The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Realities and Challenges, John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith (eds), Belcouver Press, 424 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0993560729
It is 10 pm on Thursday, November 4th, 2038. BBC News leads with the sensational results of its exit poll on that day’s referendum on Irish reunification, predicting a vote of 52 per cent in Northern Ireland to leave the UK against a remain vote of 48 per cent. An exit poll for the simultaneous referendum in the South shows 92 per cent support for restoring Irish unity.
Tweeting from Downing Street, British prime minister Jess Phillips says: “Respect Irish right to self determ. Have ordered all UK Gov. military, security & civilian personnel home by 12.00 Sunday. Dublin will take it from here. Goodbye Ireland & good luck. Let’s stay friends.”
Phillips has announced an emergency sitting of parliament for Saturday morning to push through the necessary legislation, under guillotine, before Sunday’s deadline. The Restoration of Irish Unity Bill will pass comfortably, given the record-breaking total of seats won when the prime minister secured her third term in office at the previous general election, and her crushing majority in the Lords following the reforms of her first term.
Speaking on background, a senior Whitehall official told the BBC: “We can’t wait to wash our hands of the place.” The source added: “And we won’t be looking back. Thank the gods that the Irish have given us the excuse to exit. The Act of Union might have worked for England for the first 20 years or so, but then Daniel O’Connell came along, and Ireland has been an absolute nightmare for us for the 220 years ever since.” Asked for his message to unionists, he said he had no message other than they shouldn’t waste their time getting in touch, and that their issues were now a matter for Dublin.
King William V, popularly known in the North of Ireland as King Billy, is cutting short a humanitarian visit to Guatemala and will be flying home immediately in order to personally give the Royal Assent to the Bill as soon as possible on Saturday afternoon. He will then hold a reception to celebrate the birth of the new all-island Irish state and to express his hopes for fraternal relations between the two island countries. Buckingham Palace and Downing Street have jointly issued the draft of a notice, to appear in a special Saturday edition of The London Gazette, dropping the harp from the royal coat of arms, removing the St Patrick’s Cross from the Union flag, and changing the name of the state to the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Within the hour, Northern Ireland’s long-serving first minister John Finucane is at the Louth-Armagh border to welcome the first battalion of the Irish army to arrive, deployed by the Irish government on an agreed basis with the UK government as part of a collaborative civic emergency management approach to help maintain order pending the formal count the following day and the legal handover. He tweets: “Tá ár lá tagtha. A Free Ireland takes her place amongst nations of world. Bye bye border, brexit & Britain. #slanabhaile #saoirse #europa”.
All eyes are on the demoralised and defeated leaders of unionism, who have yet to respond. What will unionism do?
In The Idea of the Union, a variety of unionist contributors try to provide some answers as to how this (for them) nightmare scenario can be avoided. There isn’t much about how to react if it can’t be, although we will come back to that later.
Before delving too deeply into this book I asked myself what ideally would I like to see in a volume of unionist introspection, although it’s worth celebrating the exercise represented by this book in principle independently of its content. So much in Northern Ireland is reciprocal that it’s worthwhile asking the prior question as to what one would like to see in a volume of nationalist and republican introspection.
At the outset, from nationalist and republic introspection, one might hope to see remorse for murder and violence – not just since 1969 but for the human and intergenerational impact of the “physical force tradition” throughout Irish history, even if contextualised as a response to colonialism. One might also wish to see a willingness to look beyond the narrow confines of received narratives.
Secondly, in a nationalist/republican work of introspection, one might expect to see some expression of regret and embarrassment for the suffocatingly Catholic nature of the Irish state in the decades after independence, the failure to accommodate the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist-British identity, the casual, low-level anti-British racism in Irish society, the reflexive rejection of the British identity, right down to the puerile tendency to cheer for whatever sports team is playing against England.
Relatedly, one might also expect to see nationalist and republican thinkers express a practical willingness to embrace and accommodate the other, to expunge the remaining Catholic and nationalist elements from the Irish constitution, to recalibrate laws and practices to ensure that basic parity of esteem applies in both parts of the island, and to offer practical accommodation to PUL neighbours in the North. Additionally, such expressions might ideally express a desire to end and reverse inflammatory and rabble-rousing nationalist gestures, to build relationships between individuals and communities, and to strengthen the East-West links across the British and Irish islands. This might include an evolving willingness to recognise one’s own British dimension, and to develop a generous offer in the context of any discussion on constitutional change on the island.
