20 September 2019 No Comments by The Northern Standard

There is much talk in these Brexit-afflicted days about a United Ireland.

Those doing the talking are not just those, like Sinn Féin, who have always been canvassing the reunification of the country as a deeply rooted tenet of political ideology. The conversation has become quite a commonplace one in Ireland as Brexit has made manifest the problems and complications arising from the existence of two separate countries on our small island and what would happen if the invisible border between them suddenly became a much more tangible thing, an impediment that those whose daily routine of work or leisure transcends both jurisdictions would find disruptive and disturbing to come to terms with. Bad memories from the days of the Troubles when physical manifestations of the Border and its reinforcement through policing and military strength supplied a focus and an accelerant for the conflict lend a strong force of argument to some of the conversations taking place in this country at the present time about the ending of partition.

And the conversation is not just being confined to our little part of the world. On the UK mainland, where the issue of Scottish independence is never too far from the agenda, a recent poll showed a majority in favour of a post-Brexit referendum being held to afford the people of Northern Ireland a determining say in the question of whether they should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic in a unified Irish State. Some European political leaders have also speculated a little wistfully on how less bothersome this whole Brexit business would be if all of Ireland were indeed a nation once again.

Whether a majority of the people in Northern Ireland, who weren’t consulted in the aforementioned poll, would like the opportunity to vote in such a referendum, and what way they would vote if they did, is another matter. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said recently that the outworking of a no-deal Brexit would likely lead Northern people of moderate political outlook, whose natural inclination was to see themselves as British, to question the continuing value of the Union, while moderate or soft Northern nationalists would come to somewhat more forcefully consider the option of a United Ireland.

Importantly, the Taoiseach sought to take the debate on this issue out of the insular framework in which it has traditionally been waged. He noted that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wished to remain within the European Union, and if the UK took them out of the union, and took away their European citizenship, one way of restoring that would be to become part of Ireland, and therefore part of Europe, again.

How many people in Northern Ireland might not ideally wish to embrace an Irish identity but would do so as a means of preserving a full sense of European identity, and the entitlements and privileges that might come with it, is an unknowable number but it might command sufficient size and influence to have an expansive bearing on a debate that in the past has all too easily floundered in narrow sectarian waters.

But even attempts to produce a discussion on the topic founded on a progressive shared vision of the future rather than to brand the divisions of the past with the labels of winner and loser can quickly come to grief for other considerations. At the most recent meeting of Monaghan Co Council, a broad-based motion tabled by Sinn Féin on the theme of discussing Irish unity failed to pass, the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors finding it impossible to support an element of the motion which posited the appointment of a Government Minister with responsibility in this area.

This, said one of the opponents of the motion, was effectively waving a red rag to a bull in the direction of those of strongly held Unionist opinions, inviting them to the dialogue but telling them what the ultimate outcome of the discussions was going to be. Whether that would necessarily be the interpretation that those in Northern Ireland who wish to preserve the Union would put on such an appointment or not, the motion fell, leading its proposer Pat Treanor to wonder with evident frustration what those who voted against it might be afraid of.

Sinn Féin want the reunification conversation to start in earnest now, and have effectively been engaging in the dialogue at every opportunity since the bête noire of Brexit began to stalk the landscape. For the other main parties, the conversation is going to have to take place, but just not yet. Brexit, for them, has made the landscape too uncertain, and the people up North that the Republic most need to engage with a little too jumpy and disquieted just now to start talking about an all-island future.

Talking never hurt anyone, but there is some wisdom in the cautious noises that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been making.

Mergers are always tricky things to negotiate. In the business world, successful mergers are usually proceeded by a period of what has come to be known in the terminology of the courtroom as disclosure: each side makes available to the other the evidence to support their arguments, and this is mutually deliberated over for a period before the issue at hand is determined.

If the ordinary man and woman on the streets of Belfast or Dublin was asked to vote in a referendum on Irish unity, the first thing they would want to know is: what will a United Ireland look like? People will want to find out how such an entity will operate, where will the money come from to pay for it, and how will it impact their day-to-day life in the workplace or on the roads, in hospitals and in schools. People will be anxious to learn if they will be better or worse off in a United Ireland than they are now in the Republic and the North.

Ultimately, the devil of this argument is in the detail, and when one cuts through the language of ideological politics and the worthy principles of inclusion and dialogue and mutual respect for history and traditions, there is precious little meat on the bones of the brave new united Irish world that might emerge from the post- Brexit wilderness. True, there have been numerous academic studies done which have forecast what unification would mean in economic and social terms, many of them founded on the common sense considerations that would occur to any of us as laypeople if we took a bird’s eye perspective of our small island and considered the wisdom of its continuing to be a place where two health services, education systems, policing forces, etc operated in replication of each other.

But there has been little detailed practical planning that has come into the public domain for perusal and submission. If we are to have a “cooling off period” to let Brexit come and go before we get down to the serious merger negotiations, let us use that time to get a good clear picture of what a United Ireland, if it is to come to pass, will look like for the people living there.
Surely there is nothing to be afraid of in that.

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