Can Ireland Be One?, by Malachi O’Doherty, Merrion Press, 288 pp, €18.95, ISBN: 978-1785373039
In his book The Revision of Irish Nationalism (1989), the historian and polemicist Desmond Fennell wrote:
Every nation in its here and now, the people who make up the nation now, have needs with respect to their national history. They need for their collective well-being an image of their national past which sustains and energises them personally, and which bonds them together by making their inherited nation seem a value worth adhering to and working for.
There is probably something to be said for this theory, even if from the point of view of the practice of the historian it is replete with ethical cruces ‑ which may not have overly troubled the author. In the way in which Fennell is using the term, history is to be understood as being essentially not a matter of events but of how these events can be shaped into a narrative and from which perspective they are interpreted. And this shaping and shading, he suggests, must respond as much ‑ if not more ‑ to a perceived national need as to what historians have traditionally understood as evidence. Historical narrative should be at the service of this need, and it will serve it best by presenting an image which will make the society in which we live, the society we have inherited from our parents and grandparents, seem something worth adhering to (or in current parlance perhaps “celebrating”), even if we occasionally suspect that it may not always be quite what it expends considerable effort on seeming to be.
The French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan argued in his essay Qu’est qu’une nation? (What is a nation?), first delivered as a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882, that the existence of such an entity relied on both remembering and forgetting:
For the essence of a nation is that all the individuals constituting it should have many things in common, and also that they will have forgotten many [inconvenient or embarrassing] things … every French citizen should have forgotten the Saint Bartholomew [the mass murder of Protestants in 1572], the massacres in the South [of the so-called “Albigensian heretics”] in the thirteenth century.
Forgetfulness, Renan added, even historical error, were essential factors in the creation of a nation, which is why the progress of historical studies often posed a danger for nationality. But he clearly does not see this fashioning of a version of national history which is helpful and can be widely accepted by the populace as a bad thing. For the nation, and by extension the intellectual shaping of the national story, are a benefit for all.
A nation is for us a soul, a mind, a spiritual family, a product of past memories, sacrifices, glory, often too of occasions when we mourned together or were obliged to communally remember our losses; in the present, it is the desire to continue to live together.
For at least fifty years now there has been a dispute in the public sphere in Ireland over what history should be, a dispute that is generally characterised as being fought out between “revisionists” and “anti-revisionists”. Very broadly speaking, revisionists have argued that the history traditionally taught (at least until recently) in the Irish Free State and Republic after 1922 has been skewed by a nationalist bias which is at best simplistic and incomplete and at worst furnishes, or furnished, a justification for those who have deployed extreme violence in the pursuit of the unification of North and South and the expulsion of Britain from the affairs of the island. Anti-revisionists have disputed particular revisionist versions (rewritings) of events and have argued that no amount of airy talk about “the peoples of these islands” can dissolve what is the central fact of “Anglo-Irish history”: that for a very long time the majority of Irishmen and Irishwomen wished to be allowed to govern themselves; and that for an equally long time the British were thoroughly determined to prevent them from doing so.
The revisionist/anti-revisionist debate has been conducted, at varying intellectual levels, over a long period, initially chiefly by university historians and now perhaps more often in the press or online. It has seen many skirmishes over the interpretation of events of different historical eras. Much heat has been generated between pro- and anti- and after more than fifty years the integrity of their quarrel seems largely unaltered. There has been considerable trickle-down into the popular or journalistic sphere. To the old chestnut “eight hundred years of oppression” (sometimes known as “the story we were told”) might now well be added “the story we’re being told about the story we were told”: the currently fairly widely broadcast notion that we have been more oppressed by the Catholic church than we ever were by the English; that our record of economic management since independence raises the question of whether we were ever equipped for it; the settled conviction that our leaders for much of this period were fanatics who saw us as children who needed to be protected from the outside world and brought up in a state of Gaelic rural idiocy. For most people under the age of fifty or sixty indeed this boiled-down version of revisionism may well be more familiar than the tale of successive heroic revolts and tragic defeats that preceded it as orthodoxy.