Fourthly, one might expect such a self-reflective publication ‑ if it were authored by thinkers from the nationalist and republican traditions – to include a willingness to challenge and face down those on that side of the house who threaten an accommodating future – ranging from dissident terrorists and their political fellow travellers, down to the digital brownshirts and their street cousins who descend condemningly on anything British, royal or unionist and who preserve particular depths of hate-speech and hate-acts for those in their own tribe who are insufficiently anti-British. One might also expect to see a willingness to make Northern Ireland work and to make Brexit work for the people of Northern Ireland. The Withdrawal Agreement, assuming that it is going to be allowed to operate, presents an opportunity for the six counties to be the best of both worlds.
And finally, one might anticipate from nationalism and republicanism a willingness to make a positive case for their vision of a constitutional change and of the advantages, as they see it, of Irish unity, so that the discussion has some rational boundaries rather than being a race to 50 per cent + 1. A positive case that is less in-your-face, less baiting and taunting, and less insinuating in its invitations, but that aims to engage respectfully on that basis that all parties are rational equals. Ultimately, and especially in a 40-40-20 society, it will be the side that is the most accommodating that “wins”, so instead of a demographic race to a majority, we might wish for a philanthropic race by both sides to see who can reconcile and facilitate the other best.
With those desiderata identified, the answer to what one would like to see from the unionist side of the house pretty much writes itself.
First, in a work of unionist introspection, one might hope to see regret for those elements of the British story that are marked with violence, oppression, misrule and colonialism on the island of Ireland throughout its history ‑ and indeed across the world ‑ which it is possible to do while simultaneously acknowledging that British rule has brought benefits. One doesn’t have to conduct some kind of final weighing exercise.
Crucially, one might expect to see an absolute repudiation of unionist and loyalist illegality and violence and threats of illegality and violence that have been used so often in the past to thwart the democratic process; and an absolute commitment to fully and peacefully respect and implement the result of a future sovereignty referendum if the unity proposal is passed by 50 per cent plus one vote. Relatedly, one might also welcome a sloughing off of any fossilised illusion of superiority, a willingness to relate to nationalists as rational equals with parity of rights, and an expression of readiness within unionism to build and work on honest and respectful personal relationships across the spectrum.
One might also wish for remorse for the marginalisation of the Catholic-nationalist population during the half-century when unionism called the shots at Stormont, as well as regret at the willingness of Britain to stand by and let this happen for far too long. One might expect some recognition that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement happened for good reasons, and of the underlying inequalities and neglect of human rights which were such a contributing factor to how events unfolded thereafter (without taking in any way from the responsibility of those involved in terrorism or state illegality of course).
A contemporary publication on modern unionism might also contain some commitment to accommodate the Irish identity across the board on the basis of equality – language equality commitments set out in existing agreements being an obvious first step that logically should be taken as read. Equality also presupposes an equality of respect from the other side, so it would also be legitimate and necessary for unionism to challenge nationalist Anglophobia.
A modern unionist introspective exercise might also feature willingness to significantly deepen the North-South relationship within the framework of the existing constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, where it makes sense to do so, and where that would be of mutual benefit. Such a publication might reference the desirability for unionism to move away from an opportunistic attitude to North-South co-operation and relations, to an acceptance of these as a non-negotiable feature of normal business.
Writings on modem unionism might also include abhorrence of the anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist sectarianism that is embedded in minority elements of the PUL community, remorse for the past role of unionism in stimulating and fanning hostility, and a determination to challenge and combat those prejudices and pull them out by the roots. A willingness to deal with people like those who burned out a car, in the news at time of writing (November 2021), for the crime of parking on Shankill Road with Southern registration plates. Or those who forced an Irish language pre-school out of its original location in East Belfast. Doug Beattie spoke for decency when he said: “I cannot understand this hate filled campaign against Naíscoil na Seolta and Linda Ervine ‑ what is the point, what is achieved other than negativity? I’m saddened and I’m disgusted.” Bigotry needs to be challenged and neutralised within its own community. As David Trimble put it in his Nobel speech, “each reformist group has a moral obligation to deal with its own fanatics”.
