The kind of unity Ire­land needs isn’t about ter­ri­tory – it is about peo­ple

The Observer - - Focus - Fin­tan O’Toole

There is no doubt that the sup­port­ers of Brexit, avowed union­ists all, have done more to ad­vance the cause of a united Ire­land than the IRA ever man­aged in 30 years of ter­ri­ble vi­o­lence. The sim­plest way to avoid a hard bor­der on the is­land of Ire­land, af­ter all, is to have no bor­der at all.

Northern Ire­land voted against Brexit and will be very deeply and ad­versely af­fected by it. And the Euro­pean Union has quite ex­plic­itly – and quite re­mark­ably – stated that Northern Ire­land can au­to­mat­i­cally re­join the EU at any time af­ter Brexit takes ef­fect if it agrees to a united Ire­land. In this, Northern Ire­land is al­ready dif­fer­ent from Bri­tain: its exit from the EU is a re­turn ticket.

Mean­while, Brexit and the up­surge of English na­tion­al­ism that drives it have cre­ated a deep ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis for the United King­dom that will un­fold over the next 20 years. The cri­sis of au­thor­ity that is al­ready so ev­i­dent in Lon­don is likely to be­come even more acute: any con­ceiv­able deal with the EU will reignite the un­civil wars in English pol­i­tics. Scot­land’s re­sent­ment will deepen if an eco­nomic cri­sis re­sults from a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change it em­phat­i­cally re­jected. With such an­ar­chy in the UK, any sen­si­ble union­ist should be look­ing across the Ir­ish Sea and ask­ing – what the hell is it we are sup­posed to be united to? There is no Bri­tish sta­tus quo to main­tain.

For any think­ing union­ist, it has long been clear that the key to keep­ing Northern Ire­land in the union is Catholic con­sent. As de­mog­ra­phy erodes the in­built Protes­tant ma­jor­ity, the sec­tar­ian head­count is no longer enough. Enough Catholics in the north have to be per­suaded of the ben­e­fits of the cur­rent ar­range­ments not to want to risk the great un­cer­tain­ties of change.

And the odd thing is that be­fore June 2016 this was, from a union­ist per­spec­tive, go­ing rather well. The equal­ity guar­an­teed in the Good Fri­day agree­ment, along­side the in ef­fect bor­der­less ex­is­tence cre­ated by com­mon membership of the EU, meant that, what­ever their longterm as­pi­ra­tions, most Catholics were will­ing to live with things as they were.

It is quite breath­tak­ing that the Demo­cratic Union­ist party in par­tic­u­lar has failed to grasp the sim­ple fact that this Catholic con­sent was their great­est as­set and Brexit throws it away. The polling ev­i­dence is stark. Only 28% of Catholics in Northern Ire­land would vote for a united Ire­land if the UK changed its mind and re­mained a full mem­ber of the EU. How­ever, 53% of Catholics would vote for a united Ire­land if there were a hard Brexit in which all of the UK left the cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket. This fig­ure is likely to in­crease as the con­se­quences ac­cu­mu­late in the com­ing years.

But just be­cause union­ism is ap­par­ently in­tent on sui­cide, we should not be quick to dance on its grave. The great reck­less­ness of Brexit from an Ir­ish point of view is that it forces peo­ple to think again about all of the big ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions that have caused so much grief and that had been suc­cess­fully sus­pended. What­ever one thinks about a united Ire­land, it is sim­ply too much too soon. The kind of unity Ire­land needs is not about ter­ri­tory – it’s about peo­ple. The Ir­ish con­sti­tu­tion was amended 20 years ago to re­de­fine the na­tional aim as be­ing “to unite all the peo­ple who share the ter­ri­tory of the is­land of Ire­land, in all the di­ver­sity of their iden­ti­ties and tra­di­tions”. We are not re­motely there yet. We have a slow, del­i­cate process of heal­ing and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that Brexit tram­ples on with oafish dis­re­gard. We need time. And you don’t have to be a ra­bid na­tion­al­ist to think time to heal is the least Bri­tain owes Ire­land.

Fin­tan O’Toole is a colum­nist with the Ir­ish Times

Ar­lene Fos­ter’s Demo­cratic Union­ists seem blind to the likely ero­sion of Catholic con­sent to the sta­tus quo

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