Alex Kane: Why all sides need to take stock in the Irish unity debate

Leo Varadkar warned of the potential dangers of a border poll in 'chaotic circumstances' in Belfast on Tuesday night
Leo Varadkar warned of the potential dangers of a border poll in 'chaotic circumstances' in Belfast on Tuesday night
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On July 21 President Trump wondered – aloud, as he always does – whether four Democratic congresswomen, all non-white, were “capable of loving our country”. One of his advisors defended Trump, arguing that he was, in broad terms, “promoting the principles of Western civilisation”. He wasn’t of course (because he has no idea what those principles and values are), but, as noted in an essay for The Economist, ‘the comments seemed to imply that American greatness is built on a cultural inheritance that some people cannot access, whether born in America or not’ (which three of the congresswomen were).

When I was about 13 or 14 I remember a close friend of my dad, who was also a very senior figure within the unionist establishment, saying that there probably wasn’t much that unionists could have done to accommodate Catholics/nationalists in Northern Ireland after partition because – and I’m paraphrasing from memory now – “their hearts and minds were never ever committed to a long-term arrangement between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”.

I reminded him of the conversation a few years later, 1974, when I was studying A level politics – and I’m paraphrasing again: “Yes, we probably could and should have done more to make them feel like equal citizens here, but I’m not sure that would have been enough. Their identity is primarily Irish and living in Northern Ireland dilutes that identity.”

Speaking at a Féile an Phobail event on Tuesday evening Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned of the potential dangers of a border poll in what he described as the ‘chaotic circumstances’ which could follow a hard Brexit. His point is a good one. He also said he did not want what happened after partition repeated in reverse, with unionists being alienated from the state.

That’s the line that brought me back to my dad’s friend: would it, in the event of Irish unity (which I’m not expecting anytime soon, by the way) be possible to ensure that unionists (hundreds of thousands of them, don’t forget, most of whom would have voted No to unity) would embrace the new state rather than feel alienated from it?

I suppose a key difference from partition in 1921 would be that unionists probably wouldn’t be able to keep the flag flying or the flame lit. Even after partition – and all the hundreds of years when all of Ireland was under British rule in one form or another – the ambition of ‘a nation once again’ was never far from the surface. From 1921 it was about reunification, followed by complete independence. As the demographics have shifted in their favour the ambition seems closer than ever to some.

But what about unionists in a united Ireland? How much of a unionist/British identity would be accommodated (some might even use the word ‘tolerated’) in a ‘new state’ Ireland? Almost 100 years after partition and there is very little evidence to suggest that nationalism in Northern Ireland has diluted into something that could be described as politically turquoise. Now, while some nationalists would argue that unionists were their own worst enemies and did nothing to win over former nationalists to the pro-Union side, other nationalists say that winning-over would never have worked, because the emotional appeal and pull of unity was always going to be too strong.

So, how would an Irish government in a ‘new state’ Ireland do things differently? Persuading people, particularly broadly cohesive groups like unionism, to abandon one identity in favour of another is always enormously difficult. Sometimes it is impossible. The notion that unionism – which embraces culture, symbols, collective memory, religion, politics, identity, place and specific ambitions – could be accommodated to the extent that it would be diluted into irrelevance within two to three generations is a nonsense. But trying to accommodate and preserve it may, in fact, simply store up problems for a later date. The ‘our day will come’ mantra of republicanism could just be replaced by the ‘we will rise again’ mantra of loyalism.

My primary concern about Irish unity – apart from the crucially important one that I have no idea how my existing identity could be accommodated and preserved – is that there is very little evidence of unionists and Irish nationalists working well together between 1921 and 1972, or between 1998 and right now. Blame who you will for that, but it is the case. That’s why Varadkar’s point is so important: no taoiseach or Irish government wants to have to deal with a significant minority of unionists who, for whatever reason, are refusing or reluctant to embrace a new state, constitution and identity.

While I don’t believe that Irish unity is likely anytime soon – far too many uncertainties, too much emotional rhetoric and the Brexit fallout will, almost certainly, deter the British and Irish governments from rushing into such a momentous, divisive decision – I do think that unionists do need to take stock. Former NIO advisor Jonathan Caine and Peter Robinson’s former chief advisor, Richard Bullick, have said the same thing in the past few days; with Richard adding, ‘unionists can’t wait a generation to make arguments for the Union that work beyond our base’. Regular readers will know that this has long been my view.

I get quite a few unionists on my Twitter timeline telling me that it is both wrong and self-defeating for unionists to engage in any debate about Irish unity. No: it is wrong and self-defeating for unionists to avoid any debate that touches upon their future. It is also wrong and self-defeating for unionists not to have options and game-plans prepared for any and every eventuality. I am confident – but not certain – that unity is a long way off; yet not so confident that I would encourage unionists to bury their heads in the sands of complacency rather than research, analyse, prepare, promote, campaign, prioritise options and keep a very close eye on everything going on around them. Serial whinging about Sinn Fein and Varadkar will capture a headline; but it doesn’t amount to an argument for the Union, does it?