Finally, a reader of a book of reflection on contemporary unionism might hope to encounter among its pages a willingness to emerge from the frozen historical position of unionism of holding what it has, no surrender, not an inch; and to make a positive case for the value of the Union in the interests of a rational and balanced discussion. Some readers might even wish to see an engagement with the perspective that positions taken by political unionism in the period immediately before and following the Brexit referendum may have been self-defeating, and an acknowledgement that whatever the case for Brexit, it has adversely affected socially and economically vulnerable communities in England, Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland itself. Indeed whatever the case against the protocol, it has benefits for the business community of Northern Ireland, as they will be the first to point out. That isn’t to argue for the protocol of course, merely to speculate that there might be benefits in acknowledging that there are two sides to that story.
How does the volume under review square up against those criteria? Let’s start with the positives.
The book is at its best in addressing three areas – the positive case for the union, challenging nationalism’s Anglophobia, and an initial tentative willingness to accommodate nationalism.
On accommodation, human rights are an important piece of the jigsaw, and Daphne Trimble’s piece on that issue is a thoughtful and balanced contribution that gains considerably in strength from not laying down too many absolutes or red lines. William JV Neill calls on unionism to respond less defensively to the nationalist desire for identity, and to champion courtesy, reasonableness and compromise. Those sentiments are critical to the future of unionism and of the region more generally. Graham Walker makes the crucial point that “[a] healthy concept of the Union would seek to maximise interaction between the two islands … between north and south and also between east and west”. Willingness to enhance North-South interactions within the existing constitutional framework has got to be another piece of the solution, alongside encouraging the Irish side towards a more meaningful matrix of East-West connections.
John Wilson Foster says that “the nationalist aspirations of almost half of the population of Northern Ireland must be met as comprehensively as possible inside a Union newly and more expansively perceived”. That’s an absolutely crucial insight if unionism is to progress, but it would need to translate into concrete actions, hence the qualifier that the book’s reference to accommodation is initial and tentative. Wilson Foster seems sceptical about even the minor step of language equality – which would be a good start and sits perfectly comfortably within the vast linguistic diversity across Britain, the Crown dependencies and overseas possessions. The challenging of Irish Anglophobia is another theme, with points well-made, including by Ray Bassett, that thought should be given to strengthening East-West links and building an association with the Commonwealth.
The real centre of gravity of the book, however, is to make a positive case for the UK. If one were to summarise a manifesto based on some of the essays here it might look something like this:
1 The Union reflects economic, social and cultural reality. Ireland overall is deeply entwined with Britain, and Northern Ireland’s place in the Union gives expression to that.
2 The Union connects the people of Northern Ireland to a larger and more interesting entity, to the excitement and action of modern Britain and the wider Commonwealth. The British-centred world is a real and vibrant relationship of nations and peoples, not an artificial economic marriage of convenience like the EU.
3 For all its modernising pluralism, Ireland comes nowhere near Britain for outward-looking multi-cultural internationalism. Ireland’s foundation mythologies are so culturally narrow and so rigorously imposed and policed that one cannot properly breathe culturally in such an atmosphere. Only the Union allows freedom of the spirit and a wider stage. Britishness is a social unifier in a way that narrow Irishness can never be.
4 Talented and creative Irish people have been voting with their feet for years, going to English world-class universities and rising to the top of English society and in particular London society. That they can achieve an impact and status in Britain denied to them at home speaks for itself.
5 London in particular as a world city and former imperial capital is simply vastly more significant in global terms than anything Ireland has to offer. Britain is a heavyweight nation of scale, Ireland a small and provincial one, for all its reforms. It makes no sense to cut oneself off from all that Britain has to offer, whether that be the NHS or any other aspect of the British social system.
6 The British story is one of over a thousand years of history, massive literary and scientific creativity and discovery, world-beating success across education, technology, finance and many fields of endeavour, swashbuckling exploration and adventure across the globe, a close community of nations, ancient institutions, a monarchy older than England itself, a language that has taken the world by storm. Any storms Ireland can offer would fit in a teacup by comparison.
7 Instead of abolition of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, what’s needed is reform whereby Northern Ireland would address and solve its own issues collaboratively and play an intensified role in the life of the British state as a whole. A united Ireland in itself won’t address the needs of the region. It is a solution in search of a problem.
Again, this is an attempt to draw together and colour in the views represented in the book, not endorse them, and one can assume that elements of nationalism will respond with protest and indignation at some of these perspectives. But how successful is this book in fleshing out and selling that message?
A nice initial touch is that the cover picture depicts the British and Irish Isles overall, not the amputated weather-map version with six counties floating in mid-air, a cartographical approach which John Dallat MLA (SDLP) has described as being “as if the rest of the island didn’t exist or was some kind of North Korea behind an iron curtain”.
