Republic must decide what relationship it wants with NI

 

OPINION:INTEREST AMONG people in the Republic these days in Northern Ireland is minimal. As somebody who lives in the South and works in the North, my experience in recent years, as the economic and financial crisis has come to dominate public discourse, is that southerners largely don’t want to know any more.

“People in the South are utterly happy with its 26 county shape: their mental map is the 26 counties,” says a southerner who has held senior jobs in both jurisdictions. “When there was active violence in the North, and people saw the northern conflict on the television every night, their consciousness was more elevated. Now there is no longer a constituency of the concerned in the South.”

There is a constituency – it is difficult to know how big – who would go further and say that after 90 years of going their very different ways, the two are separate places, and that is the way to keep them. This view was articulated by the young woman in the audience who attacked Martin McGuinness on the game-changing RTÉ Frontline programme during last October’s presidential campaign: “As a young Irish person, I am curious as to why you have come down here to this country, with all your baggage, your history, your controversy? And how do you feel you can represent me, as a young Irish person, who knows nothing of the Troubles and who doesn’t want to know anything about it?”

The senior figure quoted above believes that “the greatest challenge for the North-South dimension of the [peace] process is persuading people in the Republic of its importance”.

He emphasises the need for more “people-to-people” co-operation across the Border, with a particular emphasis on the unionist community, who will feel increasingly beleaguered as Northern Ireland becomes demographically “greener”.

Unionists should “not have to leave their British identity outside the door” to engage in such co-operation, he says.

Research I did earlier this year indicated a disappointingly low level of connection between civil society organisations, outside churches and sporting bodies, in the two jurisdictions. Former Community Relations Council director Duncan Morrow – an outspoken critic of the Northern Ireland Executive for its failure to begin the process of moving the North towards a non-sectarian “shared society” – believes that “the intellectual framework for thinking about the North-South relationship is very weak”.

The journalist Olivia O’Leary agrees. At the inaugural Garret FitzGerald Spring School, she urged the assembled dignitaries to re-animate North-South co-operation. She proposed three ways in which this might be done: through more “people-to-people” co-operation; more co-operation in the joint provision of public services; and the economic and social development of the often marginalised Border region.

For any of this to happen, the dominant mood of boredom with and disengagement from the North will have to change, although I don’t see this happening any time soon.

However it does beg the longer-term question: does the South really want the North as part of an eventual united Ireland? Opinion polls over the past decade or so show that a bare majority of people in the Republic now say they want a united Ireland: for example, in the 1999-2000 European Values Survey, just 54 per cent of people favoured unity.

As long ago as the mid-1980s, political scientist Peter Mair described the attitude of Irish voters as: “Unity would be nice. But if it’s going to cost money, or result in violence, or disrupt the moral and social equilibrium, then it’s not worth it.”

This view was stated again in a 2011 survey of attitudes to North-South relations among UCD and Queen’s University Belfast social science students. As one UCD student put it: “Neither of us want Northern Ireland: neither us nor the UK government. I’d say if you asked the majority of Irish people – yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth.

I mean, to integrate Northern Ireland into this State – why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.”

But history doesn’t stand still. If Scotland becomes independent after a referendum in 2014 (or maybe five-10 years later if there is an inconclusive result and the Scottish Nationalists demand a re-run), it will surely be only a matter of time before the English government (because it will be largely English by then) and people start asking what is the point of their continuing and expensive constitutional union with the northeastern corner of Ireland. What will be the position of the Government and people of the rest of Ireland? It is a question they would almost certainly prefer not to contemplate. But it is one which they need to start thinking about very seriously.

Andy Pollak is director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies. He is a former Irish Times journalist

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