will have had time to realise change is on the cards and a vote for Irish unity may not be a prelude to civil war, even if there are 12,500 edgy loyalist paramilitaries.
“The UK government will not hang onto Northern Ireland if a majority votes to leave the UK. It just won’t; internationally it would be crucified and domestically only a lunatic fringe would support such a policy. The political pain would be too much for absolutely no gain.
“It should also be borne in mind that the loyalist paramilitaries are thoroughly infiltrated by the intelligence services. That was the case when John Stevens investigated collusion in the 1990s and, with MI5 now leading operations, the intelligence situation can only have improved. It is highly likely that a high proportion, if not the majority, of loyalist paramilitary leaders are state agents. In other words, a concerted campaign of violence cannot happen unless HMG permits it or colludes in it. Given that Britain shall finally have the honourable exit from Ireland it has long sought, this is highly unlikely. The Irish authorities can expect a high degree of British co-operation in making any transition as peaceful as possible.
“What would violence achieve? Loyalism can’t force the UK to keep N. Ireland against the will of the majority of its inhabitants, which leaves, in my view, only two alternatives: independence for Northern Ireland – effectively the parts of it loyalists can gain control of – or an accommodation with Dublin that respects the rights and sensitivities of the new minority.
“Loyalists could create types of no-go areas where Dublin’s writ would be more notional than real. This would Balkanise the North into areas of government control, splashed with isolated pockets of resistance. These areas would suffer economically, and military resistance needs a clear and achievable political objective to have any chance of success. Otherwise, what is the point?
“The other possible outcome is one where unionism, including paramilitaries, sits down with the Irish and British governments and their nationalist neighbours and negotiates the best deal it can for its people. This is not an implausible scenario: there have been informal contacts between Irish governments and loyalist paramilitaries for years. It is to everyone’s benefit they continue. These things can be done before or after Doomsday, but they will have to be done.”4
1 ‘Irish Unity: The North says No for Now’ Irish Times, 3 December 2022; ‘Support in Republic for unity is wide – but not very deep’, Irish Times, 5 December 2022.
2 ‘Who’s for a U-turn?’ Dublin Review of Books, June 2021
3 ‘Do they reelly, reelly want it? A reflection on ‘Ireland’s Future’? Slugger O’Toole, 2 October 2022
4 ‘How realistic is the Doomsday Scenario?’ Slugger O’Toole, 30 December 2022
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.