Wilson Foster’s introduction sets a reasonable tone, appealing to those “whose motive was not triumphalism or sectarianism but the desire to retain their Britishness in constitutional as well as cultural terms”. He affirms that the South must own its participation in cultural Britishness. His thesis here is that the rise of Irish nationalism with its “noisy energy” has happened “by default” and that unionism can make a positive case in response. Ireland’s situation is within a cultural space with Britain, reinforced by ties of history and geography. Nationalism likes to deny the shared culture within the British and Irish Isles, but that’s both wrong and a tactical mistake. The asserted independence of a united Ireland would be a hoax, because our cultural membership of the British and Irish Isles would remain. A related element is the link with Scotland in particular, as distinct from other parts of the archipelago, a theme stressed by Walker.
Wilson Foster’s emphasis on the great British story leads to the reflection that he wishes to be part of a larger entity, and thinks with Seán Ó Faoláin that “any sensible man naturally goes from smaller to larger islands, and ends up with continents”. On such a premise, unity would be “disastrously and dangerously divisive” given nationalism’s narrow cultural understanding. He refers to “Irish talent’s homing instinct that locks on to London like a heat-seeking missile”: the performative genius needs a metropolis, and that is London not Dublin.
Owen Polley argues that Northern Ireland should play “as full a role as possible in the social, political and economic life of the [British] nation” and build strong relationships with the mainland. In one of the best pieces, Neill argues that unionists should claim title to Irishness also. He sees Britishness as a unifying social glue, not excluding Irishness, and calls for recognition of progress in the South as well as connection to Britain as she now is and intellectual engagement with a wider family of nations. Mike Nesbitt’s important piece focuses on the critical task on making Northern Ireland work, addressing legacy issues in a practical manner, and acknowledging the failings of unionists’ governance more than has been done to date, even if that isn’t as much as sought by nationalists. He is critical of the role of other unionists in energising nationalism through crocodile analogies and Brexit. Ultimately a united Ireland in itself won’t solve the problems of Northern Ireland – what is needed is a vision for society. His message is to make Northern Ireland work, and to work with nationalism in doing so.
So far, so good for the Union. But wait.
A spectre is haunting unionism – the spectre of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland to the Withdrawal Agreement signed at Brussels and London on January 24th, 2020. This is a problem for unionism, but it is also a potential crisis for the island. And the vector by which it escalates to crisis is the way it is being inaccurately presented as a basis to unravel the Good Friday Agreement.
This book strongly peddles the incorrect legal theory that the protocol is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement. As a relative Anglophile by Southern standards, who is willing to come out as recognising my own dimension of British cultural identity without taking from my Irish identity, I am not questioning unionism’s right to disagree with the protocol if I point out that Her Majesty’s Government was not in breach of the Good Friday Agreement by ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement which included its protocols. That is a legal question, not a political question, and it has a legal answer, not a political answer.
Apart from having been rejected by the High Court of Northern Ireland, subject to appeal, the more fundamental problem is that the logic of that theory is inconsistent with the UK Supreme Court decision in the Miller & McCord cases (judgments that I didn’t see David Trimble strongly highlighting in his contribution to this volume complaining about the protocol). To repeat – unionism is entitled to oppose the protocol ‑ that’s politics ‑ and I am not getting involved in that. But while any political movement is entitled to its own opinions, it isn’t entitled to its own facts; and the fact here unfortunately is that the claim of protocol incompatibility with the agreement is clearly wrong.
The obvious irony is that while the protocol doesn’t breach international law, the proposed “cure” does, namely unilateral repudiation of the protocol. The contributors here just can’t seem to see the contradictions. William Beattie Smith declaims portentously that “an ethical state has superordinate duties … These duties include … securing the rule of law”. Yet obliviously he goes on to urge HMG to “ditch the protocol” – a negation of the rule of law, which precludes international treaties being ditched unilaterally. This doublethink is a core issue because if unionists think it’s OK to use legal inaccuracy to rewrite the agreement on this question, some might try that technique on other questions, including the most important of all – the mechanics of permanently and peacefully ending British sovereignty by democratic majority vote, if that were to happen.
Trimble’s standing as a negotiator, so frequently referenced in this volume, doesn’t make his theory any more valid, and indeed it is sad to see people being perceived as having credibility from their status as former negotiators in selling erroneous misunderstanding as fact. Trimble is far from the worst example of this though – he is outclassed by Seamus Mallon, of whom more later.
