O'Brien says unionists could be better off in united Ireland

If the Union with Britain no longer protects its "friends and allies", unionists should think the unthinkable and embrace a united…

If the Union with Britain no longer protects its "friends and allies", unionists should think the unthinkable and embrace a united Ireland that would safeguard their basic rights and interests, including the right to march, according to the memoirs of the writer and former Labour minister, Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien.

In an extract from Memoir: My Life and Themes, published in the Observer yesterday, he writes that an increasingly ambivalent British government may come to represent a serious threat to the Protestants of Northern Ireland, and exunionists would find themselves in a much stronger position within a united Ireland where they could form a formidable voting bloc. His book is due out next month.

Dr O'Brien's vision for Ireland, North and South, and his passionate support for the UK Unionist Party, led by Mr Robert McCartney, make his comments appear remarkable, but he insists he will support the Union for as long as it protects the rights of free people. "I simply postulate some logical outworkings," he writes of a situation where the "weak leadership" of the Ulster Unionists, under Mr David Trimble, coupled with a Britain which no longer wants Northern Ireland, might lead unionists to announce "not that they are leaving the Union but that the Union is in the process of leaving them". A united Ireland might be precipitated by the prorogation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the subsequent collapse of the Belfast Agreement by anti-agreement unionists, frustrated by Sinn Fein's place on the executive without any IRA decommissioning. Urging caution in the uncertain fallout post-agreement, he says the "moment of truth" is likely to come when the British government announces its proposals for the reform of the RUC. Unionists could seize the opportunity to emerge "from their present perilous dependence on people who no longer appear to want them". "Many unionists would presently see inclusion in a united Ireland . . . as so outlandish a proposition as not to deserve serious consideration," he writes. "Yet events may show that, in the conditions of the late 20th century, no other way to safeguard the vital interests of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland is available. "Within the United Kingdom, the Ulster Protestants, about a million people in a society of more than 50 million, are currently without political clout. In a united Ireland, with a total population of less than six million, the ex-unionists would be a formidable voting bloc, for whose support the other political parties would compete.

"These ex-unionists would therefore be in a much stronger position, in defending their vital interests, than they are now as despised hangers-on of a population which no longer wants them, and whose government may progressively coerce them."


Once unionists had made this leap of faith, Dr O'Brien writes, London would be presented with the "marvellous" opportunity of disengaging itself from Northern Ireland. Assured by generally favourable reaction from Irish nationalists, it could busy itself facilitating the process of transition, economically and politically, and help Dublin embody in law the rights of ex-unionists.

"Once their franchise was assured, and it was clear they no longer posed a constitutional threat, those who have been unionists would be much more secure in a united Ireland than they are at present."

Another advantage would be the unchallenged right to march: "It is likely, for example, that any government in the Republic would, in the new circumstances, uphold the rights of Orangemen to march down the Garvaghy Road as they would have long marched unobstructed in Donegal."

The transition would be "particularly difficult" for Fianna Fail, caught between rejoicing that it had helped achieve a united Ireland and being privately uneasy that it could permanently lose votes in a larger political system. "Members of the largest political grouping in Northern Ireland, the former unionists, would probably ally themselves with any party (except Sinn Fein) other than Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein would oppose the whole deal, and also any party that accepted it."

In Northern Ireland, the SDLP could rightly rejoice at achieving its long-held ambition and probably recover some votes from Sinn Fein, which would be deprived of its raison d'etre within the nationalist community, according to Dr O'Brien. There might be some attempt at a return to violence by the IRA and loyalists, but the idea of the IRA opposing a united Ireland would be derided by the majority of nationalists as "utterly perverse and ridiculous". Ex-unionists need not fear the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland because its power "has now ebbed into near-insignificance," while government by coalition would ensure "other parties would compete for alliance and transfer of preferences with members representing so important a bloc as would be made up by Northern Protestants".