Where Robbie Williams, Andrea Bocelli and Bob Dylan will appear in the coming weeks, there will be a completely different stage show next Saturday.
Ublin’s 3Arena is hosting a debate on Irish unity, a debate that has excited many nationalists and speaks of how a once marginal idea – that a united Ireland could be within reach – is gaining credence. Organized by campaign group Ireland’s Future and with 33 guests on the platform, the event will be longer, less entertaining but more meaningful than what normally graces the stage at the concert venue.
Ireland’s future emerged in the wake of Brexit. With deep pockets and unencumbered by the bloody baggage hampering Sinn Féin’s attempt to persuade the skeptics to take Northern Ireland out of the Union, the group has organized countless events, mostly involving already staunch nationalists but the apathetic and undecided as the true goal.
The group’s online material is sophisticated, professionalised and modernizing a campaign that had been hushed up until Brexit. A video advertisement for Saturday’s event caught my eye because it was filmed where I cycle to work.
Colin Harvey, a law professor at Queen’s University, walks the west bank of the Lagan in Belfast city center and urges people to attend the “historic” event. He says enthusiastically: “I would like you to imagine that you are there on the night when the referendum results are announced and a constitutional amendment is voted on. And I want you to think about how you’re going to feel that night… You might want to be able to say I was there at the Waterfront, I was there at the 3Arena… I joined the conversation about a new and united Ireland involved.”
Prof Harvey is easily able to undertake careful analysis and has spent years examining the complexities of many of the thorny aspects of the unification of the two Irish jurisdictions. But as a seller for a united Ireland – as is the case with any product – there is no point in stressing the extent of the difficulties involved in what is being sold.
Just as Brexit advocates have downplayed the extent of the problems with this more limited form of constitutional change, so many of those now pushing for a united Ireland are calling for difficult talks, but the talks they have are mostly the easy ones involving people who are overwhelming agree with each other.
And just as some Brexiteers may now wish they had thought more carefully about the complexities of their project, so the most ardent supporters of Irish unity could benefit from addressing some of the arguments made by their critics.
The most compelling critique of Irish unity comes in a newly published book, Can Ireland be one?, by veteran Belfast journalist and author Malachi O’Doherty. He highlights the problem with the simplistic thinking of those who used last week’s census results – which showed that the number of those from a Catholic background now outnumbered those from a Protestant background – as evidence for a border survey.
O’Doherty was raised Catholic and Nationalist and would be counted simply as “of Catholic background” in the census; but now he is agnostic and open to unity or union.
His work is thought-provoking because he comes from the constitutionally undecided demographic that will decide the fate of the union and because he asks intelligent but irreverent questions. He questions aspects of the pro-unity plea that even few unionists consider, such as why nationalists take for granted that Ireland, as an island, should be one nation, while at the same time believing that Britain, as an island, should be two or three should be nations.
He questions what defines one of us as Irish, and wonders what kind of future inclusivity is possible among those who don’t see the Duke of Wellington as truly Irish because he was a distinguished British war hero. Wellington was not Catholic, Republican or Nationalist, but to say that he was not truly Irish “means that there is a more precise qualification for being Irish than for being born on the island”. There is perfunctory talk by Sinn Féin and others about ‘respecting Britishness’ in a united Ireland, with little thought to the fact that unionists need to define for themselves what they wish to respect. What would they ask in return for accepting a state they didn’t want?
O’Doherty speculates on the likely demands: recognition as a distinct ethnic group entitled to special consideration; raising the union flag on public buildings in their areas; reserved civil service posts, similar to Indian legislation protecting scheduled castes; quotas requiring 10 percent of An Garda Síochána to be Protestant, or maintaining the PSNI with 50 percent Protestant recruitment; and the use of “other problems that we cannot predict.”
Echoing Irish history, he suggests that ‘where claims resist, they can grow. If the state used force against protests, resistance would deepen and grievances would spread to neighbors who were not originally engaged.” It is these murky possibilities of a botched reunion that is one of the main reasons open-minded centrist voters are likely wary of proposals aimed at fulfilling a simple nationalist aspiration rather than building a workable modern state where hardened Orangemen can thrive alongside former IRA men.
O’Doherty considers what would happen if unity went ahead and a large segment of unions rejected the result – which would be most likely if it were close and there were allegations of voter fraud; it could mean a de facto partition of Northern Ireland, where unionist areas to the east ignored the Dublin authorities as much as possible and became potentially murderously defiant.
Whatever one thinks of unity, it should be clear that monumental change requires monumental planning—and it hasn’t even begun.
Just as the greatest threat to the union comes from the rigidity of union leaders, so the greatest weakness of Irish unity is those who believe their own propaganda is inevitable and therefore does not require much effort.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/united-ireland-enthusiasts-are-avoiding-the-real-hard-questions-42014791.html United Ireland enthusiasts avoid the real, difficult questions