Tuesday 20 August 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Talk of a united Ireland is premature until all of its diverse voices are guaranteed to be heard'

Focus: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media after touring Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland earlier this week. Photo: PA
Focus: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media after touring Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland earlier this week. Photo: PA
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil conflict in the North we euphemistically call the Troubles. This island as a whole paid a heavy price for the inability of the unionist government at Stormont to contemplate equal rights for the Catholic minority.

The collapse this week of the iconic Belfast shipyard is a painful reminder of the institutionalised sectarianism that marked Northern Ireland ever since partition. As early as the 1920s, Catholic workers were expelled from the site and it was long considered a bastion of Protestantism.

From the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, men like Ivan Cooper, John Hume and Seamus Mallon walked a thin line between denouncing discrimination and misrule while rejecting the violence of the Provos.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

Against all the odds, people like the SDLP succeeded in convincing mainstream nationalist opinion that Northern Ireland could be reformed from within and that, with a fair crack of the whip, Catholics could make their peace with the state.

Mr Hume also succeeded in moving the conversation from a one-eyed nationalist perspective of a united Ireland to an agreed Ireland.

He saw from the start that corralling a minority unionist community in a state they didn't want to be part of would replicate all that was wrong in the creation of the North almost a century ago.

While talk of an agreed Ireland saw him teased for his single transferable speech, the repetitive nature of Humespeak transformed the entire conversation on this island to such an extent that the removal of golden calves like articles two and three of the Constitution won almost universal support in the south.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement effectively parked the constitutional statue of the North and Sinn Féin ministers joined others in merrily submitting legislation to Buckingham Palace on a weekly basis for royal assent.

Then along came Brexit - an exercise in English nationalism rejected by voters in the North in the referendum.

The DUP supported Brexit in the belief that it would never happen and is now stuck supporting it despite the misgivings of its grassroots, and supporters in industry and agriculture.

While people like Sammy Wilson are angrily denouncing what they view as interference from Dublin in a way not seen since the 1980s, the irony is surely not lost on them that the UK's exit from the European Union has put Irish unity firmly back on the agenda.

Fianna Fáil - which has always prided itself on being 'sound' on the national question - can only look on with envy to see Fine Gael wrapping itself in the green flag and talking enthusiastically about unity.

Five years ago, I never expected to see a united Ireland in my lifetime. Now, my feelings are that it is more an inevitability than a possibility.

But, nationalist Ireland needs to tread carefully and now is the time for an honest conversation about what a new agreed Ireland would look like.

Veteran voices within unionism are already starting to engage with the conversation. Former DUP leader Peter Robinson has urged unionists to be part of the discussion from the beginning while Eileen Paisley has said she'd find a united Ireland acceptable if freedom of religion was guaranteed.

Leo Varadkar was right this week when he told the Féile an Phobail in Belfast that a united Ireland would be a "different state" with a "new constitution". Much of the conversation south of the Border has tended to view unity as a takeover of the North rather than the creation of a new entity. That's why much of the focus has been on worries like "can we afford the North?" with no talk of the economic benefits of an all-Ireland economy.

A pathway towards unity will need to hear from diverse voices about hopes and aspirations for the future. A body something like the New Ireland Forum would provide a useful space for people to discuss what the new state would be and should be. It would also allow a frank discussion about what would make Ireland different from every other free market economy in the world. Are there distinctively Irish values that would underpin a new Irish state? And, if so, what are they?

Are we serious about the vision of a republic espoused by the men and women of 1916, or are we content to see poverty and social exclusion as inevitable facts of life? Partition has done its job and divided the island for almost a century, both geopolitically and psychologically.

Northerners from both communities find themselves co-marooned, the nationalists not really the same as southerners, the unionists not really the same as the British. Just as the Border and a near-century of independence has created a particular southern Irish identity, the shared experiences of Northerners has also created a distinct identity.

No-one has a right to define Irishness in an exclusive way, and voters in the south in particular will have to rid themselves of a partitionist mindset that still sees people from the North as 'other'.

If we're serious about making Irish unity more than just an aspiration, we'll also have to consider what it is about the prospect of a new Irish state that makes some unionists apprehensive. Increasingly, Protestants are travelling south for holidays and work. Brexit has seen many apply for Irish passports, but unity will not happen without their consent.

Talk of a Border poll at the moment is premature and anyone who thinks a united Ireland will be the result of a 50pc+1 referendum hasn't learnt from the mistakes of history. Uniting people in their diversity is more important than uniting land, and when we can articulate a vision of what a shared new Ireland would look like then the job of persuading everyone that they can have a stake in creating a new homeland can begin.

  • Michael Kelly is editor of the 'Irish Catholic' newspaper

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss