Letter to Varadkar about a ‘new Ireland’ is an own goal for nationalists
Conversation about a new constitution will mean broader definitions of Irishness
An image on the back of Free Derry Corner in the Bogside depicting UK prime minister Boris Johnson holding DUP puppets on strings. Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin
I had completely forgotten about Ireland’s Saturday Night until reminded of it recently. It was a weekend sports newspaper published until a decade ago, timed to hit newsagents so soccer fans in Northern Ireland could catch up on the day’s results on their way home for their own team’s games. Though it carried reports from England and Scotland, and indeed other sports, its primary focus was local football – the Irish League and the Irish Cup, the two main competitions staged by the Irish Football Association,
Despite my being interested in soccer and growing up in the North, I can’t remember ever buying or reading Ireland’s Saturday Night. I worked in pubs on Saturday nights for years – admittedly after its heyday – but can’t remember seeing customers read it. It was bought mostly by the Protestants who were the core of the Irish League support base. It was known colloquially as “the Ulster”, but never lost the reference to Ireland in its title. Just as the largely unionist devotees of Linfield and Glentoran have never stopped calling their local league Irish, even now, after its official name has changed to the Northern Ireland Football League.
What is Ireland and who is Irish? This question never leaves us – particularly north of the Border – but it returned to me this week when I read the open letter to the Taoiseach, from 1,000 people sympathetic to Irish unity, asking for preparatory consultation on what a changed constitution could or should look like. And for some reason, I thought of Irish League football and Ireland’s Saturday Night.
The letter emphasises the potential loss of rights for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland due to Brexit. These concerns are very real, but I cannot help feeling that if “a conversation about Ireland’s future” beyond Brexit is to take place, the conversation will surely have to be less about the rights of those of us who are already Irish citizens from Northern Ireland and somewhat more about the rights of those in Northern Ireland who do not claim Irish citizenship. Not just about their rights as unionists or British citizens, but about their right to be seen and celebrated as Irish in any new constitutional settlement. Or indeed in the current one.
I attended an event recently where an eminent figure from Dublin took the opportunity to pour cold water on what he saw as precipitous talk of Border polls. There was no strategy for incorporating the identity of nearly one million British citizens into the Irish State, he said. His words were a manifestation of something significant that happened in the Republic in the years before and after the Belfast Agreement: elites, in particular, accepted that the Britishness of unionists in Ulster was not false consciousness but real and demanding of respect.
This was a good thing, but it has also had the consequence of allowing many in the Republic to assume this Britishness simultaneously meant “not Irish”. It doesn’t. In response to the Border poll scepticism from the aforementioned Dubliner, an odd thing happened. A DUP politician stood up and told the speaker he too was Irish and expected to be acknowledged as such.
Since the start of the peace process, the dual thrust of Irish policy in relation to the divided peoples of the North has generally been to build trust among unionists and self-esteem among nationalists. Unionist trust came in large part from removing the constitutional claim to Northern Ireland, while nationalist self-esteem came from creating treaty-based rights, especially on citizenship, to replace a territorial claim from Dublin that had been of no practical use anyway.
The sum effect of these policies has been hugely positive for both sides of the Border. But they have also had the consequence of cementing two ideas: first, that the senior meaning of the word “Ireland” is the State, not the island. And second, that Irishness is something conferred on people by the State via passport applications. The draft EU withdrawal treaty is precise and legally correct in referring to the two entities on the island as “Northern Ireland and Ireland”. But as we all know, that withdrawal treaty – and indeed the Irish and EU policy behind it – is shaped by a different text, the Belfast Agreement, which never once uses this formulation but rather refers throughout to “Ireland, north and south”.
Why does this matter? Because any new conversation about the constitution will mean new and broader definitions of both Ireland and Irishness. It is one thing to consider how a united or “new” Ireland might legally recognise the Britishness of unionists. It is quite another to imagine ways in which their Irishness, which many feel is inseparable from their Northern Irish and British identities, becomes an inseparable part of a genuinely new Ireland. Particularly since the State named Ireland now appears relatively settled in its conception of itself.
I am not from the Ulster planter stock that John Hewitt wrote so tellingly about, with its complex, interlocking identities. But I am from the same part of Ireland, as are many of those who signed the letter to Leo Varadkar. Their aspiration to Irish unity is a legitimate one, and they may be right that the time has come to discuss it in practical terms. But the task is not protecting existing rights, it is expanding the definition of what Ireland means to include all the people who live there. The Ireland of the industrial North, the pasty supper and Ireland’s Saturday Night. To coin a phrase, they are Irish too. That is Ireland too.
Matthew O’Toole was chief press officer for Europe and economic affairs in the British prime minister’s office from September 2015 to August 2017. He now works for Powerscourt Communications