The inaccuracy that the protocol breaches the Good Friday Agreement has now metastasised beyond fringe thought and trickled down to loyalist groups who are referencing it as a basis for withdrawing support for the agreement overall. But the theory is clearly incorrect, for reasons that are really simple and can be understood by anybody. Insofar as the Good Friday Agreement regulates the status of Northern Ireland, it does not say that there can be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in some general way. It defines that status as meaning part of the UK or a united Ireland, nothing else:
The participants endorse the commitment made by the British and Irish Governments that, in a new British-Irish Agreement replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, they will … recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland …
Section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the main UK law giving effect to the agreement, says:
It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1.
That’s it. Nothing about not leaving a UK-wide trade and customs area. In the Gina Miller No 1 & McCord judgment, a unanimous 11-member UK Supreme Court dismissed the Northern Ireland-related challenge, saying about section 1 that:
In our view, this important provision, which arose out of the Belfast Agreement, gave the people of Northern Ireland the right to determine whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to become part of a united Ireland. It neither regulated any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor required the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
The judgment of the High Court of Northern Ireland in the Allister case upholding the legality of the protocol and throwing out the challenge by Trimble and others in its entirety relied on this clear finding, and says:
The plain words of the statute together with a reading of the agreements underpinning the statute make it clear that Section 1 does not regulate, in the words of the Supreme Court, “any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland” other than the right to determine whether to remain part of the UK or to become part of a united Ireland. Section 1 of the 1998 Act does not regulate the changes implemented in the Withdrawal Agreements. The focus of all the relevant sections in the Agreement and in the statute is the choice between remaining part of the UK or becoming part of a united Ireland. Indeed, the Agreements were designed to reconcile the acknowledged conflicting wishes of the people of Northern Ireland on this issue … The court therefore concludes that section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 has no impact on the legality of the changes effected by the Withdrawal Agreements and the Protocol. Judicial review on this ground is refused.
The court went on to say:
[T]he Protocol is the outworking of the political compromises designed to preserve and protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
This is basic, entry level stuff. But an inaccuracy has got half-way around unionism while the truth is putting its boots on and marching around but nobody seems to notice or care. Detailed reasoned judgments from independent British courts seem to have had limited impact on the understanding of this issue.
It is an example of legal inflation or exaggeration (a thought process which some might say has historically been more characteristic of nationalist debaters than unionist ones). On that view, it’s not seen as enough to say “We oppose X” (which would be fine). This has to be pumped up into “X is illegal”, which is often incorrect, and is certainly incorrect here. Law can’t be collapsed into being just another way to make political points. Again – for the avoidance of doubt – I am not defending the protocol (which was clearly just one way of defining the Britain-Europe relationship, something which the UK found extraordinarily difficult to do, and each of the possible ways had pros and cons), except in the limited sense that because it was ultimately agreed as part of a treaty, it is currently legal binding and can’t be unilaterally repudiated. The merits or otherwise of any given solution can be left to politics. What isn’t acceptable however is to present this political question as a claim of breach of legal rights under the Good Friday Agreement, which it isn’t.
The problem is that the error is not just some harmlessly exuberant legal brainstorming. The real-world implications and the trickle-down impact on communities, not intended by the applicants and their advisers and surrogates but nonetheless real, can be seen increasingly, in threats to collapse the devolution institutions. It can be seen in unlawful failure to participate in North-South meetings. It is evident in street disturbances. It is visible in the Combined Loyalist Communities stance and the recent PUP statement withdrawing support for the agreement on the basis of the false premise of it having been breached.
The unfortunate thing about all this is that the agreement has not been breached, either by Brexit itself, the Withdrawal Agreement, or its protocol. The context is that the Irish government in particular, and nationalism in general, as well as the EU with the agreement of the UK at the time, as well as international partners such as the US, have been vigilant to ensure that the gains of the agreement are protected. But the menacing logic of the incorrect presentation of unionists-as-victims-of-illegality is that it could embolden some sections of opinion to repudiate their own obligations under the agreement. The illegal boycott of the North-South ministerial council is step one, but the really big step, turning the problem into a crisis, would be an unlawful failure to operate the agreement more generally, or to collapse devolution. Ultimately some fringe section might even wrongfully argue for a failure to facilitate a peaceful transfer of sovereignty if 50 per cent +1 so wish, a point I will come back to.
