Talk of a united Ire­land is rife. But is it a fan­tasy?

Brexit has placed Ir­ish uni­fi­ca­tion firmly back on the agenda, but as Rory Carroll dis­cov­ers, there are still plenty of dis­sent­ing voices

The Observer - - Focus -

To sense true yearn­ing for a united Ire­land in Dublin you used to have to run your fingers over words writ­ten long ago and etched in cold, grey stone. “No man has a right to fix the bound­ary to the march of a na­tion. No man has a right to say to his coun­try: ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no fur­ther’.”

So de­clared Charles Ste­wart Parnell in 1885 in an ex­hor­ta­tion en­graved in his gran­ite mon­u­ment on O’Con­nell Street. Quotes pin­ing for na­tion­hood from other na­tion­al­ist lead­ers adorn sim­i­lar mon­u­ments around the city.

Most pre­date Ire­land’s par­ti­tion in 1922 but they res­onated as as­pi­ra­tions to unite the 26-county south with the six coun­ties of Northern Ire­land – as­pi­ra­tions which south­ern­ers, as decades passed, es­poused with dwin­dling con­vic­tion. There were other pri­or­i­ties: em­i­gra­tion, jobs, the econ­omy, the health ser­vice. And in any case a united Ire­land was never go­ing to hap­pen. Un­til it was.

These days you open a news­pa­per, turn on the tele­vi­sion, perch on a bar stool and the topic bub­bles up not as history but as a loom­ing ex­is­ten­tial choice, the for­saken dream dusted off and glim­mer­ing as pos­si­ble – even in­evitable.

“It’s like a ball or boul­der com­ing down the hill. You can’t stop it,” said Os­gur Breat­nach, an au­thor and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist at a book-read­ing in south county Dublin. “Agree with it or not, it’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

Drinkers in the Pádraig Pearse, an in­ner city pub and repub­li­can haunt named af­ter one of the lead­ers of the 1916 Easter ris­ing, cheered the prospect. “A united re­pub­lic of Ire­land – I’d love it,” said Jamie Dean, 60, a labourer. “We’d be the same coun­try. Not the Brits. It’s ours. So sim­ple.” It’s not sim­ple.

Northern Ire­land Union­ists and Protes­tants who con­sider them­selves Bri­tish re­coil at the idea of a United Ire­land. Plenty of Catholics north and south have their own reser­va­tions, not least the fi­nan­cial cost, adding up to a fraught, com­plex tan­gle of iden­tity, ide­ol­ogy and eco­nom­ics.

But a con­flu­ence of events has shunted uni­fi­ca­tion on to the po­lit­i­cal agenda.

De­spite its cit­i­zens hav­ing voted 56% to stay in the Euro­pean Union, Northern Ire­land’s econ­omy and con­sti­tu­tional scaf­fold­ing is now be­ing buf­feted by Brexit winds, scaf­fold­ing that was al­ready wob­bling be­cause of a break­down in the Stor­mont power-shar­ing gov­ern­ment which has left a vac­uum for more than 600 days.

A plan un­veiled last week by the Euro­pean Re­search Group

– the hard Brexit fac­tion of the Con­ser­va­tive party – failed to as­suage anx­i­ety over whether a hard or soft bor­der will de­scend on the por­ous 310-mile bound­ary of fields, roads and towns.

Be­ing bounced out of the EU to an un­cer­tain fate has prompted one in six Northern Ire­land vot­ers to switch al­le­giance, de­liv­er­ing a ma­jor­ity for uni­fi­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll. “The pos­si­bil­ity is no longer a pipe dream,” said Tommy McKear­ney, 66, a for­mer IRA mem­ber and hunger striker. “I don’t think it’s im­mi­nent. It’ll be over the next 20 to 30 years – in a life­time, but not in my life­time.”

De­mog­ra­phy is key. When Bri­tish ne­go­tia­tors carved Northern Ire­land from the newly in­de­pen­dent south it was 65% Protes­tant, 35% Catholic, en­trench­ing a union­ist ma­jor­ity. A cen­tury later it is 48% Protes­tant, 45% Catholic. Union­ists re­main the big­gest bloc, but are not an over-

all elec­toral ma­jor­ity. In last year’s gen­eral elec­tion the Demo­cratic Union­ist Party won a mere 1,168 more votes than Sinn Fein.

