Last week I had the most interesting conversation about Irish unity that I have had for many long years. It was with Alex Kane, the North’s most widely-read unionist-minded columnist: he has opinion columns in both the Belfast Newsletter and the Irish News, is a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph, and in a former life was director of communications of the Ulster Unionist Party. This most insightful of unionist commentators is rarely read or heard south of the border.
Kane believes, quite simply, that Brexit has radically changed the prospects for the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, and, quite dramatically, that “a significant section of unionism is now persuadable in terms of a possible united Ireland.”
His reasoning goes as follows. There are around 150,000 ‘soft’ unionists. These comprise overlapping categories such as secularised unionists (many of them younger people) who are unhappy with the religious bigotry and ultra-conservative sexual politics of many in the DUP; unionists who voted to stay in the EU, and middle-class unionists. After Brexit, he believes many of these people are “open to hear arguments about Irish unity in a way they wouldn’t have been before.” Many of them have probably not come out to vote since the 1998 referendum secured a majority for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Not surprisingly, there are also ‘soft’ nationalists – around 50,000 of them, Kane estimates – who until the Brexit vote were relatively content with their lot in post-Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland as part of the UK, with the border all but gone and the comfort blanket of common EU membership.
Of course these people also need to hear the counter-arguments for Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom:about the UK being a strong and tolerant multi-identity state, the kind of arguments that defeated the Scottish nationalists in their 2014 referendum. However they are not hearing these from the DUP. That party’s response to unionism losing its majority in the Northern Ireland parliament for the first time in over 95 years earlier this month, rather than to ask the reasons why, was to fall back on the age-old Pavlovian call for unionist unity, ‘a circling of the wagons’ to keep out a newly resurgent Sinn Fein. It is clear that DUP leaders haven’t even begun to think seriously about the huge existential questions thrown up by Brexit.
Pointing out that we are four years away from the centenary of the foundation of the Northern Ireland state, Kane wants his community to be talking about the meaning of unionism in 2021. “When was the last time you heard any unionist leader giving a speech about what it means to be a unionist?” he asks.” What are we going to celebrate at the centenary of Northern Ireland, after the ending of the unionist majority in the Assembly, after Brexit, after the possible independence of Scotland, with a Border Poll on Irish unity inevitable sooner or later? And at a time when it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that unionists will become a minority in Northern Ireland over the next decade?”
He believes that “Brexit has changed the ground rules for a Border Poll.” The stark choice when such a poll does happen may be between a united Ireland inside the EU and a rump United Kingdom with Scotland departed and probably ruled by a “hardline, right-wing English nationalist government in London that doesn’t give a damn about the Celtic fringe, and particularly doesn’t care about Northern Ireland.” And that could be in the aftermath of a Brexit deal with the EU that could be “horrendously bad” for Northern Ireland’s vulnerable and dependent economy.
South of the border he points to a recent rash of speeches and statements from establishment leaders, notably Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin, indicating that Irish unity is back on their agenda for the first time for many years. He thinks that if such leaders started to spell out carefully and sensitively what a united Ireland would look like in 20 or 30 or 40 years, how unionist concerns might be satisfied and how they could become partners in that new dispensation, there might be a surprising response from ‘soft’ unionism.
Sinn Fein has noticed this new movement in unionism. Its leaders are now constantly reaching out verbally to unionists, following the example of the late Martin McGuinness. Typical of this emollient language was Gerry Adams’ words at McGuinness’s funeral last week: “Let us learn to like each other, to be friends, to celebrate and enjoy our differences and to do so on the basis of common sense, respect and tolerance for each other and everyone else – as equals.” At the same time he appealed to republicans and nationalists: “Do nothing to disrespect our unionist neighbours or anyone else. Stand against bigotry, against sectarianism, but respect our unionist neighbours. Reach out to them.”
Most unionists still deeply distrust such republican appeals. Even liberal unionists I know still consider Sinn Fein the party of the IRA that bombed and killed them for 30 years, and ask why so many nationalists are prepared to vote for those who state that the murder of their unionist neighbours and security force members, albeit regrettable, was justified.
Several thoughtful unionists I spoke to in Belfast last week seemed unperturbed by Brexit, the prospect of Scottish independence or even Sinn Fein coming with a hair’s breadth of displacing the DUP as the North’s largest party. “Sanguine” is the word Kane uses for such people: “They continue to believe it will be all right on the night”. It was striking that at the DUP’s annual conference last November Brexit went almost totally unmentioned. At a Centre for Cross Border Studies conference I attended in Armagh last month on the impact of Brexit on Ireland, north and south, there were seven politicians and officials from the Scottish government, but just one unionist, the business-oriented MLA Steve Aiken. At the most recent meeting of the Loyalist Communities Council, which brings together the three main loyalist paramilitary organisations, the re-emergence of Irish unity as a real possibility was not even raised, although the SDLP’s resurrection of joint authority was (surely a classic example of missing the bigger picture!). I would describe unionist attitudes to Brexit and the other existential challenges to the North coming down the line more as “heads in the sand” than sanguine.
Kane also wonders about the symbolic impact of a sizeable number of unionists obtaining Irish passports in anticipation of a British withdrawal from the EU, “thus taking on half of another identity.” He notes that Sherlock Holmes described his method as “founded upon the observation of trifles.”
If Kane is right, and the unionist monolith is beginning to move, it will come as a surprise to most knowledgeable observers of the North. Brexit is the huge imponderable. After Brexit, Kane says that unionist politicians have to get ready for “the unexpected and the inexplicable. It has happened in the past – be prepared for it to happen again.” As for himself, this most unionist of commentators, now in his early sixties, believes that “Irish unity will be the last big political story in my active writing lifetime.”
PS That excellent commentator, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy – who is far better informed about such things than I am – disagrees with the analysis in my February blog that Fianna Fail will have to do a deal with Sinn Fein to enter government in the South after the next election. He writes:”Micheál Martin will rule out coalition with Sinn Fein during the election campaign, and will stick to that, I expect. He will not want to cede leadership of the opposition to them, even if Fianna Fail were to be the bigger party in a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition. So I guess his best plan is for a minority Fianna Fail government – not ideal, but probably his most likely route to government now. The Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition will probably come. Just not yet, I think.”