Malachi O’Doherty seems quite at home with the story of a dark Dev-oppressed Ireland. At any rate he is not shy of rattling off the cliches, even if they are perhaps intended as much for our amusement as our enlightenment. Dying for your faith, we are told, is what any decent Irish (Catholic) mother would expect of you if the occasion arose. The Anglo-Irish busied themselves with writing great literature (no details supplied) in their Big Houses while the Irish peasants sulked in their hovels with only the family pig for distraction. The Easter Rising puts in an inglorious appearance as “shooting up O’Connell Street in 1916”. (Actually it was the British, with their heavy artillery, who shot up O’Connell Street; the rebels in the GPO did not have many targets to fire at.) We are convinced, it seems, that we are better people than the English. But, O’Doherty adds, we might do well to ask “[W]ho or what are we talking about when we use the word Irish?” The unexamined word here, however, is not “Irish” but “we”. There is actually little to suggest that (Southern) Irish people have a uniform view of who they are, where they came from and what is their essence as a people. The present writer, for one, can find no basis to consider himself a better person than some random, average or typical Englishman plucked out of nowhere. Fintan O’Toole, whose Brexit book, Heroic Failure, was received with little short of glee by many English readers on the left, may well have offended some others with his views on the pervasiveness of imperial nostalgia, but he can scarcely be accused of having a wildly positive view of the state of the Irish. To be fair, the cliches O’Doherty likes to play with are not all stacked up on one side: he also gives us the familiar figure of the evangelical Protestant lady who can look you in the face and tell you with the sweetest good nature that you are going to burn in hell as she offers you another biscuit – (but should that not be traybake?) Occasionally he will distance himself slightly from these racial cliches, this “nonsense” we sometimes entertain about ourselves and others, but one suspects that he is too amused by it all, or hopes the reader will be, to leave them out. And a good dose of well-turned blather can help fill a book out.
If Can Ireland Be One? is somewhat skewed in its version of Irish history – or more precisely its version of how Irish people view their history – part of the distortion may derive from its author’s angle of vision, which in turn, one might surmise, relates to a considerable extent to his family background and personal trajectory. Malachi O’Doherty was born in Donegal in the small border village of Muff, not far from Derry, but his family moved when he was two years old into Northern Ireland, to take advantage, he says, of greater opportunities and of course of the benefits of the welfare state. His brief account of family history is engaging. His mother’s side, O’Hallorans from Cork and Lanes, served in the navy and in the coastguard; Grannie Lane eventually became local secretary of the British Legion in Ballycastle, Co Antrim. Malachi’s father was born near Muff, though in Co Derry and thus just on the other side of the border that would be created when he was seven. The O’Dohertys had in the previous generation been Dohertys. As Malachi relates, this name is usually pronounced locally with two syllables rather than three: Dordy (and in parts of Inishowen Dorty). Dordy, or “uhDordy”, is what his father called himself, though his mother pronounced the name “correctly”.
A good deal of significance can be read into this family history and even the details of nomenclature, significance regarding both identity and allegiance. But I am also quoting it because it bears an uncanny similarity to my own “story”. I was born in Donegal in the same year as Malachi O’Doherty (whom I have never met) and when I was three my family moved to Derry. I don’t recall ever being told the reason for the move but I would think that, as for the Muff O’Dohertys, it was chiefly down to the attraction of the welfare state. I also suspect that it was largely inspired by my mother: my father’s allegiances were never to Derry, let alone to Northern Ireland, but to his native Inishowen and to Dublin, where he had spent eighteen years of his young life. He was also a quite fluent Irish-speaker, an uncomplicated admirer of the generations of Irish patriots and a deeply loyal servant of the Catholic church. In his twenties he changed his name from Doherty to O’Doherty. My numerous first cousins remain Dohertys. My mother, the daughter of a country schoolmaster and brought up in Co Louth, had little time for history, or Irish, or custom, or tradition, a complex of encumbrances she would often refer to as “that old thing”. Her religious impulses seem to have been relatively mild and a few years after the Troubles began she joined the Alliance party, though she was not an active member. The attitudes and choices of our parents will influence our own in quite deep – but not always entirely straightforward – ways.