“It’s a mas­sive de­mo­graphic shift. In five to 10 years there’ll be a Catholic ma­jor­ity in Northern Ire­land,” said Peter Shirlow, di­rec­tor of the Uni­ver­sity of Liver­pool’s In­sti­tute of Ir­ish Stud­ies. It will take longer for those numbers to trans­late into the elec­torate. “But a ma­jor­ity for a united Ire­land is go­ing to hap­pen, no doubt about that.”

Some union­ists are over­turn­ing taboos by openly ques­tion­ing the en­durance and even de­sir­abil­ity of the union with Bri­tain.

The “bat­tle for the union is on”, Peter Robin­son, Northern Ire­land’s for­mer first min­is­ter, and for­mer leader of the Demo­cratic Union­ist Party, re­cently warned. Union­ists need to pre­pare for a bor­der poll, he said: “I don’t ex­pect my own house to burn down, but I still in­sure it be­cause it could hap­pen.” Union­ists, in other words, need to act be­fore the de­mo­graphic clock ticks to mid­night by sell­ing the union’s mer­its to mod­er­ate na­tion­al­ists and those who con­sider them­selves nei­ther union­ist nor na­tion­al­ist. Brexit, and union- ist clum­si­ness in woo­ing al­lies, may im­mo­late such in­sur­ance.

A trickle of other prom­i­nent union­ists such as Alex Kane, Mike Nes­bitt and Jim Dor­nan have joined Robin­son in sound­ing the alarm. Un­der the Good Fri­day agree­ment, the Northern Ire­land sec­re­tary should call a bor­der poll if he or she thinks a ma­jor­ity would vote for uni­fi­ca­tion.

The cur­rent sec­re­tary, Karen Bradley, did not help the union’s case this month by ad­mit­ting that when ap­pointed to the job she was “slightly scared” of Northern Ire­land and pro­foundly ig­no­rant about its po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions.

Re­ac­tion on the streets of Belfast was scorn­ful. “The gov­ern­ment in West­min­ster doesn’t give a damn about us,” said Tom Neill, 72, a for­mer sol­dier. “We’re a step­ping stone here, politi­cians drop in, then leave,” said An­thony Quinn, 55, a film lo­ca­tion man­ager. When Bri­tish roy­als visit Ire­land these days they re­ceive hugs. The re­bel­lious colony of up­ris­ings, famine and re­sent­ment is now a pros­per­ous, con­fi­dent

re­pub­lic which no longer de­fines its iden­tity in op­po­si­tion to Bri­tish­ness. Ador­ing crowds mobbed Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Dublin in July, a se­quel to the Queen’s ground­break­ing visit in 2011. Pope Fran­cis, in con­trast, spent much of his visit last month apol­o­gis­ing for cler­i­cal sex abuse.

All changed, changed ut­terly, as Yeats said.

Acoun­try once viewed as an eco­nomic bas­ket case and Catholic theoc­racy is now the EU’s star per­former and a sec­u­lar, pro­gres­sive bea­con with a gay taoiseach, mar­riage equal­ity and re­laxed abor­tion laws.

In the Pádraig Pearse pub you still find a gate from Kil­main­ham jail, in hon­our of the 1916 rebels ex­e­cuted in the prison, but this part of Dublin is trans­formed, with dank slums giv­ing way to sleek apart­ments and cafes serv­ing or­ganic av­o­cado toast to Face­book and Google em­ploy­ees.

The re­pub­lic’s new Garda com­mis­sioner is Drew Har­ris, OBE, a vet­eran of the Po­lice Ser­vice of Northern Ire­land and its pre­de­ces­sor, the Royal Ul­ster Con­stab­u­lary. The switch in al­le­giance stirred lit­tle con­tro­versy.

Nor is there any out­cry over Fianna Fail, one of the Re­pub­lic’s big­gest po­lit­i­cal par­ties, prepar­ing to be­come an all-Ire­land party by ab­sorb­ing the SDLP, the north’s mod­er­ate na­tion­al­ist party.

Sinn Fein, the po­lit­i­cal wing of the IRA dur­ing the Trou­bles, is push­ing for a bor­der poll while try­ing to ease the sting for union­ists. The party’s leader, Mary Lou McDon­ald, has sug­gested re­join­ing the Com­mon­wealth.

Mean­while her pre­de­ces­sor, Gerry Adams, a bo­gey­man for union­ists, is cul­ti­vat­ing a quirkier per­sona. His lat­est ini­tia­tive: a cook­ery book with recipes which sus­tained repub­li­cans dur­ing marathon peace ne­go­ti­a­tions. The puns have flowed: “give peas a chance”, “shin­ner of beef”, “when hunger strikes”.

