Ben Lowry: Essays in 2010 about Northern Ireland on its 2021 centenary foresaw province staying in UK but did not foresee change from within

In summer 2010, this newspaper ran 60 essays called Union 2021, in which pro Union contributors were asked to look a decade ahead and envisage Northern Ireland on its centenary.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 13th November 2021, 8:04 am
Updated Monday, 15th November 2021, 10:34 am
Writers in 2010 thought the Union would be safe in 2021 but didn’t consider it might be only technically so. What does it matter if the Union is secure if concessions to Irish nationalism are so wide-ranging that Northern Ireland is utterly unlike any other part of UK?
Writers in 2010 thought the Union would be safe in 2021 but didn’t consider it might be only technically so. What does it matter if the Union is secure if concessions to Irish nationalism are so wide-ranging that Northern Ireland is utterly unlike any other part of UK?

Would it still be part of the UK? etc

It was a fascinating series. By August I was struck by the confidence of essay writers that NI would still be in UK in 2021. They were right. But no-one addressed the possibility of NI being technically in the Union, but so changed as to be halfway to an all-Ireland.

I penned the below essay to suggest that coming contributors address that. But I was uneasy expressing a view as then news editor (I only began to write commentary after I became deputy editor in 2013). I was also wary about contradicting the essay writers. After consulting senior colleagues I agreed not to publish it.

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I do so now because it is 2021 and concerns I raised have even greater relevance now than then. Beneath the article I have add updated thoughts on my points below:

THE Union is secure, and will be in 2021, many of our contributors have told us.

In the News Letter’s Union 2021 series so far there has been large agreement that the British link will survive past Northern Ireland’s 100th anniversary.

But what does it mean to say that the Union is secure, or indeed what does it matter?

Those are follow-on questions that have not been so widely considered.

What does it matter that the Union has been secured if the concessions to Irish nationalism are so comprehensive and wide-ranging that Northern Ireland in fact looks utterly unlike any other part of the kingdom?

Some of the following scenarios may seem provocative, but take a moment to imagine them:

A Northern Ireland in which you need a passport to get to Great Britain

A Northern Ireland teeming with powerful enforcers who see discrimination and sectarianism behind all sorts of human failings

A Northern Ireland which is, in terms of its very identity, an enlarged Stroke City, in which the media alternate between using its name Northern Ireland and other labels that deny its existence, such as the north of Ireland

A Northern Ireland that has fiscal powers that remove its economy yet further from the British mainstream

A Northern Ireland in which BBC Radio Ulster is broadcast in gaelic night after night, so that the overwhelming majority of the station’s listeners are unable to understand it during much of evening primetime

A Northern Ireland in which all road signs are jointly in gaelic (street signs may seem trivial, yet as return visitors to counties such as France or the US will testify, they are a recognisable indicator of nationhood)

A Northern Ireland which toleration of violence in the name of human rights is pushed to the very extremes, providing it is aimed against agents of the state. In which calculated attacks on police, risking paralysis or death, are accepted in preference to a police response involving real force

A Northern Ireland which has a Bill of Rights that includes socio and economic rights, like something out of the old communist Eastern bloc

A Northern Ireland in which there is a growing consensus (among a coalition of nationalists and younger Protestants, the latter ignorant of and disinterested in the past) that the earlier NI was a failed state

A Northern Ireland in which that coalition agrees that there was widespread collusion – facilitating wholesale murder – between loyalist killers the RUC and British Army (forces which those unionists who lived through the past in fact believe to have prevented civil war)

A Northern Ireland in which such assumptions about an entirely malign British form the basis on which the past, or any allegiance to it, is investigated or treated

A Northern Ireland in which those who planned massacres against civilians are not only treated as equals with the British forces, but are able to demand full accountability of those state forces while shamelessly covering up their own history

A Northern Ireland in which the Republic’s president can come and go freely, presiding over official functions – a presidency that appears to allow its office-holder to cite political preconditions before the apolitical British head of state can set foot in the Republic [this was before the royal visit of 2011]

A Northern Ireland in which the Republic’s government can be a partisan player, while demanding neutrality on the part of those who actually have sovereignty

A Northern Ireland which must, necessarily must, include in government a party that the Republic will not tolerate in its own halls of power

To be clear, imagining these various scenarios does not mean they likely: as our recent story [published in 2010] on Northern Irishness pointed out, a large minority of Catholics accept the title and the state.

And the Human Rights Commission’s Bill of Rights proposals have been comprehensively rejected by the main GB parties, and received coolly even in the Republic.

Further, the Tories under David Cameron have sent out clear “hold on a minute” signals to any assumptions that they must be impartial on matters such as the future of the Union.

Meanwhile, there is no suggestion that Northern Ireland will ever lose its Westminster MPs and many unionists, indeed Orangemen, will point to a real change in how they are received south of the border.

So it is extreme to assume that all of the scenarios listed above will come to pass. Yet all the scenarios, and more, are at least conceivable within the Union.

Some are not hypotheses but the actual position.

And if all this could happen within the Union, then the urgent question is – what does the Union matter?

I raised this question verbally with an interested observer. He responded: ”The subvention perhaps? That may be why it matters.”

It sounds convincing to say that the huge subsidy from the Treasury in London is what makes it all worthwhile. After all, that is what makes the province reasonably affluent. But you could just as easily argue that the other way – that the subsidy alongside relentless political concessions means that Irish nationalists within the province can enjoy all of their key demands, and the financial benefit too.

One little-noticed, but intriguing, suggestion on the future that would have implications for this anomaly came from a recent writer on our platform pages, Garvin Crawford. He suggested the world’s first community state in which people are able to designate themselves as Ulster British or Ulster Irish, and pay taxes and receive benefits accordingly.

But, despite its logicality, the idea that those in Northern Ireland who opt for Irish citizenship would lose British benefits would surely provoke uproar amongst Irish nationalists globally.

Union 2021 will continue throughout the summer.

Perhaps some of the coming contributors will address this question of what a secure Union means, and why it matters.

• The essay above was written in August 2010.

I am surprised by parts of it, for example my reference to us one day needing a passport to get to Great Britain. There was no prospect of Brexit in 2010, because David Cameron was new to power and had not promised his In-Out vote, but I think the idea was in my head because the Labour government had tried to introduce security measures for cross Irish Sea movements from which it retreated.

Also, I had seen or reported on matters such as police sometimes in Belfast airports asking flight passengers from the mainland for a passport, rather than photo ID, and a Tory MP complaining about the same in Dublin in lack of observance of the Common Travel Area

The sections on legacy above were brewing in 2010 but are far worse now. Also, in 2010 the Irish language push and Bill of Rights push were almost dormant but it was clear they were so central to republican goals that they would arise again.

The expanding role of ‘enforcers’ has continued, as it was obvious in 2010 it would.

Similarly, the sections on Irish government partisanship, on the Irish presidency (then of Mary McAleese) and on contested terms such as Northern Ireland have become much more pronounced since Brexit, but I had forgotten until revisiting this essay the extent to which they were building regardless of the UK’s position in or out of the EU.

The double standards in the Dublin establishment with regard to Sinn Fein having to be in power on one side of the border but not being allowed in the other have diminished in recent years as some Irish leaders seem to begin to prepare for striking a deal with them.

• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter editor. Other articles by him below and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the paper:

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