Ben Lowry: What I said in my address to the Sinn Fein conference on Irish unity

Sinn Fein event on a united Ireland at the Waterfront Hall is addressed by Ben Lowry
Sinn Fein event on a united Ireland at the Waterfront Hall is addressed by Ben Lowry

This day last week I addressed a Sinn Fein event in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on Irish unity, ‘An Agreed Future’.

I was happy to express some views from a unionist perspective, and had been due to speak at such a conference in the Millennium Forum in Londonderry last year, alongside Martin McGuinness and others, but it was cancelled after the Buncrana pier tragedy.

This is a summary of what I said on Saturday, in my opening talk of about seven minutes (before we moved into a panel discussion):

I began by saying that in 1982, when I was 10, Northern Ireland was in the World Cup, the year that we memorably beat Spain.

I was excited about it, and had the autographs of all the NI players. But I was beginning to notice at school, and in atlases at home, things such as population sizes, and could see then that the island of Ireland had around five million people, as did Scotland.

I wondered about how we would have a much bigger pool of potential players if we had a single football team for this island. A team perhaps to rival Scotland, which seemed as a boy to be a football team that other countries took seriously.

I thought this even though I was living in a house in Co Down from which, on the roof on a clear day, you could see Scotland.

I thought it despite having great grandparents whose surnames were mostly recognisably Scottish.

To have such Scottish ancestry is, of course, common among Protestants. My point was that despite that ancestry, it is almost impossible for unionists to be unaware of their geographical position in Ireland, and on some level it impacts on their identity.

It was well into adulthood, before I became more interested in Scots Irish history and the scale of its influence in America.

But for all that awareness of our position in Ireland, I told the conference, Irish unity was not something that I wanted to see, nor could I say that I thought unity was close.

It is increasingly hard to make predictions about anything in the world politically.

Sometimes I fear that the United Kingdom will be shattered within 20 years, sometimes I think it will be flourishing 120 from now.

Brexit will have an impact, but it is hard to see how it will pan out. Regardless of what the Conservatives, Labour and the DUP are saying, the election result makes a hard Brexit – exiting both the single market and customs union – less likely and if so then managing the border will be less fraught.

But, I told the conference, violence had changed things, both the violence of 1916 and of the Troubles. It made Protestants feel less Irish.

I cited the first News Letters from the 1730s (the earliest surviving editions of the oldest English language daily newspapers in the world) and how when I serialised them it was striking how the news flow was more all-island then than now.

There was as likely to be news from Dublin as from Scotland, from Monaghan as from Tyrone. There were of course no references to Northern Ireland in those early papers, because there was no such thing, but there were not even references to ‘the north’ and only a handful to Ulster.

There were many references to ‘this kingdom’, which meant the Kingdom of Ireland.

Nowadays, there is a tendency to assume unionism is a small-minded thing. I did not see it as such. I want to be part of a vibrant nation of almost 70 million people, not one of only six million people.

However, later on Saturday (in the panel discussion) I mentioned my belief that unionism and republicanism were perhaps able to tolerate each other now because they exhibited elements of Ulster nationalism, one looking towards Dublin and wanting to be under that umbrella, the other towards London.

I concluded the opening remarks by saying that republicans needed to think about a situation in which they won by a wafer slim margin.

Was that what they wanted?

While I do not think unity is likely, if it does come it will be by the narrowest margin. Quebec in 1995 voted 50.6% to 49.4% (in that instance to stay in the larger country, Canada).

My last observation to the main event was that triumphalism did not work, either by the DUP after its 2016 Stormont successes or by Sinn Fein after its March advance. It had driven people into trenches.

Those opening remarks seemed to be well received. The only point where I encountered mild hostility was when I said in the panel discussion that republicans needed to think about whether there was any point in ‘outreach’ if they only wanted victory. Some voices began to heckle, but the skilful host – Eamonn Mallie – was, due to shortness of time, moving the discussion on.

During that panel session, I said that I wondered if what really bothered republicans was the fact that so many people in Northern Ireland feel instinctively British – and I was referring to people many of whom might be apolitical and not even call themselves unionist.

I also mentioned that if there was unity, unionists would have 20% of the TDs and almost always the balance of power, which I would want to see push modernisation and radical reform of that state.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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