I had an interesting dinner with five political science students from Trinity College Dublin last month at which we discussed Irish unity and Southern Irish attitudes to it. I had met them three weeks earlier when I was giving a guest lecture at TCD and had asked the assembled students if any of them would be interested in talking to me further about these topics for a book idea I was researching. Eamon and Molly from Dublin, Martin from Cork, and Geraldine and Maurice from Limerick (not their real names) agreed to join me.
In the first instance, what I wanted to get their reactions to was a blog I had written last November entitled ‘My single transferable blog: the people of the South are not ready for reunification.’ My thesis then could be summed up in the following paragraph: “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.”
All of them appeared to agree with this provocative sentiment, although Maurice remarked: “I really wanted to disagree with you but in the end I agree 100%.” He said he had spoken to “incredibly nationalistic friends” and found they had not at all considered what would happen to the large number of angry, alienated Unionists who would have to be included in a ‘new Ireland’ after a narrow majority for unity in a Border Poll. His conclusion was: “What’s wrong with the way things are right now? We’re living in peace in the South and relative peace in the North. I wouldn’t vote for a united Ireland. I would let sleeping dogs lie.”
Interestingly, Maurice also said: “I’ve a pretty strong national identity. I feel very Irish. However the idea of changing what our country is about to accommodate British colonisers [i.e. Unionists coming in from the North] doesn’t sit right with me. I’m happy with the way things are now.” Several of the others agreed with him about feeling uneasy about bringing “British colonisers” into a united Ireland.
“On the other hand people from the North shouldn’t be punished or ostracised because of their attachment to British culture,” said Molly. “Even though Catholics and Nationalists were treated badly in Northern Ireland (and Unionists have historically wielded the tool of national identity against those who did not want to be British), we have to make sure that our own sense of Irish nationalism doesn’t recreate those same harms to Unionists, people who feel British in the run-up to, and maybe in the aftermath of, reunification.”
Molly felt that while we were no longer being actively colonised, “the lasting effects of colonisation and partition are undoubtedly still felt around the island,” and any discussion on preserving or reshaping national identity had to be conscious of this context and “why symbols of national identity matter so much in the first place.” She said “imposing a national identity on those who do not want it is dangerous…national identity always involves the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others.” She went on: “We have seen over the centuries the harm and violence that came with the forced imposition of British identity and culture on this island – the lesson of that should not be that Britishness is bad (though in many ways it sort of is), but rather that nationalism is almost always exclusionary and usually violent – it cannot be nurtured peacefully or respectfully.”
Geraldine said there had been “a big resurgence in Irish identity, based on pride in our economic success over the past 20-30 years.” She wondered if the strong British ties of Northern Unionists were seen as a threat by many people in the Republic. Personally, she would not want “to adapt in any way to British culture, even if that was the price of bringing some significant element of Unionists” into a united Ireland. “We were under the British for so long – now that we’ve got our own successful Irish identity, we wouldn’t want to let that go.” She felt the old British (or rather English) tendency to look down on the Irish had flipped, with the Irish, as economically successful Europeans, now feeling rather superior. “Unity [including the Unionists] would take a lot of unpacking of unconscious biases we have, that even young people have,” she admitted, giving as an example the shouts of ‘Up the Ra’ in Dublin night-clubs.
They all agreed that the extreme conservatism of Northern unionists – led by the DUP – on issues like same sex marriage and abortion reform was particularly off-putting for young Southerners. Eamon said he had a republican friend living in a unionist area in the North who talked about “male prayer groups out in the streets protesting about abortion and gay rights – how much more unattractive can you possibly appear?” He also noted that when it came to places to travel to, Northern Ireland was low down on most young Southerners’ lists: “they see it as a really desperate place.” Noting that not so long ago the Republic was a very conservative, Catholic society, but had changed radically in recent years, he asked why the same thing had not happened in the North.
Eamon appeared to articulate what to this writer is the overwhelming opinion of ‘middle Ireland’.”A united Ireland would be great at some point, but many people here think that overcoming the housing and health service crises is far more important, and to take on unity as well would be just too much.”