The question which Malachi O’Doherty’s book asks is “can Ireland be one?”, which is not quite the same question as “Is a border poll imminent?” or “Is a united Ireland inevitable?” His account of his own family history, of past Irish involvement in British colonial enterprises and in the British armed forces (“Paddy was there too”, a rather weak chapter) and of Irish kinship with English and Scottish cousins all strongly suggest that for him Ireland never really has “been one” and that it is only considered so (by some) because of the simplicities a distorted official version of history has imposed on the Irish mind: here he means chiefly the Southern Irish mind.
Of course the young Malachi left the Republic of Ireland aged two and there is not a great deal in this book to suggest that he has been back much since. He does, however, have informants, among them Neale Richmond, a likeable Protestant Fine Gael TD who advocates for Irish unity, and Chris Hudson, a quirky left-winger and former peace activist who now works as a Presbyterian minister in Belfast. Both come from Dún Laoghaire, a borough perhaps best-known in Ireland for being something of a political and demographic outlier.
During the time when Malachi was growing up in Belfast and, it seems, beginning to move away from his youthful (pre-Troubles) republicanism I was preparing to return, after an absence of fifteen years, to the state in which I had been born, which I did in 1969. My parents continued to live in Derry until their deaths in the 1990s and I was a quite frequent visitor, but my last act as a citizen of Northern Ireland was my vote in the 1970 Westminster election. (My chosen candidate, Eamonn McCann, standing for “Derry Labour”, received 7,565 votes, a respectable 10.3%). I have voted in every Dáil and city council election since, in a variety of Dublin constituencies.
To have been a student from the North at a Dublin university in the early 1970s was – for some if not all – akin to having drawn a winning ticket in the otherwise frequently disheartening courtship sweepstakes. “What is it really like?” the girls would ask, wide-eyed. “Have you been in a riot?” “Did you throw petrol bombs?” “Is it really frightening?” The most delicately considered, and possibly well-rewarded, answer I remember came from one of my fellow-students from Derry: “I don’t really like to talk about it.”
Northerners at UCD or Trinity in the ’60s and ’70s were in receipt of what seemed to Southerners to be ridiculously large student grants awarded by the United Kingdom government. This enabled them to drink quite a lot and talk loudly in public places. Not everyone found them charming; some experienced their accents as harsh and felt their confidence verged on brashness. Like the American GIs stationed in Britain in 1943 and ’44 perhaps, they could be perceived as a slightly unwelcome presence ‑ overpaid, oversexed and over here. Nor was ambivalence about the newcomers confined to the student milieu. As the numbers of “the displaced” increased during the early 1970s this unexpected influx into the labour market could be seen as an unwelcome element in the competition for jobs and promotions, in the state and semi-state sector for example. It was only a few years later that I was told that the man who, had he not been suddenly carried off by a heart attack, would have become my father-in-law, was in the habit of referring to me as “that Northern bastard”.
A modest degree of antipathy to flesh-and-blood Northerners was, throughout the 1970s and ’80s, not perceived to be incompatible with continued support for the idea encapsulated in Article 2 of the constitution that “[t]he national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland”, though as the death toll mounted in the North this became more frequently expressed through an “aspiration” towards (re)unification by peaceful means. Those who did not subscribe to the “exclusively peaceful means” recipe – whether they were active republicans or merely “sneaking regarders” ‑ hoped that Britain would, through a process of attrition, lose the will to remain in Northern Ireland and that after their withdrawal unionism/loyalism would prove to be a paper tiger, with those who did not surrender being fairly effortlessly “pushed into the sea” or, more humanely perhaps, “sent back to Scotland”. For militant republicans, 1974 was anticipated as “the year of victory”. But the British did not lose the will to remain and militant loyalism proved itself to be less a paper tiger than a ravening wolf, with a considerable capacity for horrific violence directed indiscriminately against members of the Catholic community (sometimes with the collusion of members of the security forces).
