Denis Bradley: We can’t leave it to Sinn Féin to make the case for Irish unity
Civic unionism must engage in the debate about the future of this island
Sinn Féin is the red rag to the unionist bull and a Border poll at this juncture is the wrong policy in achieving the proper and mature unity that is needed
Ian Paisley jnr was very fond of my Aunt Fanny. I used her frequently in articles and speeches as a doyen of old time attitudes and insights. I think Ian was at an event in Washington years ago when I described how superstitious Fanny was. She thought, for example, that it was bad luck to tie one shoe before putting on the second shoe. She scolded me many a time for doing it. She wouldn’t have taken it well to be told that the custom probably arose from the fear of having to flee the law in a hurry. Not easy to run with one shoe off and one on.
Her shoe story is pretty analogous with the state of Irish politics. If one shoe is the Belfast Agreement and the other is Brexit, we are in a bit of a dither as to the best way of tying our laces. That is not a criticism: it is just the way things are and it is the way they are going to be for a time. The most revealing example was the tizzy Sinn Féin got itself into in the recent negotiations with the DUP. Would they, could they, should they, make a deal? Caught between Brexit and the Belfast Agreement. It was painful to watch. Had the DUP not rejected that deal and let them off the hook, Sinn Féin might have been left with some egg on its face.
The Irish Government is caught in a more complex but not dissimilar dilemma. It has to keep a steady eye on the economic fallout of Brexit while embracing and promoting the Belfast Agreement as its primary responsibility. It is not just its responsibility, it is also its strength. The agreement is the rampart that blocks the right wing of the Conservative Party from achieving its extreme Brexit. It is what Europe most easily understands and most readily embraces and which, currently at least, it seems determined to defend. It is the one that makes it impossible for the British to have their cake and eat it. They cannot have a frictionless Border in Ireland and all the other things that they say they want.
Unity goes to the foundational mission of most Irish political parties
But, ironically, the agreement adds to the difficulty of engaging with the full potential that Brexit offers. Brexit opens up the possibility and maybe even the inevitability of Irish unity. It is no longer just a “wrap the green flag round me boys” slogan but a demographic, economic and political possibility. Unity goes to the foundational mission of most Irish political parties and yet at this time of historic possibility the Government and most of the Opposition parties are restrained and cautious in their analysis and promotion of this opportunity.
This leaves the voice and the promotion of national unity almost exclusively with Sinn Féin and the calls for a Border poll. Irish politics is leaving its most central tenet in the hands of the wrong people who are promoting the wrong policy. Sinn Féin is the red rag to the unionist bull and a Border poll at this juncture is the wrong policy in achieving the proper and mature unity that is needed.
Lack of clarity
But Sinn Féin cannot be blamed for the lack of clarity or conviction to be found in other political parties. An example was a speech give by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Washington during his St Patrick’s day visit. Addressing unionists, he said: “I recognise that recent statements and actions by Irish nationalists, including the Irish Government, about Brexit have been seen as unwelcome or intrusive. If that is the case, I want to make it clear that it certainly was not our intention.”
Later in the same speech he spoke of the danger for the union, for Scotland and Northern Ireland. He said Brexit would “undoubtedly change the political climate in Northern Ireland and indeed across Britain and Ireland” and could threaten the Good Friday agreement. “It drives a wedge between north and south and east and west. I think it also creates risks for the union, for Scotland and for Northern Ireland. That gives me no pleasure.”
Government policy, clearly supported by well-known commentators in this country, is that it is best to be aware and respectful of unionist sensitivities. Those sensitivities have resulted in forthright chastisement of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste by Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson and other senior members of the DUP for being too nationalist and unitary in their public statements. There was also the letter from a hundred or more civic unionists calling for “a transparent and inclusive debate concerning rights, truth, equality and civil liberty”. The signatories to the letter say they “find it frustrating and puzzling that civic unionism, pluralists and other forms of civic leadership have been rendered invisible in many debates focused on rights and responsibilities”.
It was good to hear civic unionism say something because mostly it is silent. But the reality is that the equality and civic liberty debate is passé. Brexit has driven politics to a different place. There is a strong case for challenging the letter writers and unionism in general to engage in the much more pertinent and essential debate about the future of this island. It is approaching the 100th anniversary of partition and the Irish Border. Unionism has its own narrative about the whys and wherefores of the physical division of this island. Through their eyes it was nationalists who destroyed the unity that was already present under British governance. To ensure their numerical superiority they excluded three Ulster counties and left many of their own community to the wiles of the Free State. It is that numerical superiority that is now coming under pressure. The forecast is that the unionist population will be in a minority somewhere in the next five to 10 years.
Shackles of fear
It is as old a cliché as exists in politics that it is best to negotiate from a position of strength. It will be reckless and even cowardly if civic unionism doesn’t soon begin to throw off the shackles of fear and face down the politicians and fundamentalists who will certainly shout “Lundy” at the top of their voice. But the shouting will eventually stop and, ultimately, political and demographic realities will win the debate. Similarly, it will be short-sighted and misplaced if Irish nationalism patronises the unionist people by pretending this is not the substantive and imminent issue that needs to be discussed and agreed before any of us can be fully comfortable in our own shoes.
Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland