United Nation: The Case for Integrating Ireland, by Frank Connolly, Gill Books, 432 pp, €16.99, ISBN: 978-0717190560
For forty years after independence, Southern public discourse on the Northern question largely consisted of bald statements on the injustice of partition. The Lemass-O’Neill talks, the outbreak of violence, and the Belfast Agreement (BA) discredited the old irredentism, but Brexit ushered in a new and more sophisticated form. Since the Peace Process, the Republic had been cosying up to London to the point where Britain became Ireland’s closest ally in the European Union (EU) and it was assumed that the Northern problem would be dissolved in a warm post-nationalist consensus. Brexit, so often caricatured in the Republic as an outburst of English nationalism, shattered that illusion. Like a spurned lover, the Southern bourgeoisie rounded on its old flame and determined to show that communautaire Northern Ireland would do better than Brexiteer England. So long perceived as a liability, the North became an asset for the Republic’s establishment, even for the bien pensants of Dublin 4.
Frank Connolly’s United Nation is very much an expression of post-Brexit anti-partitionism. A former investigative journalist, Connolly now works as head of communications for SIPTU. The book combines a chronological and thematic approach. Connolly’s point of departure is the BA, which has become so sacred a cow that everyone is claiming to act in its name, whether attacking or defending the Northern Ireland Protocol. Connolly too claims to be within the spirit of the BA and “John Hume’s legacy”. He then moves on to Brexit and in no less than twenty-seven chapters surveys the main topics in the debate on unity: economics, Anglo-Irish relations, the role of the United States, health, education, welfare, flags and emblems, policing and constitutional change. His assumption is that a liberal, communautaire, multicultural Ireland will be more attractive to … well, liberal, communautaire multiculturalists, who are the only people who matter in the current Zeitgeist. There are repeated references to “civic nationalist” lobbies in the North like IF (Ireland’s Future), representing the emergent class of businessmen, lawyers, journalists, academics and other professionals, so recently targeted by Baroness Kate Hoey and seen as a more insidious threat than the Sinn Féin devils you know. In fairness, the issues are discussed in an open-ended way. The critique is obviously selective and polemical, and the foundations a little Panglossian, but Connolly doesn’t pretend to have all the answers or to be sure that all will be rosy. We’ve come a long way from the Anti-Partition League and the infamous slogan of Ailtirí na hAiséirí: six divisions, six days, six counties.
And yet, he is as guilty of wishful thinking as the anti-partitionists of old. They assumed that the justice of their cause and pressure on London would compel a British withdrawal. Even today there are still nationalists who cling to the delusion that Britain would secretly like to leave Northern Ireland. Connolly reckons a referendum will soon sort out the problem. Demographic change will produce a nationalist majority while the sensibleness of all-island governance, and the opportunities to be part of a more dynamic economy and the EU will convince a critical mass of unionists to switch sides. To that end, a number of familiar liberal Protestants are interviewed or quoted at length to ruminate on their existential crisis. Indeed lots of the great and the good are extensively quoted in chapters which could be more concise.
The key weakness in Connolly’s critique is his reliance on what he calls “the Referendum Roadmap”. He makes much of the fact that the BA gave Northern Ireland, uniquely, a constitutional path out of the United Kingdom (UK) in providing for a “border poll” every seven years. That was an achievement. The Scots, like the Catalans, have no such legal exit. Neither do they have the assurance of a welcome back into the EU. But the BA left the decision on holding the poll to the judgment of the Northern Ireland secretary of state. If an overwhelming demand for a plebiscite would be difficult for unionists (and that includes a Tory or Labour government) to resist, no opinion poll has ever suggested that a referendum would be passed. The nationalist vote has scarcely increased since 1998. In that year’s Assembly election, in which the SDLP topped the poll, it amounted to 39.7%. In the Assembly elections of 2022 it came to 39.6%, to which might be added another 2% for independents and People Before Profit, who doubtless would object to the “nationalist” tag. Moreover, a sizable minority of so-called nationalists are not united Irelanders. A big chunk of the SDLP believe a united Northern Ireland is a prerequisite for a united Ireland. Sinn Féiners seem oddly uninterested in day-to-day issues like cross-border roads and bus services. Then there are state pensions, a concern which is reputed to have lost Scotland’s first “indyref”. If the Republic is no longer imagined to be a priest-ridden land of thatched cottages, Northern media coverage is still routinely negative in that it focuses on problems and scandals such as the cost of healthcare or the Mica debacle in Donegal. Some of this is unfair. The beloved NHS is creaking at the seams. Waiting lists are horrific and getting an appointment with your GP is difficult and stressful: a free health service is of no use if you can’t access it. Neither does the Republic get much credit for its higher wages and welfare benefits. On the other hand, those who boast of the Republic’s economic dynamism forget that it is a more pressured society. The North and South are a bit like Canada and the United States in that respect. Bemoaning the cost of childcare and schoolbooks, the shortage of housing, and charges for this, that and the other is a pastime in Dublin, and a rarity in Belfast, where people are happy to let Westminster and Whitehall worry about it all.
