Owen Polley: Naive unionists are helping to boost the notion that Irish unity is inevitable

Leo Varadkar, above at this year's Belfast Festival, fears unionists would not participate in a citizens' assembly on Irish unity. He needn't worry ' plenty of people describing themselves as unionist will give nationalists the cover they require to describe their deliberations as 'inclusive'
Leo Varadkar, above at this year's Belfast Festival, fears unionists would not participate in a citizens' assembly on Irish unity. He needn't worry ' plenty of people describing themselves as unionist will give nationalists the cover they require to describe their deliberations as 'inclusive'
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Last week, the Republic’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, refused to rule out convening a ‘citizens’ assembly’ to consider the viability of a 32-county, all-Ireland state.

He was sceptical about whether unionists would participate, noting that a “pan nationalist assembly” is something “that would have a very different nature to something that many of us (would) like to see.”

Honestly, the Taoiseach needn’t worry.

There are plenty of people describing themselves as unionists who are naive or disingenuous enough to give nationalists the cover they require to describe their deliberations as ‘inclusive’.

There’s been a proliferation of this kind of thing in the wake of Brexit.

The former Progressive Unionist Party leader, and UVF commander, Billy Hutchinson, was the latest figure to make comments on the theme. He’s written a chapter for a book compiled by Jude Collins, the nationalist commentator who likened Boys’ Brigade parades to dissident republican demonstrations.

According to his contribution, Hutchinson thinks it’s time for unionists to join the border poll debate.

He also espouses a close cousin of this type of thought; which is the idea that unionists should decide “what we want” out of an all-Ireland state.

This notion flourishes among those who see unionism as something like an ethnic or religious marker, rather than a political project to strengthen the UK.

Coincidentally, you’ll hear a similar type of logic from Sinn Féin and other nationalists.

They believe that unionists can be persuaded to accept an all-island state if enough blandishments are offered.

In its document “Towards a United Ireland”, the party proposed ideas to “recognise the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity”.

Gerry Adams acknowledged sanctimoniously, “we need to look at what they (unionists) mean by their sense of Britishness”.

According to the document “they” mean things like having a “relationship” with the Royal family, feeling an affinity for “loyal institutions” and learning in separate schools with a protestant ethos.

So long as we can still don Orange sashes and sing God Save the Queen occasionally, Sinn Féin thinks we’ll be happy in an all-Ireland republic.

Presumably, nationalists know very well by now that Northern Irish unionism is actually defined by the belief that Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom.

When they launch investigations to find out what we want, they’re being dishonest.

To protect their ideas about nationhood, they dismiss the political dimension and emphasise the notion that unionism is merely a culture, that can be accommodated in an Irish republic.

Unfortunately, too many unionists are happy to play up to these misconceptions and define their politics primarily in terms of identity.

They imply that their main priority is to have their culture recognised, rather than play a full role in the UK.

Sometimes, like Hutchinson, they suggest that the protection they require could be offered in an all-Ireland state.

Unionists should be willing to debate Northern Ireland’s constitutional future and explain why the province must remain in the United Kingdom, but they shouldn’t do so on nationalism’s terms.

Certainly they can deconstruct the arguments for an all-Ireland state.

But when they discuss the conditions under which that outcome would supposedly be acceptable they invite the conclusion that a 32-county republic is inevitable, whether or not that is their intention.

When they contribute to the growing background noise of position documents, seminars, panels and assemblies on ‘unity’ that nationalists are very consciously trying to create, they encourage the idea that constitutional change is imminent. With their defeatism and/or urge to appear open-minded, they’re doing nationalism’s job for it.

Nationalists love to expound the theory that unionism should accommodate itself to impending change and carve out a favourable position in a 32-county state.

Unionists are under no obligation to accept this analysis and, indeed, if they do so, they undermine the case to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

By definition, the creation of an independent, all-Ireland state would destroy unionism, so it cannot be acceptable to unionists, under any circumstances. A new, standalone Irish nation may contain protestants and British people, but there will be no unionists because that cause will already have been lost.

Matters of culture and identity are important and they are of course related to unionism, but they don’t define it. It’s a point that cannot be reiterated enough to nationalists, but clearly, some unionists would benefit from the occasional refresher too.

Northern Irish unionists’ Britishness comes from an allegiance to the United Kingdom that springs from both rational and emotional sources. This allegiance cannot be accommodated in an independent Irish state, because it requires Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the UK and its participation in the parliament at Westminster.

Take that away and we will be left only with the baubles of a national identity outside our nation-state.