The most urgent question is whether unionism will make itself conspicuously available as an honest partner to the other sections of the community, willing to respect diversity, build genuinely respectful relationships, honour the agreed rules, promote accommodation, reject the future possibility of undemocratic, illegal or violent scenarios, and live in a world bounded by fairness and agreement rather than superiority or wishful thinking.
Diversity has always been an issue for unionism and that is reflected in this volume, on a number of levels but particularly in relation to gender. Of the contributors, seventeen (89.5 per cent) are men and two (10.5 per cent) are women. This wouldn’t happen on the nationalist side of the house, or in the South nowadays. Nor would it happen on the British mainland – reflecting the broader problem of unionist cultural disconnect from modern Britain.
Comparing the book against the list of desiderata set out earlier in this article suggests further work to do on the project of self-reflection. There is little to see in this publication that questions British colonialism. There is not enough to challenge past or potential future illegality on the PUL side of the house, and nothing adequate to indicate a willingness to respect a democratic decision for unity. Unionist misrule at Stormont is largely, although not entirely, downplayed and excused. Such limited recognition of misrule as can be identified in these pages is, by and large, cursory and passing. Acknowledgement of elements of sectarianism within the PUL community is limited, as is an articulation of willingness to challenge the minority fringe that resorts to hate-speech, hate-thought and hate-crime. These are not minor omissions.
Those points aside, the book contains many constructive pieces from authors whose views are consistent with compromise and reasonableness as the only way unionism can survive. Wilson Foster, Walker, Bassett, Polley, Daphne Trimble, Neill and Nesbitt stand out as the authors of the best pieces on that side of the line. The more generous and insightful pieces published alone would have made a brilliant and different book, albeit a shorter one.
The reasonable and accommodating currents within unionism need to be acknowledged and responded to in kind by nationalism and republicanism, putting Northern Ireland on a virtuous cycle of mutual respect and deepened personal and community relationships. All of this needs to happen with a recognition that demographics, identities and articulated concepts of rights are changing and diversifying across the island of Ireland, in a way which is more commensurate with a modern European society and which really shouldn’t make the identity politics of the Reformation the only show in town any more.
The other side of the line, aspects of which also shimmer between these pages, represents the rear-view mirror of unionist complaint, and themes such as defensiveness, minimising of past wrongs, rejection of the clear implications of what has been agreed, protocol denialism, a narrative of unionist oppression, an unwillingness to contemplate playing by the rules ‑ and especially losing by them ‑ and inadequate interest in or regard for the legitimate aspirations, constitutional ambitions, rights, culture, language and experiences of the other section of the community.
Coming back to the unionist nightmare hypothetical which began this piece, that is just a hypothetical, not a prediction or predetermination, still less an endorsement. I’m neutral as between a united Ireland and a United Kingdom. But one is still left with the question – how would unionism react? We’ve already seen the damaging effect of the inaccuracy that the protocol is illegal. But there is another even more damaging inaccuracy lurking between these pages, that there is some get-out clause even if a majority votes for a united Ireland.
One contributor offers two scenarios for discussion: “any border poll should be conducted on the basis of parallel consent, as Seamus Mallon and other wise nationalists have argued “and secondly that “‘unification’ of the territory without the express consent of the unionist electorate … would likely provoke intense resistance. Would the outcome really justify the risks of reigniting disaffection and political violence, with loyalist paramilitaries as the insurgents?”
That paragraph highlights the eternal dilemma of unionism, in that it raises perspectives that, while superficially comforting, would if accepted contaminate relationships across the divide and neutralise and nullify attempts (including those by other contributors to this volume) to offer olive branches and constructive ways forward. Any meaningful and non-abusive relationship between the different sections of the community has to be based on justice and reciprocity, mutual respect and equality of rights. One doesn’t need to be a nationalist to see the unfairness and nihilism of the scenario that the croppies are going to have to lie down either way. That isn’t a normal or democratic position; it is Belorussian logic – of course you can vote however you like, but only one side can be allowed to win. If unionism were to in effect claim inherent supremacy or a fixed right to maintain the status quo whatever happened, such a false belief shouldn’t be normalised or tolerated.
First of all, Mallon’s eccentric notion of parallel consent can be dismissed immediately. There would never have been a Good Friday Agreement or any kind of agreement if that had been a feature. This is not some kind of interesting or worthwhile contribution worthy of debate. It is a betrayal and a nullification of the most central core element of the agreement. A few obvious points:
1 Consent of 50 per cent plus one of the total valid poll is the only rule that treats both aspirations equally.
2 This is what unionism signed up to in 1998.
3 This is what a majority of the people of the region and of the island approved.
4 This is what the UK government on behalf of Northern Ireland solemnly agreed in a binding international treaty that remains binding.
5 It would be a parody of democracy to change the rules just because nationalism might succeed.
6 The notion of “parallel consent” rigs the system, making the nationalist aspiration impossible because unionists by definition won’t give consent without ceasing to be unionists.
7 It also tears up the core concept of the agreement of parity of esteem by unfairly creating a double standard whereby the test for Union is different from the test for unity.
8. This makes nationalist votes effectively worthless, making unionist votes the only ones that count.
9 Such a negation of basic equality of civil and political rights is fear in the face of the democratic process masquerading as heroism.
10 If a majority for unity happens, unionist consent as the minority won’t be required, and that’s an inevitable feature of any fair, equal and democratic process. Britain, with all of its dignity and principle as seen from London, has had to let go of possession of a lot of territory over the years by yielding to democratic choice, and Northern Ireland would be no exception.
11 Every reasonable person would reject a mentality that would seek to impose a minority’s state on an unwilling majority, replicating pre-1994 South Africa on Northern Irish soil.
John Hume, nationalism’s visionary Nobel prize winner, once famously informed Mallon: “I don’t give two balls of roasted snow for what you think.” Now we know why.
We turn then to the bogeyman of loyalist “resistance”, their anticipated logic presumably being that uppity Taigs shouldn’t take this unity stuff too seriously if they know what’s good for them. But unionists don’t automatically speak for loyalists, and it may be that loyalism will be more pragmatic than some people expect. We must also remember that progressive elements within loyalism such as those within trade unionism have, in the past, found more common ground with their colleagues south of the border on some issues than with unionist politicians who might be seen as having the best interests of working class Protestants at heart. Nor should one underestimate the loyalist-republican channels of dialogue and understanding.
Nonetheless, it is possible that a tiny fanatical splinter within unionism and loyalism may have fleeting thoughts of unlawful resistance, but that will be as pointless and futile as it would be unjustified and unBritish. Not only would any return to violence be appalling, but it would be an insurgency to nowhere. With both governments, the international community, a pro-nationalist majority, the peaceful middle ground and all decent unionists and loyalists to the last woman and man ranged against them, any resistance would be put down unsparingly.
What might be a big help would be for unionism to disclaim these fantasy scenarios and to expressly articulate a willingness to play by the rules, use exclusively peaceful and lawful means in the constitutional debate, and in particular to peacefully accept the result even if they don’t like it. That isn’t asking anything new – those commitments are explicit or implicit in agreements already signed. But if Northern Ireland is to work, if personal relationships are to be built on a foundation of mutual respect, if peace is to be preserved, then this needs to be said again and again and again.
Reciprocally, nationalism can be similarly interrogated, although the difference is that the agreement expressly allows them to come again if unsuccessful in a sovereignty referendum, whereas unionism’s ticket out is one-way. But any republican foot-dragging on acknowledging democratic principles can be picked up on ‑ for example, one can reasonably postulate that Irish-America’s dated and unhelpful banner “England get out of Ireland” might be slightly less unacceptable if qualified by adding a further line: “by peaceful means and with majority consent North and South”.
Some readers, reflecting on the concept of “resistance” referred to in this book, might consider whether unionists might be collectively and individually asked whether they will respect a 50 per cent + 1 of the total valid poll vote for unity if it were to happen, and whether they will disclaim in advance and do their utmost to prevent any unlawful resistance to such a vote. Call it the democracy test. If unionism can answer yes to both questions then paradoxically there may be hope for the Union and indeed for Northern Ireland as a civilised society.
One is ultimately left with two currents of unionism – one democratic, reasonable and accommodating, the other less so. Whether these two elements will cancel each other out in practice, leaving unionism in its traditional frozen posture, remains to be seen.
Richard Humphreys’ latest book, Reconciling Ireland (Irish Academic Press, 2021), is an edited collection of British-Irish agreements over the past fifty years, available at https://irishacademicpress.ie/product/reconciling-ireland/ He is a judge of the High Court of Ireland and a visiting scholar at QUB Law School. He is writing here in a personal and academic capacity.