Fifty-three years ago, Terence O’Neill famously told us Ulster was at the crossroads. Today Ulster unionism is not so much at a crossroads as up a cul de sac; and the only way out of a cul de sac is a total change of direction.
A hundred years ago, in the new Northern Ireland, unionists had a comfortable majority over nationalists, about two to one. Now they may not have a majority at all. The results of this year’s census, first details of which should emerge mid-2022, may well indicate that people from a Catholic/nationalist background outnumber those from a Protestant/unionist background. The next Assembly election takes place less than a year from now (May 5th, 2022). Given the DUP’s internal troubles, and a sudden change of leadership in a stumbling Ulster Unionist Party, the next Assembly may have SF as the largest party, and Northern Ireland may have a Sinn Féin First Minister. The new Assembly, quite possibly, will see committed nationalists outnumbering committed unionists. All that would be a bitter pill for unionists to swallow, but it would not necessarily mean the end of their world.
Next summer, however, could provide more shocks as the census results emerge. They will almost certainly reveal a large increase in the number of NI residents carrying Irish passports, an increase in the numbers claiming their national identity to be Irish and news that the numbers of people from a Catholic background outnumber those from a Protestant one. Armed with such statistics, a Sinn Féin First Minister’s demand for a border poll, as provided for in the Belfast Agreement, would be hard for London to refuse, despite unionist opposition and Dublin’s obvious reluctance to have one. By then too, Scotland may be preparing, with or without Boris Johnson’s permission, for its own border poll.
There is no certainty that a border poll in Northern Ireland in the near future would result in a vote for a united Ireland, as practical considerations such as the National Health Service and how to replace London’s contribution to the financing of public services in Northern Ireland, could prevail in the minds of some voters over issues of identity and sentiment. But even a vote in favour of remaining in the UK would not settle anything, particularly if it was by a small margin.
The very inclusion of the provision for a border Poll in the Belfast Agreement meant a fundamental change in what had been until then a consensual approach to the Northern Ireland problem between London, Dublin and moderate nationalists and unionists in the province. From the days of Sean Lemass it was accepted that reunification could take place only “by consent”, and logically that meant unionist consent. Under the Belfast Agreement, it is now theoretically possible that, in the near future, Northern Ireland could vote itself out of the UK even if unionists voted solidly against.
John Hume refined the unity by consent formula into the search, not for a united Ireland, but for an “agreed Ireland”. The refinement was that the goal should be not just persuading unionists to join the existing Irish state, but wide agreement on what constituted an “Irish state” that could accommodate all people in the island. Sadly, John appears, like both governments and almost everyone involved in negotiating the Belfast Agreement, to have decided that the overriding priority was an IRA ceasefire to stop the killing frenzy. The first-past-the-post border referendum sounds like one of the many concessions which were the price demanded by the IRA and Sinn Féin.
The outlook for Northern Ireland is surely dismal. Brexit is a potentially fatal blow to any chance the Belfast Agreement had of succeeding to build a stable Northern Ireland inside the UK. Unionist voters, by backing the DUP variety of unionism, have done nothing to persuade any non-unionists that this house will ever be a warm place for them. Sinn Féin’s mission is a united Ireland, not a stable Northern Ireland. Despite progress at some levels and in some localities, the divisions and arguments, and “peace walls” will continue. Political stalemate rather than progress will be the rule. Memories of the past will continue to haunt the province, sometimes made more potent by clumsy efforts to defuse them.
Well, many will respond, at least the killing has stopped. But could it start again? Petrol bombers on the streets, burnt-out cars and buses and attempted murders suggest that it might. The IRA ceasefire that was key to the end of the Troubles was implicitly conditional and certainly did not involve a total renunciation of violence. IRA members were indeed instructed to turn their hands to exclusively peaceful means, but in its Easter message in 2007 the IRA declared its firm belief that its goal of a united Ireland was achievable through “purely peaceful and democratic means”. That was more than twenty years ago. What if in another few years the IRA’s “firm belief” shows no sign of attaining that goal?
Meanwhile unionists, of all varieties, seem not to have noticed that their fundamanetal objections to being part of an Irish state, and their criticisms of the existing one, have, in the main, lost any validity they ever had. The greatest of all, Rome Rule, the fear that their lives would be controlled in many ways by the Catholic church, has practically disappeared. Politicians in Northern Ireland are more likely to have a whiff of religious dogma about their views than those in Dublin. The Irish language and its imposition by the state is no longer a major issue. Most of the compulsory aspects of the language policy have gone and while the fiction that Irish is the national language is still maintained, at considerable national expense, the numbers of fluent daily speakers is a tiny fraction of the population. It is possible to live, work and prosper in the Irish state and not have a word of Irish.
