On 23rd October, the day after the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, launched his ‘Shared Island’ initiative, I wrote the following letter to the Irish Times:
The Taoiseach’s comments at the launch of the Government’s new ‘Shared Island’ initiative, prioritising sharing the island over reunification, deserve wide support.
Despite your headline, this is not a “departure from core Fianna Fail policy of political reunification”. Mr Martin’s emphasis on building North-South relations rather than ‘Brits Out’ rhetoric is entirely in line with the policies of former Fianna Fail taoisigh like Sean Lemass, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, as well as Garret Fitzgerald, John Bruton and Enda Kenny.
It was Lemass who broke with the sterile anti-partitionism of the first 40 years of the Irish state, and changed the emphasis to seeking improved relationships with Northern unionists. It was Ahern who told his Ministers to put North-South cooperation at the top of their agendas.
Sinn Fein’s push for a Border Poll so as to achieve the narrowest possible 50.1% vote for unity is madness, running the considerable risk of re-igniting the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. In its policy papers over the past 20 years that party has not outlined a single new idea about how, if and when that happens, we are going to cope with the 49.9% of Northerners who will remain stubbornly – and often bitterly – opposed to such an outcome.
A policy built on growing North-South cooperation, and thus new and strengthened relationships in practical areas of mutual benefit – the economy, the environment, health and education – is the only sensible alternative. We should concentrate on building economic prosperity and social harmony on this island and leave the possibility of political unity to the next generation.
As Brian Cowen said wisely in 2010: “The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination – where we end up eventually – is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe. We have to make the here and now a better place, and we have to do it on the basis that we have devised a political culture that is less suspicious and fearful than ever before, that is more open to recognise the common interests we have together while respecting that we are in separate jurisdictions. We should be concerned about what it is we can do together.”
In its wisdom, the Irish Times decided not to publish this letter. The main space in the letters page in the following day’s paper was given over to nine letters about ‘sport and the lockdown’, seven of which were from golfers complaining they could not play their favourite game for six weeks. Over the following week only three letters were published in response to the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Ireland’ initiative: two on an utterly unrealistic proposal from a retired Belfast professor urging him to set up a ‘Shared Islands’ unit involving all of Britain and Ireland, and one on a batty idea for a new ‘Isles of Man’ confederation with its capital on that island.
I have to say that this is par for the course (excuse the pun) when it comes to trying to provoke some fresh or nuanced thinking in this republic about beginning to prepare for moves towards some kind of unity. The response to Micheál Martin’s effort to move Irish government policy towards “strengthening shared relationships on the island” through increased North-South cooperation, and away from the “simplistic narratives” and “the persistence of identity politics” was underwhelming at best, negative at worst. Most of the journalists who covered it – with the honourable exception of RTE’s Tommie Gorman – focussed on whether it meant a major departure from the core Fianna Fail policy of a united Ireland (Martin insisted it did not).
Sometimes I despair at the mixture of old-fashioned delusional thinking and sheer apathy that usually prevents any efforts at serious public debate on this existential topic in the South. I wrote last month about the poverty of Sinn Fein’s thinking when it comes to the extremely difficult practical steps – consultative, security, financial – which we need to discuss before we even contemplate a Border Poll.
The delusional thinking mainly concerns unionists and the likelihood that they will lie down and accept unity. Unionists are one of the most hidebound, fearful and unchanging (and martial) communities in Europe. I remember my extremely liberal mother, daughter of a County Antrim unionist family, warning me as a 21 year old back in 1969 as I headed off to join the civil rights movement: “You’ll never change them, Andrew”.
In his ‘Shared Island’ initiative, Micheál Martin is taking on the hard task of trying to change them, and particularly the younger people among them. “He was addressing the tens of thousands [of unionists] who were born after 1998,” says that insightful unionist commentator Alex Kane. “He was addressing that section of unionism worried by the consequences of Brexit and the regeneration of a particularly insular English nationalism. He was addressing those who believe that unionism, in its present guise, doesn’t represent the totality, complexity and nuance of their interests. He was addressing those who might feel more comfortable in a united Ireland than in a UK shorn of Scotland and dominated by a ‘new’ conservatism which doesn’t give a damn about Northern Ireland. It’s no coincidence that the first Shared Island Dialogue will be with ‘new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement.”1
Kane expected there would be “a number of younger people from a unionist or pro-union background who do want their voices and views heard and who may be wanting to say things that mainstream political unionism would prefer them not to say.”
Another part of the wrong-headed thinking in nationalist Ireland is the 150 year old belief that unionists are merely deluded Irish people, who just have to rid themselves of the ‘false conciousness’ that they are British. 50 years ago, as a young left-wing firebrand, I used to believe this. I have been reading a 2015 essay by a similarly left-wing Northern Protestant, Robbie McVeigh, who says that unionists have to throw off politics which are “reactionary and self-destructive” (not to mention sectarian and racist) and “accept that we are an Irish Protestant minority – accept the inevitability of reunification and begin to embrace and celebrate the positive aspects of this prospect”.2
I imagine a large number of people in the Republic – when they think about such things at all – would agree with McVeigh. The inevitability factor, that we just have to wait for the onward march of history and demography, is another disincentive to any serious consideration of the implications of the political, social and cultural upheaval that unity will cause.
The problem is that McVeigh’s thesis is unsustainable: outside a few mavericks, unionists deciding they are really Irish after all is not going to happen (and here I may differ slightly from Kane, although as a distinguished Belfast journalist from that background he is better informed about unionism than I am). After 30 years of violence, much of it aimed at destroying the link with Britain and thus undermining the community which cherishes that link above all things, it seems to me that the great majority of unionists are as attached to the union with Britain as ever (whatever about their perfidious governors in London). And despite the demographic wishful thinkers, the nationalist vote (i.e. for Sinn Fein, the SDLP and a couple of smaller parties) continues to hover at or just under 40%, as it has done for the last 20 years and more.
So unionists’ British identity appears to be as strong as ever. Another essay in that 2015 collection is by the playwright Graham Reid, son of a socialist labourer in the Belfast shipyard, and author of the Billy plays in the early 1980s, the last sympathetic dramatic portrayal of Belfast working class Protestants I can remember. In the mid-1960s Reid had joined the precursor of the civil rights movement, the Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland, and in 1974 voted for the Sunningdale Agreement. He recalled that at a reception in the Mansion House hosted by Charles Haughey, he had written ‘British’ in the nationality section of the visitors’ book. “I was roundly attacked by the then artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, but that’s what I am. Not Northern Irish/British…just British. I love Northern Ireland because it’s British. Having said that, I have very warm feelings for the Republic of Ireland…my early work was staged in Dublin. I have many friends there and respect them as Irish, so therefore expect them to respect me as British.”3
In my experience of many years of living and working in the North, that is as far as any mainstream unionist will go in opening his or her mind and heart to the rest of Ireland. That is the fragile foundation we must build on, and I believe that is what Micheál Martin is trying to do.
1 ‘Unionism at risk if it fails to prepare for Border poll’, Irish Times, 2 November
2 ”Noone likes us, we don’t care: what is to be (un)done about Ulster Protestant Identity’, in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, Thomas Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna (eds.)
3 ‘Convergence’, in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants