Northern Ireland is being detached from UK


Sir, – Fintan O’Toole’s article, “Northern Ireland is being detached from the UK – We had better be ready for the consequences” (October 26th), is interesting. However it begs the huge question: What will those consequences actually be here in the Republic? This is not dealt with in the article.

Unionists are right about some things. Notably, they were right to call the backstop (the main tool of that detachment) anti-democratic. This was clearly explained by the London correspondent of the US news magazine The Atlantic, Tom McTague: “Under the backstop’s provisions, Northern Ireland will be bound by EU law, without its ongoing democratic consent: no elected officials from Northern Ireland will be able to vote on new EU laws that will apply in Northern Ireland. It is regulation without representation. Whether this is a price worth paying for stability in Northern Ireland and an orderly Brexit is a different question than whether it is democratic, which it is not.” That democratic deficit has now been partially covered by the agreement that the proposed arrangements can be changed by a simple majority vote at Stormont – although this will not happen until the end of 2024.

I have yet to see this lack of democracy spelled out by any unionist in The Irish Times. It was left to Tony Blair’s former adviser, Jonathan Powell, to point out: “The DUP fear is that this is the beginning of the slippery slope to a united Ireland which they cannot stop if the principle of the cross-community [Belfast] agreement is undermined.”

One rarely sees or hears a unionist (except Newton Emerson, who is often not representative of mainstream unionism) in the Republic’s media. Over 50 years ago Garret Fitzgerald, then a young senator, urged RTÉ to include unionists in its discussion programmes. It is still not happening except in the most tokenistic way. We don’t understand unionists because we rarely if ever hear from them.

It is a problem that seems almost generic in the South: an unwillingness to recognise that large numbers of unionists are sincere people with legitimate arguments. It is much easier to paint them all as prejudiced right-wing bigots, thus excusing southerners from facing up to the huge challenge of pondering seriously how these awkward people might one day be accommodated in an agreed Ireland.

Because, like it or not, there are something close to 900,000 people in Northern Ireland who feel passionately British – in exactly the same way as most people in nationalist Ireland feel passionately Irish. A significant few, such as rugby captain Rory Best and golfer Rory McIlroy, manage to feel at home in both worlds. Although some future constitutional recognition of this dualism is probably one way forward to a new dispensation in Ireland, most people in the Republic simply do not understand it.

An open-minded Northern unionist politician I know recently recalled a conversation with a Fianna Fáil senator about unionist reluctance to contemplate Irish unity. He told the senator: “You are asking me to give up my country. How would you respond if I demanded that you gave up your country?”

Are we prepared to welcome into our state Ulster unionists who may want to declare their primary allegiance to Britain, wave the Union flag and sing God Save the Queen?

If we are not prepared at least to tolerate expressions of Britishness in the “new Ireland”, we have no business demanding that unionists accept unity.

Politics, history and demography may not be on their side. But we, citizens of this Republic, have to learn to treat them as equal human beings. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 6.