A few thoughts on the “inevitability of a United Ireland”…

My first memory of a political statement was that “a United Ireland was just around the corner”. It was said by an elderly Unionist with an air of resignation to a fate that was both dreaded and unavoidable. Throughout the years this is a statement I have heard innumerable times by Unionists and only as recently as last week an elderly relative made the statement to me. It’s very much a rite of passage for many Unionists to at some point, usually in the twilight of their lives go through this stage.

This week entering this arena in a very public manner and for the second time was Wallace Thompson. Wallace is an unapologetic evangelical Protestant, a founding member of the DUP, and until his retirement was a person of influence within the party. Due to Wallace’s background, he represented a salacious coup for those promoting Irish Unification and many were quick to seize the moment and emphasise segments of what was said including Wallace’s view that there was an “inevitability” that a “new Ireland” was coming. As with most things, the substance of his statement was less clear cut and even Wallace was ambiguous if the inevitably that he was most quoted on was inevitable at all. There were several very good points made that most Unionists will concur with including the treatment Unionism has received from successive UK governments down through the years, the damage caused by Brexit, issues around a collapsed Stormont, and Unionism being in a state of denial.

These points were further elaborated on during a “Talkback” discussion in which Wallace highlighted that his Protestant credentials were most important to him and that there was a feeling of exasperation from him every year when Orange parades come under sustained attacks from commentators who fail to recognise the significance that they have to many people within Unionism and Protestantism. Further points included what Wallace felt was a lack of understanding of the Ulster Protestant identity from Nationalists and how Unionists needed to recognise that the current situation was a “mess”.

There wasn’t anything overtly controversial in anything that was said but rather than being affirmative statements Wallace did appear to be musing publicly with indefinite conclusions and failed to recognise his contributions to the current climate. For example, the brand of Unionism Wallace promoted was right-wing mixed with fundamental Protestantism which too often was exclusionary, very much in the style of Ian Paisley whom Wallace admires immensely. The insights outlined were even more ambiguous with Wallace stating that some form of “New Ireland” was inevitable but then outlining that he hoped it would be new rather than an “absorption” before concluding that once the details were known for a “New Ireland” that they could well be “voted down”. Despite a rather muddled take at times, what Wallace has done is honestly articulate his viewpoints and from a Unionist perspective this will hopefully kickstart some new thinking and introspection within Unionism.

A point that Wallace made was that Unionists needed to get into discussions, ask questions, and demand answers. However, who should these discussions be with? The Irish and British governments are the only entities that can facilitate meaningful discussions and negotiations but neither appear to be overly interested in the topic and certainly aren’t going to listen to rogue Unionists. The Irish government supports unification and believes it’s inevitable and individuals within it will talk about the inevitability of Unity but they won’t go any further, whilst the British government for what it’s worth pays lip service to to maintaining the Union. The response from Ireland’s Future on Wallace Thompson’s intervention was rather telling. Having snared the big cat they were left scratching their heads on what to do with him. In the end, the best they could muster was an SOS tweet tagging Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney seeking help. The boos Leo Varadkar received at his last Ireland’s Future excursion no doubt still rings loudly in his ears.

Unionism has been heavily criticised by some for not getting involved in discussions with these groups who state there is an “inevitability” regarding Unity and that Unionists are “burying their heads in the sand”. Unionism will feel validated for not joining these discussions as the groups appear rather toothless talking shops with little in the way of achievement or meaningful debate. There has been much made of former Unionists and Protestants getting involved with these groups but they give the impression that they are there for window dressing and to consciously or subconsciously put pressure on Unionists who have not transitioned to their way of thinking. It would seem reasonable to observe that in all the discussions they have been involved with none of these members have raised in any meaningful way issues around IRA chants and commemorations or indeed a mild critique of Sinn Féin.

Instead, these members seem to primarily play it safe with statements against the DUP and Unionism as well as to talk about how Protestants are increasingly embracing Unity, a claim more anecdotal than evidence-based. Several members associated with these groups publicly trumpeted Wallace Thompson for his foresight and wisdom and stated how they looked forward to meeting him, therefore it does seem odd that they did not want to meet him in 2021 when he effectively did the same interview with Sam McBride, only at that time it was for the Newsletter. Furthermore, many of those praising Wallace on social media for his “wisdom”, had only just put down their virtual quills from condemning him on his views relating to street preachers, behaviours on the sabbath, ecumenical worship, same-sex relationships, etc etc. It feels very difficult to envisage Wallace being welcomed into these forums or having any use outside of the brief headline that it may garner.

The reality is that whilst Unionists may not officially join any Unity discussions, for years they have been involved in talks about a United Ireland and many have listened to the answers they have received. As outlined above, a huge issue for Unionism is the pro-IRA sentiments that are becoming more amplified. This is a genuine concern for Unionists of all shades and also with many non-Unionists, however, the responses have ranged from ridicule to dismissals to the eventual whataboutery. Some in the Irish government have criticised the IRA chants with Sinn Féin countering this criticism with examples of atrocities committed by the “Old IRA” that the Irish government commemorates. In a potential United Ireland, Unionism is going to feel alienated by official commemorations for any version of the IRA but this is unlikely to ever change and I would imagine is not up for negotiation.

