Sinn Fein guarantees to unionists in a united Ireland don’t add up to a hill of beans

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I was on a Féile an Phobail panel with Michelle O’Neill last Wednesday evening, discussing the prospects of Irish unity in the wake of Brexit.

She admitted that she was, “neither naïve nor insensitive about unionist unease on Irish unity,” then added, “constitutional change can be achieved without sacrificing identity or citizenship. For me, upholding, protecting and respecting the rights of all citizens must define a new, agreed and united Ireland. That means upholding the rights of citizens to be British and unionist.”

Here’s my problem with that. I am a British citizen: by birth and by choice. I am a unionist by choice, too; someone who believes that the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland will be better protected within the United Kingdom than in a united Ireland. In the event of a border poll producing a majority for ending the Union (triggering years of negotiation against a background of uncertainty and instability) how does she, or anyone else, uphold my right to be British and unionist in the resultant united Ireland?

Nationalists may never have been happy with partition and part of Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, but they were always able to hold onto the dream of ‘a nation once again’.

But unless there was a guarantee for unionists that a border poll in what had previously been Northern Ireland would be possible again at some point – and I don’t see how such a guarantee could be included as part of the overall package – then the right of people like me (and there would be hundreds of thousands of us, don’t forget) to be British and unionist wouldn’t, in reality, amount to a hill of beans.

It is not possible to be British and unionist in a united Ireland in the way that it is possible to be Irish and nationalist in Northern Ireland. Irish unity shuts down unionism – because the fundamental purpose of unionism is to protect and promote a union with the United Kingdom. Voting to end the Union and then withholding the opportunity to rejoin the Union at some future point means that unionism ceases to have a purpose. What role would there be for the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party or any other unionist party?

Partition didn’t rob Sinn Fein of a role and purpose. But Irish unity leaves nothing for political/electoral unionism.

So I’d like to know – and I touched upon the issue when I was guest speaker at a Sinn Fein ‘Uniting Ireland’ conference in Dublin in January – what part of my unionism or unionist identity would be protected under Sinn Fein’s proposals? I won’t be able to campaign for the restoration of the Union. I won’t be offered a border poll. I’m pretty sure that unionists wouldn’t be given a veto over legislation to match the veto that nationalists have in the Assembly. I’m equally sure that there wouldn’t be a form of mandatory power-sharing involving unionists in future all-Ireland governments.

Actually, I can’t imagine why any of the Irish political parties would want to do anything with unionism other than relegating it to the status of an historical/cultural curiosity. They certainly wouldn’t want it to become a political/electoral force to be reckoned with in the Dáil; or remain a belligerent, troublesome rump in its old strongholds in Antrim, North Down and so on.

Similarly, it would not be in the political/constitutional interests of a newly united Ireland to create space for what was Ulster unionism; so it’s very unlikely that space would be created.

I would also like Sinn Fein to thoroughly address Michelle’s claim that, “constitutional change can be achieved without sacrificing identity or citizenship”.

How? What would it mean to be a unionist in a united Ireland? What would it mean to be British in a united Ireland? If the Good Friday Agreement – with its right to be British or Irish (or both) – wasn’t good enough for Sinn Fein, then why would unionists want a constitutional settlement in a new united Ireland which robs them of role, purpose and the ability to reverse the result of a border poll? If a border poll doesn’t deliver Irish unity then Sinn Fein will keep on demanding another one. If a border poll does deliver a united Ireland then unionists will be told to ‘suck it up’.

Identity is a bedrock for most of us. We know who we are. We know who we want to be. That’s why nationalists – many of whom have lived their whole lives in the United Kingdom – want a united Ireland. They feel Irish. They want to be Irish. They want their state to reflect their identity.

For the same reason, unionists – who live in a place with Ireland in the title – reject the primacy of the Irishness in favour of the United Kingdom; because they, too, want a state that reflects their identity. So, in just the same way that nationalists in Northern Ireland can’t permanently settle for their Irish/nationalist identity being simply recognised and accommodated in part of the United Kingdom, unionists wouldn’t settle for their British/unionist identity being simply recognised and accommodated in a united Ireland.

I welcome the fact that Sinn Fein seems ready to extend the unity debate (and I hope mainstream unionism will engage); but they really need to move beyond positions and guarantees for unionists in a united Ireland that Sinn Fein wouldn’t themselves settle for in Northern Ireland.