Unionism is running out of both political and demographic road

I should start by welcoming Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the new leader of the DUP, following Edwin Poots’ brief and inglorious reign. Donaldson is the nearest that ultra-dogmatic party gets to a pragmatist: a courteous man from a modest County Down background who has spent a lifetime in politics, a skilled and practiced Westminster parliamentarian, and a supporter of north-south cooperation.

However he has some huge problems on his plate. As the excellent Belfast News Letter political editor Sam McBride pointed out earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Protocol will dominate next May’s Assembly election, when the DUP will seek a mandate to vote down the Irish Sea trade border when they get a say on it in 2024.1 In line with this hard-line policy, in Donaldson’s first speech he said the Protocol was “a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and to the constitutional integrity of the UK.”

But when he was asked a journalist whether he was prepared to “pull down Stormont if the Northern Ireland Protocol is not removed”, he replied: “I would not use those words.”

McBride says that the EU has privately communicated to the DUP that it should be realistic in its demands. “Brussels has essentially said ‘Ask for how we can make the Protocol less obtrusive but don’t ask for it to be ditched because that won’t happen.” This EU policy of limited relaxation of the Irish Sea border saw Brussels u-turning to alter its own legislation in order to get around provisions in the Protocol which would have otherwise disrupted the flow of medicines from Britain to Northern Ireland.

The DUP leader’s dilemma is whether to play the only real card he has – collapsing Stormont to protest against the Protocol – or to calculate that it can only be mitigated rather than removed. If the latter, in McBride’s words: “Does he want his leadership to be defined by defeat in pressing for the unachievable or does he seek to quietly push this out of sight and focus on other issues? Unionist history suggests that he will either go in a hardline direction or lose his party.” And this is at a point when, following the resignation of North Down MLA Alex Easton (who said that within the DUP “there is no respect, discipline or decency”), we have now reached a hugely significant moment, with Sinn Fein as the largest party in the NI Assembly.

Because the deeper, demographic tends remain firmly against unionism. In a thoughtful essay in last month’s Dublin Review of Books2 my friend, the Belfast-based social researcher Paul Nolan, pointed out that in the 2011 Northern Ireland census, for the first time since the foundation of the state, the Protestant population fell below 50% (coming in at 48%). That census showed that above the age of 40 Protestants were in a majority; below 40 the majority was Catholic. The 2011 school census was even starker: 50.8% of school students then were from a Catholic background, 37% from a Protestant background. “Those cultural identifications are likely to stay with these children as they move up the age ladder and join the electorate. This is the essential fact that has to be grasped when considering the future of politics in Northern Ireland.”

Other unpalatable facts for unionism are that only two out of Northern Ireland’s six counties (Antrim and Down) now have unionist majorities. Only one of the province’s four cities (Lisburn) has a unionist majority. The student populations of both the North’s universities have Catholic majorities.

However Nolan also points to two reasons why a Catholic majority is unlikely to emerge from this year’s census. “The first is that the Catholic birth rate has slowed and is now very close to that of the Protestant community. The second is that more and more people from both the Catholic and Protestant gene pools are moving beyond the two communal identities and self-designating as ‘neither/nor’ or as ‘Others’.” That “will keep the Catholic population below 50%.”

He then cites an obscure document called the Labour Force Religion Study, issued by the NI Executive Office. The latest 2019 study showed that of the numbers aged 16-64 (i.e. those in the workforce), Catholics were 43%, Protestants 38% and Others 18%.

He warns that the relatively new four way split among the communities in the North – Catholic, Protestant, Others and minority ethnic groups – makes predicting the arithmetic of future censuses much more complicated than the simple Protestant/Catholic split that has traditionally dominated public discourse on the subject. “If we are going to simplify, then the 40/40/20 formulation best captures the movement away from a simple binary…The core reality is that no one community is going to be in the majority, if the term majority is taken to mean more than 50%. We are moving to a situation of three communities: Protestants, Catholics and Others. The exact percentage shares of the pie are anyone’s guess, but 40/40/20 is likely to be too neat: the Protestant community is likely to be shown to be smaller in size than the Catholic community. When that realisation sinks in, there is likely to be a sense of existential threat to the community that, one hundred years ago, had a state created that was designed to make it a majority forever.”

Nolan then traces the demographic changes through to the political arithmetic. After the May 2017 Assembly election unionism became a minority in that regional parliament for the first time, with the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice winning only 45.7% of the vote and 40 out of 90 Assembly seats. In the two elections in 2019 – European and Westminister – unionism’s vote flatlined around 43%. The most recent Lucid Talk opinion poll in January 2021 showed it dropping further to 41%.

A century ago Edward Carson set out a path for unionism at the birth of the Northern Ireland state when he advised the new government in Belfast to show that “the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.” Wise words, says Nolan, which were completely ignored. “An historic opportunity for a reset came after the Good Friday Agreement, when the Catholic middle class embraced the new dispensation, one which would see them accepting UK governmental structures in exchange for the right to fully express their sense of Irish identity. They were never going to embrace Orange culture, but they were content to live as British citizens. Peter Robinson grasped that if there was never again going to be a unionist majority, there could still be a pro-Union majority. The strategically wise thing to do was to keep middle class Catholics on board; instead members of the DUP seemed to go out of their way to antagonise them with mockery of the Irish language, funding of loyalist paramilitaries, refusal to enact an Irish Language Act and, when in government, a display of majoritarian swagger reminiscent of the Brookeborough era.”

And then came Brexit, and they simply didn’t understand the implications for little Northern Ireland of being hard-line Brexiteers. Theresa May’s attempts to keep the whole of the UK inside the same arrangements were rejected in favour of “striking an uber-British pose” alongside the Tory Party’s Brexit-obsessed European Research Group.

The Protocol isn’t about trading concerns or access to markets, which the rest of the people in Britain and Ireland think it is. For the unionists it is, rather, “an existential issue about identity, about being fully British.”

This branding of the problem of the Protocol as a unionist constitutional concern has had the “entirely predictable effect of uniting all non-unionists in a single block. This has been the pattern with all issues in recent years, particularly those to do with the cultural wars – abortion, same sex marriage, the Irish language – and a form of polarisation has evolved which leaves unionism at one pole and everyone else at the opposite one. It is an unwise approach. The opinions of your opponents can perhaps be disregarded when you are a majority, but not when you are a minority. And actually the problem for unionism is worse than that. If it appears to be standing on an ice floe that is shrinking beneath its feet, that’s because there is a growing number of post-unionist Protestants, particularly in the younger age groups, who have a broad identification with Britain as a liberal, secular state, but are alienated by the ethnic forms and rituals of loyalist culture and no longer identify with the unionist parties.”

Nolan ends with a stern warning. “The onus of proof has always been on unionists to prove Northern Ireland is not a ‘failed state’. Unionism has to show that Northern Ireland can work. Tearing down the institutions will not help. Tearing down the institutions when the whole future of the UK is under discussion, and when unionism is on its way to becoming a minority culture, is suicidal.

“The crisis of unionism at present may be fixed on the narrow issue of the Protocol. The argument of this essay is that it must be recognised that this problem has roots that go much deeper and implications that go much wider. One hundred years ago a new state was created because of the fears that unionists in the north-east of Ireland had about becoming a minority in an independent state. At this point, with a census under way, unionists will have to contend with becoming a minority in the state that was created for them. That will require deeper thinking and wiser leadership than we have seen so far.”

1 ‘Sir Jeffrey Donaldson may want compromise on the Irish Sea border, but the DUP might not’, News Letter, 3 July 2021

2 ‘Running out of Road’, Dublin Review of Books, June 2021

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 1 Comment

One of these years we in the Republic may have to face a difficult choice between equality and peace

Readers looking for insights into the recent turmoil surrounding the DUP will have to wait until that storm subsides before I essay some impressions. In my last blog, I said I would return to the weighty and thought-provoking report from the team of academics led by University College London’s Constitution Unit on the mechanisms and procedures for a future Irish unity referendum.1 Earlier this month there was an interesting online debate on its findings involving a panel including several people whose views I greatly respect, notably Professor John Coakley, emeritus Professor of Politics at UCD and Avila Kilmurray, former director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust and founding member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition.

Coakley said the UCL report was entirely right to insist that “the mechanism of decision-making by majority vote on this issue needs to be respected. It categorically rules out the requirement of any kind of super-majority, describing it as a clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement, which was unequivocal that the threshold in a referendum on the unification question in Northern Ireland would be a simple majority, 50% plus one of those casting a valid ballot.”

The report “unambiguously corrects” the interpretation of politicians like Leo Varadkar, Bertie Ahern and the late Seamus Mallon, who had suggested such a weighted majority in order to bring as many unionists as possible on board for unity. “It is hard to imagine that Sinn Fein would ever have signed up to the Good Friday Agreement without this provision,” said Coakley. “In effect, in 1998 Sinn Fein compromised on a crucial component of Irish nationalist ideology. It conceded that the counting unit in a referendum would not be whole of Ireland where nationalists could outvote unionists, but the two jurisdictions on the island, each of which would have a veto on unity.”

So those of us who worry deeply about a future Border Poll passing by the narrowest of majorities, relying on the almost complete support of the Northern nationalist community in the face of the even more complete opposition of the unionist community, will just have to pipe down. The legal position has been explained to us by some of the leading political scientists (including those I admire) and academic lawyers in the land, and the conversation on this aspect of an existentially epoch-changing vote must be now closed. I can only hope that is not the case.

To be fair, Coakley went on to say that it would be vital for a detailed blueprint of what Irish unity might look to be drawn up before any vote. “It would be a big mistake to rush into a vote on unity before that had been done. It is hard to over-estimate the amount of work needed to draw up such a blueprint. Even a sketch of what Irish unity might look like would be enormously demanding.” He warned, in particular, about the financial implications (although he also referred to a recent Irish Times article by Dublin City University political scientist John Doyle, in which explained his belief that the British subvention could be as low as €2.8 billion, compared to the nearly €10 billion usually cited2); the numerous thorny cultural issues (including flags and anthems, state rituals and symbols, commemorative ceremonies and historical myths) and, most importantly, the constitutional and institutional design of any new state. He stressed that all these questions would have be to be addressed before any Border Poll.