The Republic is not now a poverty-stricken neighbour threatened with depopulation through emigration. Its population has been growing rapidly. It has today an infrastructure ahead of that of the North. Despite recent setbacks Ireland is among the prosperous member states of the EU, to which it has been a net contributor for several years. It has outperformed the North by a distance in the attraction of foreign investment.
Many unionists would agree that southern Ireland has changed and is, despite serious social problems, a much more open and modern society than it was, but they quickly add “we are British, not Irish” and they see no reason why they should be obliged to have their homeland transplanted from British jurisdiction to Irish.
In 1921-22 partition was essentially a policy of despair, the settlement of last resort. If unionists and nationalists could not live together in Ireland, then they would have to live separately in it, as far as that was possible. At that time, given the historical background, the divide between Catholic and Protestant was not only religious, but social and political, and starkly clear. Since then the “problem” has been seen as a two nations one. But are there really two nations in Northern Ireland, or in the island as a whole? Certainly it is possible to speak generally of two “communities” in the North, but in daily life there is much more integration than segregation; but not two nations, except at election times and on certain days when politicians loudly remind the people of where their loyalties should lie.
The Belfast Agreement is a “two nations” document, enshrining the principle in the mechanisms of the Assembly and the Executive, and along with its offspring, the New Decade New Approach document, doing all it can to invent and cement a language barrier where none exists. As someone who has divided most of his working life equally between Dublin and Belfast, and lived happily with his neighbours in both jurisdictions, who has married across the supposed national identity divide, and made lifetime friendships across the same gulf, I find it hard to accept that such a conflict of national identities is at the root of our problems or could ever be a basis on which to build a solution.
Northern Ireland people of the two supposed nations speak the same language, both go less and less frequently to different churches or to none, increasingly marry across the divide, watch the same television shows, support English football teams. There is a growing cohort in both jurisdictions who live in one and commute to work in the other. Cross-border commerce has flourished. Many live amicably in mixed areas although some densely populated urban areas remain distinct – marked by the flags flown, the colour of the kerbstones and choice of gable art.
Historically, Ulster unionism has been a movement of reaction rather than of foresight, and that reaction has tended to be “not an inch”. Perhaps it is time for unionists of all shades to take a hard look at their place in the United Kingdom, and their own boasts of Britishness. They live, separated from Great Britain, on an island which they share with another state, and they share their part of the island with what has been up to now a large minority of people who feel Irish not British and aspire to a united island.
Northern Ireland has from its creation been a semi-detached region of the United Kingdom, not only geographically, but for half a century the only region with a devolved government. It has never been fully integrated into British political life, with the main political parties in Britain having no presence in Northern Ireland. It is also the only “provisional” region of the UK where its continued status within, or departure from, the union was and is determined by the parliament or the people of the region, not by the UK government or parliament. It is also the only region which, since Brexit, has a land border with the EU; it and Scotland are the only parts of the UK who voted to remain. It is now the only region of the UK with a trade barrier between itself and the rest of the UK, yet it has no such barrier to trade with the EU.
It is the only region of the UK about which the British government has declared that it has no “selfish strategic or economic” interest. (Downing Street Declaration, 1993). In committing itself to Brexit, the government in that same Downing Street was true to its word and displayed no interest at all in its impact on the province. It sounds as if the sovereign UK government is open to offers from anyone wishing to take that region off its hands. Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol make nonsense of any claim that the region is as British as Yorkshire, or Finchley.
But unionism is only half the two nations problem; Irish nationalism is the other. The Irishness towards which unionists react today with such distaste is less due to iits Catholicism, and more to the violent face of Irishness presented by the IRA and Sinn Féin. That is hardly surprising after decades of terrorist onslaught aimed avowedly at the destruction of Northern Ireland, followed by the sanitising of terrorising via the “peace process” and the Belfast Agreement.
But is the version of Irishness presented by “official” Ireland not also an obstacle? Let me explain: in Dublin in the 1970s I was writing in The Irish Times about the controversy over the ban on contraceptives, the sale of which was illegal. Yet everyone knew that half the women of Ireland were on the pill. It was a case, I wrote, that so long as Kathleen Ni Houlihan was not on it, that was OK. So today with Irish as the official language – so long as Kathleen Ni Houlihan speaks Irish, everyone is happy and goes on speaking English. It is more serious that official Ireland continues to see 1916 as the central formative and defining act in the shaping of modern Ireland ‑ in the words of then taoiseach Enda Kenny at the opening of the official 2016 centenary. Or the then tánaiste, Joan Burton, telling us “a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but by the men and women it honours and remembers”. By that standard no one should be surprised that unionists, particularly after thirty years of murder and destruction from those who also claim to be “men of 191”’, should refuse to countenance unity with such a state. But repeated opinion surveys show that the citizens of the Republic rank unifying Ireland well down their list of priorities.
