I was at the big Ireland’s Future ‘Preparing for a United Ireland:Together we can’ event at Dublin’s 3 Arena earlier this month. There was very little ‘preparing’ in the proceedings – it was more like a ‘Forward to the Promised Land’ rally, with not a voice raised in dissent. Well, maybe one: Fine Gael leader and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, while saying he believed in a united Ireland, then suggested that the existing structures of the Good Friday Agreement – internal power-sharing, North-South bodies and East-West cooperation – should be strengthened and deepened after reunification. He was booed by a section of the nearly 5,000 strong audience.
Maybe it was his remarks immediately before that which annoyed these people. He said some eminently sensible things. “There is a distinct danger that we could focus too much on a Border poll and on future constitutional models, and not enough on how we enhance engagement, build trust and create the conditions for a convincing majority for change.
“So we need to engage with unionists and that growing group who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish, and indeed those who identify as both. We also need to acknowledge the right of Northern nationalists to have equal recognition in the debate.
“We can’t build our future based on narrow majorities or on the wishes of just one community. For these reasons, I believe the objective should be to secure as large a majority as possible in both jurisdictions in any future poll. 50% plus one may be enough on paper, but won’t be a success in practice. Our only hope depends on presenting a proposal – North and South – that will be able to achieve democratic consent. This will involve compromise.
“It involves accepting a form of unification that is more inclusive and imaginative, one that can achieve the greatest measure of democratic support, and therefore legitimacy, and have the greatest chance of success. We need something that can evolve and deepen in time. And we need to remember that the next step doesn’t have to be the final word.”1
The most impressive things about the rally were the large numbers attending, and the wide range of speakers. In its accompanying glossy 130 page brochure-cum-report, Ireland’s Future said that the first phase of its campaign – “the debate on Irish reunification” – had been successful: “moving this discussion from the relative margins to the mainstream of Irish public life.” The range of speakers from every political party in the South – including non-nationalist parties like the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, the Green Party, People before Profit and the Workers Party – testified to that in spades. There were speakers from IBEC, ICTU, the Irish Farmers Association and the National Women’s Council, and diplomats from 10 countries in the audience.
It was there too in an extraordinarily uncritical editorial in the Irish Times, that pillar of the Southern establishment. This opined:”Ireland’s Future is dedicated to creating an island-wide discussion on a united Ireland in the belief that preparation is required for increasingly likely referendums. Its profile is nationalist to unionist eyes, despite its non-partisan stance and credentials, because it chooses unity over any existing or renewed United Kingdom future for Northern Ireland.”2 Ireland’s Future is surely nationalist in anybody’s, not only unionists’, eyes. If that is so, where is the evidence for its “non-partisan stance and credentials”? And where were “the wide variety of potential future Irelands raised at the meeting”? The editorial writer clearly was at a different meeting to the one I attended. As far as I could see and hear, only one potential future Ireland was on offer there: a politically united one. The other obvious option – the continuation of the existing Good Friday Agreement institutions within the UK – was not raised once. Federation, confederation and joint authority were other unmentioned possibilities.
The secretary of Ireland’s Future, Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy, has angrily rejected any suggestion that his organisation is a front for Sinn Fein: “There is absolutely no basis whatsoever in fact or fiction for that ridiculous assertion”, he says.
But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we should ask ‘Cui bono?’ Because Ireland’s Future has the same aim as Sinn Fein: a politically united Ireland, with “the people of this island fully united and independent for the first time ever”. It makes the same main demands of the Irish government: an all-Ireland Citizens’ Assembly, followed by a government White Paper. It finds it similarly difficult to use the internationally recognised name Northern Ireland (except in inverted commas). It argues, like Sinn Fein, that a 50% plus one majority in a Border poll is sufficient under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and expresses dismay at “sustained and ongoing efforts to offer unionism a veto over progress, either before or after the referendums…we reject attempts to smuggle a unionist veto into the process or give unionism multiple opportunities to block change” (presumably a reference to the suggestion by people like Bertie Ahern and the late Seamus Mallon that a weighted majority in a referendum may be needed before successful unity can be achieved).
It shares the same weaknesses as Sinn Fein, weaknesses that were fully on show in the 3Arena. I did not hear a single new idea about ‘preparing’ for unity. There was nothing about the multiple and extremely complicated issues required to marry two inadequate health services. There was nothing about how two education systems that have gone their dramatically different ways in the past century (differences which the people of the two jurisdictions are almost entirely ignorant of) might be brought together. Above all, there was nothing about the major compromises necessary if a significant number of unionists, with their passionate Britishness, might be attracted to this new and united Ireland: on the symbols of that Britishness, such as membership of the Commonwealth; on continuing British involvement in a united Ireland in order to protect unionists (perhaps along the lines of the Irish involvement in the North in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement); on specific policies that might improve the North’s economy in a united country; and so on.
The event brochure was no more helpful. Apart from the obvious outline of aims and objectives, it contained a long, dense and difficult to follow account of ‘rights, citizenship and identity’; an economic chapter full of material about how woeful the North is now and how splendid it will be after unity; a health chapter claiming that an all-Ireland ‘Slaintecare’ (still very far from being implemented in the Republic) will be the “perfect foundation on which to build a world class, outstanding health service”; an article on social security by a sociologist whose statistics I have questioned in the past; an extraordinarily badly-written section on sport; and a short section (less than half the length of the section on sport) on climate change and ecology – a cynic would say that Sinn Fein are similarly careless about this, overwhelmingly the most pressing issue in the world today.
Maybe I am that cynic. One thing I am not cynical about is Sinn Fein’s capacity to organise, strategise and propagandise. As Irish Times political editor, Pat Leahy, puts it (when forecasting once again that the party will head the next Irish government): “In two decades of covering Irish politics, I have never seen anything like its message discipline. Its organisation on the ground, backed by extensive research, is formidable and its online campaigning is simultaneously vicious and effective.”3
In the North, Sinn Fein and its allies are now battering the unionists and the British on multiple fronts. In May’s Assembly election we saw the SDLP losing a significant number of voters in the form of people who wanted to ensure that Michelle O’Neill would become the first ever nationalist First Minister. Very moderate border region nationalists of my acquaintance have been provoked into campaigning by the existential threat of a new Brexit-produced border. Irish language activists have mobilised in their tens of thousands to secure an Irish Language Act. And Sinn Fein has told its activists not to get involved in the protests against the British government’s much-condemned legacy legislation because the victims and legacy groups are leading that fight very effectively as it is.
It has to be said that the Republican movement were better than their loyalist adversaries (and the British) at war and terrorism. And they are now proving to be far better at peace and politics.
So I do think we are asking the wrong question. Whether or not Sinn Fein are behind Ireland’s Future, they are doing their work for them. The five Northern Protestants, led by TV star Jimmy Nesbitt, who appeared on the programme at the 3Arena (a courageous public stand that would have been unthinkable even 10-15 years ago) must have found it far easier to align themselves alongside Ireland’s Future, with its unbloodied past, than with the party of the IRA. Similarly for the leaders of non-republican Southern parties who were on the platform. This newish, broad-based movement can thus do things on the march towards Irish unity that Sinn Fein can’t do. And that suits Sinn Fein down to the ground – they can see emerging the kind of pan-nationalist front that Gerry Adams used to dream about back in the early 1990s, this time untarnished by the violence of the past.
Indeed, Ireland’s Future could do much better if it really wanted to attract more Northern Protestants to its all-Ireland standard. Instead of effectively being Sinn Fein ‘fellow travellers’, it could put a bit of distance between it and SF by genuinely exploring some of the issues of concern to that community (such as I have outlined above). But there is little or no chance of that so long as its leadership is made up of the kind of passionately partisan Northern nationalists that it has at present, people who believe as an article of faith that tá ár lá tagtha (‘our day has come’).
1 I have some doubts about whether Varadkar’s speech, as actually delivered, contained all these paragraphs. But this was the version of his speech issued by Fine Gael.
2 ‘Ireland’s Constitutional Future: A debate worth engaging with’, 5 October
3 ‘Three tasks face Sinn Fein as it contemplates power’, 8 October
Great article again Andy, although not very optimistic. It doesn’t bode well!
I wasn’t at the conference, hold no candle for Sinn Fein, and simply don’t know whether “Ireland’s Future” is a front for Sinn Fein, or representative of a much broader pan-nationalist consensus. However, I do think it is as unrealistic to expect nationalists to discuss options for strengthening the union with Britain as it is to expect unionists to fully engage with a discussion of how a UI might be a better option for NI. Both unionists and nationalists claim to have a solution for every problem, for others it becomes a task of teasing out the merits of either plan.
But there is a third group of people, both north and south, who are crucial to the debate: People who are neither cultural or political nationalists or unionists but who want a better future of all the people living on this island. They will be the crucial swing vote in any referendum, possibly in the south, and certainly in the north.
It is possible, for example, to make the case that an island with one sovereign jurisdiction, within the EU, with a consist economic policy, and an all-Ireland industrial, agricultural, environmental, educational and healthcare policy and administration would be better able to deliver for the interests and benefit of the vast majority, north and south, than current arrangements, and you don’t have to be a nationalist or a unionist to make that case.
And it is also not possible to spell out the details of how all of that would operate in advance, because in a functioning democracy the details of policy are being tweaked all the time, in response to changing circumstances and democratic demand. Those who want certainty in all things are living in the past, because only the past is unchanging.
The full details of how a UI would operate will only emerge if and when the civil services of both jurisdictions fully engage to come up with better solutions to current environmental, energy, healthcare, infrastructural and economic problems. The solutions need to be demand led rather than provider interests focused. Hopefully they will be transformative, rather than simply an amalgamation of inefficient and incompatible systems. The current over-centralisation of governmental systems, for instance, should be transformed so that virtually every government service should be available everywhere on-line, supported by local based citizen’s advice and help centres.
There is currently no sign of either administration, north or south, doing so on a broad-based or consistent basis. Both are consumed by narrow self-interest and parochial concerns. Neither government is really interested. In Britain’s case for fear of furthering the break-up of the UK, in Ireland’s case, for fear of upsetting the cosy applecart of a polity and economy doing rather well, actually, certainly as far as the political elite is concerned. Who needs northern politicians, of any stripe, interposing their intransigence, inflammatory rhetoric, sectarian attitudes and huge dependency on a Westminster subvention to put that success at risk?
If unionists had anything positive to contribute, they would be more than welcome. The fact is, very few have. Even the Alliance party seems to be happy to sit pat on the status quo. Let others do the heavy lifting of coming up with a better offer, and if so, they might deign to consider it. Otherwise, passivity is the name of the game, even as the DUP attempt to destroy N. Ireland’s access to the Singe Market.
And I don’t buy the assumption that all of this is to the benefit of Sinn Fein. They may be the top dogs in a divided Ireland, but their primary raison d’etre will be destroyed if a UI is ever achieved. They will be judged, like any other ruling party, on their delivery of benefits to the electorate, and will be reduced to bit part players, like Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, the SDLP and the UUP before them, if they fail to deliver the benefits they can now so easily promise.
Indeed, if unionists had a titter of wit, they would be building alliances with fellow conservative parties, north and south, to ensure that any UI would represent the minimum of change from the current status quo, delivering mainly symbolic change while the real interests of current elites are carefully protected. South Africa remains the most unequal society on earth 30 years after the end of Apartheid. The names and faces of the ruling party may have changed: the economic system and those who benefit remains largely the same. Many of the new black rulers are as self-interested as their white predecessors ever were.
But the failure of NI is the failure of unionism writ large. A failure to reach out, to engage, to be generous to their opponents, to give everyone a stake in the status quo. Whingeing about themums doing better is about par for the course. There is no sign of a protestant Mandela on the horizon to ease a difficult transition on a peaceful course to whatever future the people of Ireland, north and south, ultimately decide is in their best interests. Nostalgia for a Great Britain that is no more will not get them very far.
If unionists had a positive contribution to make, there is nothing stopping them making it either now or in the future. A conference on “Great Britain’s future” would be a start. Would it be any better attended? Would nationalists even be invited? Would it have any more convincing message? Would it be seen as just a front for unionist parties including those with a close association with violence even now?
Just what is the case for the union in 2022? Estrangement from Europe and the USA? Hostility towards and yet dependency on Russia and China? Almost non-existent trade with the Commonwealth and the Pacific rim? The destruction of the NHS and the social welfare system? Exacerbation of inequality and class conflict? Dependency on food banks and charity shops? The alienation of Scotland once their oil reserves are exhausted? Almost complete disengagement from N. Ireland?
Sniping from the side-lines is all very well, but you have to engage with history if you want to help change it. There would have been nothing stopping the Alliance party, for instance, accepting an invitation to both Ireland’s Future and Arlene Foster’s mooted “Britain’s Future” conference. The responsibility for their nonparticipation is theirs and theirs alone. Trying to put the blame on the organisers of Ireland’s future is impotent whataboutery at its best. You don’t get to have a say on Ireland’s future unless you make the effort to say it. Whingeing that others have gone ahead without you is like blaming the bus driver when you were late for the bus.
Well done as usual, Andy. You speak of ‘The other obvious option – the continuation of the existing Good Friday Agreement institutions within the UK’. That notion wasn’t obvious to me, and seemed like a bright idea when it came to me. If it is so obvious, why is no one promoting it, as I believe Unionists should be doing.
Usual ‘shadow of a gunman’ trope trotted out by a member of Ireland’s meja commentariat. Allied soon no doubt soon, if not already, to alarming depicitions of civil society groups like Ireland’s Future as ‘naive dupes’, demonstrably, whether begrudging journalists care to admit it or not, the formation of Ireland’s Future reflects a popular groundswell for the creation of a unitary state. Among the burgeoning number of movers, shakers and supporters for Ireland’s Future (and other subjunctive bodies like it) Sinn Fein are hardly in hiding.
What Pollak here typifies is a genre of hubristic nostalgia for the Heroes & Villains simplicities of the dominant Troubles-era narrative in which Irish republicanism can reliably be painted as the cause of all the trouble. Sadly, for Pollak and his cohort of naysayers, as the establishment parties of the 26 county state are slowly learning to their cost, the fable of a big bad extremist provo wolf in sheep’s constitutional clothing just doesn’t any longer persuade or greatly concern many Irish people, north or south (apart that is from unionists with whom Pollak effectively makes common cause). And the reason for this uninterest is that contemporary society has moved on while liberal unionists and Irish Tories remain locked into a past over which they’ve lost authorial control.
Brexit changed the conversation in Ireland (and Scotland), Andy. A vote for indyref2 or reunification in Ireland is as much about staying in the EU now as it is leaving the UK.
It will be non-aligned voters, in NI, that will decide any border poll. They don’t care about flags, they just care about jobs, health, education & opportunities.
As an aside, I watched a lot of the Future Ireland event online and was struck by the obvious absence of flags.
I see Unionists are joining the same discussion, albeit in a different room, with their Together UK event in London next month. The future of the UK, post brexit, is the biggest political issue over the next decade for the two Islands.
Perhaps the question remains whether Sinn Fein with its electoral mandate remains effectively a front for the Provisional IRA which had or has not a popular mandate? Or, a previous comment here suggests, is that still the wrong question? ___
Separately, think a division that posits ‘nationalists’ on one side and unionists on the other, misses the simple reality that unionists are nationalists too.
As with many things in Ireland, how one elects to interpret the meaning of the historical past is moot, notably in the question of what constitutes legitimacy. Ireland was forcefully partitioned by the colonial power, acting in the ostensible interests of an insurgent protestant conservative resistance in the north (the descendants of the 17th century colonial settlement; the object of which was to dispossess the native Irish, through imposition of Scots and English planters) and directly contrary to the democratic ‘mandate’ of the whole of the Irish electorate as expressed in the 1918 general election. The subsequent war of independence, to expel the British Empire, was fought on this manifest popular will. Of course what the British meant and mean by legitimate is purely a matter of what served their colonial interests – as evidenced not least in their pernicious behaviour in Palestine in the period of ‘the British mandate’. But Might isn’t always right and truly only tory and unionist historians regard British imperial will to power as more legitimate than the popular demand of colonised peoples to exercise their right of self-determination.
The purported claim of Ulster unionism to be a discrete northern Irish nationalism, you’ll surely be aware, is by no means straightforward or uncontested, not least as they – the colonial-settler, Orange core – disavow it themselves in favour of what DW Miller (The Queen’s Rebels, 1978) calls a ‘contractarian’ allegiance to the British crown. And for this reason, in comparative context, John Whyte ascribed Ulster protestantism’s peculiar form of tribal belonging, a type of ‘no-nation’ mentality (Interpreting Northern Ireland, 1991). There are of course those who continue to espouse the dubious merits of a two nations theory. But as I’ve already pointed out the ontological fly in the two nations ointment is that the majority of Ulster protestants reject it.