Avila Kilmurray, a Southerner who has made a significant contribution to the civic and political life of Northern Ireland in her more than 45 years there, is always a rock of good sense. She made a number of important points about a future referendum. She regretted the absence of a Charter of Rights for the whole island, promised by the Good Friday Agreement, but not delivered, because it would have been important in the ultra-sensitive period surrounding a referendum. She emphasised the importance of a broader process of deliberative democracy to involve ordinary people, ,so as “to take the discussion out from the purely party political into broader society – that’s where you’ll get the unexpected reactions.”

That process should be about far more than just the Border question, which would immediately put people “back into their respective boxes; it should be about health and education and welfare and gender and ‘What type of society are we signing up to?” There was a group in the North, around 20% of the population, many of them under 35, who were fed up with the constant talk of Border Polls and wanted answers to this fundamental question. And she said it was her experience that within unionism there was a whole spectrum of views on the unity issue: ranging from those who would say “if it happens, we’ll pack our bags and leave” to those who say “if at the end of the day it’s happening, it’s acceptable.”

She was strongly critical of that community’s political leadership, stressed that a proper internal discussion within unionism needed to be given more space, and praised the work of Professor Peter Shirlow of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University for his promotion of a debate with multiple voices (why wasn’t he invited to join the University College London group?). “There needs to be a degree of positive thinking about the benefits of Northern Ireland remaining within the UK to balance the arguments in our binary choice scenario.” There was a growing ‘civic unionism’ in the North which sought “a more liberal, progressive society. Where are they going to find that? They look at what’s being created in England and don’t find that particularly attractive.”

Turning to the Republic, she believed much more work needed to be done to explore the implications of constitutional change, with academic initiatives accompanied by more inclusive and open-ended discussions involving ordinary citizens. “I am acutely aware of the level of disengagement in the South, that Northern Ireland is viewed there as cantankerous, disruptive and even embarrassing – probably the same reaction as you’d get in Surrey.”

There is a lot of talk about ‘process’ in the UCL report. In a lecture in March, the researcher who wrote the background paper that formed the starting point for this project, former senior Northern Ireland Office official Alan Whysall, said its report was “essentially about the process for getting to a united Ireland, if that is the wish in polls north and south, and for deciding what it should look like.” He went on: “The group’s work was mainly focused on suggesting processes before, during and after border polls, that would give the best chance of stability in the new state, if that was the choice, and through transition to it – the ‘how you get there bit.”

Unfortunately, it is the process which is a large part of the problem, and not one (in this writer’s opinion) that the report comes up with any clear or obviously workable solutions to deal with. Another member of this month’s panel, Belfast solicitor and unionist-minded commentator Sarah Creighton, quoted the east Belfast community worker and former DUP assembly member, Sammy Douglas, as telling author Susan McKay (for her recent book Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground): “I know a lot of people fear a united Ireland. But it is a bit like death. Most people don’t fear being dead, they fear the process of dying. Irish unity wouldn’t be as bad as the process of getting Irish unity. You could actually probably live quite peacefully in a united Ireland; it is just that the ten years of it becoming a united Ireland would probably be pretty awful.”

In the question and answer session, one searching question was asked by Rory Montgomery, the recently retired senior Irish diplomat who was a key member of the Department of Foreign Affairs teams which respectively negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and had an important input into the post-Brexit settlement with the UK. He asked the panel: “How do moderate nationalists, north and south, square the simple majority requirement of the Good Friday Agreement with strong public disquiet, as evidenced in opinion polls, about the idea of change effected by 50% plus one, which is at odds with the longstanding philosophy of persuasion and consensus?” The panel, which included the UCL referendum team’s chair, Dr Alan Renwick, had no answer to this.

In an Irish Times article last month Montgomery had answered his own question with three further questions.3 He wrote then: “For decades mainstream nationalism has emphasised the need for reconciliation and agreement with unionism as the basis for a new Ireland, and for those who favour a united Ireland to persuade those who do not.

“The [1993] Downing Street Declaration said ‘stability and well-being will not be found under any political system which is refused allegiance or rejected on grounds of identity by a significant minority of those governed by it.’ Recent opinion polls confirm that this anti-majoritarian philosophy of persuasion and agreement is widely shared.

“Under the Agreement a narrow majority could be achieved in favour of a united Ireland without a single self-defined unionist having been persuaded. Of course, as traditional unionist preponderance within Northern Ireland is already no more, and as the decisive votes either way would come from the growing middle ground, this would simply be the outworking of democracy.

“The prospect of a united Ireland being achieved in this way is, however, rightly a cause of concern. It seems to me that supporters of unity who feel like this essentially have three real options. To try to change the majority threshold – this was never canvassed in 1998 and is surely unlikely to win consensus. To follow [Seamus] Mallon and not vote for unity until a significant number of unionists are won over. But is there evidence that this would ever happen? Or, after winning a divisive referendum, to be generous and imaginative in trying to reconcile unionists to the new Ireland – recognising that this might fail.”

He concluded: “This issue does not have to be explicitly addressed now. But it is likely that sooner or later it will have to be.” I would put it in even starker terms. Sooner or later the politicians and people of the Republic may have to choose between insisting on the 50% plus one threshold laid down by the Good Friday Agreement – i.e. absolute equality of votes between those in favour of the union and those in favour of unity, probably leading to a fragile ‘united’ Ireland at some point in the future – or finding some beyond ingenious mechanism (probably based on one of the options outlined by Montgomery above) to ensure a peaceful and relatively harmonious ‘new Ireland’ by persuading a sufficient number of unionists to go along with it.

Such beyond ingenious mechanisms need to be seriously considered. In Alan Whysall’s words: “We ought to reflect imaginatively on hybrid constitutional forms that might better accommodate the different identities. That is, forms that on the one hand could be regarded as a fulfilment of Irish unity, Northern Ireland becoming part of an Irish union; and on the other, maintaining a British link. We do not need to get hung up on heavily dated conceptions of the nation state.

“And this reflection needs to take place in the context of potential constitutional change within the UK, which may see Scotland and even Wales cease to be part of the UK, with arrangements likely to be put in place for cooperation and coordination between them, possibly even structures of a confederal nature.”

1 Report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland

2 ‘UK subvention is irrelevant to the debate on Irish unity’, 9 June 2021

3 ‘Questions Belfast Agreement raised remain to be answered’, 8 May 2021

Posted in General, Irish reunification | 2 Comments

A brilliantly reasoned but not balanced exploration of future Irish unity referendums

With the division and probable implosion of the DUP following Edwin Poots’ brutal takeover from Arlene Foster, and opinion polls north and south showing Sinn Fein likely to lead the next governments in both jurisdictions, the momentous issue of a future Border Poll – or unity referendum – starts to loom larger. Many of us believe if this comes within the next decade it will lead to dangerous instability on the island, and even a return to violence in the North, but as concerned citizens we have to face into this alarming new reality and consider it with the seriousness it merits.

Last weekend I read a heavyweight 300 plus page report from a group of leading academics from Ireland and Britain under the auspices of University College London’s Constitution Unit with the collective title ‘Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland’. They emphasise that they are “focussed on technical and procedural questions. As a group, we take no view on whether holding such referendums would be desirable or not, or on what the outcomes should be if referendums were to be held.” They also emphasise their belief that such referendums, north and south, are not imminent, but stress it would be “highly unwise” for them to be called without “a clear plan [to be agreed by the two governments] for the processes of decision-making that would follow.” [I should say here that any phrases in square brackets in the middle of quotes are my own].

The report’s authors propose one relatively simple and two much more complex ‘configurations’ of unity referendums. Under the first, a detailed model for a united Ireland would be worked out in advance of the referendums. “This would be done on the initiative of the Irish government, but with the widest possible consultation throughout the island. If majorities in the referendums, north and south, opted for unification on the proposed model, the two governments would then work together on agreeing the terms of transfer of sovereignty.” However, the group believes that the British government would not support this version.

Under the second configuration, the referendums would be held “before detailed proposals for a united Ireland had been established. But two key matters would be agreed in advance, so that voters would would know what to expect. First, a process for working out detailed proposals for a united Ireland would be set out. Second, default arrangements for a united Ireland would be established, which would apply if voters opted for unification but revised arrangements for a united Ireland could not be agreed and approved” [in second referendums, north and south]. The authors say that one default option would be for Northern Ireland “to be absorbed into the Republic under the existing Constitution.”

“If majorities opted for unification, the transfer of sovereignty would not be immediate: detailed arrangements for the form of the united Ireland would be worked on first. Unification would occur either on the basis of an agreed model if one could be approved, or the default arrangements if there were no agreement on a new model or that model were not approved.” The group makes clear that there could be no going back on the fait accompli of unification, even if the proposed new model was not agreed or approved in a second round of referendums.

Under the third configuration, the referendums would again be held before detailed proposals for a united Ireland had been worked out and put before the people. But unlike in the previous version “the transfer of sovereignty would follow relatively soon after majority votes for unification [in the first referendums], and processes for developing the permanent form of a united Ireland would follow after that.”

“In advance of the [original] referendums, three matters would be agreed [between the governments]: the process for agreeing those detailed future arrangements; the interim arrangements that would apply after transfer of sovereignty, until any replacement arrangements were agreed and approved; and the default arrangements that would apply in the event that detailed future arrangements were not agreed and approved. The interim and default arrangements might well be the same.”

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. This is a report full of complexity and potential difficulties, a fact recognised by its authors. “There is no easy solution here”, they write. “The difficulty arises from the clash between the principle that sovereignty must be decided by a simple majority [according to the Good Friday Agreement] and the principle that governing arrangements should be arranged consensually [also according to the Good Friday Agreement, in this case for the internal governance of Northern Ireland]. If a majority opts for unification, then the transfer of sovereignty must occur, whether governing arrangements [for a new united Ireland] can be agreed consensually or not.”

This is the report’s central contradiction (as it may be in the 1998 Agreement itself). The working group is absolutely committed to that Agreement’s provision that a simple majority (50% plus one) must be the threshold for unity (they mention it at least 15 times during the course of the report, and even rule out a 52-53% majority to cover any margin of error in polling). They reject Seamus Mallon’s (and my) contention that the governments “should not agree to the holding of a Border Poll unless they were absolutely certain it would lead to a peaceful and stable outcome for the island of Ireland.” They say, correctly, that the Good Friday Agreement “simply stipulates the test as being that a majority in favour of unity appears likely.” They do not even deign to consider Mallon’s view that paragraph 7 of the Review section of that Agreement “makes express provision for review and adjustment” in the event of difficulties arising.

Similarly they reject Trinity College Dublin political scientist Professor Michael Gallagher’s suggestion that a ‘super-majority’ threshold for unity might be adopted “in order to ensure that, within Northern Ireland, a proposal cannot be passed with the support of just one community even if it is almost unanimously opposed by the other community.” He argues for a threshold of perhaps 60% in favour of unity. Another respondent warns that a unity referendum “should need a 60/40 majority to avoid reopening the Troubles. A 1-2% majority would lead to civil war.”

But the group are unmoved. “The simple majority threshold for deciding sovereignty is not a contingency of the 1998 Act, but a requirement of the underlying principle of equal treatment of the options on the ballot paper. Any qualified majority threshold would make it harder to change the status quo and would therefore favour the status quo. On the basic, binary question of sovereignty, that could not be justified.”

A second problem with the working group’s overall stance is their almost complete indifference to what might happen in Northern Ireland in the event of a unity referendum being defeated (outside a few paltry paragraphs). This is a group of academics – eight out of the 12 are Irish – who seem almost exclusively interested in the process of movement towards unity. There is almost nothing in this report about the reformed structures and processes that might be necessary to keep the North as a fair and functioning region of the United Kingdom in the event of such a defeat. Unfortunately, the only recognisably unionist person on the group, emeritus Professor Arthur Aughey of the University of Ulster, had to withdraw from it on health grounds.

Poor old unionists! Even this high-level group of academics can’t bring itself to include a unionist perspective. This may be a brilliantly argued piece of analysis by a distinguished group of political scientists, lawyers and sociologists. I have the utmost respect for the work of people like Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania, Professors Christopher McCrudden and Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, and Dr Alan Renwick (the group’s chair) and Professor Robert Hazell of University College London. But didn’t one of them think it prudent to point out that this major lacuna in their work leaves them (or at least the Irish members of the group) open to charges of pro-nationalist partiality?

I agree that it is probably impossible to involve unionists in discussions about the future shape of a united Ireland in advance of any unity referendum: before the actualisation of what they will see as a cataclysmic threat to their British identity, they will simply refuse to engage. But it does not help that the group appears to dismiss lesser versions of unity – federalism, confederalism, joint authority, some continued post-unity involvement of Britain in the North – so summarily.

Do they really believe that their third referendum configuration – no detailed model of unity before the referendum, followed by a quick transfer of sovereignty and the details of the new society and its structures to be worked out afterwards – would be a process “to encourage and facilitate the participation of unionists in the design of a united Ireland”? Would that beleaguered community not be more likely to feel betrayed, abandoned and trapped in an alien society they wanted nothing to do with? And in those circumstances would civil resistance and boycott of the new institutions not be a more likely response – if not violence?

Despite these reservations, I recognise that this is an important, if flawed, contribution to a vital debate which is now beginning. I will return to it in another blog in the near future. Other weaknesses I will highlight then include the wisdom of putting forward very detailed proposals for a unity referendum at a time when the nationalist electoral vote in Northern Ireland is stuck at around 39%; the extraordinarily complex and potentially destabilising nature of the referendum and post-referendum processes suggested by the report; the total absence of any mention of that element in unionism (sometimes called loyalism) which may use the significant delays identified by the authors as necessary for the implementation of those processes to try to halt or reverse them; the near-impossibility – recognised by the authors – of reconciling the clash between referendum voters having a clear and informed choice of the options before they cast their vote and the inclusivity needed to ensure that all communities (notably the unionists) have an input into developing those options; and the too brief treatment of the “major difficulties” and “significant practical upheavals” that unity will bring in policy areas like taxation, public administration, health and welfare, education, the law and policing.

However, I still commend this report to all interested policy-makers and seriously interested citizens in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain. At the same time I urge them to keep their critical faculties well-honed. In their concluding paragraph the authors express pleasure that the great majority of those consulted for this exercise “have recognised our work as reasoned and balanced”. Marvellously reasoned – yes. Balanced – no.

I do not expect this major piece of work to be widely read or understood (or intelligently summarised and analysed by the media) in my home place in the first of those jurisdictions. Here I concur with Bob Collins, a rare public figure who knows both the Republic and the North well (as a former head of RTE and of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission). He says: “I don’t detect the slightest sense in the Republic that the emergence of a united Ireland would alter people’s lives in the slightest respect, and that worries me deeply.”

Posted in General, Irish reunification | Leave a comment

Two disturbing videos which show the huge gulf of misunderstanding between the peoples of Ireland

This week I watched two depressing and disturbing videos which reveal the huge gulf of mutual misunderstanding, ignorance and loathing that continue to exist between the peoples of this island. The first was a 46-second clip from the front runner for the leadership of the DUP, Edwin Poots. Poots is a ‘creationist’ (who believes the earth was formed 6,000 years ago, rather than the 4.5 billion years ago that science tells us), an opponent of gay marriage and an unashamedly sectarian politician who has stated that the incidence of Covid-19 was six times higher in Catholic areas. He is happy to undermine 23 years of hard-won cross-border relationships by boycotting the North-South institutions of the Good Friday Agreement as part of a futile campaign to undo the Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK-EU trade agreement.

Unsurprisingly, in his video Poots never mentions division or conflict in Northern Ireland, nor the urgent need to make the North a warmer house for nationalists if unionists are to have any chance of keeping the province in the UK. Such people appear not to matter to him. He seems intent on appealing to the old fundamentalist core of the DUP, those who are hard right in politics, religion and culture, and who are seen outside the North as hopeless, backward-looking dinosaurs. People at the more open-minded end of the party hope against hope that Poots will prove more pragmatic if he gets to lead the next government (pointing out that it was he and Simon Hamilton who negotiated a package with Sinn Fein to get back into government in February 2018 – a package that was scuttled by their party’s MLAs on the grounds that it included an Irish Language Act).

These people would prefer Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the ‘continuity candidate’ to follow Arlene Foster’s slightly more progressive and flexible line. But continuity is probably the last thing many in the party’s tiny electoral college (i.e. its Assembly members and Westminster parliamentarians) want after Foster’s error-strewn five and a half years. The likelihood of Donaldson, as the more presentable and slightly more centrist candidate, winning is lessened by what one close observer of the party calls the “mood of irrationality” among unionists about what can be achieved to unravel the Protocol.

The second video was the more alarming of the two. It is a slick and professional production glorifying the memory of Provisional IRA man Seamus McElwain, who was shot dead by the SAS while on ‘active service’ on the Monaghan-Fermanagh border 35 years ago last month. He was, the video informs us, “the most feared volunteer” in the south Fermanagh region, so notorious that British soldiers carried a photo of him on their rifle butts. He was sentenced to two life terms for the murder of members of the locally recruited security forces, UDR corporal and farmer Aubrey Abercrombie as he drove his tractor and RUC reserve constable Ernest Johnston outside his home. He was part of the mass Maze prison escape in 1983.

Eulogising McElwain on the video, Monaghan Sinn Fein TD Matt Carthy said he was an “intelligent, humorous, engaging young man”, widely held in “huge esteem and regard.” His brother Sean said he was “the kind-hearted, good-natured older brother that everyone would love to have.” He was a “perfect son” to his parents and “lit up many a room with his smile and quick wit…Seamus died so our children could have a better life.” He said it was the duty of Irish republicans to play their part in finishing what McElwain and his “fellow patriots” had set out to achieve. “We can agree on one thing, we’re all looking for a united Ireland and the time is now. The opportunity is here, and by working together we can build this new Ireland, the Irish Republic which Seamus died for.”

Travel a few miles across the border (a million miles in terms of consciousness) and you meet Kenny Donaldson, a thoroughly decent young Border Protestant who heads the (mainly unionist) victims group, the South East Fermanagh Foundation, and who has a starkly different view of McElwain. Pointing out that most of his victims were off-duty members of the security forces, Donaldson goes on: ” It was a hallmark of Mr McElwain’s approach that he murdered when those innocents were at their most vulnerable. Seamus McElwain is linked to circa 25-28 murders; he was a ruthless and psychotic terrorist”. Both Arlene Foster and the RUC believed McElwain was one of the gang who shot her father John Kelly, a farmer and reserve policeman, in the head (he survived) in an attack at his home in 1979.

South of the border, according to that most well-informed of commentators, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy, the Sinn Fein narrative of the Northern conflict as “a noble and justified struggle for human rights quietly advances.”1 Leahy recognises and then dismisses unionist concerns. If Sinn Fein was leading the government in Dublin, he asks: “Would the Seamus McElwain commemorations become State events, or at least events honoured by the presence of ministers of the government? That – and what it represents – is the smouldering fear of unionists, beyond Brexit, beyond border checks, beyond the Irish language and all the rest of it. I think it is far fetched to be honest. But the fear is real.”

You can say that again. As a Northern Protestant who lived through the ‘troubles’ and is a proud citizen of this republic, I share that fear. Leahy is depressingly sanguine about the takeover of Irish commemoration and memory by Sinn Fein’s simplistic and one-sided narrative, which is deeply inimical to any coming together of the peoples of this island. “Irish politics will have to accept Sinn Fein’s ancestor worship; it is integral to the party’s identity, “he writes.

I believe Leahy’s predecessor as political editor, Stephen Collins, is closer to the dangerous truth when he writes that Sinn Fein continues to be “no ordinary party.”2 “[Matt] Carthy’s eulogy for McElwain should put paid to the naive notion that the Sinn Fein leadership is somehow trapped into an unwilling defence of the IRA because of old loyalties that have no great relevance to current politics. The fact of the matter is that Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA. That is the fundamental reason for its existence. Carthy made no bones about it in his address last Monday evening, saying: ‘Seamus and all those who fought for Irish freedom continue to inspire us.”

But as Leahy says, for young people who vote Sinn Fein in the South “it is all ancient history anyway. Efforts to remind voters of the ‘armed struggle’ by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail tend to fall flat.” Sinn Fein are surely marching on to lead the next government in Dublin and it will be the folly of young, ‘north blind’ people who will put them there. That doesn’t lessen the duty of those of us who are older and wiser, who remember the awfulness of the Northern ‘troubles’, to keep reminding our younger fellow citizens that the relentless Sinn Fein campaign for an early Border Poll leading (they hope) to unity, is the one thing likely to re-ignite that conflict. In a Belfast Sunday Life poll last weekend (the usual warnings apply) 90% of unionists believed that “the prospect of a united Ireland could jeopardise peace on the island of Ireland”, as did 68% of Northerners as a whole and 62% of Southerners.

In an intelligent article last weekend, former Belfast Telegraph editor, Gail Walker, despaired of Edwin Poots becoming DUP leader and put the view of the ordinary, thoughtful unionist. “The Union needs to build allies. Not everybody content with the Union is a unionist. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s quite possible to have long-term aspirations which don’t involve the Union yet find it attractive in the interests of peace, stability, prosperity, opportunity. We already know that Northern Ireland has managed to gain levels of consent among nationalists. As Arlene Foster said in her resignation speech, there are people with ‘a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging.” She concluded that there was a significant section of the population in the North which had “modernised its sense of identity.”

But where are the strong moderate voices articulating this in politics? Why do Northern voters have a choice between a formerly violent ultra-nationalist cult (only recent converts to democracy, and then largely for tactical reasons) and a party of hard right religious bigots and British empire loyalists? Maybe in the next few years Alliance, with its impressive left-of-centre leader Naomi Long, will attract enough unionist voters to become a real electoral force (between the 2017 and 2019 elections it took 18% of DUP voters away from that party). Maybe the SDLP’s revival at the expense of Sinn Fein in Derry (where that party appears to have imploded) and in South Belfast will continue.

But what about the Republic, where Sinn Fein often seems to have undisputed ownership of the ‘national question’? Micheál Martin is doing his best with his embryonic Shared Island initiative, although at the moment it seems to be at the level of ‘talking shop’ events and ‘scoping studies’, and media interest in it is underwhelming. At the same time, absolutely the wrong message was sent by the failure of the two main constitutional parties to support the liberal South Armagh unionist Ian Marshall in his bid for a Seanad seat – for the second time.

As usual, Fine Gael seem to have no ideas. Would it be a good idea for the smart young Dun Laoghaire TD, Neale Richmond, who comes from a Church of Ireland background, to be appointed as a junior minister with a brief to come up with a new long-term political strategy to complement the Taoiseach’s largely economic ideas on bringing the two parts of the island together in as mutually acceptable a way as possible? In a future blog I will suggest some thought-provoking ideas on what might be included in such a strategy.

One of the problems is poor leadership. I simply don’t trust the present generation of political leaders – whether Boris Johnson in London, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar in Dublin, Michelle O’Neill and Edwin Poots (!) in Belfast – to have the kind of wisdom and statesmanship to move us peacefully to the next phase of this island’s too often bloody history. Those brave leaders of yesteryear – Hume and Mallon and Ahern and Blair and Trimble and Ervine and Adams and McGuinness and Mowlam and Mitchell and Clinton – are long gone. As that great Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping once said, disputes that can’t be resolved except by war should be left to wiser generations. Maybe the next generation of politicians in Ireland will be wiser.

In the meantime, I would echo former Tánaiste Michael McDowell, a sensible centrist when it comes to Northern Ireland, writing this week: “Sadly, polarised politics rather than reconciliation is the current coinage. The North badly needs a decade of political quietude and conciliation.”3

1 ‘DUP can see the future, but cannot face it’, 1 May

2 ‘McElwain tribute shows Sinn Fein is no ordinary party’, 30 April

3 ‘The North needs reconciliation, not a referendum’, Irish Times, 5 May

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Sinn Fein | 8 Comments

The loyalist riots and London and Brussels’ ‘cloddish insensitivity’ to Irish concerns

Now and again this writer comes across a blog by another author that is so apposite that he takes the liberty of reproducing it in full. I have done this recently with pieces by Paul Nolan and Duncan Morrow. The article that follows from the London Review of Books is by Daniel Finn, features editor of the American left-wing magazine ‘Jacobin’.1 Finn is a young Dubliner who has written a well-reviewed book on the IRA: ‘One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA’.2 This is the best short piece of analysis I have read about the recent loyalist riots and the current plight of unionism mind you, the current woeful level of analysis of the North in the Republic’s media means there isn’t much competition.

“In trying to make sense of the worst disturbances in Northern Ireland for years, there are two symmetrical pitfalls to be avoided. One is to present the recent violence as a simple reflex of Brexit, drawing a straight line between Boris Johnson’s campaign bus and a burning bus on the Shankill Road, while ignoring the local factors at work. The other is to overlook the many ways in which choices made at the highest levels of the British state have unsettled the region and added to the stock of combustible material.

To begin with the immediate context: a year into the pandemic, in the working-class unionist areas where the rioting was concentrated, the jobs that young people are most likely to have – if they have jobs at all – have been the worst affected by the economic downturn, and most forms of social infrastructure, from youth centres to sports facilities, have been shut for long periods. Anyone bent on causing trouble wouldn’t have been short of recruits.

Loyalist sources have pointed the finger at the Ulster Defence Association’s South East Antrim Brigade – a quasi-autonomous faction, immersed in drug dealing and other forms of criminality, that wanted to retaliate against the Police Service of Northern Ireland after recent arrests. The same sources also suggested that the group had ‘piggy-backed’ on anger in the unionist community that was ‘completely justified as far as any self-respecting loyalist is concerned’. Whether or not it is justified, the existence of that anger is not in doubt. Nor is it confined to the people throwing petrol bombs.

The first grievance has nothing to do with Brexit. The Northern Irish prosecution service decided last month not to bring charges against senior Sinn Féin politicians who attended the funeral service for the IRA veteran Bobby Storey in June 2020. The prosecutor argued that it would be hard to make any charges stick since the rules on public gatherings during the pandemic were changeable and unclear. Unionists dismissed that as an excuse for a political decision to let Sinn Féin off the hook.

Their cynicism was unsurprising, even if claims about ‘two-tier policing’ slanted against unionists are hard to sustain. In February, the PSNI aggressively broke up a memorial event for the victims of a loyalist massacre in a Catholic area of Belfast, and its handling of Glasgow Rangers fans celebrating a Scottish league victory a few weeks ago was distinctly more low-key than the heavy-handed policing of Black Lives Matter protests in Derry and Belfast last summer (which was found by the Police Ombudsman to have been unfair and discriminatory).

The Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster escalated the row over Storey’s funeral by calling for the PSNI’s chief constable, Simon Byrne, to resign. Foster doubled down on that call in the wake of the rioting: ‘When I think of all those officers out facing the violence over this past few nights, I really feel for them, because their leadership team has let them down and let them burn really bad.’ As PSNI officers were facing a hail of petrol bombs, the choice of metaphor was more than a little hair-raising.

Foster’s willingness to play with fire reflects the weakness of her party’s position, and this is where Brexit comes in. The DUP has protested vehemently against the arrangements now governing Northern Ireland’s relationship with the European Union and with the rest of the UK. A statement last week from the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group that represents loyalist paramilitaries, put on record their ‘absolute determination to remove the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of our country that has been imposed on us by the Northern Ireland Protocol’. The LCC’s sense of grievance is understandable. But its anger should really be directed against the DUP, which opened the door to this outcome through its hubris and strategic myopia after the 2017 UK election.

The DUP was in a position of rare influence at Westminster for a Northern Irish party, as Theresa May relied on its MPs to stay in power. Foster and her colleagues could have used the opportunity to educate the British political class and the wider public about the realities of Brexit. Neither the government in Dublin nor the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland were going to accept a deal that established a hard border on the island. That only left two options: either the Conservative Party would back away from May’s pledge to leave the single market and the customs union, and move towards a softer version of Brexit, or it would agree to special arrangements for Northern Ireland.

For all the bluster and brinkmanship of the last five years, there was never any reason to doubt the ineluctable nature of this choice. May’s ‘backstop’ was an attempt to postpone it that ended up pleasing nobody. If the DUP wanted to minimise the danger of a gap opening up between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it should have been calling for the soft-Brexit option that commanded much broader support among the British public than either May’s deal or the version of Brexit eventually pushed through by Boris Johnson.

Instead, the party let its role as parliamentary kingmaker go to its head, allying with the Tory right and welcoming Boris Johnson to its 2018 conference as he pledged never to allow any trade barriers to be established in the Irish Sea. It should have come as no surprise that Johnson reneged on that promise when he returned with a new Brexit deal the following autumn – least of all to politicians whose overriding political objective is to safeguard Northern Ireland’s position within the UK against any conceivable threat.

