If we discuss politics with our nationalist neighbours, most unionists will have had their attention directed to a map of Ireland. With or without a border, we have to accept that we were born on the island of Ireland and are Irish. We are asked, why don’t we stop being stubborn and accept the logic of this? The standard of living, the level of benefits, the education system and the health system in the Irish Republic are all better than under British rule. These are valid and logical arguments, what reasons could we have for insisting on our Britishness?
One of the difficulties is that there is a strong emotional side to nationality and this can overrule simple logic.
Is being British a choice, something we decided to adopt? Or is it genetic, something passed down in our DNA, allegedly from our ‘planter’ ancestors. Is it a deception that we practice so that we can remain dominant in our sectarian state?
In truth, our sense of nationality is none of these things, it grows organically, whether we are Irish or British, as we experience our lives with our families, neighbours and friends. Irrespective of whether there were ‘planters’ among our ancestors, or whether we were genetically pure Irish (what does that even mean) we were born without a sense of nationality and we did not select our nationality. If you see yourself as Irish, you did not wake up one day and decide to be an Irish man or woman any more than I decided to be British.
After you were born, as well as picking up your language from your parents you will have gradually acquired a sense of being Irish or British; you will have had this view reinforced by your neighbours and while at school. When you watched TV, you will have learned more about your country and its history, with that history being presented in such a way that it emphasises the unity and bravery of your people during conflict with outsiders. Through sport, watching your country’s team win or lose your emotional attachment may also have increased. The same process applies to Ireland’s British minority.
Unfortunately, one of the quickest routes to create a sense of group belonging is to unite the group against a foreign threat. Britain’s sense of identity was forged by the many wars against France over several centuries and more recently by the participation in WW1 and WW2. Similarly, Ireland’s sense of identity has been partly shaped by its battles to free itself from Britain.
Sadly, our experience of the troubles in N. Ireland, with its sense of being under attack from ‘others’ will have given our sense of national/group belonging, a greater intensity. We all were born into a pair of competing national identities and once created, identities are not easily discarded. Think of 4rd generation Irish American’s still holding on to their great-grandparent’s national identities.
Roadmap to a Border Poll
Knowing that I was going to attend some discussions at Féile an Phobail, including ‘Roadmap to a Border Poll’ I made a point of asking my own kids (in their twenties), and some others from similar backgrounds, what they would feel about a border poll, would they vote for Irish unity or to remain British.
This was not a scientifically chosen sample, but I was genuinely surprised at how unionist some of the responses were. Mostly, they accepted their current identity under the Good Friday Agreement; they viewed themselves as Northern Irish and just wanted to get on with life and forget about the historical conflict over identity; they saw the Irish Republic as ‘other’; they did not want to lose the connection with Westminster, their British history, British culture, BBC etc.
This does NOT mean that attempts to persuade some of them to vote for Irish unity in a Border Poll are hopeless. There are some very logical and persuasive arguments for Irish unity and I am certain that some could be convinced, but national identity is based more on emotion, than on logic. The emotional connection to Britain means that for many, Irish unity is seen in terms of loss, rather than opportunity. Most unionists that I have talked to see Irish Unity in terms of losing their Britishness rather than gaining something.
The Pain of Partition
At Féile an Phobail I also attended the discussion ‘Can the Case for the Union be Made?’ where Ian Marshall accepted that unionists had not fully acknowledged the pain felt by Irish nationalism during Partition, a point on which we probably all agree. Would it be unfair to suggest that Irish Nationalism should avoid a similar mistake and consider in advance the pain many unionists will feel should a Border Poll result in Irish Unity? I am not talking about the inevitable gloating or taunting that will take place on Twitter (or perhaps even on Slugger) about which side won and which side lost, or about any actual discrimination.
I am referring to the pain of separation, the loss of identity and the isolation that many unionists will feel. Trying to acknowledge this in advance, as well as being kind, might make acceptance of Irish unity and hence nationalist success in a Border Poll more likely.
Changes to the Sense of Being Irish
More importantly, for those who want to think a few years ahead, a cohesive sense of national identity is important to the success (economic and political) of any country, and if Ireland is reunited, this will be vital.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the current Irish sense of national identity is very much linked to the battle for independence from the British. If that sense of identity is not modified, it will not easily be possible to integrate those of us with a British identity, with resultant harm to the cohesive sense of Irish national identity required for the economic and political stability of Ireland.
For those who genuinely want a successful Irish Unity, relying on demographic change will not be enough. There are difficult conversations to be had and much work to be done.
Arnold is a retired teacher from Belfast.