The Easter Rising did set in motion a sequence of events that led to an independent Irish state, but as part only of a partitioned island, and at the cost of many lives, a civil war, and a state that was socially repressive, economically distressed and plagued by emigration until the last third of the twentieth century. The Ireland of the twenty-first century has transformed itself as younger generations, who may have no more than nodded in the direction of 1916, set out to make of their country a modern, outward-looking European state. So far the politicians have trailed after them, still bewitched by the “terrible beauty” of 1916, and presenting a caricature of Irishness to unionists only too happy to exploit it as a means of keeping their own faithful faithful. The good electors of the Republic expect their politicians to make reassuring nationalist noises, but nothing more. They do not go to bed worrying about the North.
Ever since partition just about every political party in the South has declared its prime political objective to be the reuniting of the island. They have demanded it, argued for it, some have even fought for it, or encouraged others to fight for it. They have campaigned in London, Washington, Brussels and elsewhere for political and diplomatic support for it. (For long periods too they have forgotten about it.) Even after acceptance that unity could only be by persuasion and consent, there has been no serious effort to persuade unionists, to debate their objections. Now with unification apparently back on the agenda, there seems little concern in Dublin to address the critical issues that would arise with regard to funding Northern Ireland.
Only recently has criticism of the Rising been voiced by senior Dublin politicians. In 2017 the former taoiseach John Bruton said the Proclamation in 1916 of “a sovereign independent Republic of the whole island” was “a recipe for endless conflict”, not “the founding stone of our democracy”. In 2019 taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in an interview in Belfast that the men who fought in the GPO were wrong in envisaging a thirty-two-county republic which could never fully respect or embrace the million British people in the North. He also said that the designation of Irish as the first official language would have to be considered in a new constitution in a united Ireland “if there ever is one”.
But such refreshingly honest views have yet to be reflected in major policy statements by a Dublin government. The 2016 commemoration of the Easter Rising was promised to be “inclusive” but in fact was another hymn of praise to an armed rebellion by an extremist minority with no electoral mandate. Is the avowed dedication of Southern politicians to reunification largely cosmetic, and becoming more so? Even the remarks of Leo Varadkar, quoted above, daring to say that the men of 1916 got things wrong, were made in the context of what might happen when and if we ever had a united Ireland, not as things that must be changed before we can even hope to get there.
Sinn Féin certainly wants a united Ireland, but has done more than most to prevent it coming about; it shares with unionists the blame for partition. The IRA may have stopped fighting, but they never surrendered a weapon, most of the murders they carried out are still unpunished, and Sinn Féin still glorifies terrorism.
London still behaves as if the Belfast Agreement has solved the problem, yet showed no hesitation in fundamentally undermining it as a settlement by going bull-headed for Brexit. The broader unionist ‑ with a very small “u” ‑ community must still be the major stakeholders in Northern Ireland, the people who most ache for stability for themselves, their businesses and for a decent future for their children. Neither the DUP nor the UUP seem to represent them. Some have moved to Alliance, some have left Northern Ireland and a seemingly considerable number have abandoned politics altogether.
Perhaps it is time to look again at advice once offered to unionists by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Writing in 1999, he proposed “a deal with constitutional nationalism to avert British surrender of Northern Ireland to violent Republicanism”. He meant inclusion in a united Ireland, an inclusion agreed on negotiated terms which would safeguard the vital interests of the unionist community. But even Conor could not have envisaged that the day would come when Sinn Féin, still glorifying the IRA’s terrorism, would be in government in Belfast and very close to being in government in Dublin. But it has.
Today there is at least a possibility that in a border poll the North would vote for Irish unification. No poll, or a vote for staying in the UK, can result only in continued deadlock, possibly with unionists a minority in the Assembly and in the province, with an enhanced threat of violence and the bleak prospect of years of political deadlock, a divided society, minimal government in Belfast, and an increasingly unsympathetic one in London. And possibly a United Kingdom in disarray or collapse. Are there in the broad unionist community those who can see that such a negotiated union would be better for all than those prospects, or being forced into a union by losing a referendum?
We already have some of those guarantees Conor hinted at. The Belfast Agreement lays down that, in a united Ireland, government “shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities”. Northerners will still have the right to be accepted as British or Irish as they wish, or indeed both British and Irish.
The real gain for all would be that a negotiated deal would have to result, not in some form of continued partition with devolution for the North, or in reserved places in government for special categories, but in a new agreed Ireland, with an agreed national narrative, neither the present one of the Republic, nor that of Northern Ireland. For a majority of Northerners another bonus would be re-entry into the EU, which in turn might be expected, along with a relieved UK, to give financial aid to the new Ireland.
All this will be denounced as a final surrender to Sinn Féin, and any unionist politician who admits to reading it without rubbishing it will get short shrift from his party. But unionist politicians have not always been the best judges of their own interests.
Dennis Kennedy has in his time been chief leader writer of the Belfast Telegraph and deputy editor of The Irish Times. He was head of the European Commission in Northern Ireland from 1985 to 1991.