Fear is the main obstacle to the age-old dream of a peaceful united Ireland becoming a reality: unionists’ fear of Irish nationalism. In the first week of what many nationalists hope will be a momentous decade, marking major movement towards the reunification of the country, I am going to pour some cold water on the parade of unrealistic (sometimes even magical) thinking which informs that hope and expectation. I see my job in this blog in the coming years as trying in a tiny way to inject some realism into the debate – which has barely started – on how that new Ireland might come about and what it might look like.
Because little has been done to lessen the existential fears of the 900,000 Northern unionists that their worst nightmare may soon be about to happen. I would say that border region unionists in the 1970s and 1980s, when the IRA campaign was at its height, were probably the most terrorised community in western Europe. Former members of the security forces – and there are tens of thousands of unionists who served in the RUC and the UDR – fear that retribution will be taken against them for that service. Many unionist farmers, particularly in the border region, fear that the land their ancestors seized four hundred years ago, will be taken away from them. Others worry that Britain’s once much admired National Health Service and other remnants of the post World War Two welfare state will become a thing of the past. Most importantly of all, a large part of the unionist community, passionately attached to the connection with Britain, fear for their political, cultural and religious identity if they are swallowed up into a united Irish state. In the poet Michael Longley’s words, they are “terrified of Irishness.” They don’t talk about it – they have never been good talkers – but they feel that fear deep in their being. Now, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointed out before Christmas, they have ended up as a minority in four elections in succession. So the stars are against them – and that makes them even more fearful.
They see enemies everywhere: across the negotiating table they see Sinn Fein, whose military wing killed and bombed them for 30 years; in Dublin they see the Irish government, which they believe has tricked them into an economic border down the Irish Sea; in London they see Boris Johnson, the most untrustworthy British prime minister since the equally tricky Lloyd George a century ago; across the world they see friends of Irish nationalism everywhere, with few if any allies for the outdated, defensive, reactionary philosophy that is Ulster unionism. They see themselves being guided by weak and incompetent leaders, who have little aptitude for the art of compromise which is the essence of democratic politics, having little to offer other than the ‘no surrender’ battle cry of previous centuries.
People in the South, of course, who rarely if ever meet or talk to unionists, have little sense of this. Unfortunately, many people here see the North through a distorted lens which tells them that Irish nationalists and republicans are on the side of the angels – broad-minded, cultured and freedom loving people – whereas Ulster Unionists are narrow-minded, bigoted, uncultured and slavishly British. Such a view does not make for mutual respect and understanding.
There was an interesting exchange in the Irish Times over the Christmas period which was provoked by an article from the son of a former Ulster Unionist cabinet minister who had started to play the uileann pipes, but was put off by anti-British comments in the South and straight threats in nationalist Belfast.¹ In a long letter in response, a prominent Dublin piper argued convincingly that he was wrong and that piping in Ireland was open and welcoming to all (one of the finest pipers I have ever heard was Wilbert Garvin from Presbyterian County Antrim). However the Dublin piper’s argument was slightly undermined by his erroneous references to the unionist piper’s religion as ‘Church of England’. Even in the mind of Terry Moylan, that most generous and musical of men, is there an unconscious prejudice which conflates Englishness and Ulster unionism?
Having said that, this Northern Protestant with an English accent has never felt anything but a warm welcome in his 48 years of living mainly in the Republic. However I do not have to be converted to the cause of eventual Irish unity (although I believe that to have any chance of working it must secure some significant element of unionist consent). I am passionately pro-Irish, something that cannot be said about the majority of my Northern co-religionists. It is those extremely difficult people who have to be attracted to and embraced by the coming ‘new Ireland.’ My impression of the attitude towards unionists here in middle-class Dublin is that it is very far from wanting to embrace them: indifference with occasional mild hostility is how I would characterise it.
I believe Sinn Fein can have little or no role in providing that embrace. Brian Barrington, the Dublin lawyer who was Seamus Mallon’s legal adviser when he was Deputy First Minister, has argued that in a united Ireland the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, and east-west arrangements to reflect and protect the British ties and identity of British people on this island, should continue just as they are (or will be again very soon, we hope, following resumed inter-party talks yesterday).
Barrington goes on: “Northern Ireland’s place in a united Ireland tomorrow would be very much like Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom now. That is what unionists on this island must be guaranteed. It ought not to be up to unionists to seek these reassurances. Rather it is the job of nationalists to provide them unilaterally and without quibble. With some opinion polls suggesting increasing numbers in the North in favour of unity, the urgency of constitutional nationalists making this clear is greater than ever. And it is not just about planning for a united Ireland that may never happen, but also about sending a message to both main communities now: whether in a united Ireland or a United Kingdom, the need for nationalists and unionists to live and govern together as neighbours and partners will remain. So let’s get on with it.
“It is also urgent that this message comes from constitutional nationalists, and especially the main Southern parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and that it comes now. Because uncertainty breeds fear and suspicion, and given the violent history of this island, unionists have reason to be afraid. Moreover promises from Sinn Fein hold no value for unionists; and if a future Irish government with Sinn Fein as part of it makes this commitment, it will be viewed with equal suspicion. Sinn Fein may see that as unfair, but it is the toxic legacy of the armed struggle that they enthusiastically supported for so long. The commitment will only have any value if it is given by the constitutional parties. It is they, not Sinn Fein, who must write the policy for the protection of British people on this island. And they should start doing it now.”²
I notice that in an editorial last month the unionist News Letter was suggesting that unionists should start cultivating relations with Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin.³ Martin is a clever and thoughtful politician with a deep interest in the North, who has been an outspoken critic of Sinn Fein, and in particular its call for an early Border Poll. Opening a line to the Cork man who may well be the next Taoiseach would be a good place to start.
PS I would like to add my short tribute to the wonderful human being and brilliant broadcaster who was Marian Finucane, whom I was privileged to call a friend. Marian had some deep sorrows in her life. But her courage and determination to overcome her own pain in order to use the powerful medium of radio and television to give voice to many voiceless people, and particularly women, was enormously impressive. I have a particularly vivid memory of something she did for a cross-border and international event I was organising at a very difficult time for her. She and her husband John Clarke did amazing work for children suffering and dying from AIDS in South Africa – and also gave the best parties in Ireland. Suaimhneas sioraí di.
¹ ‘Uileann pipes weren’t worth a kneecapping’ and ‘The pipes, the pipes are calling’, Irish Times, 27 December and 30 December (Letters to the Editor)
² Seamus Mallon (with Andy Pollak), A Shared Home Place, pp.183-184
³ ‘Unionists should be cultivating relations with Micheál Martin’, News Letter, 23 December