If Southern attitudes to Northern Catholics in the early decades of the Troubles ranged widely from sympathy and solidarity to a certain suspicion, verging on indifference or mild hostility, there was less variation in the view of Protestant unionists, who were almost universally seen as oppressors and bigots. (The exception to this general rule would have been the small number of convinced “Wolfe Tone republicans”, either in the Workers Party, which made heroic but rather meagrely rewarded efforts to build bridges with working class Protestants in the North, or in quixotic figures like Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby, who seemed to believe that the South could never be economically successful without the contributions of “hard-headed Ulstermen” and repeatedly called upon “the latent nationalism [he] believed to slumber in the Ulster Protestant breast” [Dictionary of Irish Biography entry on Gageby], without ever being quite able to coax it into existence.)
And yet, as the Irish state, working alongside the SDLP, the British and US governments, and ultimately Sinn Féin, eventually succeeded in establishing political institutions which would support peace (or an absence of war) and the long-term possibility of political unification if the people so chose, it became necessary to “extend the arm of friendship” to these not-much-liked people ‑ or at least to be seen to do so. And so there was much talk of the possibility of “generosity” (in certain circumstances we might even be prepared to tell the Catholic hierarchy where to get off). There could be a “New” or “agreed” Ireland instead of the traditional “United” one, a unity of hearts and minds rather than of territory. Unsurprisingly, unionists were not fooled, spotting the logical flaw in the procedure: essentially they were being asked nicely to agree but denied the right to disagree. Nationalist “generosity” consisted of a willingness to fully consult unionists on such matters as the route and the speed of the journey; but the destination was not to be questioned. An Ulster Unionist Party response to the New Ireland Forum report (1984) stated:
If constitutional nationalists accept the principle of consent, it is difficult to see, in logical terms, why some insist that the British Government should withdraw its guarantee of that self same principle. The answer to this apparent inconsistency lies in the long term political strategy of those who seek a United Ireland. … Constitutional nationalists appear to behave upon the basis that every form of pressure, short of direct force, is valid to obtain unionist consent. … The Forum for a New Ireland is an integral part of this strategy. Not only is it a component in the ongoing pressure for consent by producing a charter of republican reasonableness, it is also necessary for it to set up a blueprint for political structures that would, ostensibly, accommodate unionists in a way that the Republic has never been able to do in the past, and which would have been inconsistent with the State’s ethos and existing constitution.
It might be worth observing here that, in terms of strict logic, there are no circumstances in which unionists could consent to a united Ireland – since by doing so they would cease to be unionists. (“Former unionists”, or “cultural Protestants” could, however, under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, choose, in an eventual united Ireland, to retain British citizenship if they so wished.) It may be useful at this point to broaden the discussion out beyond the concepts of nationalist and unionist to those of Catholic and Protestant, or “cultural Catholic” and “cultural Protestant” (persons of Catholic or Protestant family background who may no longer practise their inherited religion); others; and, a category encompassing all of the preceding, the citizens or voters of Northern Ireland.
If the chief gain of the Belfast Agreement for most of the contracting parties, including perhaps even Sinn Féin, was that it decommissioned the IRA, a particular advantage for republicans was that it formalised the political equality of nationalists (Catholics), no longer by any stretch second-class citizens, and allowed Sinn Féin to in a sense pursue its “war” by other means, maintaining towards unionists an aggressive attitude (quite fully reciprocated) while awaiting the not-too-far-distant day when it was hoped “cultural Catholics” would constitute a majority of voters in Northern Ireland. This putative route to a united Ireland had once been rather crudely referred to as “outbreeding them” and if it were a deliberate, concerted policy would certainly suggest considerable tactical flexibility on the part of the republican leadership, essentially the same object being successively pursued by quite distinct means (Armalite, ballot paper, marriage bed).
