What happens if there is never a “United Ireland”?

Nationalist politicians are very quick to demand respect for their “aspiration” to a “United Ireland” (again, to be clear, outside the United Kingdom). There is scant evidence, however, that they recognise the need to offer respect to those who either are clear about having no such aspiration, or are genuinely disinterested.

Respect for Nationalists’ constitutional aspirations requires those who do not share them to accept that one day they may nevertheless come true (according to the Agreement, if the people of both jurisdictions vote to realise them). It should be noted that the absolute assumption in such a situation is that those who wish to remain tied to Great Britain, or who simply do not wish to be tied to the Republic of Ireland, would have to give up their constitutional aspirations completely.

However, respect for Unionists’ constitutional aspirations also requires those who do not share them to accept that those may remain fulfilled forever (according to the Agreement, if the people of both jurisdictions never vote to change Northern Ireland’s constitutional status). In the same way that Unionists have to be prepared for the possibility of a “United Ireland”, non-Unionists have to be prepared for the possibility that there will never be one.

Are they prepared for that possibility?

I think this requires some further definition. I have no difficulty respecting someone from a broadly Nationalist and/or Catholic background favouring, on the basis of upbringing in that background, an all-Ireland world view and thus by logical extension an instinctive preference for an all-Ireland constitutional settlement. Likewise, I have no difficulty with someone from a broadly Unionist and/or Protestant background favouring, on the basis of upbringing in that background, a Northern Ireland and UK world view and thus by logical extension an instinctive preference to remain within the UK.

I do have some difficulty, however, spending too much time working on the basis of constitutional aspirations which have no objective merit. Anyone whose constitutional views are based solely on their background is due respect for their national affiliation and religious background, but it is hard to spend a lot of time respecting aspirations which are, in fact, purely an accident of birth. Respect for national identity and choice of citizenship must be automatic, but in reality respect for constitutional aspirations has to be earned.

A lot of people on either side object to the view that holding a constitutional aspiration is of itself “sectarian”. However, if that view is held solely on the basis of the national affiliation and religious background that someone was born into and for no other reason, then by the strictest definition of the term it actually is. This becomes most obvious when we consider that if absolutely everyone chose their constitutional aspiration that way, the ultimate choice would become nothing other than a crude sectarian numbers game. If we doubt this, just watch how Nationalist politicians describe any non-Nationalist as “Unionist”, and how Unionists describe any non-Unionist as “Nationalist” – both disallowing absolutely the idea that anyone may actually want to determine their constitutional aspirations objectively and rationally on the basis of evidence!

National identity is an accident of birth, and we should respect it so we never return to an era of discrimination and maximise the potential of our society as a whole. Constitutional preference, however, should be something considered objectively; anyone unable to make an objective case for their stance to citizens of different backgrounds has no real right to demand respect – because, put crudely, that person is relying solely on a sectarian numbers game to deliver their desired outcome.

Unionist leaders, of course, disgracefully use the perceived “threat” of a “United Ireland” to drive voters to the polls. But it would pay us all to consider another question: what happens if there is never a “United Ireland”? The answer to that may be just as telling.


6 thoughts on “What happens if there is never a “United Ireland”?

  1. Constitutional Preference is of course not an accident of birth, it would be an insult to Irish history to say that Nationalism and Unionism weren’t created deliberately and haven’t evolved from and by various political movements on this island, these groups of island, across the continental plate and across the world.

    There are plenty of non-constitutional issues and non-constitutional interests and reasons why to why these movements emerged and they don’t necessarily have change something constitutionally to obtain them, but constitutional changes happened and we know the consequences.

    I don’t put much weight in the Catholic/Protestant identity being used for Irish/British or Nationalist/Unionist either. Unfortunately there are reasons for that too.

    As much as I would say I see Catholic in terms of an organised religion, not a political aspiration, or that an Irish Catholic is as Catholic as an English one, we do have a society that simply doesn’t get it. There is also an Irish Catholic culture defunct of insular Irish nationalism and an Irish nationalist culture completely invented by Protestants, even Ulster-Scot Presbyterianism.

    The biggest problem though I have with this thread isn’t about any of that…

    In your last line you seem to suggest if there was never a united Ireland it would almost be a bigger question for Unionism to answer than for Irish nationalism to.

    That is to some extent true, Northern Irish unionism is almost fully defined by stopping Irish unity and British identity, very rarely about greater integration with Great Britain it seems more a case of affiliation. The Scottish referendum was a massive culture shock to what “Unionism” was actually about.