All-Ire­land sports act as a bridge, es­pe­cially when teams do well, such as last month when the women’s hockey team ad­vanced to the World Cup fi­nals, cast­ing a feel­good glow over the whole is­land.

“It’s now an ev­i­dence-based propo­si­tion,” said Kevin Meagher, a for­mer Labour ad­viser on Northern Ire­land. “There’s a very good util­i­tar­ian ar­gu­ment. And it’s now harder to rally against the south as a bo­gey­man.” Bri­tish pol­i­tics will not lament Northern Ire­land’s exit from the UK, said Meaghar: “There will be an au­di­ble sigh of re­lief.” It could all add up to a new era – an is­land re­united belt­ing out Four Green Fields, the folk song about a lost prov­ince. But this sce­nario has a prob­lem.

“It’s a load of steam­ing bol­locks. The Orange­men, for starters, won’t be budg­ing.” The speaker is a plas­terer called Michael, sip­ping cider in the Pádraig Pearse.

Many agree with this as­sess­ment, al­beit with less colour­ful lan­guage. A cho­rus of politi­cians, aca­demics, poll­sters and even repub­li­cans say Brexit’s im­pact on union­ism is over­stated and that a united Ire­land will not hap­pen soon, if ever.

One rea­son is the es­ti­mated £10bn annual sub­ven­tion from Lon­don to Belfast. Dublin can­not match this. Uni­fi­ca­tion would in all prob­a­bil­ity mean slash­ing pub­lic sec­tor jobs and ser­vices in the north and hik­ing taxes in the south, in­cen­tives for vot­ers on both sides of the bor­der to vote no.

An­a­lysts ques­tion the method­ol­ogy of polls which rely on on­line pan­els and show a spike in sup­port for uni­fi­ca­tion. “Most peo­ple here take them with a grain of salt,” said Dun­can Mor­row, an Ul­ster Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor. Younger union­ists may sigh at DUP ful­mi­na­tions against gay mar­riage and abor­tion rights, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean they wish to join their so­cially lib­eral neigh­bour, he said.

About 40% of Northern Ire­land’s elec­torate does not vote, of which most are union­ist, said Shirlow of Liver­pool Uni­ver­sity. A bor­der ref­er­en­dum would gal­vanise them to vote no, he said. “Who­ever voted to be a mi­nor­ity? It’s emo­tional.”

For all the Re­pub­lic’s cur­rent pro­gres­sive sheen, union­ists are wary of a neigh­bour which kow­towed to Catholic bish­ops and marginalised its Protes­tant mi­nor­ity. “We were kept very quiet and al­most dis­ap­peared,” said Robin Bury, au­thor of Buried Lives: the Protes­tants of South­ern Ire­land. “There is still An­glo­pho­bia here, it’s still in the blood­stream. Union­ist un­ease is jus­ti­fied,” he said.

Ian Mar­shall, an anti-Brexit northern union­ist and farmer, has good things to say about the Re­pub­lic. The Ir­ish gov­ern­ment and Sinn Fein sup­ported his elec­tion to the Seanad, Dublin’s up­per cham­ber. Yet Mar­shall warns uni­fi­ca­tion could cre­ate a “blood­bath” if loy­al­ists feel alien­ated or pres­sured: “We could po­ten­tially turn the tap on again, and that fills me with hor­ror.”

Ed­ward Burke, a ter­ror­ism ex­pert at Not­ting­ham Uni­ver­sity, echoed that con­cern, say­ing loy­al­ist paramil­i­taries fo­cused on crim­i­nal en­ter­prises could re­vert to “Pavlo­vian in­stincts” of sec­tar­ian killing.

“Tioc­faidh ár lá,” goes the repub­li­can slo­gan. Our day will come. An ex­pres­sion of long­ing mas­querad­ing as prophecy. Maybe it will come. But Ire­land’s dream­ers will need to be pa­tient. And care­ful what they wish for.

Getty Getty

BE­LOW Gerry Adams, once a union­ist bo­gey­man, is cul­ti­vat­ing a new per­sona. LEFT Orange­men pre­pare to march in Belfast in July to mark the anniversary bat­tle of the Boyne in 1690.

Pho­to­graph by Charles McQuil­lan/Getty AP

LEFT An Ir­ish-English lan­guage street sign in Belfast, Northern Ire­land. RIGHTThe all-Ire­land hockey team reaches the World Cup semi­fi­nals – cast­ing a feel­good glow over the whole is­land.

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