A few weeks ago, I found myself spending the night in Belfast, something I rarely do. I am intimately acquainted with a dozen European capitals, but this was probably only the third or fourth time in my life that I had spent a day or night in the nearest capital to Dublin. As I looked out my hotel window at the old Harland & Wolff shipyard, with lines from poems by Derek Mahon and Louis MacNeice popping into my head, I started to think that I may have been too harsh on the place. Certainly it was more picturesque than I remembered, I thought, as I wandered around the nearby St George's Market*, among the Saturday crowds devouring coconut lattes and vegan baps.
However, later that evening, as I walked along the Ormeau Road, I got a reality check. The road itself, and the little terraced streets off it, were festooned with union jacks and red hand of Ulster banners. My American companion on the walk joked that the flag of a future united Ireland could be a Tricolour with the red hand in the middle. I was about to explain that the Tricolour was technically already the flag of a united Ireland, when I realised she had put her finger on an important point. At the moment, the Tricolour is the official flag of the Republic of Ireland, and also a flag used by nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. Whenever I see a union jack, be it in Belfast or London, I feel a certain atavistic revulsion for the “Butcher’s Apron”, so I can easily understand how the unionist community has the same reaction to the Tricolour. As such, it can never, under any circumstances, be the flag of a united Ireland. The fact is, the very idea of a united Ireland is already a flawed and self-defeating concept.
This summer I spent a few weeks in a village in Catalonia that I’ve been visiting for 35 years. I had many arguments and discussions with Catalan friends and acquaintances, and I detected a deeply disturbing trend towards extremism. There is a widespread acceptance, even among Catalan nationalists, of the fact that at this time there probably isn’t a majority in Catalonia in favour of independence, which is why the illegal and provocative referendum in 2017 was so reckless. But the problem is that the ethnic “Catalan” minority, or at least the ones I spoke to – don’t really accept the legitimacy of what is now the majority. The current minority seem to imply that the children and grandchildren of people who migrated to Catalonia over the last hundred years from the rest of Spain, and identify as Spanish, or in many cases as being both Spanish and Catalan, are somehow invalid, and should have less of a say in the future of the place where they were born.
Catalan nationalist hopes rest on eventually having a razor-thin majority for independence in some future referendum. But would this give them legitimacy to impose their vision of Catalonia on the other 49 per cent of the people, who have a very different one in terms of language and culture? The Irish parallels are clear. If a Border poll in Ireland were to result in a 51 per cent majority for nationalists, would this lend legitimacy to the concept of a united Ireland – would it become more of a reality? Does it never occur to supporters of a Border poll that they are just replicating the behaviour of the people who founded Northern Ireland as a sectarian state 100 years ago?
We can all agree that Northern Ireland was born in pogroms and sectarian head counts, and its centenary should be mourned rather than commemorated. It’s like commemorating the Confederacy. President Michael D Higgins was right in his stance, and people in the Republic seem to agree with him. We all know, though some pretend not to, that Northern Ireland is not, and never has been, and never will be, an integral part of the UK in the way that Tunbridge Wells is. Why else did the British government give unionists their own government and state in 1921, and not the Scots and the Welsh? But the fact that unionists are so delusional about the past century does not invalidate their emotions. They have a right not to live in a united Ireland.
When Irish nationalists talk about “reuniting” Ireland, what do they mean? When was Ireland ever “united” except in the context of British rule? So what would a united Ireland actually look like? A Republic writ large? A Christy Moore fantasy of Irish ways and Irish laws? At this stage so many people have killed for, or been killed for, a united Ireland that it has become a tainted concept.
If you really want a united Ireland, based on unity rather than head counts, now is the time to stop talking about it.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet
*This article was ammended to correct the name of St George's Market on 24/11/2021