    On the other hand, Irish nationalism can mean the goal Irish unity but it is also redefined to some extent by partition to meaning protecting the sovereignty of the Irish Republic too.

    it can be almost completely redefined upon the crossing of a border. Irish nationalism in the 26 counties is as much realpolitik as it is aspiration. And to be fair this region doesn’t exist independently of that given our proximity the realpolitik in the Irish Republic, nor does the Republic of Ireland completely isolated from events in Great Britain either.

    But the problem is its academic to ask the “Never” question is we can’t time travel to end of time and be vindicated from predeterminism:

    1. There’s always going to be a future,
    2. A united Ireland is always mathematically possible in the future.
    3. Mathematical possibilities can happen regardless of how events may seem now.

    Explosive historical events, economically and militarily shows that there is never an absolute security to any national union. The United Kingdom may seem old and continuous to some here, but the Kalmar Union was a much older one. Ireland itself is also proven example of this.

    So there will never be an answer to a Never question, and there never can be.

    Regardless of these political issues, we need to ask “what can ever change?”, rather than reflect “what can never change”.


    Northern Irish Unionism achieved maintaining political unity with Britain through partition, Nationalism achieved Home Rule through devolution and a consensual association with the Republic in terms of Strand Two … that is where the equilibrium lies right now, there is a lot of room for that equilibrium to move, but the people not the politicians will be the ones to do that.

    It took a lot of pragmatism, compromise, and finding the common ground to get us there. The focus should be on the equilibrium, the thing that keeps the place structurally functional, but there are too many in the isolated extremes.

    This isn’t just a Northern Irish thing… The Tory “Northern Powerhouse” exists to ensure it can hold onto power in a region where it is weakest. It is an accident of birth people may be born in a Labour safe seat, but you can deliberately compete with them. Labour’s battle for Middle England is the natural counter-offensive.

    There is a tribal Red North and a tribal Blue South, in the same way there is a tribal “Green” West and a tribal “Orange” East. The battle for Belfast, the Fight for Fermanagh has been going on for centuries in similar matter here.

    However, It’s not beyond the scope of possibility to believe that on some issues Sinn Féin and DUP votes haven’t been won from tribalism, but because they actually do what their constituents want, even in some cases when they don’t agree with all their end goals.

    If anyone wants to take power off them they need to respect these constituents hopes and dreams on multiple levels, constitutional question may be a bottom line to some, but there are many others.

    We need to not just respect the DUP and Sinn Féin’s mandate, because of democracy to gain some political power in Northern Ireland you actually have to compete for their voters, so there does need to be respect.

    To make these issues non-tribal you do need to politicians take risks (and they are risks) for a more inclusive form of politics directly to the people of the area.

    You need respect, you need to offer a compromise, you need to empathize with why someone is the way they are.

    That’s the big issue is one of respect, respect is the only thing that stops the competition from being the enemy.

    The biggest problem the UUP, SDLP and Alliance supporters and politicians have is that we don’t give enough respect to the individual aspirations of Sinn Féin and DUP supporters on common ground issues to challenge them on the simple premise of making this place a better place to live in. Do the middle grounds give up on canvassing so called republican/loyalist areas? Is this a sectarian thing or class political thing or both? Do we not acknowledge that a lot of the middle classes are voting for these parties these days too?

    It’s far too easy to paint DUP and Sinn Féin supporters as strawmen who need a high level of childhood indoctrination to gain support from, rather than functioning members of our society in the here and now coming from all quarters of life. Similar accusations are made about what a UUP type is, what an SDLP type is and what an Alliance type is, but in reality people have and do shift their political opinion through events and party actions.

    You are living proof of that.

    We as democrats have to take the Voltaire view of “disagreeing with you say, but defending the right to say it.”

    And I realize you aren’t trying to make enemies in the nationalist politico, there is a valid case that objectives from Irish nationalism aren’t reaching out or aren’t practical.

    Politicians cannot change the electorate, they usually don’t even try to do that … all they can do is put something marketable into the electorate and see if anyone accepts that.

    All political movements have the capacity to shift the current political equilibrium to get better results.

    In the lyrics of Paul Brady, the World is what you make it.

  2. Scots Anorak says:

    It’s of course true that most people in Northern Ireland inherit their political views (or rather get them from their peers at schools chosen by their parents).