The focus on census figures in Northern Ireland, and in general on its shifting demographics (Protestant decline, Catholic increase), has sharpened over the last year or so as significant milestones have been reached and Sinn Féin and some other nationalists have begun to talk up the prospect of a winnable referendum on unity in the very near future. In an article in the drb (https://drb.ie/articles/running-out-of-road/) in June 2021, Paul Nolan wrote:
In the 2001 census the gap between the Catholic and Protestant populations [in Northern Ireland] was 9.3 percentage points. Ten years later, in 2011, it had narrowed to 3.3 percentage points ‑ that was a gain for the Catholic community of six percentage points [to 45%, with Protestants at 48%]. If there were to be a similar leap in this  census then the Catholic community would exceed 50 per cent.
Note the “if”. Nolan did not think this would happen, for a number of reasons, principally because the Catholic birth rate had slowed and because increasing numbers from both communities now self-designated as “neither/nor” or “other”. (Immigration of ethnic communities not easily identified as either Catholic or Protestant is another factor.) What Nolan thinks is probable is that “there will be two groups of approximately the same size, but in all likelihood the Catholic share of the population will be larger”; and an increasingly sizeable group of neither/nor, that is a two-and-a-half-community Northern Ireland. We will know more about this in a couple of weeks’ time when the tranche of the 2021 census dealing with religious affiliation is published.
The other political milestone came in May this year when, in the Assembly elections, Sinn Féin, winning twenty-seven (out of ninety) seats, became for the first time the largest political party in the North. Drilling down into some of the other results, we find that the total nationalist vote came to 38.1% (SF 29%, SDLP 9.1%) while the total unionist vote was 40.1% (DUP 21.3%, UUP 11.2%, TUV 7.6%). The third largest party, with seventeen seats, an increase of nine, was Alliance. The Alliance vote, which had stagnated at a fairly low level during the worst of the Troubles, has since progressed in successive Assembly elections from 5.2%, to 7.7%, back to 7.0%, to 9.1%, to 13.5%. The party, originally founded as a moderate (and very largely middle class) non-sectarian unionist grouping, has over the years moved to an agnostic position on the union and seeks support from voters who do not strongly self-identify with either the Catholic-nationalist or Protestant-unionist camp. In a 2014 document the party stated:
We acknowledge that people identify with and belong to religious, ethnic, cultural and regional communities. These however are not permanent or stable but are open and fluid. People … can belong to many groups [and] have a complex identity …
Both electoral behaviour analysis and census figures would tend to back up this intuition and also to suggest that alongside the traditionally held British and Irish identities a considerable proportion of the population is now happy to see itself as simply Northern Irish. The nine extra seats gained by Alliance in May came at the expense of the SDLP (four), the DUP and UUP (four) and the Greens (one). An increasing number of voters of both “cultural Catholic” and “cultural Protestant” stock are, it seems, willing to put the constitutional question on hold for the moment and focus on bread-and-butter issues. To offer a more complete picture, one might add that support for Alliance remains quite sparse in the more rural west of Northern Ireland: in the local council elections of 2019 the party had a vote share of 22% in the Ards and North Down area and 23.6% in Lisburn and Castlereagh, but just 1.2% in Mid Ulster (Michelle O’Neill’s constituency).
The parties that people choose to vote for can certainly tell us something about their political attitudes, though in some cases the assumptions we derive from this data can only be tentative. It would not, however, be too risky to assume that the 40% of the electorate (or of those who turned out) which voted TUV, DUP or UUP has a strong commitment to maintaining the union with Britain. And one might also assume that most of the 38% who voted SF or SDLP are in favour of a united Ireland, since “cultural Catholics” who might be lukewarm on this point have other political places to go. There is likely, however, to be a spectrum of opinion about a united Ireland across this 38%, from “yes, we want it and we’re going to get it, soon” to “it’s certainly something I’d like to see happening when the conditions are right”. There is also the consideration that for some of the electorate (on both sides of the sectarian divide) voting choice may be as much a declaration of identity, and of the strength with which that identity is felt, as an endorsement of a particular political programme. At any rate, the latest (third of a projected four) tracker and attitudes survey carried out by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool in conjunction with The Irish News, published in March 2022, suggests that were a referendum on a united Ireland to be held “tomorrow”, 30% of the electorate would vote in favour; this percentage dropped to a quarter if it was understood that unity might mean higher taxation or paying for healthcare. These figures would suggest that those who are talking of a vote in the North in the near future in favour of unification, for which the South must urgently prepare, have wandered up the road a good deal ahead of the evidence.
