In his long and distinguished political career, John Hume many times gave what came to be known as his ‘single transferable speech’. He used to say that as a former teacher he realised that for even the smartest pupils, the repetition of key themes over and over again was the only way to get his young charges to take in and remember what he was teaching them. I believe there were actually two or three ‘single transferable’ Hume speeches, but the one I internalised was that any solution to the Northern Ireland imbroglio would have to have three ‘strands’: an internal Northern Irish strand, a North-South strand and a British-Irish strand. These three elements were to become the foundations of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The message of my single transferable blog is much simpler: it is that the people of the present Republic haven’t even begun to think about what reunification means for them and therefore are about as far from ready for it as one can get. In the nearly 50 years I have lived mainly in Dublin I can’t recall a single well-informed conversation with the journalists, broadcasters, academics, teachers, voluntary sector workers and theatre people who make up my friendship group about what unity might entail for the politics, economics and culture of this jurisdiction. How would bringing in 900,000 largely alienated and contrarian unionists affect our concepts of Irish identity (including our dislike of their passionate Britishness), our nationalist historical myths, our 100-year-old political institutions, our public spending bills (and reluctance to have our taxes increased to cover them), our church-controlled education system, our creaking two-tier health service, and so on?
The Oireachtas rarely essays into this difficult territory (its Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, under Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein chairmen, have used it largely as a cheerleader for rather than hard-nosed examiner of unity); the media even less so. Academics – with the occasional exception of the excellent Institute for British-Irish Studies at UCD – have largely ignored how this jurisdiction, comfortable in the relative social and economic success of the past 30 years, might be forced to change if the unionists are going to be accommodated in any significant way.
Because if we are sincere about the revised Constitution’s pledge to unite the nation “in harmony and friendship” (as approved by over 94% of the electorate in the 1998 post-Good Friday Agreement referendum), there are going to have to be some very uncomfortable changes. I have been giving a talk over the past two years (sometimes courtesy of Zoom) in very different places – from a local history society in Belfast’s loyalist Shankill Road through a group of Irish-American lawyers in New York to a dinner of retired senior civil servants, diplomats and bankers in Dublin – about the kind of changes we may have to contemplate. The rest of this blog is taken largely from that single transferable speech.
Many nationalists and republicans probably imagine – if they think about it at all – that when demographics and the consequent rise in the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland eventually bring about a narrow majority for unity in a Border Poll, unionism as a philosophy on this island will just disappear. I have to disabuse them of this foolish and self-serving notion. Large numbers of unionists, if they are voted against their will into a united Ireland which they have struggled fanatically against for the past 140 years, will continue to withhold their allegiance from that Irish state and will continue to feel, behave and declare themselves as British. They will wave the Union flag; pledge their allegiance to the British monarchy; and reject Irish language and culture as nothing to do with them. They will be a sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority, just as the nationalists were in Northern Ireland. This is not a recipe for social peace and harmony.
I know this because I come from a half-unionist background; my mother came from a strongly Presbyterian and unionist family in County Antrim. The late Seamus Mallon knew it too. He lived his whole life in Markethill in south Armagh, a 90% Protestant village. As he wrote in his 2019 book, A Shared Home Place (which I co-authored), a 50% plus one vote for unity “will not give us the kind of agreed Ireland we seek…We need both communities in any future constitutional settlement to feel they belong to their common home place in an equal and mutually respectful way.” His preference was for “some kind of confederal arrangement because I believe unionists will find it very difficult to feel any sense of loyalty to a unitary Irish state.”
This is the huge challenge we face as Brexit, demography and electoral arithmetic in the North probably move us towards some form of unity. And with the DUP now in disarray after their disastrous hard-line Brexit stand, the advent of the difficult Protocol compromise, the chaos caused by the leadership upheavals earlier this year and the complete untrustworthiness of the present British government, a Border Poll on unity – urged on by Sinn Fein – may arrive sooner than we expect.
Which brings me to ‘Irish unionism’, a relatively widespread phenomenon a hundred years ago but very thin on the ground today. Could any significant element of unionism be prepared to countenance an all-Ireland accommodation if important elements of their British ethos and culture were to survive and flourish in that new state?
Guaranteeing unionists their British ties and identity in a post-unity scenario will be extremely challenging to the complacent nationalism of the present-day Republic (where in many circles ‘unionist’ is a dirty word). But it may be the only way of bringing a significant element of unionism on board. And it is very far from the unitary state Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail have traditionally been wedded to. It seems to me to involve a constitutional system somewhere along the spectrum between federalism and confederalism, with a key continuing role for the British government. In any case these are the kind of ultra-complex arrangements – as nuanced as anything in the Good Friday Agreement – which we need to begin to discuss in this republic.
In fact, there appears to be zero discussion here about the crucial issue of what happens to the unionists at the end of the Union as we have known it. Instead, we in the Republic sail blithely into an unexamined future with a brainless consensus that in the end the good guys of Irish nationalism will win out over the Northern bigots and stooges of British imperialism, and then we will live together happily ever after in harmonious unity.
