Unspoken problems of Irish unity

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

I was struck by these paragraphs from this week’s Economist: The distinction between the campaigns has a second, bigger implication. Most in Better Together wish the referendum were not taking place. Successful or not, that campaign will fold after September 18. But the “yes” campaign is a movement. It has flushed blood into the muscles of Scottish nationalism, giving it extensive reach beyond the staid SNP. Some strategists believe that most Scots are for independence in principle (if not yet in practice). A group of them will meet in late August to discuss the next steps after the referendum.

“If we lose, our anger will turn into determination,” predicts Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal. He expects another referendum within five years if Scotland votes “no”.

“Whether people move on is up to the nationalists,” adds Mr McDougall at Better Together. Thus looms the prospect of a “neverendum”. If unsuccessful, “yes” campaigners could import their decades-long limbo to Britain.

That, more or less, sums up my view – which is that the emotionalism underpinning both SNP and Sinn Fein nationalism/republicanism means that the struggle never ends for them.

If, as I expect, Scotland chooses to remain in the United Kingdom, then the SNP and others will simply recalibrate the campaign and prepare for the next referendum.

The same applies to a border poll here. Sinn Fein will never give up until they achieve their “nation once again,” even though they don’t appear to be all that sure what that new nation would look like.

But what of unionists and unionism? Well, one thing strikes me as pretty certain: in the event of a border poll voting Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom (and I still think such an outcome is remote) neither unionism nor Ulster unionism is going to disappear.

Those from a pro-Union background will still retain their own cultural, historical, constitutional, political and party political identity. Large parts of what was Northern Ireland would still be a “place apart” within a ‘new’ Ireland and would not easily identify with any new political institutions.

Indeed, I’m not even sure what the nature of the relationship between the north and south would be in those circumstances. A border poll (posing the question about whether the people in Northern Ireland wished to stay in, or leave the United Kingdom) is just the beginning. In the event of a majority wishing to leave there would have to be a series of negotiations about what happens next and those negotiations could drag on for years. What was Northern Ireland couldn’t simply be bundled into a new all-Ireland state in which hundreds of thousands of unionists would be told “you’re no longer British, get over it”.

And since an independent Ireland hasn’t actually existed since the 12th century (and even then it wasn’t the utopia that some nationalists like to imagine) it might be an idea if republicans, north and south of the border, put some flesh on the bones of their dewy-eyed rhetoric.

Gerry Adams, for example, is pretty stupid if he thinks that it’s just a matter of squeezing an anti-UK victory of a couple of percentage points at a border poll and then pretending that a ‘new’ Ireland will simply fall into place. It wouldn’t.

I was born in the United Kingdom. I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. No-one has ever put an argument to me that comes close to persuading me to swap my citizenship of the UK for the citizenship of a united Ireland. My determination to protect and promote my identity is not going to evaporate in the event of a majority voting to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. My self-determination not to be part of a united Ireland will remain as strong as ever: as strong as those who have struggled for their own sense of Irishness rather than Britishness.

I don’t hear Sinn Fein saying how they will actually deal with that reality. And I don’t hear one word from Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, either. I don’t hear anything about what would happen next if Northern Ireland voted itself out of the United Kingdom. I don’t hear anything about the shape of the negotiations that would have to follow. I don’t hear anything about how unionism and unionists would be protected. I don’t hear anything about how the “place apart” nature of much of the north would be accommodated. I don’t hear anything about what a ‘new’ Ireland would look like. At least the SNP produced a 700-page document about what an independent Scotland would look like and how it would survive.

And unless I’m deaf I’m not picking up much evidence of a serious debate within the Republic of Ireland’s political establishment about how to make unionists and unionism welcome in any new united Ireland.

Mind you, I suspect that debate isn’t happening because most people have accepted that it’s not an issue they’ll have to deal with anytime soon. The idea of unity may appeal, but not to the extent of having to do something to accommodate unhappy unionists, let alone risk transporting the inherent difficulties that have dogged community relationships in Northern Ireland for decades.

I hear a great deal of whimsy from those who paint a picture of a united Ireland in purely economic terms: as if employment rates, tourism potential, all-Ireland transport and a new generation of golfing and rugby heroes would make a blind bit of difference to those who were born British and vote unionist. That unionism and sense of Britishness is not going to disappear overnight: indeed, it would probably linger for generations. And nor, I think, is there much likelihood of anything resembling reconciliation between unionists and republicans in a united Ireland.

In other words, a united Ireland in the sense that many republicans (and I don’t just mean SF) conceive it is not going to be the answer to the “Irish question.” There will still be two competing identities and narratives. There will still be resentment and hostility: and, almost certainly, violence.

The one big thing that is missing now in Northern Ireland, in the Republic, between Britain and the Republic, and between Belfast and Dublin is a serious, detailed debate about the future. If you want to solve a problem then, at the very least, you need to begin by agreeing the nature of the problem.