Ruth Dudley Edwards: Unionists should fear not — the south does not want a united Ireland

With some of the usual suspects still boring on about a border poll, I want to go back to basics.

Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 3:29 pm
Updated Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 3:45 pm
Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author and commentator, who writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'

I apologise to those who have heard this story before, but I think it one of the most telling comments about Irish aspirations to unity I’ve ever heard from an ordinary citizen of the Republic.

I had been in Dublin and was on my way to the airport to catch a plane to London when on the radio someone said something about a united Ireland.

“How would you feel about that?” I asked the taxi driver. “I wouldn’t mind one bit,” he said, “as long as it has no effect whatsoever on the twenty-six counties.”

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I used this anecdote in an essay I contributed to a 2006 collection (Britain and Ireland: lives intertwined II) edited by the British Council, who, as usual, were trying to bring people together by helping them to understand each other.

As a writer then of mostly non-contentious books, I had had a relatively tranquil 1980s and early 1990s, but I had a deep interest in Anglo-Irish relations, had come to care a great deal about Northern Ireland saw many of the players up close at conferences, and — by background a Dublin Catholic — discovered that when you got to know them, unionists were nicer than they seemed and nationalists weren’t and that anyone who thought there was a simple answer to the Irish constitutional problem was mad.

Increasingly disturbed that the IRA seem to be literally getting away with murder in the press and with the public because the words “peace process” seemed to give them a free pass, I began to write for newspapers in 1994 and within a few months had become one of those journalists accused of being anti-peace because we wrote about what was actually happening despite that causing annoyance to republicans and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

I learned to see the republican leadership for the fascists they were, and with the help of Sean O’Callaghan, an IRA murderer in his teens who had turned against the whole organisation, saved many many lives by spying (unpaid) for the Irish police and then gave himself up and served his time, I came to understand fully the terrible evil of violence Irish republicanism and why it should never be appeased.

When I became close to unionists and Orangemen during the Drumcree period and did my best to explain their point of view in print and on the airwaves — since mostly they did so grudgingly or not at all — it didn’t take long for me to become a pariah (turncoat, a traitor, a Prod-lover, Orange Lil etc. etc.) in nationalist circles north and south.

This was cemented by the book I published in 1999 about the Orange Order and how the death and destruction caused by confrontation over parades was planned and implemented by the IRA who could rely on the stubborn stupidity of many Orange leaders and the wickedness of Billy Wright and his murderous followers.

In the name of peace, Sinn Fein leaders tried to get me sacked from my column in the Sunday Independent — almost the only Irish newspaper implacably opposed to terrorism yet otherwise utterly tolerant of all viewpoints.

I lost Irish friends north and south and heard from some of the steadfast ones that they avoided mentioning my name in company because they didn’t want to start rows.

Having lived for decades in London, I was actually shocked to discover the strength of group-think in Irish nationalism — which extended to the highest levels.

When I was invited by an arm of the establishment, the British Council, to write whatever I liked on Anglo-Irish relations, I called the essay “The Outsider” — because, like so many writers, that is what I am — and wrote savagely of those types involved in discussing the future of Northern Ireland who drive me mad. (It’s on my website and some of you might enjoy it: https://www.ruthdudleyedwards.co.uk/journalism/the-outsider/).

Here’s what I said about the taxi-driver’s sentence “summing up the ambivalence and hypocrisy of southern Irish nationalists towards a United Ireland.

“Being prone to enjoying victimhood, they are mostly happy to hang on to the grievance that the British own Northern Ireland. They vaguely aspire to acquiring it, and will sing when drunk about the proud old woman who wants her fourth green field back.

“They are frightened of the IRA, but many have what is known as a ‘sneaking regard’ for the bravery of ‘the lads’. Yet in their hearts they want Northern Ireland only if it doesn’t add a penny to their taxes and if there is a guarantee that those ghastly Northerners stay up there where they belong.”

Ireland has a hard-won stability, and it doesn’t want it undermined. Unionists should stop worrying. Trustworthy polls show a united Ireland isn’t wanted and even if a border poll happened, southern voters would vote no while claiming to have voted yes.

And when asked to discuss the terms for a united Ireland, unionist politicians should ask politely, “And what are your terms for rejoining the United Kingdom?”

• Ruth Dudley Edwards is the author of The Faithful Tribe: an intimate portrait of the loyal institutions

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