The LCC’s statement calls for ‘no hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and no hard border on this island’. While those demands should not have been incompatible – the Brexit model generally referred to as ‘Norway plus’ would have taken care of both – Johnson’s victory in the 2019 general election opened a chasm between them. Johnson deserves a healthy share of the blame for unabashedly lying during the election campaign about the terms of his deal as it applied to Northern Ireland. The British media also have to take responsibility for reporting those lies as if they were even remotely credible. But Foster and her colleagues have as much claim on our sympathy as a man who swaps his family home for a jar of magic beans.

The result might have been the same had the DUP followed a different approach: Northern Ireland carries so little demographic weight in the UK that transferring all its Leave votes to Remain in 2016 would not have tipped the balance. But as things stand, the DUP’s fingerprints are all over this fiasco for the unionist cause. Little wonder that the party’s average support in the last two opinion polls was 7 per cent lower than its vote share in the 2017 Assembly election. A performance like that on election day would see the DUP slip well behind Sinn Féin.

The self-inflicted loss of political standing explains why Foster’s party has been ramping up tensions over Bobby Storey’s funeral and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The European Commission made it easier for them with its breathtakingly foolish move at the end of January to invoke the protocol’s doomsday hard-border clause over the supply of vaccines. Politicians in London don’t have a monopoly on cloddish insensitivity to Irish concerns. The commission rolled back on that decision almost immediately, but the damage had been done, as the DUP called for the protocol to be scrapped.

By the end of February, Arlene Foster was meeting with the LCC as the loyalist paramilitaries prepared to withdraw their support for the Good Friday Agreement. She brushed aside criticism, claiming that the LCC’s component groups were committed to ‘peaceful and democratic’ means of political struggle. Within weeks, the rioting was in full swing.

Unionism has unquestionably suffered a real setback over the last two years. This does not mean that a united Ireland is inevitable, or even probable, but the ties binding Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK now seem weaker than at any time since the peace process began.

The variety of British nationalism that Boris Johnson personifies and the political leadership of unionism have together done more to undermine the union since 2016 than the IRA could manage in a quarter-century of conflict. Whatever agreement can be reached between London and Brussels to smooth over the new arrangements will not change that fact. The chances of the DUP leadership engaging in public self-criticism of its record over the past few years are negligible, so there is every reason to expect further exercises in displacement, even after the current crisis has died down.”

1 https://lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/april/cloddish-insensitivity

2 Verso, 2019

PS I would like to pay tribute to my friend Dr Jim Jamison, who died last week. Jim was formerly chief statistician at the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Services and in the 1990s director of the Health and Social Care Research Unit at Queen’s University Belfast. There was little Jim did not know about health provision in Northern Ireland. I got to know him in 2000-2001 when he led a high-powered group of researchers from Belfast, Dublin and London in a research project for the Centre for Cross Border Studies entitled ‘Cross-border Cooperation in Health Services in Ireland’. This pathfinding project recommended, among many other things, joint health promotion campaigns to prevent communicable and non-communicable diseases, which, if they had happened, could have gone some considerable way towards minimising the impact of Covid-19 on the island. Jim was argumentative, brilliant, fearless and indomitable. I particularly admired him and his beloved wife Kathleen (who died last July) for their courageous and inspirational determination not to allow physical disabilities to prevent them from living lives rich in personal fulfilment and public service. Suaimhneas sioraí dó.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 2 Comments

Are you a Referendum Denier? If you are, Sinn Fein has you in its sights

Are you a Referendum Denier (in capital letters)? If you believe that we are not yet ready for unity, but want to make Northern Ireland a more reconciled and harmonious society first, you are a Referendum Denier. If you believe that the Republic has not yet devoted enough time to seriously considering the implications of an early move towards unity following the narrowest of narrow victories in a Border Poll, you are a Referendum Denier. If you are a supporter of Micheál Martin’s Shared Island initiative, with its emphasis on practical and mutually beneficial North-South cooperation as the priority in the short term, you are a Referendum Denier. If you believe that we need to win over a significant section of unionism to acquiesce in, if not to support, that unity, you are a Referendum Denier.

That’s the kind of thinking Sinn Fein’s strategists are trying to encourage. Those masters of propaganda have seized on the concept of ‘referendum denial’ as a key component of their single-minded drive towards gaining power at the next Irish election and then pressuring the British Government into holding a Border Poll as soon as possible. They know that planting the weasel word ‘denier’ in people’s minds will immediately put their opponents on the defensive. People who are Holocaust deniers or Covid deniers or racism deniers are, if not downright wicked, clearly utterly wrong-headed.

I first heard Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald use this term on Claire Byrne’s RTE discussion programme on a united Ireland on 22nd March. I then went looking for its source. I found it in an article earlier last month by Ciaran Quinn, one of the party’s smartest strategic thinkers, and currently its representative in North America.

In the article on the Northern commentator Eamonn Mallie’s website1, Quinn said there were two kinds of Referendum Denier: 1) unionists who just hope the unity debate will go away; 2) Referendum Deniers who are “harder to spot. Camouflaged in the language of the peace process, they are about maintaining the status quo.”

He identified some ‘give away’ signs for this latter group. They claim to speak of the ‘spirit’ of the Good Friday Agreement, rather than the strict letter as negotiated by Sinn Fein and other parties and governments in 1998 (“We deal in text”, says Quinn). They view a referendum “through the prism of an impact on unionism” and ignore the North’s nationalists. They argue that “now is not the time” to hold a Border Poll (“This is a dishonest denial of the democratic process,” says Quinn). They claim that such a poll would be divisive. They hint at the danger of violence “without any identifiable threat” (perhaps from the “thousands of signed up members of paramilitary organisations”- most of them loyalist – identified by the 2020 report of the Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitarism?). They suggest some kind of weighted super-majority in order to win over a significant section of unionists.

These are all arguments constitutional nationalist and other politicians have made at various times (as have I). Only last week, at a meeting of the Shared Island dialogue for civil society groups, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, emphasised the need “to create a space of trust and tolerance” in any conversations about the future of Ireland, and warned that there could be “no predetermined outcome” to an exercise like convening the Citizens Assembly to discuss unification – a key Sinn Fein demand – because “if that’s the starting point it would be very difficult to have everyone in the conversation.”

Quinn is brutally clear about the narrowest of narrow votes for unity in a Border Poll being sufficient for existential constitutional change: “The threshold for change is agreed upon and clear. It is a simple majority of those voting. Anything else would be undemocratic and unworkable. For example, the divorce referendum in the South was won by less than 1% of the vote, 50.28% in favour and 49.72% against.”

So now we know the threshold for unity that Sinn Fein would be happy with in a Border Poll: 50.28% would do, even 50.1%. Is this a recipe for stability and harmony and happiness in a so-called ‘united’ Ireland? 49.9% of people in the North being opposed – many of them bitterly – to the new constitutional shape of the nation? Will this not, in the late Seamus Mallon’s words, just “consign the next century in Northern Ireland to a rerun of the last: with the two sides simply changing positions – nationalists in a majority in a ‘united’ Ireland and unionists the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority?”

In my more pessimistic moments – and knowing how ruthlessly Sinn Fein (and the Provisional IRA before them) pursue their goals – I don’t believe that party has any intention of engaging in the extremely difficult business of trying to win over any significant section of unionism to the united Ireland cause. Maybe they think it’s a hopeless quest anyway (and maybe they could be forgiven for thinking that, given the current immovability of political unionism).

But don’t be taken in by Mary-Lou McDonald’s honeyed words, when she talked about “our unionist brothers and sisters” on the Claire Byrne programme (I could almost hear unionist stomachs turning – it is only 25 years, after all, since those “brothers and sisters”, in and out of uniform, were being murdered by the IRA). Sinn Feiners believe unionists have stood in the way of Irish freedom and unity for over 200 years and now – with demographic change moving against them – it is time for Irish history to move on, whether they like it or not. This tougher nationalism is also apparent among some middle-class Dubliners I know, a hardening of attitudes which would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, but which is perfectly attuned to welcoming Sinn Fein as the lead party of government after the next election. For some people in this republic – I’m not sure how many – it’s clearly “feck the unionists” time.

As Quinn concludes: “Unionism has no veto over the process, but has a seat as an equal at the table in defining a new and united Ireland”. For Sinn Fein Irish unity remains the holy grail, and the holy grail, by definition, is non-negotiable.

So expect more salvoes against the ‘Referendum Deniers’ in the near future. You can see the themes emerging in the writings of a commentator like Una Mullally, who often reflects Sinn Fein’s thinking on these issues. In an angry broadside against the Taoiseach and his Shared Island initiative this week2, she accused him of being stuck in the past, kicking the unity issue into touch, “coasting in an era of profound change”, and not being able to see beyond the status quo. “The patronising discourse that is emerging around a Border Poll ending up like the Brexit referendum places little faith in the remarkable culture of societal discourse, active citizenship, grass-roots organising and respectful conversations new generations have achieved in recent years on complex issues…That the leader of the country would arrive to a studio [for the Claire Byrne programme] to discuss such an important issue and dither through is simply not good enough. Deflating, demoralising, uninspiring, disconnected, and putting forward arguments for paralysis as opposed to action, is not where new generations in this country are at.”

So there’s a preview of Sinn Fein’s campaign in the months and years ahead: attacks on ‘Referendum Deniers’ for being dishonest and undemocratic, for ignoring northern nationalists, for kicking unity into touch, for being stuck in the past, for being satisfied with the status quo, and for refusing to face into an exciting Irish future driven by young people. That last element will be key: portraying the drive for unity as something which enthuses the youth of Ireland, when in fact it is a 100 year old cause dating back to the foundation of the state and beyond. It’s as old as the discredited nationalist belief that you can achieve unity by ignoring the unionists.