Molly said if she was a Northerner worried about paying the mortgage or the rent, she would look at an Irish government that did not seem to care about people who were homeless or hopelessly seeking a place to live, and say: “Sort yourselves out and start running a functioning country where young people in danger of homelessness can get a house. The Republic of Ireland is not exactly a Utopia either, is it?”
Three of the five would vote Sinn Fein in any future election (the other two would vote Labour or Social Democrat). But they all agreed that most young people would vote Sinn Fein, not out of any belief in imminent unity, but because the “historic duopoly” of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael had been in power for ever in the Republic, and Sinn Fein – for all their aggressive, populist rhetoric in opposition – should be given the chance to get into government to see if they could do better at tackling housing and health. “We’ve never had a left-wing party running the country”, said one.
However they also agreed that, in Molly’s words, Northerners were “accustomed to living with the National Health Service, with a far better level of services than the HSE.” She hoped she was not being too optimistic in hoping that bringing into the Irish electorate a large number of people who were used to better health and social services, “unaffiliated with religious organisations, would make it much easier to generate the political will to advocate for increased investment in social services…Many Unionists may be entirely unwilling to identify as Irish, but I think when it comes to healthcare, housing, energy costs and other basic needs, it becomes increasingly clear that, regardless of ideology, many of us want the same things.”
Similarly, they wondered what education would look like in a united Ireland if there was no Catholic Church involvement. Young people in the Republic felt such involvement was normal, “but for most of the world it isn’t – students coming from abroad to study here think it’s very strange.”
Martin said young people learned nothing about Northern Ireland at school: “the Leaving Cert history course was completely one-sided. We complain that the British are not educated to know about Ireland, but we have a nationalistic history syllabus ourselves.” He had grown up hearing “awful stories” from his parents about the ‘Troubles’: “they were seeing the news every day about people being murdered there – that leaves an indelible mark on your outlook about these things.” Not surprisingly, he was the only one of the five who voiced concerns about Sinn Fein’s past links with the IRA. At the same time he was in favour of eventual unity and voiced concern about possible changes in national symbols like the flag and anthem.
“I wonder how much current and younger members of Sinn Fein identify with that [the IRA]. I have a lot of friends who are Sinn Fein members – I don’t want to write them off because of the actions of their predecessors,” said Maurice.
Molly compared Sinn Fein and the IRA with Fine Gael and the fascist Blueshirts in the 1930s:”the reason I don’t point the finger at lifelong Fine Gael voters is that those wrongdoings are no longer relevant, they have passed out of living memory. The same process has happened for our generation with Sinn Fein.” There was general hilarity at the thought of the bespectacled intellectual Eoin O Broin as an IRA gunman.
Eamon said the two main things people in the South worried about when faced with the prospect of the North coming into a united Ireland were firstly, if badly managed, reunification could see a return to violence; and secondly, concern about Dublin having to take over the £10 billion annual subvention from the British treasury to maintain Northern Ireland’s services (“although I don’t even know if that’s a true figure”). However, Maurice thought that a newly prosperous Republic could now cover the British subvention. “Yes, we could. Would we want to? Maybe not.”
I came away from that dinner conversation cheered at the thought that such a smart and impressive group of young people could be running this country in 20 years, even though they shared much of the confusion (and naivety) of their elders when it came to ignorance about the North (and unionism, in particular) and confidence in Sinn Fein as a future left-wing governing party focussed above all else on housing and health. I found their emphasis on the British colonial thinking of Northern Unionists as an unacceptable legacy of the unhappy history of colonialism in Ireland particularly enlightening. Perhaps as somebody from a Northern Protestant background brought up largely in Britain – albeit in a strong Labour household – I have tended to under-estimate the strength of this feeling in Irish young people: real (if not uncritical) pride in an Irish nationalism which a hundred years ago took on the might of the British empire and won independence by force of arms; and, after many years of stagnation and disillusion, has belatedly made a significant success of that independence. Whether it will help us bring about a harmonious united Ireland is another matter. However, as a man in my seventies, I came away certain that it would do me nothing but good to talk to young people like these about such things more often.