I was born in Northern Ireland in 1955. My natural parents were British citizens as, later, were my adoptive parents. I am a British citizen by birth and I remain one by choice. That’s part of what makes me a unionist.
I’m an atheist, so my unionism has nothing to do with Protestantism or anti-Catholicism. I’m a republican (in the sense that I prefer a presidency to a monarchy), so my unionism has nothing to do with a King or Queen as head of state.
I’m a unionist because I believe that the collective benefits of my citizenship of the United Kingdom far outweigh the supposed collective benefits of an untested United Ireland. Indeed, I have yet to hear a convincing argument in favour of giving up my present citizenship, giving up Northern Ireland, giving up the United Kingdom and swapping it for something which has never existed before.
I have no difficulties at all with those who do wish to make the case for Irish unity. If they can set out a vision, agenda and strategy which is costed and coherent then, of course, I will listen. But all I ever heard when I was growing up—and for many, many years afterwards—was the case for Irish unity being made against the background thud of explosions and teary-eyed propaganda about ‘A Nation Once Again.’ The SDLP wasn’t much better, with John Hume insisting that an ‘agreed Ireland’ was the right way ahead, even though he must have known—and known for a long time—that most unionists regarded an ‘agreed Ireland’ as code for a united Ireland.
From my perspective, both nationalists and republicans promoted Irish unity as a self-fulfilling Utopia; the answer to the Irish Question. Yet I always had the impression that they had never really thought the whole thing through. Unionists were assured that there would be a special place for them in a united Ireland—but how could there be a special place for them? Put bluntly, how could unionism even survive in a united Ireland?
Sinn Fein and the SDLP are republican/nationalist parties. Within Northern Ireland’s borders they have been able to promote their case for unification, able to campaign for the ending of Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom and the erosion of NI as a separate country, followed by its absorption into a newly united Ireland. From October 1972, when the British/Irish governments agreed that any new post-Stormont settlement in NI would include an ‘Irish dimension,’ pro-unification parties have been accommodated and given a deliberate platform from which to promote their agenda.
But what would happen in the event that a majority in NI voted in favour of unification? How, exactly, would unionism be accommodated in the new, sovereign, independent Ireland? Since it strikes me as very unlikely that you could retain a referendum option for the six counties which had previously been NI to vote themselves back into the United Kingdom, then the conclusion must be that unification kills off unionism.
Similarly, what happens if the 700,000 or so formerly pro-Union voters decide to row in behind the remnants of the UUP and DUP? They would have a pretty formidable bloc vote in the Dail and, consequently, huge influence on socio/economic policy and just about everything else. But to what ultimate purpose, if they were denied the political/parliamentary mechanisms by which they could work towards a vote to bring Ireland back into the United Kingdom? In other words, what is the role for unionism in a United Ireland?
A united Ireland would be entirely different to anything that had gone before. Such a country, independent of and without a very visible manifestation of the ‘British presence’ has not, in fact, existed for hundreds of years. We are not talking about the reunification of East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This would involve the coming together of two countries on the basis of a vote in Northern Ireland which probably wouldn’t represent much more than half of the electorate.
Why would anyone imagine that the unionists ‘trapped’ in the New Ireland would be sanguine about their fate? Isn’t it very likely that there would be widespread unrest and tension, maybe even the emergence of a new anti-United Ireland terror organisation?
I don’t think that either the SDLP or Sinn Fein has any answers for unionism in a United Ireland: and nor do I think they understand the nature and scale of the change that would follow unification. They don’t understand the economics of unity, which may explain why their arguments are little more than jibber-jabber couched in feel-good cliché.
I have yet to see a clear agenda and methodology for converting two into one. I have yet to hear a pro-United Irelander move beyond the mythology and ballad and onto the much more difficult turf of explaining what a United Ireland would look like; how it would function? how it would be financed? what the currency would be? what the party political make-up would be and so on and so on? Feel free to add your own questions to the list!
That’s the real debate which needs to be had about the future. I suspect that the SDLP and Sinn Fein have avoided the debate precisely because they don’t know, let alone have the answers. Sinn Fein’s ‘Uniting Ireland’ propaganda is mostly soft-focus, turquoise-tinged baloney. The SDLP have rowed back from anything resembling a coherent argument because they have largely accepted that they are now the very junior partners in this process—so why give any hostages to fortune?
In fairness, I think that unionists have also made a pretty poor fist at promoting the benefits of the Union. There is still a tendency to shelter beneath the comfort blanket of ‘what we have we hold’ even though that blanket now looks a little threadbare in places. Northern Ireland has changed since March 1972, when unionists lost their Parliament. It has changed even more since Sinn Fein joined them in government. But the Union still exists, as does the United Kingdom: and for all the hoopla surrounding the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence I still believe that the United Kingdom will remain as it is for a very, very long time.
Which means that republicans/nationalists in Northern Ireland will remain the minority. If that is the case then both communities are going to have to learn to rub along together, share their social and political future and ensure that Northern Ireland has the best possible government.
All of which brings me to the touchy subject of reconciliation. I hate the IRA. I hate the fact that they waged a terror campaign they could never win. They knew they could never win it. That’s why they talked to British governments from 1972 onwards. That’s why they accepted the armalite/ballot box strategy. That’s why they ended up locked at the hip to DUP, co-governing Northern Ireland.
To be totally honest I don’t actually want Sinn Fein in government here, but I accept their entitlement to seats based on their votes. I accepted the Good Friday Agreement because I believed that the IRA had been defeated and Sinn Fein trapped. Their involvement in the new government was a price that had to be paid.
Again—and it is a delicate point—it has long concerned me that so many people felt able to vote for Sinn Fein—bearing in mind, of course, that I make no distinction between the IRA and Sinn Fein. The IRA’s campaign was pointless, gratuitous, ruthless and immoral. They terrorised for the sheer sake of terrorising—yet Sinn Fein’s vote (in every part of NI) has continued to grow. Compare that trend with the failure of political parties ‘representing’ loyalist paramilitaries to make an election breakthrough.
That’s why I despise Sinn Fein and the ongoing ‘Uniting Ireland’ project charade. By their own admission it’s only a “section of unionism’ they need, anyway, so the rest of us can just be ignored and bundled in against our will. I don’t believe one word—not one single word— of the reconciliation strategy (and, make no mistake, it is a strategy) being rolled out by the likes of Declan Kearney. I don’t believe it is sincere. Rather, I believe it is cynical and manipulative. It’s not about a shared future in a United Ireland; it’s about the destruction of Unionism.
The language of Adams, McGuinness and Kearney at various Easter commemorations was the language of deceit and code—a sort of republican parseltongue (the language of serpents in the Harry Potter series). The users of the language know exactly what they mean: the rest of us don’t.
The present Sinn Fein campaign exists because of the failure of the IRA’s terror campaign. They failed to bomb, bully, or blackmail unionists out of our unionism. They failed to terrorise successive British governments into either unilateral withdrawal or, at the very least, becoming formal persuaders for a United Ireland. They even failed to convince the Irish electorate to endorse unity—which is why the South overwhelmingly endorsed the partitionist Good Friday Agreement.
So this Uniting Ireland project and making eyes at unionism (albeit just ‘a section’) is a brick-cold exercise in reinvention, re-positioning and re-writing of the past. It’s about convincing unionists, British governments and security services to ‘apologise,’ acknowledge joint culpability, and admit that the root cause of the Troubles is ‘British occupation’ and ‘unionist misrule.’
All I see is a strategy. It’s the ‘war’ by softer tactics and waffle. It’s a propaganda campaign in which every word, statement and sentiment is weighed and measured before being aimed at the intended audiences. It reminds me of Robert Hughes’ comment in The Culture of Complaint: “We want to create a sort of linguistic Lourdes, where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism..”
Personally, I won’t ever be ‘reconciled’ to what any terrorist, from either side, did. Each and every one of them made the choice to do what they did. None of those actions—all of which will have been calculated, prepared, practiced and ‘justified’—can be excused. Sorry doesn’t cut it for me. It never will cut it for me. What they did cannot be and should not be forgiven. We should not be allowed to forget it, either. We should not allow ourselves to be pushed into the thoroughly absurd position in which terrorists are permitted to portray themselves as more sinned against than sinning.
I have no interest in reconciliation with the IRA or their apologists. I have no interest in being ‘won over’ by this latest version of ‘the struggle for Irish freedom.’ I don’t need to make peace with them or pretend that I can ever have a normal, honest political relationship with them. And—before you rush down to the comments box below—I apply exactly the same standards to loyalist terrorists, too!
A very long time ago I made a choice. I chose not to lift a brick, or join a terrorist group, or intimidate my fellow citizens, or supply information which would lead to the death or injury of someone else, or provide an alibi, or supply a ‘safe’ house, or look the other way.
The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland made exactly the same choice, even though, in many cases, they lived in the trouble spots and had to cope on a daily basis with the criminal activities and bullying tactics of the various terrorist organisations. Yes, people make mistakes and do very stupid, very bloody things. They may come to regret those actions, but society must never pave a path towards making it possible for them to retrospectively ‘justify’ those stupid, bloody things.
If there is to be genuine reconciliation in Northern Ireland it must be between the people who chose the civilised, lawful way of life. Once you start to build a reconciliation process around the needs and demands of the terrorists and their apologists you simply make a mockery of decency and justice and allow the terrorists to continue to peddle their beliefs, self-justifications and legacy.
Peace and political stability can’t be built on ground which hasn’t yet been vacated by the very terrorists who primed and kept stoking the instability.