Straws in the autumn wind around the Irish unity debate…

There have been some interesting straws in the autumn wind in recent weeks as politicians get ready for the new political term and general elections in both Irish jurisdictions in the near future. Leo Varadkar doesn’t very often talk about Irish unity, but when he does he often says sensible things. He reiterated his belief earlier this month that he expected to see Irish unity in his lifetime (he is 44). More importantly, he stressed that the success of such an existential change would depend on how such a new entity treated its minorities, and that would mean recognising and acknowledging the British identity of around one million Northern Ireland unionists.1

People in the Republic needed to start thinking more about this, he said. “It’s really important that those people in a united Ireland should feel wanted, should be respected, would want to stay here and would want to throw their weight behind a newly united state in the way southern unionists did, in fact, get behind the Free State and made sure it survived.” My experience is that the vast majority of people in this jurisdiction haven’t even begun to think about how Britishness will be recognised and cherished in any ‘new Ireland’. When I ask them point blank, they tend to respond like the Trinity College Dublin politics students I talked to last year: they felt uneasy about bringing “British colonisers” into a united Ireland.2

One of the major things that will have to change if unionists are to be made to feel at home, is for Sinn Fein not to “triumphalise the horrible deeds” of the Provisional IRA, in Tánaiste Micheál Martin’s words.3 There is little or no chance of that happening if the former political wing of the IRA becomes the new power in the land after the next Dáil election.

However the most interesting comments about this issue came from an entirely different kind of politician. Wallace Thompson was a founding member of the DUP. He is a respected member of the Independent Orange Order (who basically think the Orange Order is too liberal); secretary of the Evangelical Protestant Society (which campaigns against the errors of “the Catholic of Rome”), and an ex-special adviser to former DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

This is a man who is rooted in the fundamentalist Protestant heartland of Northern Ireland. Yet he now states his belief that a ‘new Ireland’ is inevitable, that the Union was Britain was perhaps always doomed, and he is willing to consider and discuss with nationalists how Irish unity could come about.4

The Belfast Telegraph political columnist Sam McBride, who interviewed Thompson earlier this month, said it was important to clarify that he “is not saying he supports a united Ireland, and for now remains a unionist. But he is open to a ‘new Ireland’ — the more oblique language now preferred by most Irish unity campaigners which is vaguer about exactly what constitutional arrangement it would entail. Most people take the phrase to mean a united Ireland (whether federal, unitary state or some other arrangement) and the ending of British sovereignty in Ireland.”

Wallace Thompson says: “Unionism as a philosophy probably was always in many ways doomed because of Ireland’s nature, the fact that the north was carved off from the south… now you’ve got a position where: Do you partition again? Do you accept that demographic change is such that we have to run to the walls and again shut the gates? Or do we recognise that we can’t keep doing this? We need to recognise that there are fundamental issues that have always been there really – from centuries ago – that we need to now recognise and try to address.”

Thompson has not been afraid of speaking out when other unionists have remained silent. When Martin McGuinness lay dying in 2017, he wrote on Facebook: “It is obvious that Martin McGuinness is seriously ill. There are those rejoicing in this and hoping that he suffers a painful and lingering death. I have been around a long time and I’m under no illusions about Martin McGuinness… however, if we profess to be evangelical Protestants, we need to reflect upon the words of Christ who said…‘Love your enemies’”. McBride points out that “comments like that are rarely heard from unionists – even deeply religious ones.”

Like so many unionists, Thompson felt betrayed – “we were like the unwanted child in the house” – by Boris Johnson’s decision to opt for an Irish Sea trade border. “If anything, my view since then has been [strengthened]. I do wonder at the future of the Union and I think we need to waken up and recognise that. The emperor has no clothes.”

He says that recently at the Apprentice Boys’ parade in Derry the consensus was that the DUP should not return to Stormont until the sea border goes. But he goes on: “Those who say ‘don’t go back’ need to set out: How long are we away for – 10 years, 20 years, 50 years… forever? And if that’s the case, what’s the alternative?”

Thompson regards himself as both British and Irish. He is tied to Britain by nostalgia, by a “deep-seated thing in your psyche that you were born and brought up within unionism” – but above all by the religious freedom which he cherishes.

