Unionism not emotionally ready for conversation about united Ireland
What is unionism without the union? The question has us spooked
Former Ireland international rugby player Andrew Trimble: many unionists fear his articulate sentiments about a fused British, Irish and Northern Irish identity are the true threat to the union. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
In 1988, on a trip to Duisberg in what was then West Germany, the SDLP politician Sean Farren asked David Trimble what he truly wanted for unionism. Trimble’s answer was simple: “To be left alone.”
In the 23 years since Trimble’s visionary leadership led to the Belfast Agreement, unionism has felt anything but left alone. Instead, it has been prodded at every turn by a republicanism which saw the Belfast Agreement as a stepping-stone to a united Ireland rather than as an end in itself.
A united Ireland never felt like a real possibility before. Vague, uncosted, unworkable ideas of a new, united Ireland based on the ludicrous socialist principles Sinn Féin allege they espouse were airily mentioned but rarely probed, largely because the prospect seemed so remote. And so the prodding felt annoying, but ultimately meaningless.
What is the point of being ‘influential’ in a new country whose very existence is at odds with your fundamental belief?
In recent months the acceptance of the inevitability of a united Ireland amongst sensible politicians in the Republic has become more widespread and, as a result, threatening. Unionists like me are spooked. Listening to his Zoom seminar some weeks ago, I was struck by the intellect and maturity of Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan and intrigued by his thoughtful proposals on how a united Ireland might work. But I was also deeply uneasy.
Unionists cannot fault republicans for fleshing out the idea of a united Ireland, can they? Surely it’s the responsible thing to do. This meat on the bone is what has been missing from the debate: the practicality of integrating a Northern economy so reliant on public sector spending with the Republic’s.
And what would the governance of the new Ireland look like? Would the new Ireland rejoin the European Union as a new nation, thus assuaging the 56 per cent of people in Northern Ireland who voted Remain?
The numerous political leaders espousing a united Ireland on the recent Claire Byrne Live programme engaged with these questions thoughtfully and explained how unionism – and indeed republicanism – should not be inflexible. So far, so reasonable.
Except it isn’t. Because the key tenet of unionism, at its essence, is its complete inflexibility. What is unionism without the union? I have listened with interest to calculations about how influential unionists could be in a new Ireland, making up perhaps 12 per cent of a new Dáil Éireann rather than a tiny fraction of MPs at Westminster. But what is the point of being “influential” in a new country whose very existence is at odds with your fundamental belief? Many fail to recognise this key point.
And with that inflexibility comes the fear that even mild engagement with a figure such as O’Callaghan and his nascent plans is, in fact, a betrayal of unionism. Because, quite simply, unionism is not emotionally ready for the conversation about a united Ireland. No amount of cajoling, calculation or reasonableness will change that, at least at the moment.
Not since the Belfast Agreement have unionists in Northern Ireland felt more under siege. Many, including Trimble, feel the Northern Ireland Protocol was the ultimate abandonment of Northern Ireland – in concept and actuality – by London. An “economic united Ireland” now exists in many unionist minds, and with it the accompanying erosion of their cultural identity.
Northern Ireland, to those who believed Thatcher’s insistence originally, is no longer as British as Finchley. And the ability of a such a fearful sentiment to unite petrol bomb-wielding youths in west Belfast with knitwear-clad gents pottering around garden centres is as rare as it is dangerous.
For many, loyalty to Britain feels very one-way in the context of the protocol. Couple this with the very real prospect of a Sinn Féin taoiseach and first minister by 2025 and the crisis of leadership within unionism, and the feelings of desperation and being boxed in start to mount. If Scotland falls, the union is fundamentally changed. Indeed, what is the union at that point? Is Northern Ireland the next domino?
The threat also comes from within Northern Ireland. Witness the comments of former Ireland international rugby player Andrew Trimble on Claire Byrne Live – many unionists fear his articulate sentiments about a fused British, Irish and Northern Irish identity are the true threat to the union. Keep diluting Britishness and it will cease to be relevant.
The “others” in the middle are convincible, less constrained by the emotional ties unionists have to Britain, more persuadable in terms of what change would mean, especially for their wallet. The fear is that it is Andrew rather than David Trimble who is the mainstream now. And so, for many, the need to understand pure unionism and Britishness north of the Border perhaps feels even less relevant, compounding the problem. Ignore them, and they will go away.
If there is to be a truly mature conversation about a united Ireland, O’Callaghan and others must not go beyond unionism so quickly
The gulf in understanding as to why unionists are unionists, and their emotional state at the moment, needs to be bridged not just south of the Border, but also in London and Brussels. A key player may well turn out to be Sue Gray, who has been appointed second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office in London. She will lead the Union and the Constitution.
Gray has been permanent secretary at Northern Ireland’s Ministry of Finance for the past three years. She understands Northern Ireland – and unionists – like few in Whitehall.
Gray will be aware of this bewilderment, this desperation and frustration of being misunderstood even on a basic level that so many unionists feel from those both south of Belfast and east of it.
If there is to be a truly mature conversation about a united Ireland, O’Callaghan and others must not go beyond unionism so quickly, rather meet unionists halfway, starting a more low-key discussion cognisant of first principles and current realities.
Peter Cardwell is an author and former special adviser to two secretaries of state for Northern Ireland