When I was very young, in the 1950’s and 60’s, I and my friends were warned about the risks of having anything to do with that State south of the border. We were told that the Irish Free State was a Priest ridden backwater, where Protestants were unwelcome, where the Government answered to the Catholic Bishops and the country was effectively ruled from Maynooth. It was a place that offered nothing to Northern Ireland’s Protestants.
We listened at certain times of the year to songs about guarding Derry’s walls, Dolly’s Brae and what happened at the Boyne in 1690.
The Orange Order was strong in those days, certainly in Finaghy where I grew up they had a high level of membership and my Dad played his part and enjoyed both Orange and Black. Strangely, looking back, he didn’t so far as I recall, encourage his four sons to join the orders, but he did, by his own attitude, instil a healthy respect in me for the activities and history of the Loyal Orders.
Life seemed simpler, but at that age we didn’t know the extent of deprivation, unemployment and segregation across Northern Ireland. We wouldn’t have known what gerrymandering was or discrimination in employment.
As I moved into my mid teens, travelling from Finaghy to Belfast Royal Academy on the Cliftonville Road by two buses each way (or in the good weather on the bike) became more difficult, as tensions were becoming apparent, times were changing and the demand for change was becoming more strident. The IRA campaign of the early fifties had passed us by, but being a bit older it was plain to see that things were not as we had thought.
I began to read some Irish history, it wasn’t taught in our school. Old beliefs had to be challenged, the Civil Rights movement evolved, we moved into the era of the Troubles, Internment, Bloody Sunday, John Hume, Rev Ian Paisley, Bloody Friday and the unending disgusting activities of paramilitaries, Republican and Loyalist. My wife was injured in the Callender St bomb, other friends were killed at La Mon. I attended funerals of Troubles victims and played the organ at two RUC officers funerals.
Skipping forward, the question of reunification has often come up, but by and large it has been assumed that a Border poll wouldn’t change anything, that a majority still favours the Union. The agreement that only a vote by referendum can change the status of Northern Ireland is a useful guarantee to Unionists.
Despite all of our political problems and three wasted years of stalemate at Stormont from 2017-20 (and even the scandals of RHI, SIF and others in the years before that), the constitutional question was not asked in any kind of serious way until Brexit came along.
Brexit and its consequences, including the Protocol, have changed the narrative. Constitutional and economic issues have become intertwined and once again, as so often before, the DUP are playing up the threat to what is now apparently to be called “our precious union”. The obvious advantages to Northern Ireland contained in Theresa May’s proposed deal, which would have largely avoided any customs frontiers in any direction and in some ways would have given Northern Ireland a “best of both worlds” outcome, cut no ice with them. They chose instead to trust Boris Johnson, and ended up with the Northern Ireland Protocol and an inevitable outcome that, at least in some sectors, Northern Ireland’s economic interests would best be aligned not with Great Britain but with the rest of Ireland.
It did not matter to the DUP or many other Unionists that every business organisation in Northern Ireland, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union, who had so much to lose in the event of a loss of access to their EU markets, disagreed with them. The DUP continued with its “not an inch” stance, and instead lost many miles of ground.
Why would I give a historical preamble before coming to the point, namely Brexit and its ramifications? My point is that through all of my life I never saw the union coming under threat. Through all the troubles, atrocities, pressure for border polls and demands from Nationalist politicians, the public here recognised that we were better off with the status quo. However, the creation of such uncertainty around that status quo has led to Unionist confidence being eroded and many questions now being asked openly. Would we in fact be economically better off rejoining the world’s largest trading zone? Is our quickest route to achieving that via a United Ireland? Recent tests of public opinion do not yet indicate any kind of decisive shift in attitude, but the questions are now out there and what we might call “soft” unionists are prepared to openly consider possibilities, which a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
This year sees one hundred years since the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland. Across the six counties there will be many different opinions on how, if at all, this centenary should be marked. Some unionists will want acts of celebration while nationalists will suggest there is nothing to celebrate in what some think is a failed state. If hardline unionists insist on forcing celebrations in areas of mixed opinion, they risk further alienating moderate nationalists and even some moderate unionists.
This could be the decade when personal economics takes priority over personal politics. The Irish Republic has transformed itself in recent years and in social terms has changed dramatically, making itself more attractive to liberal thinking people, whether Nationalist or Unionist by instinct. There is a substantial bloc of population who avoid those labels as well, and who are in fact now vital to building any majority in favour of the constitutional status quo or constitutional change. The determination of Unionist politicians to conflate two separate issues and frankly use scare tactics no longer has the numbers to suffice on its own. After all these years, a United Ireland is more possible than it has ever been and Unionism has perhaps played the major part in bringing that about.
The course is not yet set. However, my Unionist friends need to think hard about the course upon which they have embarked, as there is a danger that they are simply doing their opponents’ work for them.
Hi Trevor. Your analysis is quite logical. It seems to me that we are all incredibly lucky to live on this poodle’s head island we call Ireland. Sometimes the rest of the world seems like it is going mad and we have a beautiful green refuge, peaceful here. At the end of the day it is clear, or should be by now that the only people who really care about the people who live in Ireland are the people who live in Ireland. People who see our isalnd or any part of it as ‘over there’ are never going to do that-they never have and it is folly to expect anythg else. Ireland has a great future-it is tolerant, open and prosperous. Sometimes out for a night in Dublin I might end up speaking 2 or 3 languages-it feels like the departure lounge in Schipol-international and dynamic. But with homelessness and exclusion there are many challenges that can not be and should not be denied. There is much work to do but at the end if the day we live in ireland- it is our land and only we can create somethg wonderful here for us. Hanging onto the shoe laces of the MP for Bognor Regis, proclaiming loyalty and hoping to be noticed is not a future for anyone in Ireland. We need to get our heads together and construct a blueprint for our island and how we can create a really good 21st century on our poodle’s head. The Government in Dublin has a major responsibilty here and your call to them to take on the responsibilty is quite appropriate and logical. Hopefully they will listen…options need to be on the table for all of our futures here.
I have often wondered about the scare stories propagated from generation to generation. Born ay the start of the provos campaign, a nationalist, with a family staunch unionist on one side and nationalist (not republican) on the other side.
They were my family and I didn’t know any different, until I changed schools.
Of course at a nationalist school you learn Irish history, from the famine ’til the civil rights and you are taught gaelic/Irish.
My grandfather asked me what languages I was learning and I innocently said Irish and French. He told me not to come back, as “there won’t be any Irish tongues in this house”…
At eleven years old I suddenly became aware there was a difference. One I never knew was there. I was aware my Dad never visited but I didn’t know why. It never occurred to me, to even ask. In that moment I knew why.
But it shaped me. I made sure my children accepted people as people and not by their postcode.
I was “happy enough” to plod along with the status quo, until the referendum. I t was so poorly conceived and executed.
What was the point in our vote, if it was gonna be ignored.
It’s never mentioned enough that a large section of unionism ALSO voted to remain.
You’re correct, Theresa May’s deal was much better. the dup has done more to advance a reunited island than three decades of conflict ever did.
They were punished for their stance at the GE. If they continue to blame everyone else for their folly, they will get punished at the next election too.
I think as moderate unionists acknowledge and even some “traditional” unionists, such as Lady Hermon, Peter Robinson and Eileen Paisley, it is time to accept the changing demographics and possible constitutional change.
Ireland is a liberal, inclusive country.
Yes there are social injustices but most/all countries have those to varying degrees.
It’s time for the dup to stop using scare tactics and have a mature conversation about ALL the citizens of N Ireland, not just their “base”.
Hi Trevor. Its worth considering why we have partition. Ireland was partitioned because unionist businessmen in the north didn’t want to leave the big common market they were part of then, the British Empire. In that common market they had access to raw materials from all around the world. They had markets for their goods and services all over the world. Unionist objections to Home Rule weren’t just patriotic, there was a hard economic edge to them.
To protect their economic interests unionists were prepared to do the unthinkable. They were prepared to partition their country. They were prepared to commit treason, to defy their King and their Parliament, and prepared to treat with their country’s enemy, Germany, on the eve of the Great War.
It would be a foolish politician today who would believe that no unionist will put his balance sheet before his birthright and vote for unity.