There has, perhaps, in some sectors of the electorate, been a dilution of traditionally strongly held views, a product of changed circumstances. O’Doherty writes:
… Northern Ireland’s Catholics/nationalists/Irish-identifying people – whatever we call them – are no longer a vulnerable minority inside Northern Ireland. They can no longer be oppressed and discriminated against by a Protestant state. They do not need Ireland to be united in order to have their basic human rights restored to them … [Equally,] neither do unionists need to be protected by a border against the grisly reach of a Catholic Church that no longer plays such a dominant role in Irish society.
What is left, in the absence of a bitter feeling of subjection or a fear (perhaps occasionally exaggerated?) of Rome rule, is the tenacious residue of national affiliation: one feels British or one feels Irish. Are the British ready to allow the Irish to feel Irish? Are the Irish only willing to allow the British a little token Britishness as a sop after they have given way on the constitutional substance?
The late Seamus Mallon, in A Shared Home Place (2019, with Andy Pollak), wrote:
True reconciliation, trust and mutual understanding … have eluded us in Northern Ireland since the hoped-for new dawn of the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP and Sinn Féin have failed even to start becoming parties of reconciliation; they remain parties of confrontation and triumphalism who believe in victory for their side.
O’Doherty would seem to agree that Sinn Féin is not in the reconciliation business. It is often said that unification (or as nationalists call it, “reunification”) is the only lasting solution to Ireland’s problems. But there is no reason to believe that it is necessarily a solution to anything: sectarian violence existed before partition and could well survive its removal. O’Doherty writes:
That sense of victory being attainable through Irish unity may not just be pegged to a hope of bringing conflict to an end. Victory may be attractive precisely because it affronts and humiliates unionists. In a divided society, polarised communities seek to undermine each other. Indeed, it may be that some cling to the idea of a united Ireland or a sustained Union with Britain for no more deeply considered reason than that the other community abhors it.
As against this, we have Matthew O’Toole of the SDLP saying: “I want a definition of Ireland and Irishness which is genuinely and truly inclusive, inclusive to the extent that it celebrates everything on this island.” This is magnanimous, though not all of us may want to celebrate the slaughter of the Battle of the Somme – while of course conceding to others the right to do so if they wish. One might, however, note again that Matthew’s inclusive Ireland is (by implication) a united one: unionists will be made very welcome when they get there; but they must get there.
The critic and cultural historian John Wilson Foster has written (in The Idea of the Union, 2021):
Surely wise nationalists (such as the late Seamus Mallon) who desire political unification of the island in amity more than they desire power over unionists or an island cleared of Protestants know that they should soft-pedal unification, cease harassing unionists on its behalf, since not to demand unification is obviously the only way for it someday to happen by consensus.
There may be something in this counterintuitive suggestion, though one must assume that Prof Foster does not actually want “it” to happen – even someday – whereas Seamus Mallon we can be sure did.
