A wise, insightful examination of the perils and possibilities of Irish unity…

If readers of this blog are looking for a book to read on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I strongly recommend Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland, by my friend Padraig O’Malley, the distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts. If anyone deserves such a grandiose title, it is Dublin-born O’Malley. Not content with producing a raft of books on conflicts and peace processes in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Iraq, he has also been centrally involved in the actual business of peacemaking in those divided countries.

Space only allows a few highlights of his long and varied career as a peacemaker. In 1985 he gathered the protagonists in Northern Ireland for a major conference at Airlie House in Virginia. In 1992-1993 he provided much of the intellectual heft behind the Opsahl Commission’s ‘citizens inquiry’ on ways forward for the deadlocked North (which I coordinated). In 1997 he brought the NI parties painfully negotiating what would become the Good Friday Agreement to South Africa to meet President Nelson Mandela and other key players in bringing about the end of apartheid. And in 2008 he took 15 warring Sunni and Shia groups from Iraq to Helsinki to meet key leaders of the Irish peace process, including Martin McGuinness and former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari.

His 1983 book, The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today, is in my view the best account of the first and most violent decade of the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. It is one of two books I recommend to people on the Northern imbroglio, the other being Say Nothing by the American writer, Patrick Radden Keefe – in my humble opinion one of the finest journalists writing in the English-speaking world today – who has penned an endorsement on the front cover of O’Malley’s latest book.

This new book is based largely on around 100 interviews with leading members of Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, the UDA, the UVF, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, the British and Irish civil service, along with leading academics, journalists, psychologists and civil society activists.

It is so rich in insights it is difficult to know where to begin. O’Malley – who among all the analysts of our thorny ‘national question’ is the one who goes out of his way to understand the unionist viewpoint – nevertheless expects to see a border poll by 2032. “This scenario is based on the assumption that Sinn Fein is in government in the South after 2025; that on taking office it immediately calls a Citizens Assembly and the preparatory work takes a minimum of five years; that the [NI] Executive and Assembly remain operative for two election cycles; that the Alliance Party is brought on board following Assembly elections in 2027; that a new Assembly a few years into its term requests the Secretary of State to call a referendum and he or she responds. If all goes as predicted, this will set a referendum date sometime in 2032 – two to three years after the request for one – and, in the event of a vote for reunification, an elaborate and intricate process would thereafter begin, potentially lasting 10 to 15 years, phasing in the transfer of sovereignty and the final pieces of a united Ireland in 2042-47.”

But O’Malley emphasises that everyone uses the word ‘fragile’ to describe this process – “it is easily shattered or broken.” He believes “it is hard to envisage a scenario that would not elicit an angry and hostile unionist reaction once an Irish government takes up the cudgels of unification…All roads to the future are strewn with highly combustible, unknown obstacles.” Warning that seven year border polls are a prescription for instability, he urges the Secretary of State to make it clear that “opinion polls on unity will not be a criterion unless it emerges that they provide unequivocal support for unity, including a significant element in the unionist community, over a sustained period.”

Attitudes in the complacent present-day Republic will be key. “In my view the South isn’t prepared for what Northern Ireland being reunited with the rest of Ireland is going to mean”, says the former head of the NI Community Relations Council (and former Alliance Party chair) Duncan Morrow. He gives the example of “conversations around symbolic issues” [flag, anthem, Commonwealth membership] which he says will be “brutal, difficult, endless and emotive, as they have been for 20 years in Northern Ireland.”

The former unionist Seanad member, Ian Marshall, tells an instructive story about symbols. He said to a couple of republicans: “Look, guys, if you’re serious with this, then if I went and bought a house in Cork and I wanted to put a flagpole up in the rebel county and I wanted to fly a British flag because I still have British identity, would you be comfortable with that? They said: ‘That can never happen, Ian.”

A major problem will be the rise and rise of Sinn Fein. “There is near-unanimity among interviewees that Sinn Fein in government in the South would be a major obstacle to a united Ireland”, says O’Malley. He quotes a range of people of different views on this. The Dublin TD Jim O’Callaghan, who has ambitions to lead Fianna Fail, says “one of the biggest obstacles to unification is the campaign of violence that was carried out by the Provisional IRA…It’s a deciding factor for a lot of unionist people in Northern Ireland who will not engage rationally with the topic [because of what] happened in the past.”

Sinn Fein is still seen as the political wing of the IRA, says Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie. “They still condone and celebrate the murders of the IRA over many years, some of the most heinous crimes imaginable: burning people to death, strapping people to bombs, blowing people up as they attend charity events. There’s a psyche in unionists who will just not give ground to the likes of Sinn Fein. If Sinn Fein became the largest [party in the] government in the Irish Republic, and they are the government, they will be viewed as a hostile government.” With Sinn Fein in government north and south, he believes “the whole balance of the Good Friday Agreement will come unstuck.”

