Seán Moncrieff: A united Ireland will make us all a little more British

It would be weird: like having someone you don’t know that well move into your house

“We want a united Ireland as long as we get it for free.” Photograph: iStock

“We want a united Ireland as long as we get it for free.” Photograph: iStock

 

Leo brings it up, and we’re all talking about a united Ireland again. You know the calculus: the sizes of the respective communities in the North barely matters any more – about 50,000 in the difference – and at the current rate of baby making, nationalists will outnumber unionists in no time.

But that doesn’t – or didn’t – mean an automatic Yes from nationalists. A 2013 poll found 38 per cent not too keen on the idea. After all, there was the NHS. It was a rich, powerful country. There was £12 billion a year in free money. But a kamikaze no-deal Brexit has changed that. Maybe Ireland, as part of Europe, would be the saner option for nationalists; even some unionists.

Funny thing though: now that we’re talking about unification again, it’s suddenly acceptable, on this part of the island, to express doubts about it; like a boyfriend who becomes skittish when it comes to setting a date for the wedding. There might be violence. Unionist TDs would disrupt the Dáil. How much would it cost?

And it would be weird: like having someone you don’t know that well move into your house.

Of course, it’s the national aspiration. Polls have consistently found a majority here in favour of reunification. But the figures have varied wildly – from 80 per cent to 55 per cent. What is consistent in those polls though, is a marked reluctance to pay for it. We want a united Ireland as long as we get it for free.

There may also be an unspoken cultural unease with the idea, which only slips out occasionally: like during that Frontline television presidential debate, when a woman asked Martin McGuinness about “coming down to this country”. 

Naked hatred

Now, of course someone in Derry has as much right as you or I to say they are Irish. That’s beyond debate. But to pretend we are not different is disingenuous. The Republic has not been scarred by decades of violence, mistrust and naked hatred. We haven’t had to deal with the suspicion that neither Britain or Ireland wants us. We haven’t had to deal with prejudice or gerrymandering or that odd social dance where you try to figure out what “side” the other person is from. The Republic has become largely more prosperous and socially liberal. The North has not, at least in part due to a fundamentalist anti-fun Protestantism that abhors abortion and same-sex marriage and even straight sex before marriage. In a united Ireland, that religious identity may well become further entrenched.

Even the border poll campaign might produce all sorts of upside-down scenarios. Given the Brits wouldn’t even agree to a vote unless there was a majority in favour in the North, then the likes of Jeffrey Donaldson might be forced to campaign down here, in the hope of convincing doubters in the Republic that the North is a terrible place and we really don’t want to have anything to do with it.

And when you include the British expats already living in the Republic, a united Ireland would contain about a million people who identify as British: that reality will have to be recognised and somehow accommodated. Britain’s desire to be more British would actually make Ireland more British and Britain less so: because it would have lost the North, and probably Scotland soon after. At least it would reveal that when Brexiteers say Britain, they really mean England. Sorry Wales.

Now don’t get narky. I’m not some sneaking partitionist. It’s just that a united Ireland won’t be the dancing-at-the-crossroads sort. It’ll be even more multi-cultural than it is now. It will be fiendishly complex to organise, and require money, imagination and empathy to put together. It’ll be like starting Ireland over from scratch. But we can do it. No better people.

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