A campaign for Irish unity? If you don’t mind a civic war

The calls from Irish nationalist politicians and commentators for a border referendum, or for the Irish government to prepare for the referendum – by which is meant, preparation for the expected Yes vote – have grown clamorous of late.  Sinn Fein’s age-old uninflected chant about unification (which by definition requires no expatiation, defence or debate), has been recently harmonised, as it were, by the “Ireland’s Future” organisation which lends social and academic heft to the campaign for a united Ireland. And also by the Seanad’s recent public consultations “On the constitutional future of the island of Ireland” and whose report, I think it’s fair to say, is unlikely to conclude that unification of the island and total constitutional separation of all thirty-two counties from the United Kingdom, is not on the cards. By comparison, Micheal Martin’s Shared Island unit is a cautious and patient affair, though in its case, too, “sharing” aspires to mean – let’s be honest – “getting the North” (to use Yeats’s phrase) but by means of a five-year plan of friendly interpenetration and then friendly persuasion. These are, respectively, the short game and the long game.         

Currently the effort is almost entirely unilateral, which has not staunched the one-way flow.  This reflects the relatively simple forcefulness that most Irish republicans – by whom I mean Irish nationalists actively in pursuit of a united Ireland severed from the UK – seem to regard the united Ireland campaign as requiring. There is an obliviousness that is the campaign’s hallmark. We know that Sinn Fein expect merely to outpoll and then swamp unionists. They despise unionists, are deaf to their concerns, and in any case their ideology compels them never to deign to debate or convince their sworn enemies; their century-old mandate is merely to cancel unionism. Payback time in their eyes will be brief and decisive.

Even the political historians think it a one-way railroad on which the locomotive is already in motion. In his review essay on Brendan O’Leary’s new book, Making Sense of a United Ireland (Dublin Review of Books 149, November 2022), Andy Pollak confesses himself a convert to O’Leary’s irreversible direction of travel and the simple requirement of 50+1% in a border referendum. The enduring teleology of Irish republicanism is a wondrously freeing thing: once embraced, it liberates you from the obligations of debate into the fascinating world of mere detailed implementation with all the conceptual, even ludic allure (in words) of those video games in which you build cities and countries from scratch. You get to ponder tasty choices: will the united Ireland be a federal or a unitary state? Who will take on the loyalists – the Irish state or the IRA?  O’Leary’s book is apparently congested with such meticulous scenarios, as is Richard Humphrey’s  Beyond the Border (2018). Reading such books as a unionist is like being present at one’s own elaborate funeral. 

But beyond the detailed projections, the broad confident, arational premises of nationalism remain and are not always pretty. It should be notorious by now that the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood greeted the recent Northern Ireland census returns as “a seminal moment” in recent Irish history because more citizens declared themselves as Catholics than as Protestants. He hoped that his fellow Catholics could “breathe a sigh of relief”. It is as though the “oppressive state which engrained discrimination against a Catholic minority” could have returned like a revenant any time up to the day the census returns were released. So all along it had been down to how many dig with whichever foot. Now, as other nationalist leaders likewise proclaimed, constitutional change is greenlit. Quite simple really: the micks have it, the prods done for.     

The very day I read the SDLP statement, I happened to read Sean O’Casey’s letter to Paul Shyre, the American producer and playwright, defending the realism of events in Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy. He referenced the Killaloe case, its months’ long aftermath unfolding as he wrote.  

In 1958, three Protestant evangelists in the Co. Clare village where water-skiing was introduced to Ireland that same year, ignored the precaution of practising their religion discreetly in the South. O’Casey related to Shyre what happened, which was corroborated by O’Casey’s editor, Prof. David Krause. As O’Casey tells it, a violent little crowd gathered and the Gardai advised the evangelists to move on. They obeyed but on their way to their car the crowd attacked with fists and sticks. When charges were lodged against the assailants, the case against three Catholic farmers was dismissed by the District Justice. Here’s the kicker: the DJ said the evangelists deserved their beating and that, in any case, “religion is above the courts”. 

Adds O’Casey: “Not the evangelists’ religion, of course, but the religion of the assailants”. The police, the law, the Catholic Church in a common sectarian pursuit: was this not engrained and systemic discrimination, and did it not demonstrate a covenant between Catholic Church and Irish State enshrined in the 1937 Irish Constitution?       

Am I dredging up a past within living memory (I was in grammar school when the incident in Killaloe happened) that I hope southerners will find embarrassing? That’s my point. For I implore the South not to pursue the unity campaign at this time unless it is prepared to deplore, as it requires the North to do, elements of its own nature and tracts of its own history while re-identifying the hitherto blameless, even heroic, as wrongdoers. This is necessary work that has not yet begun in the Republic: if any preparation be needed, it involves this project of national introspection. 

A campaign for unity founded on the premise of historical oppression and state failure in Northern Ireland and sunny equity and state success in the Irish Free State and Irish Republic, and founded, too, on the premise of only one constitutional solution to our problems on the island, will not fly.  If the unification issue really spills into the unprepared public sphere, we will all relive the nightmare of history from which James Joyce said we were trying to awake. 

Yet the unification campaign is founded precisely on Irish history and its alleged imperatives.  I seem to recall one indefatigable board member of “Ireland’s Future” defining unification as the completing of the 1916 Project. So I’m afraid any unification debate is going to draw in the historians, if only to explain to us what the 1916 Project is perceived to have been if not Pearse’s vision of a sovereign Catholic, Gaelic, myth-driven, mystical, non-capitalist, peasant collectivism with a warrior caste, or Connolly’s vision of a worker’s republic. 

Inevitably, any confirmed unionists who become involved in planning a new Ireland will bring up the past fate of Protestants over the border. One southern Protestant historian has pre-emptively (and unconvincingly) assured northern Protestants that the alarming collapse in the Protestant population since 1922 (from roughly 10% to 3% before a slight recovery to 4%) has had diverse causes, and that systemic discrimination was not among them. Even the Ne Temere decree affecting mixed marriages was not crucial in his eyes, though a prominent Ulster psychiatrist, quoting Hubert Butler along the way, sees the decree as indeed the chief culprit.  

This historian’s depiction of the southern Protestants who didn’t leave but stuck it out, staying “at home”, keeping their heads down and practising their religion in “privacy”,  makes sad and embarrassing reading. Protestants suffered, he claims, only “low-level slights and intimidation” and “didn’t do badly”. Besides, if the unity actually became a real and serious debate, I suspect some buried resentment among southern Protestants might disinter itself. An early signal of that resentment was, of course, expressed by W.B. Yeats in 1925 when he told the Irish Senate, about to ratify the bill to outlaw divorce, that this was an insult to Protestants. Rebuked from the chair for his apparent bitterness, he replied “We shall be all much bitterer before we are finished with this question”.  I think the Tanaiste glimpsed the possible updating of this warning when he addressed the recent Dublin unity gathering.  

It is all far too soon and too headstrong. Southerners are being led into this by a small number of public activists and propagandists, lending the kind of respectability that Sinn Fein cannot enjoy at present, because they still celebrate those who carried out terrorist atrocities for thirty years. Senator Daly and Prof. Colin Harvey are in a hurry. Southerners would be wise to fall sensibly back and reflect on what may imminently lie in wait. 

In Northern Ireland there will be a deepening polarisation between nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants. Rallies, meetings, “debates” in the highly territorial public sphere will provoke protests and probably worse since unhealed wounds heighten sensitivities and inflame feelings. The Alliance Party, growing in numbers of those voters who want to get on with life at a level below the constitutional and beyond the religious, solving issues that are not political at the national identity level, will implode. Party members will be pressed to declare themselves on the very issue whose avoidance was the party’s raison d’etre.  In a febrile constitutional scrummage, the centre cannot hold. Pro-Union party members will desert and head for the unionist parties. A crucial time-sensitive work in progress – making a non-sectarian Northern Ireland work which I have always thought a prerequisite to any reasonable talk of a united Ireland – will be cancelled overnight.

Other unforeseen fractures will appear in Southern society, too, were the “debate” to move from rhetoric to reality. Has anyone in the South apart from Justice Richard Humphreys considered at length what concessions are to be made to beguile unionists?  (And his proposed concessions, though generous under the circumstances of the current Republic, don’t reassure me.)  On the question of a new flag. Of a new national anthem.  Of the official role of Ulster Scots dialect in public sector life.  Of unionist symbols to be incorporated into the Southern public sphere. Of the future status of the Catholic Church in 90% of the South’s primary schools. Of the mandatoriness and purview of the Irish language. Not to speak of representation in an entirely new police force. 

Do unity campaigners imagine the Republic will reinvent itself in happy unanimity? If  hard-line republicans are driving the campaign, there will be civic war as the object of Irish citizenship is contested. Already, the question of how to speak publicly of IRA bombings and shootings has divided southerners after Mary Lou McDonald saw no comparison, moral or otherwise, between contemporary gangland murders and IRA paramilitary killings unsanctioned by the Irish state. How to narrate the IRA terror campaign, 1970-1994, into the history books will be an incensing challenge. 

Or do campaigners think instead that almost a million unionists will quietly assimilate to the Republic as it is and so pre-empt the need for any Southern soul-searching? 

