Daltún Ó Ceallaigh

Trade Unionists for Irish Unity

                                                                      This article is the second of two.

(Published in Morning Star, London, 4/2/02)


Just what may be within reach in Northern Ireland was also drawn attention to last year by political commentator, Tom McGurk of The Sunday Business Post. Analysing the 2001 Westminster results, he pointed to the total of the various unionist parties’ votes at 52.9% which, he assessed (based on ’98 Assembly data), contained around 3% ‘borrowed’ Alliance Party votes (such as in North Down), possibly leaving a unionist core vote of under 50%. Apart from that, there was a vote of 3.6% for Alliance per se and 0.9% for ‘others’. Of course, in a straight plebiscite on Irish unity now and with the same turnout, the way Alliance votes (‘borrowed’ or otherwise) and the ‘others’ would go could still shade it in favour of the Union. But the prospect has got markedly close to the boundary line. Even aside from Alliance being only a qualified pro-Union party (i.e. accepting northern majority wishes rather than positively favouring the Union), if, as McGurk states, the rise in the nationalist vote of the past six years “were to be sustained proportionally in the coming years - approximately 1 per cent per annum - the unionist voting majority of some 6 per cent would be overhauled in as many years.” In other words, one would not then have to rely on a split in the Alliance and ‘other’ vote to tip the balance against the Union.

As for British attitudes, there is of course the Blair speech of 1997 proclaiming that he valued the Union and did not see it coming to an end in the lifetime of the youngest person in his audience. However, that was in the build-up to restoring an IRA ceasefire by arranging to bring Sinn Féin into the multi-party talks. It might thus be viewed, to employ a phrase of Brian Faulkner’s, as “necessary nonsense”, while glancing cautiously over his shoulder at unionists. It has also been pointed out that: “This in part reflected the need to still traditional unionist fears of the pro-unity sentiments of sections of the Labour party.” The real picture was painted more frankly in 2001 by John Reid when asked did “he, too, value the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and the reply was: “No … What I value higher in the context of Northern Ireland, as Secretary of State, is the right of the people in Northern Ireland to choose their own future.” “I am not there”, he said, “as an advocate or otherwise of the Union.”

This echoed earlier Secretaries of State. In 1974, the Labour Party’s Merlyn Rees stated: “We have not the faintest desire to stay in Ireland and the quicker we are out the better.”  Nineteen years later, this attitude was still manifest in the person of Conservative Patrick Mayhew when he unburdened himself to a German newspaper, apparently not appreciating that he might end up being reported in English off the continental mainland. “Many people believe that we would not want to release Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. To be entirely honest, we would, with pleasure!” He also went on to say: “The province costs us £3 billion per year. Three billion pounds for one-and-a-half million people! None of our strategic or economic interests are at stake there.” The reporter later confirmed that Mayhew had further admitted about the north-south arrangement being mooted that it “will in some way diminish the sovereignty of the United Kingdom over Northern Ireland.” It is obvious that the British establishment has long since psychologically and emotionally disengaged from the north. While they have set themselves the criterion of northern majority consent in order to go, it often seems that they are the ones most hoping for it.

But one might also simply ask why the objective should be Irish unity? Why should a state of affairs be created of a unionist minority in an Irish State instead of a continuing nationalist minority in a British State? The conclusion arises from the five-factor approach. I outlined this as follows in 1996: [1] there are over four million nationalists in Ireland, around 700,000 of whom live in the six counties; [2] there are less than 900,000 unionists there; [3] the six counties are an unjust and failed entity (as the Good Friday arrangements confirm); [4] the nationalist-unionist populations in the north are interspersed and ought not to be forcibly relocated; and [5] the British people do not want the Union with the north. Given all these considerations, something like an all-Ireland confederation, at least, is the only medium-term, democratic, workable and, therefore, sensible middle-way between a united British kingdom and a unitary Irish republic. In other words, the factors concerned also rule out repartition and independence for the North. Whatever about ongoing academic debate on the latter subjects, we have seen that they have been overtaken legally and politically. In fact, quasi-confederal processes are already at work in Ireland and there seems to be no other Government in the world that consults and interacts as much as the British does with the Irish in connection with the administration of part of its territory.

However, that places a moral and political onus on nationalists to be generous in accommodating genuine unionist fears and sensitivities. But all the signs are that they will not be found wanting in that regard. Nobody is talking of cultural homogenisation and the twenty-six counties could hardly be portrayed seriously nowadays as a priest-ridden State whatever about the credibility of such distortions in the past. Moreover, the indications are that all necessary laws and structures will be put in place to meet the needs of any reasonable unionist and far beyond what was ever done for nationalists in the North before the six-county statelet went into a tail-spin in the late 1960s.

At the same time, there have been elements of a sectarian Catholic nationalism - as distinct from republican nationalism - which have helped foster on occasion a unionist feeling of distance from a community of Ireland to which one wants them to belong. Nationalists must continually guarantee to unionists that they will not tolerate sectarianism of any sort, whether it be orange or green. And they must, as Gerry Adams has said, “recognise that, in looking to Britain, some unionists think, not so much of empire, but the traditions of the Reformation and the democratic struggle in England against absolutist monarchy, both of which should be accorded the deepest respect.”

Nonetheless, unionism is a reactionary formation in that it is a colonialist residue that has become historically redundant, as evident not least in its being spurned by Britain. In some ways, it is a sad spectacle of the jilted lover who has not quite got the message. Or perhaps some unionists have - that the affair is over and that a new arrangement is required as a matter of both dignity and self-interest. Some of them may also realise that Dublin, both geographically and in power terms, is less distant than Belfast from Brussels, and that Irish unity could dramatically improve access to the EU.

Leading on from this, there will have to be fresh thinking about the civic-cultural spectrum of Irishness and nationality. Civic Irishness, for example, should signify being a citizen with a sense of community with other citizens who are Irish and seeking to protect or advance an Irish polity, and can be taken to constitute nationality at that level. However, such a person might not subscribe to a well-defined cultural project whether that be, for example, in the tradition of the Anglo-Irish literary revival or the Gaelic League. Civic nationality, in itself, is rather limited but at least entails a sentiment of solidarity, while cultural nationality is much deeper and thus embodies a stronger emotional bond. But, for nationalists, at least, unionists, again quoting Adams, “are, in the culture of everyday life, no less Irish than the rest of us.”


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