A Presbyterian republican Ulsterwoman and the ‘sister states’ of Ireland


For the second year running my politician of the year is a Protestant Ulsterwoman. This year it is Heather Humphreys, Irish Minister for Arts, Culture, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, a Monaghan Presbyterian whose grandfather signed the 1912 Ulster Covenant and who calls herself a republican. And the reason? In her low key way she was the person who oversaw the success of the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Enda Kenny paid an indirect tribute to her when he wrote in the Irish Times earlier this month   “any fears that the centenary would plunge us into regressive nationalism proved unfounded…as we commemorated the iconic event of our modern nationhood, we became more outward-looking, less insular and more compassionate.” And how did we do that?  “The transformative potential of arts, culture and heritage” and “broad cultural participation” are the reasons, says the Taoiseach¹. In other words, much of the success of the year was down to the central role played by writers, artists, musicians and historians, and by ordinary people engaging in cultural rather than p0litical activities.

However for the purposes of this column I am going to suggest a radical political way in which the Republic’s leaders might break down the barriers on the island even further. For nearly a century every single political party in the Republic has held as an article of faith the belief in Irish unity. And nearly a century after the island was divided we are no nearer that utopian goal. Indeed I would argue strongly that the IRA’s campaign of violence to undo Northern Ireland’s connection with Britain – and thus against the unionist population which is fiercely attached to that connection – has only served to push it further away than ever. Talk to any liberal unionist who loves Ireland and that is what they will tell you.

50 years ago Sean Lemass was already stressing that there would be no Irish unity without a significant element of unionist consent. That requirement was written into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. However there is not a snowball’s chance in hell of unionist consent  happening any time soon, despite Sinn Fein’s posturing about pro-EU majorities and Border Polls. Short of hundreds of thousands of unionists deciding to pack up and leave the North, it will not happen in the foreseeable future  – certainly not in my lifetime (I am in my sixties).

So why don’t the South’s political leaders try something different for a change? At the moment Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s policies on the ‘national question’ are a  watered down version of Sinn Fein’s: Irish reunification to be achieved with as much or as little unionist consent as is necessary to push it over the line. My personal opinion is that Sinn Fein – the only party that has any kind of strategy for driving towards unity – sees this happening by it taking over as the largest party north of the border and growing its Dail representation in the South to the point where it holds the balance of power there, and then pressuring the British into some kind of weakening of the union. One could argue that both these targets have flatlined in recent years.

But why should the two largest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail,  continue to be paler versions of Sinn Fein on this fundamental issue? For those of us who are not unionists – but who believe that a wafer-thin majority for unity in a Border Poll is a recipe for a return to violent conflict – are there any alternatives? I would suggest that there is one. In October I read an article on commemorating 1916 by the young playwright and theatre director, Sian Ní Mhuiri, in which she wrote: “I’m not nationalistic, but Ireland is my home and I love the communities here. ‘Irishness’ has little meaning in itself; it has value when people who are sharing this island come together and build communities that tackle the problems we have and create a more inclusive, fair and equitable place for everyone in the Republic and our sister state of Northern Ireland (my italics).”²

That phrase caught my eye: “our sister state of Northern Ireland.” Why shouldn’t we in the Republic start treating our fellow Irish people in the North as citizens of a legitimate and equal ‘sister state’? After all this is not the bigoted, discriminatory Orange statelet of 50 years ago. It is a modern region with a power-sharing government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence at all levels of society and the economy. Its smartest political leaders are nationalists, as are some of its top civil society and business leaders. Its health and education systems are in many ways superior to ours in the Republic. It even has a dash of incompetence and corruption – as shown by the ‘cash for ash’ controversy – that should make people south of the border feel at home!

So here’s my suggestion for 2017. Fine Gael and/or Fianna Fail should start treating Northern Ireland as an equal rather than a failed and unreformable state. ‘Parity of esteem’, first proposed for the two communities in the North by the Opsahl Commission over 23 years ago, should be extended to the two states on the island. This should help to remove the sense of threat that most unionists suffer so grievously from. It would also make a change from the ‘parity of contempt’ that has been practiced by most politicians and people in the two jurisdictions for most of the past century: Northern unionists treating Southerners as benighted and ignorant bogmen, Southerners treating Northerners – and particularly Northern unionists – as bigoted and violent extremists. In many ways this has already started to happen since the Good Friday Agreement: I believe it’s time to take it a step further by one of the major Southern parties taking the courageous step of adopting it as an explicit policy.

It doesn’t mean giving up on Irish unity. Rather it moves the emphasis from unity coming about by the North being assimilated into the Irish state, to real unity of people coming closer together in a relationship of mutual aid and understanding and even – perhaps one distant day – affection. This may sound utterly utopian, but is it any more outlandish than believing that unionists will roll over and accept unity in the relatively near future, which is what many republicans appear to believe? And isn’t it more realistic to begin to talk about how we can work together as ‘sister states’ with important interests in common at the precise moment when external events are conspiring to raise a higher post-Brexit border between us that we will have to learn to overcome in imaginative new ways? More and more cooperation for mutual benefit between equal partners across that border until we find we have much more in common  – that should be the rallying cry.

Such a new policy turn may not lead to unity as we have traditionally understood it. But it could move us towards a more realistic ultimate goal: some form of confederation.  I incline to the view of the late Sir George Quigley, one of the North’s most insightful thinkers, who believed that before there can be any future constitutional coming together on the island of Ireland, there must be a recognition that there are “two mutually opposed ‘principles of legitimacy’ which are strongly held – one nationalist and one unionist – and some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus.” He saw the model most likely to secure such consent as a confederal one, which he called  the “most persuasively argued” of the three options in the 1984 New Ireland Forum report. “On this basis the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between North and South, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies to be specifically delegated to confederal level determined jointly by representatives from North and South.”

Quigley quoted the 1984 Report’s comment that “based on the existing identities, North and South, [a confederal solution] would reflect the political and administrative realities of the past 60 [now 95] years and would entrench a measure of autonomy for both parts of Ireland within an all-island framework. While protecting and fostering the identities and ethos of the two traditions, it would enable them to work together in the common interest.”³

Is it time to revisit the New Ireland Forum Report? A joint equal venture between sister states – could this be the basis for beginning a discussion on a new formulation of the tired old ‘national question’?

 ¹The Irish Times, 12 December 2016, p. 12

² The Irish Times, The Centenary Conversations special report, 29 October 2016, p.8

³ The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, No.8, Spring 2013, pp.27-28

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