The eruption of loyalist violence this week should make nationalist politicians and commentators think twice before engaging in further idle chatter about the imminence of a united Ireland. With unionists clearly unsettled by the Northern Ireland protocol the pressure for a Border poll has added an even more dangerous ingredient to the mix.
Given the volatile atmosphere generated by the betrayal of the Democratic Unionist Party by their "friends" on the right wing of the Conservative party the drive by some nationalists to exploit the wound by demanding an early Border poll is further encouragement to those determined to create mayhem.
Unionist commentator Alex Kane has pointed out that the outpourings of unionist/loyalist outrage over the past 50 years have done their cause little good and current anger about the protocol is likely to prove equally as futile in the long run. The corollary, though, is that regular predictions of an imminent united Ireland over the past century and more have been just as misguided and only served to make things worse.
It took majority opinion in nationalist Ireland most of the 20th century to get to grips with the fact that the Border exists not because successive British governments want to rule part of Ireland but because a significant proportion of the population living in the North regard themselves as British and are determined to remain part of the UK. The current Sinn Féin led campaign for a united Ireland is a regression to the counterproductive anti-partitionist sloganeering of the 1950s.
One of the frequently overlooked features of Irish history is the fact that long before the Border was ever contemplated, the British identity of a large number of people in the northeast part of the island was a fact of political life. It was confirmed in Irish general election results through the 19th century and was even obvious as far away as Chicago where Irish American newspaper columnist Finley Peter Dunne plied his trade. In 1897 he had his stock character, saloon keeper Mr Dooley, refer to the British monarch as “her gracious Majesty Victorya Queen of Great Britain an’ iv that part iv Ireland north iv Sligo”.
In fact, there is little likelihood that Irish unity will become a realistic option any time soon
It was the resistance of “that part iv Ireland” to Home Rule that prompted Asquith’s Liberal government to renege on its commitment to the Irish Parliamentary Party to establish a parliament in Dublin. John Redmond’s failure to recognise the strength of unionist identity was followed by a similar misreading of the position by leaders of the 1916 Rising and later the TDs who composed the first Dáil.
Establishment of the Northern state 100 years ago with its parliament in Stormont was widely regarded by nationalists as a temporary little arrangement. But the Border has survived for a century despite confident predictions in every decade that it could not last. Beginning with the establishment of the Boundary Commission, under the terms of the treaty nationalist hopes of a united Ireland have been dashed again and again.
Éamon de Valera made a hugely successful political career out of claiming that partition was a British imposition which he would bring to an end at the earliest opportunity. Mind you when he was offered a united Ireland by Churchill in 1940, as an inducement to supporting the Allied cause in the second World War, he responded with a quick and emphatic no. Like Irish governments before and since, he put the perceived welfare of the southern state far ahead of the proclaimed first national aim.
Even in the 1980s when Charles Haughey engaged in teapot diplomacy with Margaret Thatcher, his minister for foreign affairs Brian Lenihan claimed there would be a united Ireland within a decade. Haughey showed how serious he was by deliberately antagonising the British during the Falklands War regardless of the consequences for political progress in the North.
Cost of unity?
So if history is any precedent all talk of a united Ireland by politicians in the Republic should be taken with a large dose of salt. The problem is that unionist politicians for their own political purposes are as anxious as Sinn Féin to inflame passions by pretending that it is a real and present threat.
In fact, there is little likelihood that Irish unity will become a realistic option any time soon. The economic consequences for the Republic of trying to incorporate a region which would be an economic wasteland without the annual subvention from the UK exchequer of more than €12 billion would inevitably involve a significant reduction in living standards south of the Border.
Added to that, as events of the past week have shown, the inevitable outbreak of violence from loyalist paramilitary organisations in the event of a rushed move to unity is an appalling vista that nobody wants to contemplate.
The bottom line is that politicians and people in the Republic will ultimately act in their own self-interest. For the present at least, that does not involve any serious move towards a united Ireland. However, the perception that it does is providing a pretext for loyalist violence which has the capacity to further poison relations between the two communities in the North and between the two parts of the island.