Here are a few ‘against the consensus’ ideas to start this discussion. Firstly, we have to find some way of redefining Irish unionism as a positive good with a future role on this island, rather than an unloved relic of hated British rule in Ireland. We have to start embracing what is symbolically important to unionists – as we were starting to do during recent commemorations of Irish soldiers who had fought and died in the First World War.
Shared institutions and symbols will be important here. The Republic’s political parties, and that includes Sinn Fein, have rarely, if ever, spelled out what they are prepared to offer the unionists for the sake of unity in terms of inclusive institutions and symbols in a ‘new Ireland’. Here, I suggest, is an indicative list (meant to be thought-provoking): a power-sharing regional government and parliament to continue in Belfast with all the safeguards enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (with only a few major powers such as foreign affairs, defence and some taxation now held by London being transferred to Dublin); Irish membership of the Commonwealth; the reactivation of the British Irish Council (set up under the Good Friday Agreement but largely unused) to bring together the British, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh governments with real cooperative powers and responsibilities in a number of key policy areas (for example, climate change); an agreement with London that a number of Northern politicians will continue to sit as British legislators in the House of Lords; an overhaul of the Irish Constitution to remove or tone down any remaining elements influenced by 1930s-style Catholicism and nationalism, and to include elements recognising the British identity of Northern unionists (for example, their loyalty to the British monarchy); a new flag (I suggest the symbols of the four Irish provinces, or more provocatively, the present tricolour with a small Union Jack inserted in the orange band, in the way Australia does with its flag); a new, non-militaristic national anthem (perhaps the all-Ireland rugby anthem Ireland’s Call); a new system of state education (including an end to compulsory Irish) and a new free, single-tier health service without Catholic Church involvement.
Will the people of the Republic of Ireland be able to stomach such radical changes? After a hundred years of independence I don’t believe so. But these are ways in which we can begin to persuade unionists that they are really wanted in the ‘new’ Ireland – and at the very least we need to start discussing their merits and demerits. At the moment the great majority of unionists don’t feel any identification with or fellow-feeling for the 26 county Irish state: for many – perhaps most – of them it remains a threatening foreign country. As that most liberal of men, former Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, after defining himself as a ‘Brit’, puts it: “What I haven’t heard from nationalists is that ‘We want you in this new dispensation and here’s why…Somebody has to explain to me why we’ve gone from ‘Brits Out’ to ‘Brits In.’1
We have to find some ways in which Irishness and unionism can comfortably co-exist. A good example of this is the sterling work of Linda Ervine (former UVF leader David Ervine’s sister-in-law) in the teaching and learning of Irish in loyalist East Belfast. She argues that the Irish language – linked as it is to Scots Gaelic and Welsh – can be a healing element in the British Isles.
We have to start carefully examining the kind of multi-cultural federations and confederations which seriously commit to co-existence (however difficult and inadequate) between people with clashing concepts of self-determination within the same constitutional polity. We could start by looking at the French and Flemish in Belgium, and English and French speakers in Canada.
Then there is the enormous financial cost of unity. In a 2019 paper, the distinguished economists John Fitzgerald and Edgar Morgenroth (among the few Southern economists, along with my friend John Bradley, to have seriously studied the Northern economy) concluded that because of the poor state of that economy and its heavy dependence on financial transfers from London, unification would be “exceptionally expensive” for the Republic.
“Irish unity, if it involved ending transfers to Northern Ireland, would produce a dramatic
fall in the standard of living there. Alternatively, unification where Ireland took over responsibility for the transfers to Northern Ireland, would necessitate a major cut in the standard of living in Ireland of 5% to 10% in order to allow Northern Ireland to maintain a standard of living between 10% and 20% above the Irish standard of living. Whatever form Irish unity took there would be a heavy economic cost for both Northern Ireland and Ireland.”2 When did you last hear a serious public or media discussion about these alarming projections? The answer is never.
The lengthy discussion we need to have in the Republic about all these issues will be an extremely difficult one. To those who say that all the concessions are being made in the one direction, I would respond – echoing the respected Derry nationalist Denis Bradley – that we in the South have to be generous because it is we who are doing the wooing, and wooing a very reluctant swain.
Perhaps the most difficult discussion of all will be about the requirement – in a republic that cast off British rule after a war of independence a century ago – to talk about what kind of continuing British involvement in Ireland we can live with for the sake of the peace and harmony of the whole island. That, for many unionists, will be a sine qua non. For many republicans and nationalists it will be a huge step too far. And of course, this vital dimension will not work if the British, as they move out of the EU into their own strange post-imperial, post-European orbit, want nothing more to do with us.
1 Seamus Mallon, A Shared Home Place, p.159
2 The Northern Ireland Economy: Problems and Prospects. https://www.tcd.ie/Economics/TEP/2019/tep0619.pdf