It is doubtful if the BA can be a vehicle for unity. It was a bad deal to begin with, acclaimed by nationalists (including Sinn Féin) primarily because it got the Provos off their backs. The weakest of all the constitutional agreements is its provision for cross-border co-operation: it set up six feeble cross-border bodies, one of which was already in place. But liberals are famous for taking their rationality for reality. There was a breezy assumption that one could start low and slow: once a framework was in place, unionists would see the advantages of power-sharing and ever closer cross-border co-operation. Of course, the opposite happened. Unionists determined that the BA would be the ne plus ultra, set their face against what they termed “north-southery”, and the Agreement gave them the means to do so. Due to frustration with the lack of progress towards “parity of esteem” (the state in Northern Ireland is hardly 40 per cent nationalist in its administration, laws and culture), the nationalist vote started to slide. Remarkably, support for the SDLP has declined in every Assembly election since 1998, falling from 22 per cent to 9 per cent. When the Sinn Féin tally dropped sharply in 2016, it played to the gallery and picked a fight with the DUP. Arlene Foster walked into the trap with her remark about the Irish language lobby being like a crocodile, and Sinn Féin bounced back. Twenty-five years on from the BA, Northern Ireland is more peaceful and prosperous, but it is no less sectarian, and no more united. Nationalists are no stronger electorally and unionists no more amenable to cross-border co-operation.
Another problem, which Connolly alludes to repeatedly, is the Irish government, or more exactly Micheál Martin. For an investigative journalist, Connolly is unusually soft-edged, with an upbeat tone that’s invariably polite and positive, but he implies that Martin has been dragging his feet on the united Ireland agenda, and that his Shared Island Unit is an excuse for dodging a robust preparation for a border poll. It speaks volumes that the Fianna Fáil leader has never been embarrassed by his lack of enthusiasm for Irish unity. Toleration of the milk and water Shared Island Unit, and public hostility to then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s proposal for Northerners to be enfranchised in presidential elections, are other ill-omens for integrating Ireland. Add to these the perception that any gesture towards integration is a gift to Sinn Féin and one can grasp the measure of the challenge in converting the Republic to thirty-two county thinking.
As North-South relations tread water in 2022, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it all went wrong for united Irelanders with the BA and that the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) was a better template. The AIA was based on the premise that Northern Ireland wasn’t working or likely to work in the foreseeable future and it was up to the two governments to take charge of political management, that the big problem was nationalist alienation and that the way to end alienation was cross-border co-operation. By contrast the BA was based on the view that Northern Ireland had to be made work before there could be progress on cross-borders, and it gave Unionists a veto on that progress. Connolly fails to note the irony in the fact that the numerous examples he cites of new cross-border initiatives fall outside the rubric of the BA. The BA’s North-South Ministerial Council has become a stranglehold on integration, and Stormont a weapon of mass distraction from seeing that the only way to uniting Ireland is through cross-border co-operation. Distracting too is the border-poll mentality; a product of the idea, beloved of Republicans especially, that there can be a “big bang” (sorry) solution. A border poll will not be passed without major preparatory work, and that would require an unlikely degree of political unity and strategic planning in the Republic. More attainable would be targeted interventions to re-orient Northern Ireland to a thirty-two county sensibility, such as promoting a university for Derry, the integration of Newry and Derry into the Republic’s regional planning or the harmonisation of all-Ireland health and public transport systems.
Connolly also glosses over the downside of a border poll. Inevitably, it would raise political tensions. Unionism would be fighting for its life, and the atmosphere in loyalist heartlands scarcely bears thinking about. That’s no reason to flinch from democracy, but it is worth remembering we’re not talking about anything as peaceful as the referendums in Scotland or Québec. Even the Catalan experience would be a bar-room brawl in comparison. For its part, nationalism would be taking a big risk; losing a poll would be a serious setback.
Despite its key weakness, excessive length, and Pollyanna character, United Nation is a timely and valuable contribution to the debate. Unionists are no longer a majority in Northern Ireland, with some 42 per cent of the vote in the recent elections. Already the implications are affecting Unionist policies. On the Protocol, for example, they are pleading frankly for respecting their rights as a minority. Alliance, once a liberal unionist party, is now neutral on the border question. As Scotland pushes for independence, the future of the UK hangs in the balance. A Kingdom of Scotland would mean the end of Britain as a political entity and precipitate a crisis of identity for the only people in the UK who portray themselves as British first and foremost. It is a challenge the Republic needs to be ready for and coping with it will be a measure of its maturity, generosity and foresight. Connolly has delineated the debate in highlighting the relevant issues and introducing the arguments. For the moment, mainstream Unionists are unlikely to respond, not wishing to encourage a self-fulfilling prophesy. Nonetheless ephemeral “civic Unionist” groups like We Make NI or Uniting UK have appeared and an exchange will come in time.
Ultimately, the most significant thing about United Nation is its appearance. A book like this would have been unimaginable before Brexit and impossible before the BA. Mindsets are changing among Dublin liberals. Connolly’s thoughts are a signpost and a weathervane in themselves.
Emmet O’Connor lectures at Ulster University and has published widely on Irish labour history.