Predictions are often a mug’s game — who predicted the pandemic and its impact? — but I’d still take a futures bet on this: there will be a united Ireland in the foreseeable future.
Border polls may be some way off, but the signs and portents are unmistakeable: shifting demographics; a move away from tribal, and religious, identities; unionist people applying for Irish passports; the Irish language appearing formally on the Belfast Glider transit system; and the bother that Brexit has triggered for a divided island.
It may take the shape of more of a “shared island” than the united Ireland that romantic patriots dreamed of, but that’s the direction of travel.
Yet a “shared island” will be a different country. Knitting together the six with the 26 creates a different combination of chemistries.
It’s a bit like wedlock, of which I have had 41 years’ experience: a successful marriage means each partner gives up something of their personal choices, attachments, even sometimes loyalties. Few marriages survive without that psychological compromise, and a well-honed discipline of when to cede a point. “Autonomy” is a great catchphrase of our time, but in relationships, an element of autonomy must be sacrificed.
Almost a century ago, in December 1922, when the Irish Free State was established, it too was a compromise that the strong republicans of the time could never accept. For the anti-Treatyites, it was a sell-out. But it was the only possible compromise that could have worked. Subsequently, the Free State has been disparaged as “a Catholic state” — as the architectural historian Lorcan Sirr remarked: “When the Brits moved out, the Catholic Church moved in.” (And many southern Protestants left, or felt no longer included).
And yet, the Free State’s survival, and stability, also probably depended on its homogeneity — on the majority, sharing similar values, culture and religion. As JJ Lee pointed out in his magisterial history of Ireland between 1912 and 1985, although partition was painful, the Irish Free State’s homogeneity anchored its stability in its fledgling years (and a high standard of education provided well-educated political leaders and administrators).
All over central Europe in those years, small states foundered because they could not acculturate minorities: Romania was only 72pc Romanian, Poland 70pc Polish, Czechs only 50pc of Czechoslovakia, Serbs 43pc of Yugoslavia. My late husband was Josip Broz Tito’s biographer and a Balkan specialist, and he was convinced that the underlay of tribal and religious differences finally broke up the Yugoslav state.
Finland, which became independent in 1917, was stable and successful, though it had its own struggles, placed between Russia and Sweden. Finland had a Swedish-speaking minority of about 11pc, but virtually all Finns were Lutheran, which set a foundation of shared values.
To forge a new state, you must share values, culture and a sense of broad national identity. As states mature and develop, they can absorb people of diverse identities, if done wisely. But it’s not always a smooth path. And it can be a long one.
As in marriage, some traditional attachments have to be given up, and one of these may be the tricolour. Yes, it originally symbolised peaceful relations between green and orange, but over the course of the 20th century, it has probably accumulated too much baggage to be a unifier in the context of the north of Ireland. A new design — perhaps a harp with a background of St Patrick’s blue? — may have to be crafted.
A fresh anthem may have to be written: Amhrán na bhFiann, adopted by the Free State in 1926, may no longer seem inclusive. To be replaced, perhaps, by the melody of Danny Boy (also known as Londonderry Air) with appropriately rewritten words?
And surely the capital of this new, shared Ireland cannot reasonably be Dublin. Dublin has already loomed too dominantly for the present state, let alone an enlarged one; there is already a pressing need for more decentralisation of the administration, and decentralisation to the regions will be crucial to a “shared Ireland”.
A new capital could be somewhere in the centre of the country — say, Tara in Co Meath. Surely a tactful compromise, both geographically and historically? And going back to ancient Ireland avoids more heated modern historical symbols.
A “shared island” will happen one day, but there’s groundwork to be done. Some clever minds will need to figure out how to increase that general feeling of shared identity, at the grass roots, not just at the elite level.
Predictions can certainly turn out to be wrong, and they can also turn out to be paradoxical. That good man, Garret Fitzgerald, believed Ireland would need liberal measures on issues like divorce, birth control and homosexual rights so as to convince Ulster Protestants that Ireland could be a pluralist state. Yet, the DUP’s Arlene Foster is now the only leading politician in the land to oppose abortion and gay marriage. As the French say, “La vie s’arrange: mais autrement” — “life works out, but not as you plan it!”