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Una Mullally: Southern patriotic grandstanding must stop if we want a united Ireland

North-South dialogue and cohesion must avoid unionist vs nationalist binaries

A few years ago, Jonathan Colt, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, published the full text of an interview he conducted with Susan Sontag, an edited version of which appeared in the magazine in 1979. The conversation is loaded with thought-provoking observations about life from Sontag, who died over 14 years ago. Many of them are quotable, but two keep returning to me. “There’s an active notion of neutrality that people don’t understand . . . transcendent neutrality isn’t an attitude of ‘I won’t take sides’, it’s compassion. Where you do see more than just what separates people or sides.”

Another relates to examining the origins of our own thoughts: “We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts . . . I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world.”

We can extrapolate from this that the real common ground is that of feelings. It’s feelings that are universal, crossing social, cultural, political, racial and geographic lines. That is where common ground can be found.

Sontag’s thoughts leak into almost every facet of life, and unlike some, her intellectualism was deeply rooted in empathy. Recently, I’ve been considering some of her positions in the context of the discourse surrounding the potential for a united Ireland to emerge as a consequence of Brexit over the next decade.


Is there a space even in the most fraught and divisive political and social climates to allow for transcendent neutrality, and to momentarily silence the instruments provided by our culture and think beyond them? Creativity begins in the imagining.

Ireland has some complex centenaries coming up, not least May 2021, the centenary of partition. Over the past five years, many of us in the Republic have gone on a deeply reflective journey encompassing open national conversations about the most sensitive, intimate aspect of people’s identities and private lives. Yet the South at large has yet to participate or instigate a similar conversation about our relationship with our brothers and sisters in the North. I don’t think we are honest about our feelings towards each other, our blind spots and ignorances, our prejudices and failings.

Patronised by South

For the most part, the Republic has come to personify an absent parent, enthusiastic about the big gestures (in theory), yet frequently failing to live up to the mundane duties and responsibilities of caring, of being there, of listening. I wholly empathise with those in the North who feel forgotten, jilted, ignored and patronised by those in the South. They’re right. I also think those of us in the South who have acted in this way have to acknowledge the shame that comes as a consequence of being neglectful, because it’s a shame that creates a barrier to open conversation.

Pro-union Protestants are more in tune with the social politics of the Republic than with the parties that apparently most represent them 'ideologically'

In imagining a united Ireland, we must pause the patriotic grandstanding which is a speciality of those in the Republic who are cosmetically republican, yet remain wilfully detached from Northern Ireland in many other senses. I am often struck by how rarely many people south of the Border even visit Northern Ireland. We berate English ignorance towards the North, but what of our own?

While segregation has continued to act as a mechanism for maintaining division in the North – particularly in the education system – people in the South are also guilty of auto-segregation, of being emotionally detached from the North, of almost unconsciously excluding it when we talk about “Ireland”. Of expressing derogatory thoughts about the population of Northern Ireland, in generalisations based on outdated assumptions.

For those who think it impossible to negotiate the future of our island without using orange and green politics as the only markers on the compass, I think it’s important to examine the voting data among Protestants under 40, the majority of whom no longer vote in elections in the North for the Assembly or for Westminster.

Marriage equality

Research undertaken for a 2017 study by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies examined voters and non-voters spread across 18 constituencies. A survey found that 63 per cent of Protestant voters under 40 were in favour of marriage equality, and for those Protestants of voting age under 40 who don’t vote, support was 72 per cent. Some 52 per cent of Protestants under 40 who do not vote were in favour of lifting the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland. Pro-union Protestants are more in tune with the social politics of the Republic of Ireland than with the parties that apparently most represent them “ideologically” (whatever that means in this context anymore) in their own jurisdiction.

Since the Republic passed marriage equality and legalised abortion, perhaps the strongest contemporary cross-community alliances in Northern Ireland, and new open channels of dialogue across the Border, have been rooted not in nationalist or unionist politics, but in issues that impact all communities: marriage equality and abortion. Large protests and rallies are held in Northern Ireland on these issues, and activists and protesters travel from the South to participate. This is proof that alliances, dialogue and unity can be created around issues, beyond the traditionally entrenched lines which are almost immovably embedded in the binaries of Protestant vs Catholic, unionist vs nationalist.

To imagine a united Ireland, we have to live a united Ireland. We have to create dialogue and build friendships and share aspirations beyond historical divisions. We have to imagine how to create space in our society for our shared values – not differences – without falling back into those green and orange silos. This is not impossible. The solution to our collective happiness and prosperity will lie in shared territory, not territory that is physical, but in the interior common ground of us all.