The independent presidential candidate Sean Gallagher has recently joined Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Sinn Fein among the growing list of people who have said they expect to see a united Ireland in their lifetime. The two new factors behind their confidence are, of course, the demographic trends which show that in the next few years Catholics will probably become the largest socio-religious group in Northern Ireland, and the cataclysm of Brexit.
Irish unity is an absolutely legitimate aspiration – I share it myself. However what these politicians never talk about, along with ordinary people in the Republic one hears voicing the same opinion in pubs and at parties, is how this unity is going to come about. The Good Friday Agreement says that once a bare 50% plus one majority for unity in a Border Poll (and it is unlikely to be much larger) is reached, the Westminster Parliament will legislate for British withdrawal and a united Ireland will result. But what will follow this seismic decision? What will be the governmental, public finance and security arrangements in the fraught transitional period that it will set in motion? How will violence and disorder be dealt with? In the 45 years I have lived off and on in the Republic of Ireland, I have never heard or engaged in a single conversation about this fundamental issue. There seems to be an unspoken and utterly unthinking assumption that everything will turn out for the best.
However there remains the small issue of what to do about the something over 800,000 Unionists who want nothing to do with Irish unity. These difficult people are either fiercely and proudly British; or, in the words of the distinguished political scientist and peacemaker Padraig O’Malley, what is ultimately important to them is “not their Protestantism nor their Britishness, but their unrelenting opposition to any form of association with the rest of Ireland, an opposition that transcends in its intensity and durability any possibility of accommodation.”
My belief, based on 23 years of living and working in the North, and regular conversations with unionist friends and relations, is that unless a very long drawn out transition to some form of unity is handled with enormous sensitivity and generosity, a small but significant proportion of those Unionists (and particularly the urban working class and rural Unionists who call themselves loyalists) will resist it by force.
Recently I have been reading the proceedings of the New Ireland Forum, the gathering of constitutional nationalist parties which came together in Dublin in 1983-1984 to discuss the question of unity. I was struck in particular by the contributions of two thoughtful, moderate witnesses, one from a Catholic and one from a Protestant background. Bernard Cullen grew up as a Catholic in a Protestant working class area of Belfast and would go on to become professor of philosophy at Queen’s University. Asked about what would happen in the North if some day in the future there was ever the threat of a demographic nationalist majority for unity, he said the probability – given that there were loyalists willing to kill in order to resist what they saw as rampant Irish nationalism – was that there would be “a most terrible and horrific outcome, much greater in carnage and loss of life than anything we have seen so far.”
Similarly Robin Glendinning, a playwright and Alliance Party member from a liberal Protestant background, said that if a combination of the British government, the Irish government and the Northern Nationalist community were ever to tell the Unionists “your right to consent is now over, you would be in a very dangerous situation. I believe under those circumstances the Unionists would fight.”
I believe, despite Sinn Fein’s claims to the contrary, that little has changed in most Unionists’ attitudes since the 1980s. What will happen after Brexit is another matter, extremely difficult to predict. But I agree with Cullen and Glendinning that if there is a hair’s breadth majority for unity in a Border Poll in the foreseeable future, this island will be on the brink of renewed conflict. Loyalist paramilitary organisations, which have never gone away, will do what they do best: defend their areas against nationalist encroachment, which will involve killing Catholics. With so many Unionists having a knowledge of handling arms and military tactics through service in the RUC, the UDR and the paramilitary groups themselves, there will be plenty of murderous expertise to go around. The likelihood of attacks on Southern cities and towns would be considerable.
I foresee loyalists adopting two overlapping military strategies in such a situation. There are those who would attempt to create ‘facts on the ground’, securing unionist strongholds in largely Protestant areas like east Belfast, north Down, south and east Antrim and north Armagh. Others would proclaim a ‘backs to the wall’ resistance, appealing to Ulster’s long martial tradition of beating back the Southern hordes, from Cuchulainn to the Ulster Volunteers. Famous battles like the Boyne, Derry’s Walls, the Somme and Ulster-American hero Davy Crockett’s last stand at the Alamo would be invoked.
If you think this is far-fetched and alarmist, consider the experience of a peaceful EU member state on the far side of Europe. Who in Ireland has ever heard of the Finnish Civil War? This year the people of that highly civilised country are commemorating the centenary of that terrible conflict, in which 36,000 people were killed in just six months in 1918 (compare this with the 2,100 people who died in the 1916-1923 Irish War of Independence and Civil War).
This was a conflict between socialist and communist ‘Reds’ and right-wing ‘Whites’. Interestingly, most of the ‘Reds’ aimed to create nothing more revolutionary than a constitutional democratic nation-state on the Swiss model. Only a minority wanted a Finnish Soviet republic copied from Lenin’s Russia next door (Finland had been an autonomous region of the Russian empire until it declared effective independence in July 1917 after the fall of the Tsar four months earlier).But that was not how the Finnish right saw it: they saw a Bolshevik state in the making and brought in German troops to help put it down. The result was a civil was in which wide-scale terror was used by both sides.
Two key elements of this conflict are worth noting. Compared to Russia’s other autonomous regions, Finland was a relatively egalitarian society with equal political rights, a comparatively high level of education and opportunities for upward social mobility. And one of the tragic failures of the newly independent country’s rapid slide into civil war was that it had no working government, military or police force to maintain public order as parliamentary politics were replaced by warring paramilitary groups.
The result was a maelstrom. “The paramilitary nature of the conflict helps to explain the peculiar nature of its violence, which was unrestrained by international norms of warfare,” conclude two Finnish historians, Pertti Haapala and Marko Tikka, in a recent book chapter.¹ “What made violence possible was the gradual process of state collapse in 1917 and the government’s loss of control over the monopoly of force, a process that soon began to affect civil society, the economy and everyday life, and which eroded the belief in common values and norms. In that situation the step to violence was surprisingly short: the same young people who a year previously had been enthusiastically founding reading clubs, choirs and dance groups, were now organising small armed groups willing to annihilate the enemy.” It is striking that some of the worst atrocities were carried out by paramilitary units made up of very young volunteers, sometimes even 12-15 year old schoolboys and their teachers.
Paramilitaries? High levels of education? Political vacuum? Breakdown of law and order? It all sounds depressingly familiar. Parts of Northern Ireland were close to civil war several times between the 1970s and 1990s. If we blunder unthinkingly into a Border Poll without lengthy negotiations and meticulous consultation and preparation lasting (I would suggest) at least a generation, this kind of bloody madness could easily convulse our lovely island again.
¹ Pertti Haapala and Marko Tikka, ‘Revolution, Civil War and Terror in Finland in 1918’ in War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War (Robert Gerwarth and John Horne, editors), Oxford University Press 2012