Regular readers of this blog will know that I am one of those rare Irish people – outside Sinn Fein – who thinks quite a lot about the border. I don’t talk about it much: there’s nothing more likely to put a dampener on a pub or dinner party conversation in Dublin than somebody going on about the bloody old border. ‘Spare me the North’ in the words of one middle-class Dubliner in Declan Hughes’ play Digging for Fire. Similarly, I note that when I write about the border the readership of this column goes down markedly. However one day I would dearly love to see it gone – for the reasons I outline below – although for the life of me (and in my lifetime) I don’t see how it’s going to happen.
After Sinn Fein in their Pavlovian way demanded a Border Poll following the 56% Northern Ireland vote in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union, I phoned around my liberal unionist friends to ask them if they felt that this vote indicated any weakening of unionist determination to remain part of the United Kingdom. I could find not a single one who thought that it did.
Similarly I asked everyone I met on my Belfast to Dublin walk last month (see July blog) whom I identified as being of the unionist persuasion: ‘Do you and your unionist friends and neighbours have any element of fellow-feeling with people in the Republic that might one day provide the basis for a coming together of the people North and South into a closer political relationship on the island?’ Not a single one said ‘yes’.
The most liberal unionist public representative I know puts it like this: “Very few people here nowadays think when you’re going across the border that you’re going to a foreign place you know little about. That has transformed in recent years, and people want that transformation to continue. However Northern Ireland is always going to be a bit different: not as British as Basingstoke, very different from northern England, from Scotland, from West Cork. I’ve always felt that the best place for all of us here in Northern Ireland is to stay in the union, but at the same time I’ve always wanted really good relationships, indeed firm friendships, across the border. I think we should be building unity between people in that way, rather than focusing on political unity. Once you introduce the idea of a united Ireland, the barriers go up on the unionist side.”
One reason that, in the distant future, I would like to see a coming together of the people on this island into some sort of all-Ireland state is because I fear for the Unionists in that future. I believe that the Northern Protestant and unionist community will begin to find itself increasingly isolated and friendless as the United Kingdom becomes more disunited: as more powers are devolved from London to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast; as Scotland moves inevitably to a second vote on independence; and as English nationalism becomes an important force in British politics following the exit of the UK from the European Union. I believe it is only a matter of time before politicians and people in England, in particular, begin to question the expensive link with a distant province for which they have little or no affection or fellow-feeling.
In these circumstances I hope that the people of the Republic of Ireland will reconsider a closer constitutional relationship with the people of the North, and vice versa. I stress that this is a personal hope: I see no evidence of it at the moment. One problem is that, whether it is in London or Dublin, nobody is interested in Northern Ireland these days; few people feel any warmth towards the Unionists in particular, and everybody wants to stay well clear of the North’s age-old and unchanging (or changing at a glacial pace) internecine quarrel. Stories about continuing unionist bigotry and stupidity only reinforce this determination. Two recent examples: the non-attendance by unionist political representatives in Derry at the funeral of the much-loved Catholic bishop, Dr Edward Daly; and an account from mid-Ulster of a unionist-minded farmer who explained that he had put an annual EU farm payment of £100,000 in jeopardy by voting Leave in the Brexit referendum because it would ‘consolidate the border.’
The second reason I believe it makes sense for Unionists to begin to reconsider a new and closer relationship with the Republic is because the South is now a modern, liberal, largely well-functioning society – a far cry from the backward, old-fashioned Catholic, near failing state of the 1940s and 1950s. It appears to have dragged itself back from the collapse of the Celtic Tiger to a position where it has one of the highest growth rates in Europe (discounting, of course, the crazy ‘leprechaun economics’ of a 26% rise in GDP); thriving and internationally competitive IT, pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors; more than two million people at work and nearly twice as many workers coming into the country as leaving it. Last year’s marriage equality vote seemed to show that it is now one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe. There are, of course, continuing problems of crippling international debt, deep social inequality, housing crises and an almost dysfunctional health service. But these are problems shared by many countries in Europe, not least the UK.
Making sense is one thing. Unionism’s deep feeling of insecurity as a former colonial minority on this island is another. I won’t be holding my breath for any rapid movement on the constitutional front. In any case I believe that the Good Friday Agreement’s marvellous architecture, allowing the Irish-Irish and the British-Irish to begin the painstaking and long drawn-out task of learning to live together, is the only way forward for the next 30 to 40 years at least. Increasing levels of North-South cooperation until we find we have much more in common is what we should be doing, not ill thought-out chatter about Border Polls and Irish unity.
I only ask for a sense of realism from the political leaders of my own state. It is clear that when Enda Kenny last month bizarrely added his voice to Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein in calling for a Border Poll in the wake of the Brexit referendum, he was not thinking about Irish unity at all. He was aiming his words at Brussels, where Irish diplomats have been surprised at the strength of feeling in the EU institutions that they have been a key player in the Northern Ireland peace process.
In the words of that shrewd Irish Times political analyst, Pat Leahy, the Irish Government “believes that stressing the importance of Ireland’s trading links with the UK carries much less weight with other EU countries than one that insists upon protecting the peace process.” The Taoiseach is “pursuing a strategy of putting the peace process and the North-South relationship at the forefront of the Government’s negotiating concerns as it faces a period of profound – and possibly lengthy – uncertainty between its two most important external partners, the EU and the UK.”
It is also worth pointing out that when the UK leaves the EU in a couple of years, the only government that will continue to speak up for Northern Ireland’s interests in Brussels (and maybe even in London) will be the Irish Government. Maybe that point is slowly getting through in some political, civil service, business and farming circles in the North. It will be interesting to see if there is any increase in Dublin-bound traffic by forward-thinking Northerners – including Unionists – in the coming months and years. Cross-border realism would dictate that it makes good sense for them to take this road.