PS A reader has asked me to produce evidence for my assertion about Northern Sinn Feiners’ new “brazenness” in my January blog. Here are four examples:

  1. In 2019 Sinn Fein members objected to (and appear to have blocked) a proposal to Belfast City Council from one of its committees to erect a statue to that great old West Belfast socialist and SDLP politician Paddy Devlin.
  2. In January Sinn Fein led the charge on the council to allow Belfast residents to have their street names changed bilingually to include Irish – also Ulster-Scots, Chinese or other languages, in the highly unlikely event this is requested – if there is 15% support in their street (15%! What kind of democratic benchmark is that?).
  3. Sinn Fein last month vetoed a proposal (supported by all the other parties) to erect a harmless monument at Stormont, made up of a block of stone in six sections representing the six Northern counties, to commemorate the foundation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921. Assembly member Pat Sheehan said Sinn Fein had not been consulted and the stone only represented one political perspective. “The days of unionism jumping up and down and stamping their feet and getting what they want are done,” he said.
  4. The Bobby Storey funeral.

1 https://eamonnmallie.com/2021/03/how-to-spot-the-referendum-denier-by-ciaran-quinn-sinn-fein-representative-to-us-and-canada

2 https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullally-taoiseach-s-bland-nothings-on-united-ireland-fail-us-all-1.4522302

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Sinn Fein | 6 Comments

Unity and Sanctuary: two difficult causes close to my ambivalent heart

There was an interesting exchange in the Irish Times earlier this month between two men I admire and whose views on Irish reunification I respect. A report in the online paper (its editors obviously deemed it not significant enough for the printed paper) quoted the former European Commission Secretary-General David O’Sullivan saying there was a “huge responsibility” on people in the Republic “not to overtalk…about Border Polls and reunification.”1 He warned: “This is what is deeply destabilising to the unionist community. Because they do see Northern Ireland as having somehow a semi-detached status now which is the sort of ante-room to reunification, which is what some people are talking it up as.”

O’Sullivan said a united Ireland “may happen, it may not happen”, but “we have a long way to go”. Noting that the Taoiseach’s Shared Island initiative was the “right approach”, he cautioned: “Talking as though a united Ireland is now sort of inexorable, inevitable…is deeply unhelpful in this situation. We should all learn to live with what we have…but leave it until later years for the decisions that may present themselves in the future.”

As somebody who worked for many years to bring North and South together through practical and mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation – and who knows the unionist community well – I strongly agree with O’Sullivan’s viewpoint.

But then four days later came a riposte from the former SDLP MLA and councillor, Declan O’Loan, from Ballymena, County Antrim (my birthplace).2 I know O’Loan to be a moderate and thoughtful man, well-attuned to the sensibilities of the unionists among whom he lives. He wrote in a letter to the editor: “To say that it is improper even to postulate an alternative [to remaining part of the UK] in which Ireland would be united and all its people enjoy equal citizenship cannot be reasonable, and does not create a Northern Ireland which treats unionists and nationalists equally.”

He went on: “There is a perfectly fair case to be made that the partition of the island has done great damage. The best form of government that has yet been created for Northern Ireland is that under the Belfast Agreement, and even so I would say that every Executive formed since 1998 has been a failure in dealing with the economic administration and social challenges. The reason is the fundamental disagreement on the constitutional question.”

“Many countries across the world have deep divisions, many of which offer no full solution and can at best be managed. That is not the case in Ireland. I have worked closely alongside unionist politicians for many years, and I think I understand them quite well. I am in no doubt that a united Ireland can be built which will better serve all its citizens. Those who share that belief are entitled to work for it.”

For me the key word in this letter is “managed”. For the past 50 years I have believed that the divisions in the North are best capable of being managed through internal power-sharing and North-South cooperation arrangements (the John Hume model). Successive Irish governments have agreed with me. In the words of the eminent international lawyer Claire Palley, who knew Northern Ireland well, back in the early 1990s: “The only people who are entitled to talk about solutions are chemists.”

Clearly Declan O’Loan doesn’t agree. If such a moderate and fair-minded nationalist politician believes that successive Northern Ireland Executives have been a failure on every front, and some kind of united Ireland could be made palatable to the dyed-in-the-wool unionists he lives among in mid-Antrim, maybe it is time to think again, and to think radically about Irish unity in the shorter to medium term. Certainly the DUP – led in recent years by incompetent, corrupt and foolish people – have done little or nothing to make real the hopes of mutual respect and equality within Northern Ireland promised by the Good Friday Agreement.

As I have said many times before, the irony is that the best people to do this radical thinking on unity are the old conservative nationalist parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Once those most hated enemies of unionists, Sinn Fein, get into power in Dublin, it will be a hundred times more difficult to get them to engage in such an existentially threatening negotiation (I agree completely with Leo Varadkar when he said this week on RTE that Sinn Fein’s relationship of “mutual hostility” with unionism and deep anti-Britishness make them “an obstacle to Irish unity,” and that the “sectarian headcount” of a Border Poll is “not the right pathway to a united Ireland”). As the Dublin lawyer Brian Barrington, who was Seamus Mallon’s legal advisor when he was NI Deputy First Minister, has said: “It is they [Fianna Fail and Fine Gael], and not Sinn Fein, who must write the policy for the protection of British people on this island. And they should start doing it now.”

I am thus ambivalent about Irish unity: I would love to see it one day, but I can’t for the life of me see how we are going to persuade a significant number of unionists to go along with it. To explain my ambivalence I should explain a little about myself. I am the son of a Northern Presbyterian mother and a Jewish socialist father who was a political refugee from the former Czechoslovakia. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that I have throughout my life been passionate about two causes: the peaceful persuasion of Northern unionists that their best future lies in a closer relationship with the rest of Ireland, and the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into present-day Irish society. As they say, blood is thicker than water.

The former cause has brought me from youthful radicalism in the NI civil rights movement and the Workers Party, through John Robb’s New Ireland Group, the 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission (of which I was coordinator), the ‘Yes’ campaign in the post-Good Friday Agreement referendum, founding and running the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh for 14 years, to the Irish Labour Party and the Green Party. I now rail against the lack of serious thinking by any Southern political party (and that includes Sinn Fein) about how we are going to undertake the fiendishly difficult journey to an Irish unity brought about – in the words of the new Article 3 of the Constitution – “in harmony and friendship”. And I strongly oppose any attempt to impose it on the unionists by the narrowest of narrow majorities in an early Border Poll – that way, I believe, lies a return to bloodshed and conflict.

If the former cause is my mother’s legacy, the latter cause is my father’s. We on this small island are often consumed by our own internal demons to the exclusion of other, far greater international problems; I’m sure we’re no different from any other country in that respect. That is why I am a recent – although not very active – convert to Green politics. And why the other big cause I have been active in has been the welfare of refugees and asylum-seekers.

The latter has brought me in the past few months to become the acting chair of a small organisation called Places of Sanctuary Ireland (PoSI)(ireland.cityofsanctuary.org), much of whose work is driven by a marvellously high octane Englishwoman (married to an Irish husband) called Tiffy Allen. PoSI is a network of 13 groups – from Cork to Belfast, Galway to Derry, Wexford to Coleraine – whose primary aim is to create a culture of welcome, safety and inclusion for refugees, asylum- seekers and other vulnerable migrants, many of whom are seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. It creates opportunities for Irish people to meet these newcomers to our country, to hear their stories and to help them find a new home here among us. It is part of an international City of Sanctuary movement which began in Sheffield in 2005.

The City of Sanctuary movement works through what we call ‘streams’. These can be schools, universities, town and city councils, workplaces, churches and faith groups, libraries, community groups and other educational, work-based, civic, cultural and grass-roots organisations. In Ireland the most successful ‘stream’ has been Universities of Sanctuary, which was founded in 2017 largely through the efforts of a group of people at Dublin City University, which had become Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary a year earlier.

All seven of the Republic of Ireland’s long-established universities are now Universities of Sanctuary, along with Athlone Institute of Technology. They have between them awarded over 400 scholarships for access programmes, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and other courses and programmes. Until they started this activity it was almost impossible for a refugee or asylum-seeking school-leaver to get a funded place to study at an Irish university. Their “vital work” (in the words of the July 2020 Programme for Government) has also led to a change of government policy: now any asylum-seeker in Ireland for three years who is offered a place at a third level institution will get the same financial and other supports as an Irish student.

A more recent development has been Schools of Sanctuary. This gets schools to pledge to undertake a programme of activities aimed at fostering a culture of welcome and inclusion for children who are asylum-seekers, refugees and other vulnerable migrants. Started in 2017 in a primary school in a loyalist working class area of Belfast where immigrants were being attacked and harassed, there are now 42 such schools in Northern Ireland (where they receive significant government funding). In the Republic, where the initiative started a little over a year ago (and with no government funding), there are now five, plus over 20 more schools preparing to become Schools of Sanctuary. The introduction to the Schools of Sanctuary resource pack says that by becoming a School of Sanctuary, “you will be offering refuge to those who need it and you will be equipping pupils and students with intercultural skills and the ability to have compassion in what is, for many, a turbulent world.”

Sanctuary Ambassadors are a group of 50 refugees and asylum-seekers who have received training in public policy and public speaking, and now address local councils, universities, schools and other groups on their experience of fleeing their own countries, arriving in Ireland and struggling to make a new life here.

The Green Minister for Children, Equality and Integration Roderick O’Gorman has now pledged to get rid of the Republic’s wretched Direct Provision system for asylum-seekers within the life of the present government. Now over 20 years old, this arrangement of privately-owned and profitable facilities – mainly unused and often rundown hotels and holiday camps – in which these unfortunate people and their families languish for up to five years (around 300 people for even longer) in a legal limbo with few rights – has been condemned by a wide range of lawyers, human rights experts and international organisations. A White Paper published last month promised a system not unlike the one used in Northern Ireland currently: six newly-built reception centres where arriving asylum-seekers and their families would stay for no longer than four months, followed by ‘own door’ houses and apartments for rent provided by local authorities (not famous for providing adequate social housing for their own people), housing associations and others. It is an ambitious project. I hope and pray it may succeed.

1 ‘United Ireland rhetoric provoking unionist backlash over NI protocol, says former diplomat’ , 4th March

2 ‘Unity is a valid political aspiration’, Letters to the Editor, 8th March

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 3 Comments

A clash between Northern bad faith and good cross-border business and infrastructure?

The unionists are digging another hole for themselves with their court action against the Northern Ireland Protocol. There is universal agreement in non-unionist Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels that the Protocol, however unpleasant in the short-term for the North’s consumers and traders, is here to stay, and the unionists will just have to learn to make the best of it. Without the Protocol, there would simply have been no trade deal reached between the UK and the EU. That great believer in realpolitik, Boris Johnson, fully recognises that.

Personally, I find it hard not to feel some sympathy for David Trimble’s impassioned plea in a long article in the Irish Times last week for a reform of the Protocol on the grounds that it contravenes the central pillar of the Good Friday Agreement: “the need for democratic consent to any changes in the constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland.”1 As he points out, Northern Ireland is now subject to EU laws without any right of dissent. There won’t be a vote in the Stormont Assembly on the implementation of the Protocol until 2024, and even then the cross-community safeguard in the 1998 Agreement will not apply. As I have pointed out in this column before, democratic it is not. However, it is a pity that at no point in his article did Trimble admit that it was the original Brexit vote – which he fully supported – which is the real source of the North’s problems and unionist woes on this issue.

Very few in this republic would share my feelings. Sympathy in Dublin for unionists is extremely thin on the ground: more so, in my opinion, than at any time for over 40 years. The feeling in London is somewhat similar. So rather than flog a dead horse through the courts (an arresting mixed metaphor!), I suggest practically-minded unionists should find ways of making the Protocol work for Northern Ireland. And I would suggest that Irish politicians – rather than engaging in their favourite pastime, finding a scapegoat (in this case the European Commission for its blunder in invoking the Protocol’s Article 16 over the Covid vaccine) – should look for ways to mitigate the effects of the Protocol in the short-term so as to give its longer-term benefits time to become apparent.

None of this will be easy. As the economist John Fitzgerald has pointed out, there are some opportunities here for Northern Ireland. Small British firms wishing to supply their EU customers could open a branch in the North, a much cheaper and less complex prospect than starting one in France or Germany. But that requires the DUP Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, to go out and sell the Protocol as a permanent and positive feature. There’s precious little chance of that happening.

In the badly-affected retail sector, the Irish government could perhaps persuade the European Commission to give the small number of UK supermarket chains which supply the Northern Ireland market ‘trusted trader’ status, so they don’t have to wrestle with the mountain of paperwork facing them in sending goods across the Irish Sea. But Commission sources have warned that Dublin’s special pleading for Northern Ireland has its limits. In the longer-term Fitzgerald believes that an all-island retail distribution system with somewhat higher costs is the likely outcome (which would also represent a very small step towards a united Ireland).

I hope that smart people in the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are thinking beyond a few difficult short-term fixes. A little public sympathy for the unionists’ predicament might even be in order. The longer-term challenge is to show that the Protocol – and, more importantly, continued membership of the EU by both Irish jurisdictions – can contribute to improving people’s lives and prosperity on the whole island. Here I believe there are all sorts of opportunities, particularly in the areas of the economy and health.

The Irish government needs to wield some financial incentives to kick-start the very underdeveloped all-island economy, which I still believe is one way to show sensible unionists that it makes sense for the island to work together for the greater good of all its people. In a 2016 report the North-South trade and business development body, InterTradeIreland,2 outlined a number of areas where there were “great opportunities” if cross-border coordination and integration could be stepped up: notably through research, innovation and training in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and software. It pointed to “rich potential for further collaboration” in areas like cloud computing and data analytics. It stressed the “very low level of all-island coordination of the education systems”, and the particular weakness of links between third level institutions.

The report proposed the coordination of research centres and a system of all-island clinical trials in the pharma sector (very topical!); the all-island integration of the medical device industry (which “could lead to the emergence of a very significant concentration of this sector in Northern Ireland”); and an all-island internship scheme involving universities and business, and the merging of existing clusters in Belfast and Dublin in the software sector (which “together would constitute an internationally significant industry agglomeration”). It reported “considerable enthusiasm” for such proposals from business leaders on both sides of the border.

There is no lack of good ideas for greater North-South collaboration in industry and academia. A Belfast businessman friend concerned about climate change points out that both Belfast and Dublin are vulnerable to serious flooding over the next decade as sea levels rise: why not collaborate in a programme of building up our neglected sea walls and creating resilient infrastructure along the heavily-populated east coast?

The same man is enthusiastic about the idea of a high-speed rail line between Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Belfast (and maybe even Derry). It would, of course, be extraordinarily expensive, but could it fire up economic growth for the whole island in the way that Franklin Roosevelt’s huge ‘New Deal’ infrastructure projects did for the US in the 1930s? It would certainly have major economic, social and environmental benefits. For these reasons such lines have become commonplace in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and are even being embarked on by Turkey and Egypt . An Irish government feasibility study into this €10-15 billion project was due to have got under way before Christmas. Dublin City University economics professor Edgar Morgenroth is a little sceptical: he wonders if it is worth spending such a huge amount of money on a train that will have only a limited number of stops. As a border person, he would prefer a far smaller amount to go on an east-west ‘greenway’, partly following abandoned railway lines from Dundalk to Sligo, to help bring tourists to that often forgotten region.

Morgenroth thinks the Irish government needs to find ways of incentivising Southern firms to look to Northern suppliers and helping Northern firms to trade more into the EU (InterTradeIreland could play a role here). More generally, he says since all the emphasis over the past 50 years has been on attracting in multinational companies (through the IDA) and helping Irish companies to export (through Enterprise Ireland), there is now a need for a new government agency to help Irish SMEs to source vital supplies (e.g. Irish bakers to find French flour in place of the now more expensive English variety. One could add Northern Irish bakers: I have always been surprised that the small firms of the excellent Northern home baking sector have not made further inroads into the Southern market).

Then there is health. The level of North-South cooperation to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely limited. Irish government sources have said there was never any serious engagement on a joint approach to key measures like quarantine, travel restrictions or the coordinated shutdown of social and economic life because Dublin recognised that the DUP would never agree to that.3 But at least let us learn from the mistakes of this pandemic, and try to think about how we might do better next time. The Northern Health Minister, Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionists, is a practical man, and I don’t think he would object to a group of eminent public health experts – the likes of Dr Gabriel Scally, Professor Sam McConkey, Professor Paddy Mallon and Professor Martin McKee (all Ulstermen, as it happens) – being brought together by the two governments to report on the future lessons from the pandemic for the island of Ireland.

The Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT) border region network of health boards and trusts – now nearly 30 years old – has shown the way, with impressive cooperation in areas like cardiology, radiotherapy and Ear Nose and Throat surgery. Prevention of communicable and non-communicable diseases (like Covid) was another obvious area for collaboration through joint health promotion campaigns. But CAWT’s good example has not been followed elsewhere. A very senior Northern civil servant told me in 2015: “Neither health system is in good shape, but some rationalisation could have been done together. The cross-border justification could have been used: ‘this has to happen on a cross-border basis – otherwise it won’t happen.’ 60% of people on the island live in the Belfast-Dublin corridor, yet there is no sense of any coordinated services or activities there.”

I fear, however, that there is one key obstacle to any major North-South cooperation project. I call it bad faith. Others might call it the old dishonesties of tribal politics. But can we trust the two parties in government in Belfast to do the best they can for the economy and people of Northern Ireland? I worry about their reluctance, for completely separate reasons, to involve themselves in major North-South projects for the mutual benefit of all the people on the island. The DUP’s reluctance to have anything to do with the Irish government or with all-Ireland projects, however sensible and practical, is well-known. But in the post-Brexit years they have also been playing the worst kind of ultra-partisan politics. For example, when Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots pulled out officials checking imported foods at Larne harbour earlier this month without even checking with the PSNI to see if there was any credible threat to them, was his main aim a political one: to undermine the Protocol?

On the other hand, would Sinn Fein be genuinely willing to do their share of heavy lifting on a major all-island transport or health project if it made the current Fianna Fail-led government look good, and therefore took away from their drive to be in power in Dublin after the next election? I often wonder when people like Michelle O’Neill or Conor Murphy get up in the morning, do they say to themselves: “Today, as a senior government minister, I will work as hard as I can for the people of the North of Ireland”; or rather do they say “I must always keep in mind that my party’s core aim is Irish unity, and thus the abolition of Northern Ireland – and if the North works too well (and I as a senior government minister make it work too well), that aim may be sidelined or postponed”?

1 ‘Protocol threatens rather than protects Belfast Agreement’, 20th February

2 ‘Mapping the Potential for All-Island Sectoral Eco-systems’

3 ‘Why is there no serious engagement on joint North-South cooperation approach to Covid?’ Irish Times, 28th January

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland | 2 Comments

Listen to the wisdom of the man who was rejected by the voters of South Belfast

In democratic societies it is not always the best and wisest people who end up as politicians and political leaders. We have seen that in the USA, the UK and, not surprisingly, little Northern Ireland in recent years. Sometimes the wisest people are rejected by the voters. Below is a Facebook post I received last week from my esteemed friend Professor Duncan Morrow, director of community engagement at the University of Ulster and former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council. In my humble opinion, Morrow is one of the wisest people in Northern Ireland. That was not recognised by the good people of South Belfast who rejected him when he ran for the Alliance Party there in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly elections. He is almost totally unknown south of the border, although an article by him voicing similar sentiments to these appeared in the Irish Independent on 4th February.

“There is a painful inevitability about what is happening in Northern Ireland over Brexit. This is, famously, a divided society. Divided, as is known, over identity and borders. That division has been fought out violently, leaving an appalling wreckage of lives lost and damaged, paramilitarisation, institutionalised social division and trauma.

