Time for measured debate about the prospect of a united Ireland

Diarmaid Ferriter: Fine Gael needs to back up its rhetoric on the North

In December 2017, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar assured Northern unionists: “The Irish Government has no hidden agenda.” Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

In December 2017, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar assured Northern unionists: “The Irish Government has no hidden agenda.” Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

During the difficult, bloody days of 1972, Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald wrote to a contact of his in Northern Ireland: “I have had further occasion to test opinions in political circles here and have to say that the sense of involvement and concern for Northern Ireland is even less than I conveyed [previously] . . . if only all our politicians were forced to spend some time in the North”.

FitzGerald’s colleague Paddy Harte was also frank that decade by asserting that in Fine Gael “there was no one with an informed opinion on Northern Ireland”. It was, in truth, reflective of a general political ignorance.

Are the concerns they expressed finally to be addressed? We are currently witnessing, it seems, a dipping of Southern political toes into Northern political waters.

While Fianna Fáil has unveiled its “partnership” arrangement with the SDLP, Fine Gael has just launched a Young Fine Gael (YFG) branch in Queen’s University Belfast. 

Whatever solution is devised, ignoring Northern unionist sentiment in the midst of a nationalist revival will merely further encourage a siege mentality

This Fine Gael initiative comes on the back of a promise in December 2017 by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to Northern nationalists that “you will never again be left behind by an Irish government” while assuring unionists: “The Irish Government has no hidden agenda.”

According to YFG chairman Killian Foley Walsh the initiative is necessary because of the absence of a powersharing Assembly and because “half of the MPs refuse to take their seats or contribute to the greatest debate in contemporary Ireland”.

Also at the launch was Fine Gael Minister of State Helen McEntee, who insisted the vacuum “needs to be filled”. But more interesting than that were the comments of former leader of the SDLP Alasdair McDonnell: “I would like someone to sit down and start a discussion about what a united Ireland would look like, not on an emotional basis but in a manner focused on the concerns of the people.”

Greener shades Mc

Donnell’s was not an unreasonable request. If, in the throes of Brexit, Fine Gael is seeking to reflect greener shades and dust down its secondary name, the United Ireland Party, it really is incumbent upon it to spell out what it envisages. McEntee has argued in relation to unity that it is “not ideal to debate this now”, which is a cop out.

There has been much justifiable criticism of the siege mentality and strategy of the DUP and its ridiculous, self-serving rewriting of Irish history and denial of the significance of the Border, which is arguably doing damage to the very cause of unionism that it professes to champion.

But we are also experiencing lately an Irish nationalist narrative and sentiment, not helped by English duplicity, which elides the complexity of the weight and legacies of a century of Irish and Anglo-Irish history.

Recent language and gestures suggest engagement with the reality of Northern Ireland is really just skin deep and McDonnell was right to confront that.

Brexit has encouraged talk of a Border poll and emboldened those who desire unity; it has also highlighted the lack of coherence within unionism, which might bring some sort of short-term nationalist satisfaction, but it will not obviate the need for dealing with the reality of Northern unionist identity.

Persuasion and consent

Some 90 years ago Ernest Blythe, an Ulster Protestant nationalist, was unusual in reminding his Southern colleagues about the importance of persuasion and consent in the midst of what he termed their “illusions about partition”.

Likewise, Fianna Fáil’s Seán MacEntee during that era decried the absence of any “considered policy” to bring about unity.

Whatever solution is devised, ignoring Northern unionist sentiment in the midst of a nationalist revival, North and South, will merely further encourage a siege mentality and this will remain a distinctly Irish problem as there is plenty of reason to believe that a basic reality, articulated by the senior conservative Lord Salisbury almost a century ago, remains unaltered: the average English voter has “little interest in, and less understanding of, Irish affairs”.

David Trimble’s looming legal challenge to the border backstop, on the grounds that it violates the Belfast Agreement by diluting the status of Northern Ireland within the UK without a majority vote of the people of Northern Ireland, might be seen as a conveniently selective interpretation of self-determination for Northern Ireland.

It could be counter-argued that taking Northern Ireland out of Europe without the consent of its electorate is also a denial of the commitment to self-determination.

But whatever interpretation is given to consent and whatever the outcome of Brexit, Southern politicians need to be honest about how they envisage a future shared Ireland; insisting that they can “fill the vacuum” without producing any coherent plan, or even initiating a debate, is just lazy sloganeering

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