Mallon was the nationalist figure who went furthest in his efforts to conciliate unionists, suggesting that it would be best to postpone unification until such time as there was a large measure of support for or acceptance of it in both Northern communities, a mechanism dubbed “parallel consent”. (Mallon suggested 40% of the cultural Protestant community as the support level to be aimed for.) While others in the SDLP, and in the current Dublin government, may be keen on not panicking unionists or rushing towards a confrontation that could reignite armed conflict, many nationalists might well see the 40% figure as setting the bar too high, or in large measure reintroducing the “unionist veto” they thought they had moved away from. For Sinn Féin of course, things are simple: if there is a referendum on unity and 450,000 people vote Yes and 449, 999 people vote No there will be a united Ireland. Seamus Mallon quotes Gerry Adams as stating that the Belfast Agreement “allows for Irish reunification in the context of a democratic vote: 50 per cent plus one. I believe we can secure a greater margin, but ultimately that will be for the electorate. That’s what democracy is about.” Mallon responds:
I do not believe in the kind of ‘democracy’ that leads to conflict. If we have a fifty per cent plus one vote for unity, that is when the real problems for the whole island will begin. I believe there is a serious risk, based on the precedents of Irish history, that it could lead to a major resumption of violence, this time led by the loyalists. I believe Dublin and other cities and towns would not escape that loyalist-led violence, which would be aimed at making the new all-Ireland solution unworkable, in the way the loyalist bombings of Dublin and Monaghan in May 1974 were aimed at making the Sunningdale Agreement unworkable.
The prospect of a united Ireland coming about in the near future, in, say, ten or fifteen years’ time, depends not just on a majority voting for it in Northern Ireland (and it would seem we are currently twenty percentage points shy of that position) but on a clear majority in the South also supporting unity in a subsequent referendum, and of course being prepared to pay for it. This may be more problematic than many people think. Dublin has, over the last few decades, played a useful and honourable role in allying itself with the SDLP to defend the rights of Northern nationalists and in co-operating with others, including Sinn Féin, to do what was necessary to achieve a cessation of violence. But in terms of moving closer to a united Ireland there has been no progress. Indeed Southern anti-partitionism (still our official ideology) tends to be characterised by a lack of imagination and real intellectual input on the government side and a good dose of self-deception on the popular one. Yes of course we “want the Six Counties back” but remarkably few of us ever show any inclination to visit them or have any curiosity about what the “fellow Irishmen” we claim to cherish are actually like behind the stereotypes. As Malachi O’Doherty puts it: “There is a northern story which southern people express little interest in. And there is a southern story which northerners, whether nationalist or unionist, are out of touch with.”
Perhaps he is a little out of touch with that Southern story himself. Though Can Ireland Be One? is sharp on the gaps and evasions in various strands of anti-partitionism, O’Doherty seems to have a need to keep returning for a further chew at the elements of a certain vision of (Southern) Irish nationality – the dead generations, an Ireland Gaelic and free, self-sufficient and content with a frugal comfort, Catholic first and Irish second – a vision that is by now forty or fifty years out of date. In what was perhaps the dying kick of a faith in the benefits of “economic sovereignty”, the eighty-nine-year-old former president Éamon de Valera voted against entry into the EEC in 1972 – the Yes side garnered 83% of the vote; in February 1985 the Oireachtas voted, against the strong opposition of the Catholic hierarchy, to liberalise the sale of contraceptives (Fine Gael and Labour for; Fianna Fáil [minus Des O’Malley] and the bishops against). The 2016 centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising, widely and calmly supported by large numbers of people across the state, far from showing an hysterical, “undead” messianic republicanism or a strong desire to complete “unfinished business” in the North, suggested a people that was comfortable in its skin ‑ perhaps in its twenty-six-county skin ‑ proud of its economic progress and happy with a level of material comfort that for many is a good deal more than frugal.
Malachi O’Doherty’s book is predicated on the assumption that a referendum on Irish unity will take place in Northern Ireland, although he does not say when he expects it to be held. In terms of holding a position on the question he seems to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude, a little like the Alliance party perhaps. When the time comes he will examine the small print and vote pragmatically (though one suspects that he is culturally a little more British than Irish). Though he affords generous space to nationalists, the chief merit of his book for Southern readers will be to give them a clearer idea of what might stand in the way of unity. As Seamus Mallon has persuasively shown, the short route is fraught with danger. Malachi O’Doherty’s book comes to no more firm conclusion than that a united Ireland is something that may happen, and may not. To extrapolate slightly from the remark of the unionist advocate John Wilson Foster, the best thing that those who genuinely and deeply desire it might now do would be to stop assuming it is inevitable.
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books. We hope to publish a further analysis from Paul Nolan of the latest Northern Ireland census figures in our next issue.