    In that context, one can make a couple of points. First, the “inherited” aspect is stronger on the PUL side, since the political identity is an integral part of the ethnic identity and some ethnic “culture”, such as the Orange tradition, can be regarded as a deliberate attempt to set a momentary political affiliation in stone. For that reason, the attachment of PUL people to the Union is stronger than that of CNR people to Irish unity (one could even argue that, once the most egregious causes of alienation were removed, CNR people started to become a bit more like the Scots and the Welsh, who remain Scots or Welsh regardless of their views on independence). Add to that the fact that people are inherently biased towards favouring the status quo anyway, and, on the face of it, one would have to say that the Union is Unionists to lose. The trouble for them, of course, is that their insecurity means that they *are* actually quite likely to lose it — or at least to render it permanently unstable.

    Second, if one calls an inherited constitutional viewpoint “sectarian” (which arguably renders the term meaningless), one would also have to say that the same is true of the Alliance Party, for two reasons: first, Alliance people also bring baggage with them, whether it’s the baggage of being the product of a mixed marriage or that of being an English immigrant (far less likely, of course, to view bilingualism as normal than one from Wales); secondly, sometimes Alliance positions are arrived at through triangulation, occasionally on an embarrassingly ad hoc basic, for example, when Máire Hendron suggested hoisting a Union flag over the Cenotaph because Unionists had objected to the one on City Hall being taken down (I accept that she was under pressure at the time). Indeed, I have long suspected that the Alliance attitude to the Irish language in public life is coloured by the fact that its politicians somehow view it as an equivalent provocation to Loyalist flags.

    So, given that *everything* in Northern Ireland is sectarian with a small “s”, perhaps it would be better to reserve the word for instances of genuine ethno-theological prejudice — as, of course, one side of the house already does.

    • There is definitely a separate blog about the “s-word” I will have to get around to!

    • I’m not sure if there is a gauge about how strong inherited politics are there is a tendency that mutation and adaptation of personal politics still exist. Self-determination still exists of course, and when people leave their background their politics can change with them.

      My name is Gaelic albeit Anglicized, my surname is Gaelic albeit Anglicized …but then so is Ian Paisley’s two names. Gerry Adams first name and surname are Anglo-Saxon.

      The inheritance argument is not simply Gael and Gall means Nationalist and Unionist, because political events, political associations, movements, international events and economic home-truths play their factor too.

      You speak of the “Orange” tradition, but the irony is Orange is in the flag of the Irish Republic a symbol of Irish republicanism. Gerry Adams recently made an effort to say “Orange is a colour of our nation”. The Orange Order in itself is an all-Ireland body, but it does have lodges elsewhere.

      It might be an organization that many people in great Britain may see as Irish, it may be something Irish nationalist might care about more than people who self-determine as Unionist.

      There are parallels between victims of the Siege and victims of the Famine of course. There is an empathy sometimes in the Green and the Orange who commemorate these events. We should not fight against that.

      Sir Issac Butt, was an Orangeman yet he helped create the Home Rule movement.

      His sense of what being an Orangeman was changed by his Protestant Christianity, his belief in the values of the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, the values of his Conservative Party upbringing, and the fight to ensure farmers had a fighting chance to earn a living.

      An 1813 Radical who can be an Orangeman, and not only care about Catholics but get elected to ensure that they could be emancipated. That Irish people could stand on their own two feet rather than rely on soup kitchens.

      If we were to look at this in terms of “identity”… He was Protestant, he didn’t want an Independent State so he was a Unionist, and he was Loyal to the crown. There is an irony that someone who is Protestant, Unionist, Loyal is an unsung hero to Catholic, Nationalist and Republican political viewpoints

      He helped found Irish constitutional nationalism as an alternative to violent Irish republican nationalism of Wolfe Tone and co.

      Somewhere along the line the Irish republican movement decided to put Orange in the flag with Green of the Irish Catholic Confederation and the white for peace and equality with those of an Orange background. But devoid of that symbolism it is simply an empty gesture.

      I love flags, I love vexillology, I even like the colour Orange, I can tolerate a British flag or two … would have no problem watching a parade in Rossnowlagh, or the Apprentice Boys at home, but the way members in the Orange Order behave in some areas of Belfast (which isn’t Protestant, Unionist or Loyal) would really want me to turn my back on some of them.

  3. Confused says:

    How far into the future do we have to be before it can be declared that there will never be a united Ireland?

    • That’s not quite my point (I happen to think it already).

      My point is that we cannot just assume there will be one. We are obliged, by the Agreement, to proceed on the basis there may never be one. Some struggle with that.

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