Diarmaid Ferriter: It is in unionism’s interest to engage in dialogue on Irish unity

Events make it clear continued denial of any need to adapt will damage the unionist cause

It was clever of the organisers of the Ireland’s Future conference to secure a keynote speech from the actor James Nesbitt in the 3Arena last week. His presence went some way to countering accusations that too much of the discussion of possible Irish unity is confined to an elite nationalist echo chamber. Nesbitt, with a Protestant and unionist background, also addressed that theme directly: “I firmly believe that we need to bring this discussion out of the Dáil, out of Stormont, out of Whitehall, out of academic forums and into the village halls and town halls, the church halls, the Orange halls ... Any change must be people-led and solutions cannot be forced on those people. If we should have learned anything from history, we should have learned that ... solutions must emerge from a public discussion of the options for the future constitutional governance of the island.”

There was also a strong political presence from the main political parties, though the absence of Taoiseach Micheál Martin was notable. True, the event clashed with the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis but, even if it had not, it is doubtful he would have attended as he is wary of a discussion that points in one direction.

Ireland’s Future is clear about its goal — “paving the way to the reunification of Ireland”. Martin’s emphasis on a “shared Ireland” as opposed to talk of “unity” or “reunification” is well-established; for his part, Nesbitt preferred to speak of a possible “union of Ireland” rather than a “united Ireland” and these linguistic shades are not irrelevant given the charge that language carries in this context.

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Denial of any need to adapt will be a lot more damaging to the unionist cause.

The idea of a grassroots-driven dialogue is laudable, but it is an enormous challenge. As Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie put it when interviewed for Malachi O’Doherty’s new book, Can Ireland Be One? “Why should I give you the solutions to the problems that you have? Why would I design something for you when I don’t want it?”

An obvious answer to that — underlined by Brexit, Northern Ireland’s most recent election results, changing demographics, more fluid identities, trade flow and the implosion of the British Tories — is that denial of any need to adapt will be a lot more damaging to the unionist cause.

In a significant intervention in June 2018, in a speech at Queen’s University Belfast, former DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson addressed aspects of such an engagement, not with the intention of “talking about the nature and shape of the new state that would emerge if there ever was a vote to exit the UK” but “alluding to the need to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement”.

He suggested a border poll result of a majority plus one would be dangerous, a view also held by some nationalists, making it even more pertinent for unionists to be involved in discussion of any such poll. This also relates to another point Robinson made that year, “when a problem cannot be solved it needs to be enlarged” in the context of the need to “broaden the agenda and open up more scope for trade-offs”.

He was focused on the politics of Northern Ireland, but that logic could equally apply to the question of future North-South relations and arrangements; the crudity of the Brexit yes/no question without a meaningful plan behind such a vote glares as a warning signal on this island.

When the possible partition of this island was raised in a serious way in the House of Commons in 1912, Liberal MP Thomas Agar-Robartes proposed the exclusion of four Ulster counties from an Irish home rule settlement as he was adamant there were “two nations” in Ireland, “different in sentiment, character, history and religion” and that it was “absolutely impossible to fuse these incongruous elements together”. His assertion infuriated Irish nationalists but, the same year, liberal unionist MP Harry Lawson posed this question: “How are you, in this democratic age, in this democratic country, to force a million men into a system which they refuse to join?”

Language, numbers and notions of what constitutes “nation” may have changed but the essence of these questions remains, and they need to be confronted in a 21st century context. One historian of partition, Charles Townshend, noted that while, over a century ago, the notion of a federalist solution to the Irish crisis had significant support within the British cabinet, its implementation “would have called for a creative capacity which was well beyond English political capacity”. Neither unionists nor nationalists on this island today need any further reminders of the limits of contemporary English political capacity, another reason why they need to begin a long process of domestic dialogue to figure out their own solutions.