A united Ireland – is there something in the air?

Key figures from both sides of the peace line have their say on the notion of Irish unity

Brexit, demographic shifts and the dramatic outcome of the Northern Assembly elections are all fuelling talk of a united Ireland, a Border poll and joint authority.

Many unionists are nervous and in some cases spooked by the election results, fearing Sinn Féin's success in coming within one seat of the DUP and the implications of losing their overall Stormont majority.

Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force, acknowledges that anxiety. Still, he insists that unifications is not even relatively imminent.

"With nationalism, it's a bit like St Augustine: wrap the green flag around me, but not just yet," he tells The Irish Times: "It won't happen in my lifetime." Hutchinson is just short of his 62nd birthday.


Other opinions vary wildly. Nationalists such as SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and writer and former Sinn Féin publicity guru Danny Morrison believe change is coming, and that it can happen without frightening unionists.

Meanwhile, unionists such as Raymond McCord, whose son was killed by the UVF, and the Democratic Unionist Party's Gregory Campbell say the union can be defended by good sense and pragmatic diplomacy.

On the other hand, socialist and republican Bernadette McAliskey, once a youthful, outspoken MP in the House of Commons, would like to see unity, but not under the current administrations. She recalls a famous quote from another republican, Brendan Behan: "I can think of no state of human misery that could not be made instantly worse by the arrival on the scene of a policeman."

Paraphrasing, McAliskey says: “I can think of no state of human misery, either North or South of the Border, at this juncture, that would not be made immeasurably worse by putting the idiots that are running the two sides together in the one state.”

Live issue

Nonetheless, unity is a live issue after the Northern election. It was already in the air due to population changes and the Brexit vote, the latter raising concerns about Border customs posts, despite assurances to the contrary.

The UK departure from the EU also creates the possibility of a second independence referendum in Scotland, where a vote to leave Britain could cause a domino effect across the north channel.

In the 2011 census, 48 per cent (864,000) of the North’s 1.8 million people originated from Protestant households. Those from Catholic households accounted for 45 per cent (810,000) – a gap of 54,000.

However, just one in four said they saw themselves as exclusively Irish; 21 per cent considered themselves Northern Irish only. Moreover, polls in recent years have found pro-unity opinion to be as low as 13 per cent.

Opinion has now shifted. A nationalist conviction that it was disrespected by the DUP and its leader, Arlene Foster, triggered an emotional and voting response, leaving unionists with less than a 1,200 voting majority.

All these facts and figures play in the minds of those who fret or dream about a united Ireland. The Rev Mervyn Gibson, grand secretary of the Orange Order, says "the election has been a wake-up call for unionism".

Debate about a united Ireland “will just add to our mistrust and panic”, he says, while the unionist hold on just 40 of Stormont’s seats will be seen as a progression, as a “journey down the road” towards unification.

Nevertheless, Gibson says “the numbers will still come out all right for the United Kingdom” in a Border poll, dismissing the belief that unionists might be financially enticed by the possible economic benefits of unification.

“I think it is insulting. It’s like saying to Irish nationalists, can we buy you back into the Commonwealth? I am a unionist; that is my birthright. It’s not something I sell, buy, or trade,” he said.

However, he went on to cast a warning: “An unsettled community that sees itself as being railroaded into something is a dangerous place for that community to be.”

A friendly place

Billy Hutchinson believes the nationalist vote surge was not for a united Ireland, but rather to discipline the DUP and Foster. Unionists need “to be more inclusive, they need to make this a friendly place for everybody, including middle-class Catholics”.

He warns against anyone even raising the idea of loyalist paramilitaries responding violently to the prospect of “a nation once again”: “We need to be careful. Don’t even talk about it. There is no violence there.”

If Foster was critised for stirring up nationalists with her “don’t feed the crocodiles” comment, then Gregory Campbell, the DUP’s East Derry MP, was accused of preparing the ground with his “curry my yogurt” lampooning of the Irish language – or, as he would have it, his sardonic take on Sinn Féin’s “abuse” of the Irish language.

In terms of the DUP supposedly showing disrespect to nationalists, Campbell argues that Sinn Féin exploited the “mopery” phenomenon – MOPE being an acronym for republicans characterising themselves as the “most oppressed people ever”.

He calls Brexit and especially the election “a shock to the unionist body politic . There is going to be a lot of uncertainty over coming years.”

Still, “if unionism used its collective head, it could turn that threat into an opportunity to make unionism even more viable.” Campbell says that could involve a “realignment of unionism, not necessarily into one single party”, but closer cooperation between the different shades.

Unionists must make the union welcoming, for those who think the union is a good idea, but don’t readily identify with it”, he says. If done “ properly and appropriately”, he believes 70 per cent would vote to remain in the union in any Border poll.

“It is not a question of unionism divesting itself of direct, robust approaches and becoming a sort of a unionist-lite. It is a case of unionism explaining that its values don’t all have to be wrapped in a Union Jack. It is not just about wearing an Orange collarette on the Twelfth of July – and I do all of that. It has to be seen to be more than that.

The union project

“In my view,” Campbell adds, “unionism can more readily and more successfully sell the union project to Irish nationalists or Catholics or people who would not be identified as unionists than Irish republicans will be able to sell Irish unity to people who regard themselves as unionists.”

Raymond McCord, a victims' campaigner and anti-Brexiteer, accuses Sinn Féin of over-playing its hand. "I don't want a united Ireland. I think Gerry Adams is doing to unionism what Arlene Foster has done to nationalism and republicanism by his comments and his demands. I think he is helping unionism to jell."

Before the election, McCord says he was quite anti-DUP and believed Foster should stand aside as first minister. But now he says she should not budge an inch, although she should take a softer line and show respect to nationalism.

Chatting post-election to family members in his native loyalist Tiger's Bay in north Belfast, McCord says he was struck by a new mood – one that mirrors the mood of nationalism before the election.

“Protestant people feel their noses are getting rubbed in it by nationalists and republicans,” he says. “The unionist people won’t be bought. The economic argument won’t wash.

“We have all come through good times and bad times; we are not going to starve. And you know one thing: we are no better than the nationalist people but we are a proud people, and we are not going to hand something over that we have held onto for so long,” he declared.

On the nationalist side, Colum Eastwood says there is no “constitutional certainty” about the future of the UK. “What is going on in Scotland, what is going on with Brexit means that there is now a potential to make a very positive case for a united Ireland. I think for the first time in a lifetime we can see the prospect of a united Ireland within our grasp.”

Such talk should not scare loyalists back to violence because nationalism should have the wit to manage any change. "This has to be done in a way that understands that we have different traditions here, that understands that people are British who live in Ireland. And that has to be respected in the same way we would like our Irishness while we remain part of the United Kingdom to be respected."

Eastwood sees a continuation of devolution within a united Ireland. “There would have to be some recognition for the fact that the North has grown up differently, and that our view would be that there would have to be a Northern assembly and an executive as well.”

Free State danger

Bernadette McAliskey is far from convinced by constitutional reconfiguration. “No, things have not changed utterly, they have not changed at all. There is no threat to the union,” asserts the civil rights veteran. “We are in more danger of the Free State coming back into the Commonwealth with an apology note.”

McAliskey says a Border poll would have no chance and that some of the old-school, non-Sinn Féin republicans might boycott the plebiscite rather than vote for unity . “I would not ask a dog to live in the existing Irish Republic,” she says. “So why would I vote to live in it?”

Neither is McAliskey happy with notions that Nationalists can “breed” their way to unity. Instead, she predicts the DUP response to the election will not be to “reach out to Sinn Féin but to swallow the Ulster Unionist Party”.

“It is forward to the past, it’s back to having one single unionist party. Which is what we had when this state was created, which is what we had when the state was sustained, and which is what we need now when the state will fall apart - that is the DUP thinking.”

Like McAliskey, Breandán Mac Cionnaith, national vice-chairman of Éirígí, says he is "not getting carried away" by the elections. He too believes that unionism will regroup: "I would not call it on the basis of one election; we will see changes to unionism."

Éirígí, a socialist, republican group, tends to be at odds with Sinn Féin. Mac Cionnaith, who was the main nationalist spokesman during the annual Drumcree parading protests and stand-off in the 1990s, would like to see an all-Ireland Border poll, but also a poll in Britain, which, he believes, “wants shut of the place”.

Though saying that he cannot provide any insight into dissident republican thinking, Mac Cionnaith venture that the election results might give Sinn Féin food for thought. “I think people have to reassess their position in the light of changing circumstances across all of Ireland.”

Republican activist Danny Morrison, who coined the phrase an “Armalite in one hand, a ballot box in the other”, says he is more taken with Brexit than the election result.

Border incident

“It is extremely dangerous,” Morrison says of Brexit. “The PSNI have already stated that they don’t want to be involved in policing the Border. They know that the relationship that has been carefully wrought and built up over the last 10 years could be destroyed overnight by a Border incident.”

Morrison tweeted against republican triumphalism and says any debate about unity should consider options such as a 32-county state, or a federal or confederal Ireland. “A united Ireland in old terms was a unitary government from Dublin, but I think we have to be more imaginative in terms of the stages that we go through,” he says.

He seems content with the principle of no alteration to the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority: "I don't want to frighten unionists or alarm unionists. I think if everybody is transparent about what they are doing at each stage of the development, then we can have a rational conversation here."

Morrison says he suspects that if a majority voted for unity, then a majority of unionists “will go along with it” although others might push for repartition.

“I think the prospects [for unity] have increased as long as things are done at a pace that people are comfortable with and people understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, where you are coming from, where you are going to.”

Tuesday: Peter Geoghegan examines what effect Scotland's next moves, whatever they may be, could have on Ireland.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times