Parity of esteem for Britishness essential in any united Ireland

Nationalists should start considering how to design only form of Irish unity worth having

Political energies are now rightly focused on the current Stormont talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. Lyra McKee’s vision and values urgently demand that next step towards restoring normality and re-energising the peace process.

All parties to the talks should seek compromise rather than triumph. They could usefully bear in mind Wellington’s comment, as he beheld the dead and the dying after the battle of Waterloo, that “the next worst thing to a great defeat is a great victory”.

A core principle in the talks, especially as they relate to the Irish language, is parity of esteem. As a point of fundamental principle, the nationalist tradition has insisted for many decades that Irish identity be accorded parity of esteem with British identity in Northern Ireland.

First and foremost we should listen generously to unionists, if and when they are ready for such a discussion

It is important to emphasise that if Irish unity is at some point in the future to become a reality parity of esteem for Britishness will necessarily be an underlying principle.


It is premature to open a substantial debate about Irish unity. The issue should certainly not become bound up in the immediate Brexit controversies. Nevertheless, several developments could bring the issue to a head, including the shifting mood of nationalists in Northern Ireland, the impact of a hard Brexit and the possible findings of the 2021 census.

It will, therefore, be prudent, before too long, to step up our reflection on the implications of Irish unity.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson’s thoughtful and brave speech in Queen’s University Belfast last June deserves a more considered and thoughtful response than has so far been forthcoming. Robinson argued in relation to an eventual border poll that the Brexit experience has underlined the dangers of a “yes” or “no” answer to a simple question.

Negotiating process

While not, of course, departing one jot from his commitment to maintenance of the United Kingdom, Robinson argued that consideration should therefore be given to shaping a negotiating process which, in due course, would identify the nature of a new Irish state which might eventually be put for consideration by the electorates North and South.

Pending that, the nationalist tradition should start considering how to design the only form of Irish unity worth having, namely the unity of the people of our island of which John Hume always spoke.

We must have the courage to recognise that, if one day there is to be a united Ireland, the most basic requirement will be that it not only tolerates the British identity of unionists but that it also embraces that identity in friendship and respect.

It is not for nationalists to prescribe what form parity of esteem for Britishness should take in a new Ireland. First and foremost we should listen generously to unionists, if and when they are ready for such a discussion.

However, it is already clear that for our part we need an honest self-examination which is much more profound than recent top-of-the-head thinking and off-the-cuff commentary about Ireland joining the commonwealth.

British identity

It would be neither appropriate nor meaningful now to propose outcomes to the necessary consideration of these matters. However, given that for reasons of both necessity and principle British identity would need to be respected in any united Ireland, we can already discern several major questions.

First, would we be prepared to change the Irish Constitution, as would surely be necessary, or even to adopt a new constitution, to facilitate Irish unity? Moreover, any change of our Constitution would presumably have to involve consultation of the people of Northern Ireland who would be expected to live under it.

Second, bearing in mind the complex political structures which have been necessary in Northern Ireland, how should our own political structures be adapted and would a devolved administration in Belfast be necessary?

Third, should the UK have a guarantor role like the one the Irish Government rightly insisted on in respect of Northern Ireland?

Fourth, how would we handle sensitive questions such as flags and emblems?

Fifth, what implications would Irish unity have for the Irish language, which presumably could no longer be compulsory for all?

Sixth, while a united Ireland would remain part of the EU, what adjustments should be considered to Ireland’s other international relationships?

We might not need to act on all of these points; others may require action. It is already clear, however, that the focus should be on self-analysis rather than slogans.

If we get it right, it is not inconceivable that we could design an island more accommodating of the Britishness of unionism than the UK itself in which a narrow and assertive form of Englishness is increasingly calling the shots.

Bobby McDonagh was Ireland’s ambassador to the UK from 2009-2013