Friday 28 October 2016

Wise up and stop beating the tribal drum on unity

Brexit has not made a united Ireland more likely soon and it's dangerous to talk as if it does, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

VISITING: Enda Kenny, with Donegal Mayor Terence Slowey, at the MacGill Summer School (North West Newspix)
VISITING: Enda Kenny, with Donegal Mayor Terence Slowey, at the MacGill Summer School (North West Newspix)

What are they putting in the water in Donegal? As soon as politicians cross the county line on their way to the MacGill Summer School, they seem to start spouting absurdities.

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Last week, the curse of MacGill claimed two high-profile victims - the leader of Fianna Fail and the Taoiseach himself. Whoever picked out their names in the local "Who's going to make a prize chump of themselves this time?" sweepstakes has certainly cashed in big time.

First up was Micheal Martin, who hit the headlines after suggesting that the Brexit poll, in which the North voted to Remain whilst the UK as a whole voted to Leave, "may show the need to rethink current arrangements".

He added: "I hope it moves towards majority support for unification and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum."

Naturally, the full text of his John Hume memorial lecture contained certain qualifications, including an acknowledgement that the Brexit vote had only showed that Northern Ireland wished to maintain open borders and a positive trading relationship with the rest of Europe, rather than any desire to break the union with Britain.

He also moved quickly afterwards to highlight the nuances of his message, appearing on Radio Ulster and telling the Dail: "It is important not to use Brexit as a kind of basis for an immediate border poll or anything like that," adding: "My position on that has been very consistent and understood."

Indeed it has. Admirably so, in the face of ever-present siren calls in Fianna Fail to make more "green" noises. No one has done more to show genuine pluralism in action.

Even so, he should have spotted the pitfall in his speech before falling headfirst into it and maybe anywhere other than MacGill he would have done - that "need to rethink current arrangements", particularly. The news deals in nuggets, rather than nuance, and that was a doozy for next day's front pages.

His speechwriters should be swiftly reminded that not all publicity is good.

Far more serious, though, was the Taoiseach's own contribution. He didn't have speechwriters to blame either. He made his comments about Irish unity to reporters. All his own words. All his own fault.

They were not particularly dramatic comments - except for the unfortunate part about Northern Ireland "joining" the Republic in the way that East Germany was "absorbed" into its Western counterpart, which couldn't have been more crass if he'd tried - but what was significant was that he made them at all.

The Taoiseach has never shown much sign in his four decades in Irish politics of a burning desire for Irish unity. In fact, of all the things he thinks about on a weekly basis, it's unlikely that bringing the four green fields back together makes it into the top 50. So if even he is saying that Northern Ireland's 55.6pc vote in favour of the EU was significant enough to change the rules of the game, then it only added to the feeling that events were moving fast.

Which they aren't.

It's not as if Enda Kenny is going to do anything about it, after all. It was at MacGill a few years ago that the Taoiseach promised a radical shake-up and cleansing of Irish politics; we're still waiting patiently for that. And even if he did move for a border poll, the only beneficiary would Sinn Fein, who started this clamour for one the moment the vote for Brexit was in and who can hardly believe their luck as the Irish political establishment falls for it.

The nationalist stuff excites no one in the Republic, save for a few romantic media and academic types and a hard core of woollybacks who wish they had been born in Belfast so they could show those Brits a thing or two - oh yes, just as soon as they've finished this next pint.

In a political climate fuelled by a febrile social media which sees conspiracies everywhere, it's almost reassuring to see that cock-ups still happen; but only almost. The consequences are still potentially too serious for talk of reunification to become a ruse to distract from talk of the impending Fine Gael leadership battle.

It is to Leo Varadkar's credit that he avoided the temptation to join the nationalist group hug, despite spending part of the week at the same MacGill Summer School.

Instead, he has warned against holding a divisive border poll at the current time and, whilst stressing his own desire for a united Ireland and a belief that it could happen in his lifetime, he even went further to reassure Unionists, by adding: "I also think there will always have to be special arrangements within that context for Northern Ireland."

"Always" was a big and important word to use there.

Ultimately, it's hard not to see all this feverish nonsense about a reunification that isn't on the cards in any realistic shape or form as a knock-on effect from the madness that was the Brexit debate.

Brexit has provoked giddiness in the body politic. In the US, it has emboldened supporters of Donald Trump, who see in it an echo of their own hankering to "take back" the country. Across Europe, it has encouraged far-right parties to cynically ape the same rhetoric to allege that the establishment is unwilling or unable to keep people safe.

In Ireland, we should perhaps be grateful that it is only manifesting itself so far as a temporary retreat into nostalgic nationalism. But we, of all people, should know the dangers of talk about "taking back" anything. The six counties are not there to "take".

The Provos were allowed in from the cold far too cheaply, but it was done out of a well-meaning desire that the national question would be parked for decades, whilst the prosaic business of making local institutions work went on quietly.

This resurgence of the border-poll idea simply reinforces the suspicion that the Belfast Agreement was not meant as an honourable long-term settlement, but as a staging post on a one-way road.

Nationalists can sit around the camp fire and bang the totemic drum in Donegal for a while if they must, but some morning soon they'll have to pack up and come home to face reality. It's magical thinking to believe that Brexit provides some 'deus ex machina' that suddenly resolves centuries of historic conflict.

Nothing has changed.

Sunday Independent

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