The topic of Sinn Féin will be another item of concern, whilst some Unionists obsess over the party others offer valid criticisms of them and receive a severe backlash which has resulted in many including some journalists steering clear of this topic. There are many valid criticisms of Sinn Féin but these are often dismissed as an attack on Nationalists. By comparison, the DUP is fair game for criticism from all and sundry and there are commentators particularly people such as Brian Feeney in the Irish News who devote their weekly columns to the DUP. The DUP are certainly deserving of some of the criticism they receive but some of it seems overblown and very few Unionists react as if it’s an attack on them. Sinn Féin is soon going to be the governing party both north and south of the border. They are going to face criticism and this cannot be stifled in a healthy society, people should be able to challenge the party without fear of a backlash. How can Unionists be expected to enter a discussion on Unity in good faith if there are sacred cats such as Sinn Féin that cannot challenged or items such as IRA chants that some would prefer are not mentioned?

Many of the United Ireland discussions currently take place online, within the columns of newspapers, and on TV and radio. Unionist commentators have come in for some criticism, particularly from fellow Unionists for their contributions. There is a feeling that with some Unionist commentators their performances are “half-hearted”, beginning with an apology, following through with heavy criticism of Unionism before concluding (sometimes) with a modest pro-Union statement, having spoken to some Unionist commentators, it’s undoubtedly a thankless gig as they get criticised from all angles. If they are too pro-Union they get attacked by Nationalists and if they are critical of Unionism, they get criticised by Unionists. Therefore, the apology- self-criticism – mild pro-Union statement is almost like a formula that was arrived at by accident or design.

There is some truth that many in the Nationalist camp do not have the same hang-ups with many delivering strong unadulterated pr-Unity commentary with ample punches aimed at Unionism. The issue here is for Unionists to encourage some new blood into the commentary circle to complement the existing team. This is a key area for Unionism and it is one in which it’s a little shorthanded concerning articulate commentators who can put across strong pro-Union statements. With regards to commentators, there have been a few Unionist eyebrows raised when a Unionist-leaning commentator is introduced as such but a Nationalist one is introduced as merely a commentor. Having witnessed this happen a few times, there is an onus on the Unionist to flag this. It doesn’t need to be done in a confrontational way but it has been something that a few Unionist commentators for whatever reason have shied away from.

Many of those promoting a United Ireland talk of a completely “New Ireland”, however, this is not within their gift, and excluding a few modest adjustments a United Ireland is simply going to be an absorption of Northern Ireland into the Republic. This will ultimately be dictated by the population in the Republic of Ireland due to its size and they are unlikely to want wholesale changes made to their country and are electorally strong enough to prevent them. Unionists are told that there is nothing to fear in a United Ireland and have pointed to the current Protestant population in the Republic as an example of flourishment, and contentment who are fully integrated into the country.

Whilst there are undoubtedly Protestants in the Republic who are happy, this narrative isn’t completely accurate. The Protestant population has dwindled to an unhealthy 2% within the Republic and anecdotally speaking many Protestants I have met tend to keep their heads down in public life, especially if they have Orange or British leanings. Recent extracts from Denzil McDaniel’s new book ‘Our Shared Way of Life: Listening to Border People’ published within the Impartial Reporter reinforced some of this anecdotal feedback and fleshed out these views further. There were several sentiments from Protestants living within the Republic about keeping their heads down, below is an example of one such story from the book.

Margaret, from County Monaghan, recalls: “There’s one statutory body that will remain nameless within the county and there was a discussion going on whenever we had more foreign people coming into the country. “We had Syrian refugees coming in, we had people from Africa, and we had all sorts. “There’s been a lot of change in society, particularly in Clones.” “We’ll send the Syrians to Clones and we’ll send the Congolese to Carrickmacross, and then someone said, ‘Where will we send the Nigerians?’ There was a wee bit of a titter, ‘Well, we’ll send them to Drum because they’re black there already’. Great laughter! That wasn’t too many years ago.”

These sentiments are nothing new and many of us have heard about them but they have usually been dismissed as fabricated with critics pointing to Neale Richmond and Heather Humphreys as successful Protestants who are thriving, however, Heather Humphreys was criticised for attending Orange parades in her youth and had to release a statement outlining that she had no current association with Orangeism whilst Neale Richmond has continually been ridiculed as a “West Brit” and criticised for wearing poppies.

All of this should not mean that Unionists do nothing, whilst much has been commented on about the problems within Unionism some of it is worth repeating. Unionism needs to tackle the issue of active loyalist paramilitaries blighting communities. Furthermore, celebratory parades such as that for Brian Robinson, a UVF terrorist who murdered an innocent Catholic civilian cannot be ignored. It is nauseating to see some Unionists criticising the glorification of IRA terrorists but defending events such as the Robinson parade. Unionist parties need to get more active within their local communities and a little more joined-up thinking should be deployed by both the DUP and UUP on matters of common interest.

This doesn’t mean pacts or “Unionist Unity” but where there is common ground the two parties should be better cooperating rather than taking lumps out of each other. Unionism has precious few friends and it’s another topic that will require long-term action to address and developing a more harmonious base that encourages free thinking would be a good starting point. Other issues such as how Northern Ireland is governed require action and deferring these to Westminster is hugely problematic.

Many Unionists have been saying for quite some time that Unionism should be holding its conversations on maintaining the Union and perhaps as a starting point they should talk with people such as Wallace Thompson. What Unionism needs overall is a little bit of leadership. There appears to be some drift at present and this is hurting the bloc as a whole and more importantly it is hurting Northern Ireland. A United Ireland is possible but everything is still to play for, however, Unionism must take heed of the warning signs and change direction.

Many of the Unionists I have heard talking about the “inevitable United Ireland” have long since passed away, the inevitability they feared never materialised but the statement itself remains very much alive. A United Ireland is possible but it’s not inevitable, there are very few real inevitabilities in life except death, taxes, and that some will proclaim that a United Ireland is inevitable.

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