Watching the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, clutch his figurative pearls recently at the idea that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar aspires to see a united Ireland in his lifetime was distracting. After all his own statement that he is "unapologetically pro-union and not neutral on Northern Ireland" still hung in the air. Behind his disingenuous display of moral superiority, and behind the smokescreen of faux outrage and political pageantry from unionist leaders, the campaign to keep Northern Ireland in the UK is already well under way.
Former Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson infamously told unionists to prepare for a "predictable" Border poll last year, and unionism responded. Ulster Unionist Party councillor Philip Smith co-founded pro-UK campaign group UnitingUK in direct response to Robinson's call to arms. The pro-union group makes the case for Northern Ireland as an integral component of the United Kingdom and does so with slick graphics and refreshing honesty.
Unafraid to acknowledge the failures associated with unionism, and with a clear aim of appealing to the growing middle ground, the fledgling group is effective in its efforts, and a welcome addition to Northern Ireland’s political landscape. The group is joined in the civic space by newly formed We Make NI, a group of civic unionists who, much like UnitingUK, aim to make a positive case for Northern Ireland in the UK.
Unionism has been scrambling to redefine itself in the face of dwindling support and significant shifts in the political attitudes and identities present in the North
Robinson also called for the establishment of a think tank for the express purpose of assisting pro-union political parties to counter a campaign for Irish unity. This ambition may have been made a reality through New Decade New Approach, the 2020 deal which – in addition to reforming Stormont – also included a commitment from the British government to fund the establishment of the Castlereagh Foundation. Required to serve as an “independent body”, the deal dictates that the foundation’s goal is to research the shifting demographics and social identities in Northern Ireland.
Attitudes and identities
However, having been named chair of the foundation by the British government, former DUP leader Arlene Foster has described the group's ethos as a drive to "create a civic voice for those of us who are British". The appointment of a former DUP leader adds considerable fuel to suggestions that the foundation is itself a pro-UK think tank, designed to influence the outcome of a future vote on constitutional change. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has openly stated that the foundation will be producing "proper academic research supporting the case for the union".
Unionism has been scrambling to redefine itself in the face of dwindling support and significant shifts in the political attitudes and identities present in the North. In vying for the leadership positions within their respective parties, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie made unambiguous their objective to hold Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Donaldson promised to institute numerous pro-union bodies, including an annual UK-wide “conference on the union”, a coalition for the union and a pro-union campaigning group, all aimed at counteracting an Irish unity campaign. All this provides a backdrop to Beattie and Lewis’s affectatious cries and criticisms of Varadkar for merely expressing his benign dream of seeing this island unified.
One can hardly describe unionism as a unified political camp, but on the topic of Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, unionist political representatives benefit from assurances which nationalism can only dream of – a united front between themselves and their government. While the British government openly supports Northern Ireland remaining in the UK, exemplified by the formation of Downing Street’s “Union Unit” – tasked solely with maintaining the “family of nations” – the Irish Government has maintained a confused and tepid position.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has been at pains to talk down conversations about unification, stating that it is not on the Government’s agenda and citing the need for political buy-in from unionists before reconsidering. Meanwhile, unionism’s own open discussion opposing Irish unification is well under way. They have wasted no time taking their position at the table, and they are not waiting for nationalism’s permission to prepare.
There are inevitably going to be both “yes” and “no” camps in every referendum. Serving as two necessary components in any functioning democracy, the simultaneous circulation of opposing positions encourages the electorate to make informed decisions. The figureheads of political unionism will continue to campaign for what they perceive is best suited to their interests. The notion that in order to even consider reunifying Ireland, the only way forward would necessitate an entirely homogenous, island-wide consensus is as puzzling a stand as it is vexing, and to entertain it would be woefully misguided, at best.
Voicing support for the preservation of the United Kingdom is not condemned as "divisive" or "unhelpful" by political leaders, it is accepted as a legitimate position
While the Irish Government continues to grapple with its position, academic study, debates and discussion groups continue to form organically. The sharp rise in academic research on constitutional change, such as the University of Liverpool’s Civic Space, UCL’s constitution unit, and University of Ulster’s constitutional conversations project is further evidence that we are undeniably on a path towards a referendum.
Voicing support for the preservation of the United Kingdom is not condemned as “divisive” or “unhelpful” by political leaders, it is accepted as a legitimate position embedded into political discourse across these islands. So too should support for Irish unification be considered equivalently legitimate. There exists, at many levels, a real need to normalise the holding of and vocalising of such a position. The call to silence such views under the veil of “not now” is no more than an attempt to undermine and delegitimise a key principle of the Belfast Agreement that confirms and recognises divergent political aspirations.
The “others” or “middle ground” in the North so often left out of the conversation are now set to be the kingmakers in any vote, and unionism knows it. While political leaders hold the line that a Border poll is not imminent, unionism is clearly subscribed to the age-old adage of “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” and by any measure, they are ahead of the curve.