Northern Ireland Protestants and unionists get a universally bad press. They are portrayed as narrow-minded, bigoted, right wing and often racist. They have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept the modern concepts of power-sharing democracy, social equality and parity of esteem. Much of this is true; some of it is the product of a world-class Irish republican propaganda machine.
Northern Catholics and nationalists, on the other hand, have usually been presented as being on the side of the angels: cut off from their fellow-Irish people by an arbitrary border drawn by British imperialists; discriminated against and downtrodden by their unionist rulers; struggling bravely for their civil rights. Much of this is also true, although it tends to leave out the support many of them gave to a ferocious 30-year-old terrorist campaign by the Provisional IRA against the Northern Ireland state, its defenders and many of its ordinary citizens.
So I was depressed – although not completely surprised – by the ungenerous reaction of leaders of that nationalist community to the generous offer by Seamus Mallon in his just-published book, A Shared Home Place (of which I was co-author) that Irish unity should wait until a majority, or at least a significant minority, of unionists could be persuaded to support it – ‘parallel consent’ he calls it. This was in striking contrast to the warm response the book received from nearly all quarters south of the border.
The rottweiler columnist of the nationalist Irish News, Brian Feeney (himself a former SDLP councillor), went for the jugular. He focused on pouring scorn on the mechanics of Mallon’s specific proposal of how ‘parallel consent’ might work in a referendum (admittedly one of the book’s weaker elements). This he dismissed as ‘absurd and ridiculous, damaging and daft.’ Mallon’s proposals, he said, are ‘carefully designed to make Irish unity a practical impossibility.’¹
There was no attempt to go beyond the jugular to the whole body of Mallon’s argument: that a premature Border Poll might deliver a narrow and completely unworkable majority for unity, reversing the historic situation of Northern Ireland so that a ‘united’ Ireland would capture a similarly sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority. He urged political leaders to seek some better way to quantify consent so that it reflected true parity of esteem – one of the cornerstones of the Good Friday Agreement – between unionists and nationalists. This would require generosity from a Catholic and nationalist community whose growing numbers mean it is moving into the ascendant. This generosity could take two forms: first, by not pushing for unity until there is a wider and deeper acceptance of it among unionists; and second, by a willingness to put forward an arrangement more congenial to unionists that is some way short of a unitary state.
Brian Feeney is one of those extremely unwise nationalists who wants unity as soon as possible – and damn the consequences. He foresees a nationalist ‘voting majority’ in a mere four years², a contention that is totally unsupported by the demographic evidence.
Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is a shrewder observer. In his review of the book in the New York Irish Echo, he clearly understood Mallon’s main point, although, extraordinarily, he claimed that Mallon, far from being one of the main architects of the Good Friday Agreement, was ‘not a big fan’ of that historic accord.
He went on: ‘The thrust of Mr Mallon’s argument is that a united Ireland born out of a unity referendum with a narrow majority risks a re-run of the past with the boot placed on the other foot. That nationalists and republicans would do to unionists what was done to us for generations. His argument is spurious and offensive. I know of no nationalist or republican who believes for one instance that we are so stupid, so narrow-minded, so bigoted, so driven by hatred, as to do that.’³ A Northern Protestant response might be: that didn’t stop the republican movement killing many hundreds of Protestants, in uniform and out of it, during the 1968-1998 ‘Troubles’.
But the most dispiriting message following the publication of the book came from a Northern nationalist acquaintance whom I know to be a thoughtful and highly intelligent man. He said Mallon was ‘way out of touch’ with nationalist thinking. ‘He belongs to a kind of “cap doffing” era of nationalism where unionism impressed their opinions on doormat nationalism. They [nationalists] had to fight for the political crumbs.’
‘Not any more. For those in the nationalist community these days are long past that. They want the cake. There is a growing number, anecdotally at the very least, which wants to know the logic of the argument that if 50% plus one is enough to maintain the union, why is it not enough to achieve a united Ireland? Are nationalist votes of less importance than those of the unionist community?’
‘The DUP’s arrogance has changed moderate opinion. Most well educated nationalists are not “crocodiles”. They are pissed off by the DUP attitudes to Brexit, by its disrespect to the Irish government and the Irish people, and so much more. You can feel it in everyday attitudes. Unionists can talk about their “precious union”, but nationalists talking about unity is threatening.’
This man said he got a call recently from a former SDLP councillor who called Mallon ‘a green unionist’. He concluded by stressing that he was ‘on the record as an admirer of Seamus Mallon.’
In a follow-up message he said: ‘The DUP arrogance and disrespect in regard to Brexit has been a game changer for many “civic nationalists”. At the Waterfront Hall in Belfast about four months ago “suit and tie” nationalists – solicitors, teachers, middle managers – gathered and the anger in the room was palpable. That has to be addressed in some way.’
A mixture of anger and entitlement is always a dangerous thing. Northern nationalists are angry, ‘they want the cake’ of Irish unity and won’t settle for anything less. That is a powerful and alarming message to Ulster unionists. It also reveals a striking lack of generosity and unwillingness to compromise with their unionist neighbours and fellow-citizens in order to help them come to terms with an eventual ‘new’ Ireland.
The slightly mocking epithet – MOPE (the Most Oppressed People Ever) – was invented by a Queen’s University Belfast historian, Liam Kennedy, to describe the deep and enduring sense of grievance felt by Northern nationalists. Maybe MUPE – the Most Ungenerous People Ever – would be a more appropriate way of describing many in that community’s response to Seamus Mallon’s generous attempt to open up debate about the road to unity.
¹ ‘Mallon’s numbers game doesn’t add up’, Irish News, 29 May 2019.
² ‘Brexit lights touch paper for next firestorm – the push for Irish unity, Irish Times, 23 April 2019.
³ ‘Unity is about more than a numbers game’, Irish Echo, 23 May 2019.