The Good Friday Agreement reached for something else: through an acknowledgement that difference had to be accommodated, that human rights and full equality had to prevail and that every effort had to be directed to reconciliation, we stumbled away from violence. Too slowly of course, so that governments basically dropped reconciliation from the agenda in favour of bringing the most hostile into government – I suspect because that looked like the quicker way for them to get rid of direct responsibility for dealing with history. We have limped along in a kind of half-conflict half-peace ever since.

Still, some things worked: in practice, if you didn’t focus too much on the unresolved sectarianism, endless political antagonism and the lack of real policy to address anything of substance (specifically sectarianism, inequality and establishing a flourishing economy), you could largely get on with your life, and in a much more open and unthreatened way than for the three decades before 1998. A new generation with new issues seemed to be on the way, if allowed.

Which it was, until Brexit. To manage the Conservative Party, David Cameron called a referendum on leaving the EU, which ultimately turned into a campaign to ‘bring back control’ to ‘our laws, our borders and our money’. Except in Northern Ireland, there is no ‘our’ border, ‘our’ laws’ or ‘our’ money except that we also pay attention to its impact on ‘them’. We are existentially interdependent – and every step away from that is a wound.

Here, open borders prevent conflict, not closed ones; sharing and negotiating is the only way to live together, not a threat, and new coalitions need the breathing space of peace to emerge. Instead of focusing on the fragile point of common belonging, Brexit amplified the pressures to assert egotism in a place where domination and ‘me first’ are beyond toxic – potentially lethal in fact.

No post-Brexit deal was available for the whole UK without a deal on Ireland. So Boris Johnson tried to solve it by keeping his hard Brexit and shafting the DUP. To get a closed border in Dover, he had to put the hard border in Cairnryan. So he agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol. The risk now is that everything runs in the opposite direction of ‘control’.

None of this is good. Shafting the DUP is not good. A customs border in the Irish Sea is not good. All of it is worse than what we had. The only thing it is better than is trying to bring back control by imposing a hard border in Ireland, which breaks any notion that the Good Friday Agreement is a new collaborative beginning for relationships between Britain and Ireland. That way lies pariah status for the UK, a trade war with the EU and serious problems with US president Joe Biden.

So we are left with no good options, only less bad ones. We can of course export into two markets without hindrance – which we should get on with. We can mitigate some of the practical issues with supply routes through special deals, and we need to do that quickly. We can reconfigure supply lines over time, and that will happen.

But symbolically there is a border within the UK which was not there before and unionism unsurprisingly feels the chill. And there is no way to take away that bald fact unless the whole UK backs away from hard borders and nationalist ‘control’ rhetoric.

The most difficult part is that this has been obvious from the beginning. For years some of us have been trying to signal that moving away from a system [the EU] which prevents hard borders is disastrous. The predicament of unionism now is the result of not wanting to or not being able hear that and marching on regardless. The result is now a problem for all of us, not just unionism, leaving only the comfortless reality of ‘what else did you expect?’

It is to be hoped that wise heads in London, Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, and Washington will prevail. But that will require effort and attention and there is not much bandwidth for those in a Covid crisis.

But it will also require a break with the terrible logic that Theresa May pronounced after the Brexit referendum – you either come from somewhere or nowhere. Actually we here in these six counties do come from somewhere, it is just a more complicated and fragile ‘somewhere’ than national chauvinism allows.

Interdependence does not make you less. But it requires that international plans are built around complexity rather than shoehorned violently into the straightjacket of ‘us’ or ‘them’ to make them work. Not just because they are an annoying obligation, but because, in fact, making interdependence work is the only meaningful agenda for the future of everyone – and Northern Ireland is but a tiny trial run.”

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

Ireland in the 20th century contained not one rotten little state, but two

The impact of this month’s Mother and Baby Homes report came home to me personally through texts from my two daughters, both proud Irish-speaking feminists in their early thirties. “I felt deeply sad and sick to my stomach”, said one. “I’ve never felt so ashamed of this country,” said the other.

As so often, the horror of it was best articulated by Fintan O’Toole. He wrote about “the reign of terror” suffered by the young pregnant women and the “culture of fear which fused the physical and the spiritual, the social and the religious, into a single, overwhelming system of domination.” O’Toole has absolutely no doubt where the main guilt lay. “That power, for the vast majority of us, was wielded by one institution and one institution only: the Catholic Church.”

In 1969 London-based, Dublin-born journalist Alan Bestic quoted the words of a Catholic social worker about unmarried pregnant Irish girls in England:”The fear in these girls has to be seen to be believed. It is only by endless gentleness that we can persuade them that going back [to Ireland] to have their baby wouldn’t be so awful. What sort of society do you have in Ireland that puts the girls into this state?”

O’Toole tries to answer this question, acknowledging “the cruelty of Irish society, its obsessions with respectability and property, its misogyny and its snobbery, its endless capacity (honed by generations of mass emigration) to make its own realities disappear. But the driving force of this cruelty was spiritual terrorism. The sum of all fears was the dread of perdition. It was within this orbit that, as [Edna] O’Brien put it, the female body was ‘blackened by the fear of sin’. There was no such thing as ‘society’ as distinct from this domination of damnation, no neutral State beyond its reach. It pervaded everything and invaded each of our bodies. The brutal institutions of social control – industrial schools, Magdalen asylums and mother and baby homes – were the outward signs of this inward terror.”1

In the words of the great Leitrim writer John McGahern, who was driven from his job as a teacher at the instigation of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid: “In that country, individual thought and speech were discouraged…By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclamation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand… The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarean section, presumably because it was considered more ‘natural’. Minorities were deprived of the right to divorce. Learning Irish was seen as a means of keeping much foreign corrupting influence out.”

Meanwhile the country was so impoverished that in the 1950s half a million people were forced to emigrate, most of them to England. It was an irony beyond irony that this was precisely the time the Irish government chose to mount an utterly futile international campaign to end partition. Little wonder that Northern Protestants, snug in their own bigoted, anti-Catholic statelet, scoffed at this attempt to incorporate them into such a Catholic-run dystopia.

And weren’t they right? The truth is that the Republic of Ireland in the middle decades of the last century was a rotten little place, antipathetic to women, children and anybody who deviated from the path of obedience to the all-powerful Church and its servants in an inward-looking and impecunious ‘ourselves alone’ State. We have been told repeatedly what a dreadful place Northern Ireland was for the 70 years between the 1920s and the 1990s. After the seemingly endless series of recent reports into Catholic Church-related abuses of the weak, the poor and the deviant, it is surely time to confess that the independent Irish State wasn’t much better. And this is not at all to deny that similar abuses – rooted in the Victorian and post-Victorian age’s cruel attitudes to such people – also took place in the North or in Protestant-run homes in the South like Dublin’s Bethany Home.

So what are the lessons of this for those of us who would like one day to see the peoples of Ireland coming together in one constitutional arrangement? It would be easy to dismiss all these scandals as the product of a dark and bygone age, which has now triumphantly passed as the popular votes in the same sex marriage and abortion referenda have turned the present-day republic into one of Europe’s most liberal societies. However the Catholic Church, much diminished but still powerful, continues to wield huge influence – often now through clever trust arrangements – over many of the country’s hospitals and more than 90% of its schools. In the same week that the Mother and Baby Homes report was published, the former master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Peter Boylan, outlined in a letter to the Irish Times how that hospital in its brand-new form would be taken over by one of several “private Vatican controlled entities beyond the reach of the State.”2

And the Republic is not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (despite the astonishing finding of a UN survey last month that it is now the country with the second highest quality of life in the world – after Norway – when measured by income, education, health and length of life). It is one of the most unequal societies in Europe before progressive tax and welfare systems equalise those divisions considerably. It has shocking levels of child poverty, hospital waiting lists, mental illness, social housing shortages and homelessness. The Direct Provision system for asylum-seekers is a national scandal. After the Covid-19 pandemic is over – in common with many other smaller countries – it will face gargantuan and near-unsustainable levels of debt.

So maybe it is time to be a little self-reflective and lay off on the drumbeat announcements that Irish unity is inevitable and just around the corner after one or two Border Polls over the next decade (and will be the solution to all our problems). Maybe we should work for some more years to make our republic a more decent, equal and inclusive society, respectful of other cultures besides our own Irish nationalist one, before expecting Northerners to want to cast aside their Britishness (and fine British institutions like the National Health Service) to come in with us.

It cost the wealthy Germans two trillion euros for new infrastructure alone to help unite their country, with an overwhelming majority of people in favour of that outcome, very few against and people prepared to put up with significant tax increases to bring it about peacefully and harmoniously. Will we be able to muster a quarter of that sum to do the same for our country, when something like a sixth of the population – and half of the population of the present Northern Ireland – will be bitterly opposed to it (and a small number may be prepared to use violence to resist it)? And when we refuse to pay even a small but environmentally urgent water tax?

Is the message from Sinn Fein and other ‘advanced’ nationalists that we want a much closer relationship with the North for the good of all the people of the island, and are prepared to work over a period of time towards complex constitutional and other arrangements (building on the extremely complex Good Friday Agreement) to that end? Or is it rather that once we get the narrowest of narrow wins in a Border Poll, the historic British-imposed wrong of partition will be ended and we will have a unitary state that effectively takes over the North? That is what the Irish political establishment was endlessly demanding for much of the bad old 20th century (read Clare O’Halloran’s seminal book, Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism, if you doubt me). Despite their sometimes honeyed words, it seems to me that what Sinn Fein is offering is little different. And to judge by the brazenness of many Sinn Feiners in Belfast these days – supremely confident that tiocfaidh ár lá – their attitudes have not changed one iota. ‘The boot will soon be on the other foot’ is what that strutting confidence says to me.

1 ‘Spiritual terrorism created world of mother and baby homes’, 19 January

2 ‘State and church and healthcare’, Letters to the Editor, 15 January

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments