A serious look at what might be the most significant political decision we take in the next generation
If you listen to some people, Irish unification is about all we’re talking about when we meet in pubs or coffee shops. Of course that’s nonsense. It is not something that interests many people. Though to judge by the cottage industry of books on the prospects of a united Ireland, publishers clearly think differently.
A lot of the books are tendentious, making claims on the inevitability and feasibility of a united Ireland that glide over the real sticky problems that the process of unification will probably get bogged down in. Not so Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland by Padraig O’Malley (no relation).
This is a serious look at what might be the most significant political decision we take in the next generation or more. He interrogates it through interviews with key players, politicians, academics, community leaders and opinion formers.
He did this successfully in a series of editions of his book The Uncivil Wars that looked at the prospects for peace by outlining and interrogating the positions of the different parties that would have been needed for peace. Crucially, those books provided a way to view the more nuanced opinions of others that rarely get through in headlines.
There is a sense that the relationships between North, South and East (Britain) are at an inflection point. So a book that takes a sort of census of elite opinion on those relationships is welcome.
As the fallout from Brexit is clarified, the Windsor Agreement sees the UK re-engaging in a grown-up way. It might make unionism realise that its head-in-the-sand approach hasn’t helped protect its precious union. The recent attack on a police officer in Omagh shows us all that nothing is settled, and that the peace is uneasy at best.
There are, as ever, two nationalist approaches. The modern-day version of the Fenians versus the Home Rulers is Sinn Féin versus Fianna Fáil. One side says we need to ‘get it done’ — bring about a Border poll and work out the details later, while the other side wants to bring unionism along. There is no doubt that O’Malley favours the latter.
There is a lot to recommend bringing unionism along. If there isn’t a substantial number of moderate unionists who, if they don’t quite want a united Ireland, will at least accept one, then we might see the new state come into being in the midst of a far bloodier civil war than the one 100 years ago.
Sinn Féin, O’Malley points out, is seen by most of his interviewees as one of the biggest obstacles to a united Ireland. Few trust it. And it speaks from both sides of its mouth when it talks about trying to engage unionism in a conversation about a united Ireland while at the same time alienating unionists with the near-constant celebration of IRA bombers (and the implicit celebration of their activities).
There is no sense from his interviews that Sinn Féin figures see this as their problem. It’s their turn to be triumphalist. They want to keep moving to an inevitable end-goal. It prioritises a united Ireland, and it seems unlikely that the party will become a type of ‘Fianna Fáil for slow learners’.
Sinn Féin might be right in its desire to hold the unity referendum first and sort out the details later. It is unlikely that unionism will engage in any real sense until faced with an inevitability after a poll passes. And delving deeper into the details will only clarify the reasons different groups might find to be put off by a united Ireland.
On the other side, many in unionism see the DUP as a major hindrance to maintaining the union. Its flirtations with Brexiteers, and prioritising symbols over substance, has helped create the crisis where the Good Friday Agreement is not working. If the union is to survive, it needs moderate nationalists to want to maintain the status quo. But the status quo the DUP offers is chaos, with the long-term abeyance of the agreed institutions. However, the DUP is afraid of being outflanked by more extreme versions of unionism. Unionism’s problem is that it isn’t very united.
But what happens if a united Ireland isn’t the inevitable endpoint? Or what does a united Ireland look like?
Often some things appear to all concerned as impossible, or at least that there are insurmountable blockages. That is until it suddenly becomes possible, and the blockages fall away.
If we had listened to the well-informed people in 1988, we would not have thought much about the prospects of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Yet it happened.
This book is written of a time — the Bobby Storey funeral gets more attention than it probably deserves. That might show Sinn Féin hypocrisy, but it doesn’t matter. People have moved on.
I was left wondering who will want to read this. Most of us who want a long and balanced book on a possible united Ireland are unlikely to learn much new here. It appears to be written for readers who want a review of the main issues but aren’t that familiar with Northern Ireland. Are there many of those? It might be of use for incoming diplomats to Dublin; it’s probably not something for a general reader, even one who talks about a united Ireland down the pub.
Politics: Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland by Padraig O’Malley
Lilliput Press, 500 pages, hardcover €43