Thursday 5 December 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'It is up for civil society to start a discussion on Irish unity - the Government should stay out of it'

Those who prioritise a united Ireland should work to start a bottom-up conversation, not seek to get the Government involved, writes Dan O'Brien

Division: An anti-Brexit pro-Irish unity billboard on the Border between Newry and Dundalk. Photo: Getty Images
Division: An anti-Brexit pro-Irish unity billboard on the Border between Newry and Dundalk. Photo: Getty Images
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The Government should do something. Such calls are either explicit or implicit in many national conversations about the issues the country faces. It has been the reaction of many who believe that a united Ireland, something that has moved up the agenda as a result of Brexit, should happen sooner rather than later.

Calls for the Government to lead on discussions and preparations for a united Ireland have come from predictable political sources and a range of nationalist and nationalist-leaning figures from civil society. Such calls are legitimate. But they are also dangerous and potentially counter-productive.

It is for civil society to start and maintain a discussion on unification. For the Irish State to put its weight behind a push to end partition at this time, of all times, would be destabilising and could, at worst, trigger a return to violence in the North.

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Brexit and its many consequences have damaged relations on these islands. Perhaps the most serious damage has been to deepen the already deep divisions between the communities in Northern Ireland, one of the most fragile societies in western Europe.

Opinion polling shows that the views of nationalists and unionists on the issue, and how Northern Ireland should be treated post-Brexit, break overwhelmingly along sectarian lines.

With the devolved institutions of government - the most important strand of the Good Friday Agreement - suspended for almost four years, divisions and uncertainties over Brexit have made restoration even more difficult.

This has coincided with a widening gap between the two largest parties in their respective communities on social issues.

The emergence of this division has added yet another dimension to the sectarian divide, as Sinn Fein has veered sharply away from social conservativism towards social liberalism, while the DUP has not.

The intensification of the 'culture war' between liberals and conservatives in much of the western world has been an important factor in the rise of identity politics. Importing the poison of the wider west's culture wars into the North's already divided society won't make power sharing any easier to achieve and creates a whole new set of obstacles that will have to be negotiated both before and after devolution is restored, if indeed that ever happens.

As the North's internal politics and Brexit have combined to form a cycle of instability, calls for the Irish State to put its weight behind a push for unification, including the convening of a citizens' assembly on the issue, are misguided.

To see why, start with a thought exercise. Imagine if a British government convened a citizens' assembly in Northern Ireland on how to make the union with Britain work better, and the initiative had the enthusiastic support of unionist parties.

It is not hard to see why nationalists of all hues would turn down invitations to participate in such a forum. Nationalists want Irish unity and intrinsically oppose the union. Working to perpetuate the latter in any way simply would not make sense for those who believe that ending it is the best way forward for this island.

Equally, for those who prioritise the union between the North and Britain above all else, participating in an all-island citizens' assembly designed to dismantle the union would not make sense. Indeed, with the direction of travel moving in favour of the ending of partition owing to Brexit and demographic trends, even agreeing to join such a forum would only add to unification momentum.

The all-island citizens' assembly that has recently been proposed on unification would, if it came about, end up being a forum of like-minded people. It could not legitimately claim to be in any way representative of the two traditions on the island. For an Irish government to pay for and preside over such an assembly would be infinitely more threatening to the minority tradition on this island than if civil society groupings took the initiative themselves, as some have been doing, and organised at grassroots level.

The difference between a bottom-up discussion on unity and top-down drive is important. Civil society is, by its very nature, dispersed. The state is different. It is the most powerful actor in all modern societies. It makes laws, raises taxes, conducts foreign policy, has huge manpower at its disposal and has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

For the Irish State to focus its power on bringing about a united Ireland could only be viewed as an act of hostility by unionists. It would be viewed as all the more hostile given how unionists - the UUP and the DUP - have viewed Dublin's demands over the past two years that Northern Ireland be taken out of the UK's domestic market in order to avoid any change to how the Border on this island functions.

That the Boris Johnson government last month conceded to this has served to make this island's minority tradition feel even more vulnerable and isolated.

Last month, after the deal was agreed, the chief constable of the North's police service warned of the risks of "civil disorder" among loyalists. The Brexit deal has been labelled the 'betrayal act' by many unionists and loyalists. There can be little doubt that the proposed border in the Irish Sea heightens the risk of loyalist violence, just as any change to the land border would have heightened the risk of republican violence.

The surest way to turn people in the south against unification would be for violence to return, most particularly if that violence spilled over the Border.

An agreed united Ireland is, in my view, the most sensible political arrangement for this island in the long term. But getting there will be an incredibly fraught voyage whenever it takes place.

One of the arguments made by advocates of a pro-active Irish government position on unification by the State it that such a major change requires a great deal of thought and consideration. The lesson of Brexit, they correctly point out, is that not thinking through all the angles and implications is a recipe for chaos.

But, as referendum campaigns have shown in recent decades, discussion at grassroots levels organised by non-State actors can have a huge influence on national conversation.

How would policing be organised? How would the two healthcare systems interact and/or be integrated? Would higher public pay and welfare benefits in the Republic have to be brought down towards levels in the North, both for reasons or equity and in order to replace Britain's large exchequer subvention? What sort of constitutional convention would there be to draft the foundational laws of the new, two-nation state?

The answers and possible solutions to each of these questions could fill libraries and take up thousands of hours of discussion and debate. Civil society is perfectly capable of stepping up to the plate and generating thinking and discussion of unification-related issues.

Given the risks of the Irish State changing tack on unification at a time of so much uncertainty and instability, leadership on the issue can only come from advocates, not from any government in Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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