Diarmaid Ferriter: Unite us, Lord, but not if it costs money

Despite the rhetoric, there is a deep ambivalence about partition throughout Ireland

In January 1923, an interned nationalist teacher in Belfast wrote to the new Free State's minister for education, Eoin Mac Neill: "The bitter part is the reflection that when I do get out, I shall probably be forgotten."

He, and others like him, were indeed forgotten victims of a partition of Ireland about which they had no say but for which would pay a very high personal and political price.

The desperate pleas sent to southern Ireland by northern nationalists were to be repeated at later stages, but making common cause with their northern counterparts was largely a matter of rhetoric for the southern political establishment. This persisted with the contention that partition was a British imposition and could only be undone by Britain; that there was no requirement for the Free State, or later the Republic, to come up with a solution.

Partition was referred to as a festering sore, but it also remained a quite abstract notion for most.


It was asserted by successive taoisigh that forcing an end to partition was unacceptable, but when it suited, the tribal antipartition drum was banged, as witnessed in de Valera’s indulgent international antipartition tour in 1948, which achieved nothing.


De Valera’s successor, Seán Lemass, was determined to initiate a North-South thaw, but he expressed profound irritation with northern nationalists whom he regarded as just as intractable as their unionist counterparts.

Occasionally there were challenges to the failure to confront partition meaningfully or honestly. Ernest Blythe, a minister in the 1920s, insisted in the 1950s that strident antipartition rhetoric had been completely counterproductive, while the barrister and future judge Donal Barrington asserted that, contrary to nationalist narratives, "partition was forced on the British government by the conflicting demands of the two parties of Irishmen".

Seán Mac Entee, a Belfast-born Catholic and a founding father of Fianna Fáil, was also scathing, concluding by 1970 that his party was "too proud to temporise or placate" in relation to partition. By that decade, other elements had been thrown into the mix, and in 1973, Garret FitzGerald maintained that articles two and three of the Constitution, containing the territorial claim over the North, were of "no practical value".

In any case, where was the plan to deliver on that territorial claim? The previous year, John Peck, the British ambassador in Dublin, reported on a conversation he had with taoiseach Jack Lynch. He had asked Lynch how important the issue of reunification was to the Republic's electorate, and "his answer amounted to saying that they could not care less. As far as he was concerned, he wanted peace and justice in the North, and close friendship and co-operation with us."

Over the subsequent bloody decades, a version of that solution was eventually arrived at. But the fears raised by TK Whitaker in corresponding with Lynch at the outset of the Troubles remained relevant: “We can’t take over Britain’s financial contributions, nor do we want the terrifying task of keeping sectarianism and anarchical mobs in order.”

Others wondered if the concept of unity was outdated, and queried the attractiveness of the Republic for either northern unionists or nationalists.

Attitudes to reunification

As to attitudes in the North to reunification, there has been no shortage of questions asked in the past four decades. In 1990, the political scientist John Whyte identified 25 polls between 1973 and 1989 about the North’s constitutional status, and there were broad consistencies. A united Ireland had minuscule support from Protestants, far from complete support from Catholics, and the solution that attracted most support from both communities was power-sharing.

More recently, there have been numerous Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) surveys indicating that expectations of a united Ireland are falling and that the number of Catholics in favour of staying in the UK is increasing.

In 2011, Assembly member Barry McElduff, of Sinn Féin, rubbished a NILT survey that found only 16 per cent of the population of the North to be in favour of a united Ireland, as “with Sinn Féin’s clear position of uniting this country, the party received over 26 per cent of the vote in the latest election”. But it is naive to think that all those who vote for Sinn Féin, whether North or South, crave a united Ireland.

As Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty admitted in August, in relation to his constituents, "it is not their burning question. What we have to do is convince people it is in their best interest."

Achieving that seems a remote possibility, as was underlined by the North-South poll unveiled by RTÉ and BBC on Wednesday, which found that only 13 per cent in the North and 36 per cent in the Republic want to see a united Ireland in the short to medium term. While the figure in the Republic for those who would like to see it in their lifetime is much higher, at 66 per cent, this drops to 31 per cent if it would mean paying more tax.

The message is clear: make us pure, Lord, but not yet, and not if such purity would cost us more money.