The SDLP MP for South Belfast, Claire Hanna, says: “Sinn Fein’s narrative is that it was appropriate to bomb and kill to get a united Ireland. While that odour is in the air, you can understand people being uncomfortable about moving towards such a united Ireland. Unfortunately the IRA have made a lot of people associate Irish unity and the Irish Republic with death.”

Former SDLP power-sharing minister Alex Attwood fears that “there are people within Sinn Fein whose strategy is to again overwhelm unionism, demoralize them, and thus get Irish unity over the line. And then you’re going to have this hostile conversation, and God knows where hostile conversations go in this part of the world.”

What comes across strongly in his interviews, says O’Malley, is that the present Irish government “would want to see a working Northern Ireland before asking its electorate to partake in a referendum on unification.” That would all change under a Sinn Fein-led government, of course. But that party faces a conundrum. “It is not in its interest to see Northern Ireland working too well, because if too many cultural Catholics are comfortable living there, they might vote for the status quo in a referendum; at the same time, Sinn Fein has to show the electorate in the South that it can govern.”

The Alliance Party agrees with the Irish government. The author frequently quotes its leader Naomi Long on the necessary way forward. “We need all parts of the Good Friday Agreement to be functioning and we need stable government in place, and that is part of the conditions set for a poll on a united Ireland. If we can do that for a sustained period of time successfully, then we are much more likely to be resilient enough to be able to sustain in a peaceful and lawful manner the run-up to any kind of border poll, which will in itself be divisive and contentious. If you layered that on an already volatile political situation, it could be very dangerous.” If the people of Northern Ireland are unable to work together using the structures of the Good Friday Agreement, she goes on, “it is hard to say how we could then as a society actually take a rational and logical look at our long-term future on this island.” She adds that there should be a decisive majority in favour of unity in that poll, and voters should know precisely what a united Ireland entails.

One of the book’s most intriguing sections is O’Malley’s finding that the “across the board” view among those interviewees who ventured an opinion (including from Sinn Fein, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) was that the Stormont Executive and Assembly should stay as part of any future constitutional dispensation, either as an interim stop on the road to unification or as part of the final destination. He believes that the institutions and ‘strands’ of the Good Friday Agreement (internal power-sharing, and North-South and East-West institutions) “would still have legal force following a referendum in favour of Irish unity.” He quotes Irish High Court judge Richard Humphreys, who has written several thoughtful books on moves towards unity: “Any ultimate realignment of sovereignty within an all-island framework would happen slowly, naturally and almost imperceptibly over a period of time with a stable constitutional context where the rights and identities of all were protected. There would be no jagged or unnatural discontinuities.”

This might seem unrealistically over-optimistic, but another wise northerner, Francis Campbell, Tony Blair’s former private secretary and British ambassador to the Vatican, agrees. “If you have a situation where what’s on offer in a referendum choice is the continuation of Stormont, all the checks and balances of the Belfast Agreement and very limited reserved powers at a federal all-Ireland basis, then in my view that is a lot less intimidating to some people than perhaps their worst fears about being absorbed into a system where there’s no check and balances.” Bertie Ahern is another who foresees Stormont continuing.

Perhaps surprisingly, former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson seems amenable to discussion on this fraught issue. He emphasises the importance of an agreed process. “If the result was to go in the direction of a united Ireland, you will have a long period [between the poll result and the implementation of the outcome], because if the disruption from Brexit was as polarizing as it was, you can imagine how much more polarized in Northern Ireland, and the consequences of that polarization…Going from one nation to another. That’d be absolutely massive. The amount of negotiation that would have to take place to transfer education, health, all the work of departments. Absolutely massive.”

Even more amazingly, Jeffrey Donaldson is open to this discussion too. “We’re not planning for constitutional change, but my view is that the three sets of relationships endure whatever the outcome of any future border poll, and therefore giving institutional expression to those relationships is necessary, whatever the future constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland.”

Another revealing, although unsurprising, part of the book deals with the current plight of the unionist and loyalist communities. In their own words, says O’Malley, unionism is “unsettled’, ‘has done a poor job at safeguarding the union’, ‘is in decline’, ‘is living in denial’, ‘cannot speak with a collective voice’, ‘needs to talk to itself’ and ‘is always seeing enemies’; ‘its problem is with itself’, ‘its back against the wall’, it is unsure of its place in the United Kingdom.” “Many interviewees said that political unionism is ‘dead’, in the sense of being unable to adapt to changing circumstances.”

“I can think of no period over my fifty years in politics where unionists have felt more alienated than they are now,” says Peter Robinson. They feel “pilloried for not meeting each of the ongoing, incessant and unending demands from republicans to erase everything British and indulge everything Irish…[they] speculate that the laws which will apply here will, in the greater part, be made not in Stormont or at Westminster, but in a Dublin-influenced European Union, without a single elected representative from Northern Ireland having a vote.”

The prominent Belfast priest, Father Tom Bartlett, sees a striking contrast between “incredibly self-confident” young republicans and young loyalists who were once characterised by religious hatred but whose narrative these days is one of “betrayal, risk, threat and insecurity.”

The author repeats the conclusion from his 1983 book, The Uncivil Wars, that Protestant fears then of being incorporated against their will into an economically backward, Catholic Church-dominated all-Ireland republic – despite the fact that those elements of an earlier age have now almost completely disappeared – are “genetically encoded – a mechanism, like anxiety, necessary for the survival of the species…the inner fear of extinction that lies deep within the Protestant psyche.”

There are a very few people south of the border who recognise or try to understand this. Fianna Fail Senator Mark Daly says many submissions to his Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement “referenced a fear of a united Ireland being that of triumphant nationalism. This fear is not without foundation, and that is why we in the South must change not only our vision of a united Ireland but also how we speak about it. Language was a key component of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and it remains a key component of the peace process. With hard work, we must move from the language of the past such as a ‘united Ireland’ and all the dread and fear which it creates in the minds of our unionist friends and neighbours. We must instead change to the language of the need to protect the peace process, build a vision for a shared island and a united people in a New Agreed Ireland.” But to unionists does this only smack of duplicitous language aimed at reaching the same age-old nationalist goal – political unity?

Are the people of the Republic ready to accommodate unionists’ passionate Britishness in a future ‘new Ireland’, so that it would “stand the test of parity of esteem with the Irish state’s pervasive Irishness?” asks O’Malley. He fears not, and I agree with him. However, he also wonders provocatively whether trying to accommodate Britishness in a united Ireland might be a “fool’s errand” if Britain, minus Scotland, might break up and lose its unifying identity in the foreseeable future.

Unionist paranoia about a united Ireland means that loyalist paramilitary violence is never far from the surface as we move towards that unity. The respected Shankill Road community worker, Jackie Redpath, warns that in the event of a border poll leading to unity “you either get out, suck it up or fight…It would be a recipe for disaster because such a fight, of course, will be bloody but it will be short. It would not be successful, and it would put a desperate shadow over the future in Ireland for another one hundred years.”

O’Malley is scathing about Southern attitudes to the North, and the unthinking belief there that Northern Ireland can be incorporated into an all-Ireland republic without too much difficulty or change. “The South is shockingly ignorant about life north of the border”, he says, and “breathtakingly short of magnanimity.” “The argument that if Northern Ireland cannot work (‘a failed political entity’, to use Charles Haughey’s phrase), the alternative is a united Ireland, brings false equivalence to a new level. It is a form of magical thinking to believe that an entity which fails in one political dispensation partly because one community (the nationalists) wants it to fail, can successfully be transferred into a new dispensation where another community (the unionists) works just as diligently to ensure it fails.”

However the British vote for Brexit – the decision of an electorate utterly indifferent to its impact on Ireland – has put the ‘united Ireland is now in sight’ option firmly on the political agenda. As that excellent analyst, Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, puts it: “The UK and the EU are on different trajectories; Northern Ireland is in the middle…It’s not a place that’s well able to cope with those tensions.” Those tensions have not been eased by the hard-line, anti-EU position taken by its largest unionist party, the DUP, whose strategic judgements have, in the words of Financial Times commentator Robert Shrimsley, been “among the most consistently witless in recent politics.” The DUP, says O’Malley, seems “genetically incapable of understanding the crucial importance to the survival of Ulster unionism of the ‘warm house’ policy [i.e. treating Catholics with full equality and respect] on key issues like recognition of the Irish language.”

Peter Robinson believes the economy (and those whose decisions are determined by the economy) is “the centre ground which will determine whether we have a united Ireland.” The former Alliance politician Will Glendinning says a vibrant northern economy is not possible until it “fully functions on an all-Ireland basis.” However the economists John Fitzgerald and Edgar Morgenroth warn that upgrading the North’s poor and divided (by class and religion) educational system to deliver comparable productivity and economic performance with the Republic will take up to 30 years.

There are very few comforting conclusions to this book, although it is packed with wise observations. If there is one thing O’Malley believes (and I, along with most knowledgeable Northern Ireland observers, agree with him on), it is that there is a need for a revamped Good Friday Agreement which will allow the middle ground – notably the fast-growing ‘neither’ community represented by the Alliance Party – to fully participate in its governance. Many of the most sensible things said in this fascinating survey of a ferociously complex issue are said by people associated with that party. It is surely time for a bit of common sense moderation to prevail in the squabbling ferret’s hole that passes for normality in Northern Ireland politics.


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