I'd share Foster's impulse to leave a united Ireland '“ here's why

When Arlene Foster said that she might leave this part of the world in the event of a united Ireland, her comments were greeted by many people with consternation.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 20th April 2018, 10:00 am
Updated Friday, 20th April 2018, 2:46 pm
A gigantic tricolour with the message Eriu is our Queen on Black Mountain, Belfast, created to co-incide with the visit of the UKs head of state in 2012. Owen Polley argues that in a united Ireland, a British cultural identity may live on  but our home would become a foreign country
A gigantic tricolour with the message Eriu is our Queen on Black Mountain, Belfast, created to co-incide with the visit of the UKs head of state in 2012. Owen Polley argues that in a united Ireland, a British cultural identity may live on  but our home would become a foreign country

Yet I thought she was expressing herself entirely sensibly and I suspect that, in this instance, she speaks for a great many unionists.

If a future border poll were ever to deliver an all-island republic, it would clearly be a topic for serious household discussion, complicated by matters of family, property ownership and employment, but, personally, I would wish to move to the British mainland as quickly as possible.

I expect similar conversations would take place across Northern Ireland. That seems entirely unremarkable given that so many of us have political and cultural allegiances primarily to the UK.

Not all unionists agree. When I articulated this position on Twitter, the cross-bench peer, Lord Kilclooney, responded by claiming “the unionist community is undermined by people like you who would run away at the first chance!”

That’s a puzzling statement on a couple of levels. Firstly, a united Ireland would not amount to the “first chance” to run away from Northern Ireland. It would entail a final, devastating, irreversible defeat for Ulster unionism.

Secondly, if an independent, 32 county state came into existence it would be meaningless to talk about a ‘unionist community’ for the self-evident reason that there would be no union to defend. It might make sense to talk about a British community, or even a Protestant community, but unionism as a political project on this island would be dead.

It’s alarming when unionists show cloudy thinking around their own aims and the terminology they use to describe themselves. In fact, it’s this carelessness with language that offers encouragement to their opponents and opens up space to sow doubt and confusion about the union.

Sinn Fein continues to patronise unionists by claiming it wants to explore what “they mean by their sense of Britishness” and to listen to our views on “ending partition”. Trevor Ringland recently responded eloquently to the party’s participation in a ‘United Ireland Conference’ in London by asking, “does Sinn Fein really still not understand that unionists want Northern Ireland to remain a full, prosperous, part of the UK?”

He captures the dishonesty of the republican movement’s posturing with the question: “How can we ever have a meaningful conversation if it keeps wilfully misunderstanding this fact?”

Trevor is absolutely right, but Sinn Fein exploits ambiguity created by unionists who imply that their main priority is simply to have their identity and culture recognised, rather than to play a full role in the UK. In theory, that could happen in a united Ireland. There’s even some discussion about preserving Northern Ireland as an entity within the 32 counties.

I find the idea of becoming a devolved region of an Irish state, with the same old parties keeping their grip on power, horrifying. I’d rather take my chances in a unitary republic, where something like grown-up politics has developed.

Sinn Fein can understand quite easily the notion that unionism is a culture or identity, but it dares not contemplate that Northern Irish unionists’ Britishness springs from a deeply felt, entirely rational allegiance to the UK. This attachment cannot be accommodated in a united Ireland, because it relies on Northern Ireland’s continued participation in the UK and the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament over this territory.

It’s really quite simple. Northern Irish unionism is defined by the belief that Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom. That belief is connected closely to matters of identity, culture, and symbolism, but these are not its substance.

If we were to leave the union, be under no illusion, Ulster unionism would be no more. In a united Ireland, there might be Ulster Protestants, people with a British cultural identity and even British citizens, but they could not be called unionists in any meaningful sense.

By definition, Northern Irish unionism cannot survive a united Ireland. People like me and, presumably, Arlene Foster, whose British citizenship is bound up with a political loyalty to the United Kingdom, would lose both our nation state and our sense of belonging, by staying here.

Effectively, our home would become a foreign country.

No wonder we’d consider leaving very seriously.

• Owen Polley is a public policy consultant and commentator. His blog is at threethousandversts.blogspot.com/