Ben Lowry: Irish unity might to lead to immediate rehabilitation of the IRA terror campaign

Arlene Foster made her comments in an interview with Patrick Kielty which was broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday night
Arlene Foster made her comments in an interview with Patrick Kielty which was broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday night

There has been debate about Arlene Foster’s comment that she might leave Ulster if Ireland was united.

Her DUP colleague Jeffrey Donaldson talked to Radio Ulster Talkback about how he might react to Irish unity, while his co-MP Jim Shannon told this newspaper about how he would respond to that scenario. The Ulster Unionists Tom Elliott and Robin Swann did likewise.

Patrick Kielty presents the new BBC documentary 'My Dad. the Peace Deal and Me'

Patrick Kielty presents the new BBC documentary 'My Dad. the Peace Deal and Me'

My fear is that Irish unity might lead to an immediate rehabilitation of the Provisional IRA campaign by the establishment in the Republic.

There is no reason why this would necessarily be so — the leaders of the main parties south of the border could make clear that they still thought that the IRA campaign had been unnecessary terrorism.

But we have been given some clues in recent years that the very success of the Belfast Agreement, let alone unity, has had the unintended consequence of sanitising the IRA campaign (unintended by non republicans, that is).

The main parties, including the DUP and Sinn Fein, ended up accepting the 1998 template and often tried to make it work. This had the effect of making almost everyone look in some respect constructive.

Copies of the 1998 agreement signed by parties in the Northern Ireland Peace Talks of that year

Copies of the 1998 agreement signed by parties in the Northern Ireland Peace Talks of that year

Therefore even some quite hardline republicans or loyalists will have looked across the aisle at points and recognised the role being played in local government by their erstwhile enemies.

It is much easier then to overlook more contentious past conduct, be it sectarian or even violent.

This occasional goodwill cuts in both directions but republicans are more determined on legacy matters and depicting the Troubles a particular way.

Also, the official Republic 2016 commemorations of the 1916 Rising showed that the level of public support for contested violence at the time (small) ultimately mattered less than its impact (large).

I say this not to dismiss the 1998 agreement, merely to identify one of its big challenges for unionism.

• On Tuesday, we will publish a supplement on the accord on its 20th anniversary, including recollections of some of its architects.

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

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