Owen Polley: Unionists should beware of engaging with the ‘New Ireland’ nonsense

Should pro-Union people take part in ‘conversations’ about a potential 32-county Irish republic?

Monday, 22nd November 2021, 2:43 pm
Updated Tuesday, 23rd November 2021, 2:07 pm
If unionism is failing, it is not because it is refusing to negotiate the terms of its eventual defeat with Irish republicans, but because it is ineffective at promoting its own aspirations for the future

A tiny number of professed unionists appear regularly on panels and podcasts that discuss how a future all-Ireland state might look.

Last week, yet another opinion poll showed that people in Northern Ireland overwhelmingly support the Union with Great Britain. But the phone-ins and newspaper articles about the likelihood of ‘Irish unity’ continue unabated.

Largely, that’s because a small band of activists is working hard to disguise their campaign for Northern Ireland’s destruction as a ‘conversation’ about the island’s future.

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They use euphemistic terms like ‘new Ireland’ or ‘shared Ireland’, but their activities are organised by many of the same people who have claimed for decades that a ‘united Ireland’ is imminent.

Some unionists argue that there is no harm in taking part in these initiatives. After all, it’s only a chat and surely it’s better to talk things through.

This is a naïve way of thinking because these debates take place on the separatists’ terms, using their chosen language, with the aim of furthering their objectives.

The unionists who participate do so for slightly different reasons, but their rationale may be confused or overlap.

Some of them say they want to provide republicans with an insight into unionist thinking.

Some think they can make the argument for the Union and perhaps change nationalists’ minds by being willing to ‘engage’.

This, at least, is an honest and honourable perspective if it is sincerely held. The problem is that the organisers specifically want to give the impression that there is an active and growing discussion about an all-Ireland state.

In particular, they are desperate to show that unionists, or at least people who are not actively nationalist, are taking part.

In other words, the appearance of participation is far more important than what is said. If unionists genuinely want to change people’s minds, strengthen the Union and promote their own ideas, they are unlikely to achieve these aims through organisations and platforms that are devoted to destroying Northern Ireland.

A far less robust excuse for participating is the notion that unionists must explore what a ‘new Ireland’ might entail before they decide to reject it. This is simplistic to the point of stupidity.

Firstly, it assumes that unionists are shopping round for the best offer, rather than promoting their own constitutional preference for the province’s future.

It accepts the nationalist idea that unionism is merely a culture or a tradition that can be accommodated happily within another state, when actually it is a clear and deeply felt allegiance to the United Kingdom, whose political embodiment is the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Secondly, the idea that a ‘new Ireland’ is on offer is naïve and absurd.

Look at the people who are spreading this notion.

Listen to the language they use.

And notice their attitudes to Britishness, their hostility to anything connected to the UK and their disdain for aspects of culture that unionists tend to value.

Ireland’s Future is one of the more prominent groups organising a steady stream of debates and podcasts. It says it is “not affiliated to any party”, but many of its supporters are involved with republican politics.

If unionism is failing, it is not because it is refusing to negotiate the terms of its eventual defeat with Irish republicans, but because it is ineffective at promoting its own aspirations for the future. Where are the symposiums and panel discussions exploring how Northern Ireland can play a more integral role in the UK?

Our place in the Union certainly faces challenges. The protocol has consigned people here to a second-class form of British citizenship that separates us from the mainstream UK economy and pushes our politics even further out of the national picture. It’s far from certain, or likely, that this damage can be repaired.

Unionists are in the unenviable position of having to articulate an upbeat and optimistic vision for the future, while, at the same time, fighting to restore the Act of Union, ensure full access to British goods and repair our links with Great Britain. That will challenge their intellectual energies to the full, without the distraction of a confected debate about a 32-county Irish republic that the same fanatical minority has claimed was around the corner for one hundred years.

The more modern versions of this campaign are fuelled by social media.

Nationalists use these online platforms prolifically, and it’s easy for young and impressionable unionists to become embroiled unwittingly in separatist campaigns because it wins them plaudits, likes and shares.

There’s certainly an important debate to be had about where Northern Ireland is going, but our problems will never be solved by the promise of a ‘new Ireland’ that the very worst elements of the old Ireland seem determined to shape.

• Other comment pieces below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter

• Owen Polley Oct 30 (within this there are links to other articles by Owen): Unconvincing poll was twisted to support protocol

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