Yet he also says: “I was born an Irishman. And people in my community again say ‘oh no, no, no, we aren’t Irish’ – but we are Irishmen and it’s nonsense to believe we’re not. We need to rediscover some of that Irishness. We’ve washed our hands of it completely. A hundred years ago our forefathers were happy to be Irish and to be seen to be Irish.” Does he fear Irish unity in the way he did as a young man? “No. I think it’s a different animal now,” he says.

He still isn’t entirely convinced that his Protestant faith and Britishness would be safe in a united Ireland and worries about it being “easy to come out with honeyed words but then to abandon pledges. Nationalism as a philosophy has a blind spot about how deeply held some of those things are to us… I would be concerned that we would [in a united Ireland] lose stuff; lose some of the key elements of our identity.”

However, he is prepared to sit down with those planning Irish unity to try to make it a more appealing idea to unionists. “I think we are in an inevitable move towards that – when it comes, I don’t know, but there’s an inevitability in my mind that we are moving towards some form of new Ireland. Hopefully, new and not absorption…but we need to ask the questions and we need to ask for answers and we need to talk to people. That shouldn’t mean then you’re thinking that we’re suddenly going down that road. We might not. We might decide [based on] all the evidence that we don’t want to go down that road. But we’re closing our eyes and pretending there’s no problem. This is the problem with unionism – we’re in denial, constant denial. To talk to these groups that are calling for a new Ireland to me is not an indication of weakness; it’s an indication of strength.”

To me – a very moderate nationalist from a unionist background – Thompson’s voice sounds like an authentic if rarely articulated one. I remember talking to a close associate of Rev Ian Paisley’s nearly 40 years ago who said similar things. Over a late night whisky, male members of my own Northern Irish unionist family have privately said the same thing: unionism’s days are numbered and some kind of future Irish unity is on the way.

But what will that mean for the cosy and all-pervasive Irishness of Southern society, with its continuing undercurrents of anti-Britishness and its probable Sinn Fein-led government in the near future? I listened recently to a clip from a speech at the 2021 Fine Gael Ard Fheis by Lorraine Hall, a young Dun Laoghaire councillor from a Protestant background, which struck a chord with me.

She said that when she was growing up in Cavan in the 1990s, she asked herself at times whether she was fully Irish: “At every stage of my upbringing I was made to feel I was different because of my religious background. I was sent to a separate primary and secondary school, segregated. I attended a different church. I participated in different sports from my peers and celebrated different cultural events. My 1990s self remembers questioning the logic of it all. If the objective in my mind was peace and integration, why were there so many barriers keeping us all apart?” She finished by saying that it was only in recent years, partly as a result of working with Minister Heather Humphries – another Border Protestant – on the government’s remarkably all-embracing programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, that these feelings changed.

Councillor Hall’s experience should give us pause for thought. I live in Rathmines, a liberal, middle class, multi-cultural suburb of south Dublin where these barriers are far less significant than they were 40 or 50 years ago. However, all but one of the dozen schools in the area are still denominated by religion. Do many children from a Protestant background here play gaelic football or hurling? I have my doubts. On the other hand, nobody would dare in a hundred years to fly a Union flag on Armistice Day in this formerly unionist area.

Are we generous and open-minded enough to admit large numbers of fanatically pro-British (and often anti-Irish) Northern unionists into our comfortable, consensual and proudly Irish society? What are we prepared to offer them in terms of inclusive laws and symbols to make them feel at home here, so that, like the tiny and timid group of Southern Protestants who acquiesced to becoming part of the Irish Free State a century ago, they will – in the Taoiseach’s words – “throw their weight behind a newly united state and make sure it survives?”

1 ‘Taoiseach says Irish people need to reflect more on how we would accommodate those with a British identity in a united Ireland’. Irish Times, 8 September

2 Discussing Irish unity over dinner with Trinity College politics students, 2Irelands2gether, 14 April 2022

3 ‘Martin notes ‘huge incompatibility’ between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein when asked about future coalition’, Irish Times, 11 September

4 ‘Unionism was probably always doomed – a ‘new Ireland’ is now inevitable, says DUP founding member’, Belfast Telegraph, 4 September; ‘Wallace Thompson is a remarkable opportunity for Irish unity campaigners – but also a threat’, Belfast Telegraph, 10 September.

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