In fact, it would be necessary to strip out all extant and residual anti-British, anti-Protestant and anti-unionist political and cultural manifestations so that no public spaces would make unionists feel unsafe or uncomfortable: this is the new human rights landscape of western liberal societies. (And human rights advocates and lawyers will be dancing attendance.) The Republic prides itself in being a progressive liberal society; it would have to prove it in its biggest test ever.  And would it be recognisable thereafter if it did? How many citizens welcome sea-changes to a society in which they’re on the whole content? And perhaps need to face higher taxes to pay for the sea-change?

The national Story would have to be re-told.  Why? In order to avoid the absurdity of unionists being “invited” to unite with a country in whose Story they are the villains. So content and perspectives offensive to pro-British and pro-Union sensibilities would have to be removed.  New school textbooks would need to be written to promote parity of esteem and a balance between unionist and nationalist values, heroes and icons. Easter 1916 and the War of Independence could no longer be the “onlie begetters” of  a unified island, but merely significant partisan contributions. In Unherd recently (November 21), Norma Costello wrote of the Republic:  “This is a nation with a national anthem entitled ‘The Soldier’s Song’. Our war for independence [against the British] is the most deified part of our history books.” Will the “deified” or venerated be voluntarily reduced to the prosaic and scrutinizable?  “Amhrán na bhFiann” by Kearney and Heeney would have to go. Irish participation in the Great War and Ulster’s in the Battle of the Somme and Northern Ireland’s industrial contribution to the struggle against Germany in the Second World War (the same Germany that Irish republicans approached for help in both wars) would demand equality in the telling and the valuation. Southerners whose forebears over centuries served in the British army and navy might support this project of redress, not least those whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers faced obloquy and disgrace when they returned to the Irish counties at wars’ ends; but this would be divisive. And a new constitution would have to be written – a British-Irish, nationalist-unionist hybrid stripped of any embedded veneration. 

Or no dice.  Unless campaigners think that unionists will just have to subscribe to the winner’s account of the past in classrooms and on government websites?  This we know in Ireland as coercion. Those implementing moves towards unification would have to quickly acquire a knowledge of northern unionism they simply do not have, much less a jot of sympathy. Certainly they have misread unionism up to now. They appear to believe that unionists who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum were indirectly voting for a united Ireland.  They fail to understand that no amount of betrayal by British governments induces many unionists to want to leave the UK.  So why not start now by engaging with all the recent arguments for retention of the Union made by educated unionists, a proper engagement that has never taken place. Pollak quotes O’Leary on the culture of contempt among Ulster Protestants towards Irish Catholics. But I have always thought the refusal of nationalists to engage with responsible unionism a species of contempt. I wanted to write “intellectual unionism” but I know nationalists disbelieve such a thing exists. One such unionist argument is the essential difference and comparative security of the Northern Ireland economy when set beside the Republic’s economy. Pollak notes with approval O’Leary’s citation of a study by Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness of Dublin’s Economic and Social Research Institute arguing that the average Southern household is far better off than its Northern counterpart. But Graham Gudgin has discredited the methodology and results of Bergin and McGuinness in his chapter “The Island Economies” in The Idea of Union (ed. Foster and Smith, 2021) which presumably Pollak hasn’t read; nor, in all probability, Gudgin’s June 2022 Policy Exchange paper, “The Island of Ireland: Two Distinct Economies”.    

Even the Irish literary canon would need to be radically revised, with all those distinguished writers thought to be “really” English needing to be incorporated, thus changing the canon in the way T.S. Eliot envisaged. The Irish canon, shaped (like Irish literary criticism) by the Irish Literary Revival, could no longer be one that sits nicely enough with the national story of oppression of the peasantry, resistance by the heroic, victory or continuing struggle. One in which Shaw, Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Forrest Reid, Joyce Cary and others, are anomalously Irish, in which the numerous Irish women writers contemporary with, but unconnected to, the Irish Revival and its cultural nationalism and who set their work on either side of the Irish Sea, have been ignored.  Eliot once explained figuratively how a major new work of literature changes the canon by likening the work to a new passenger entering an elevator, causing the occupants to shuffle in space to accommodate the newcomer. Imagine this social and political as well as literary outcome on an industrial scale in the twenty-six counties. Thus far, those unificationists generous enough to suggest “accommodating” the Britishness of unionists in a united Ireland, seem to imagine an eventuality that requires little or no repositioning of those already in  the 26-county elevator.     

Yet all of the above has had to be done in Canada, for example, to reconcile French and English and now Indigenous and settler despite the fact that they all share a significant Canadianness in common, as all of us in Ireland share an Irishness, often willingly and happily. New constitutions, acts and laws had to be framed, new perspectives and historical interpretations to be accepted.   But is the Irish national consciousness even close to a place where it would accept such fundamental concessions, such a radical re-telling of the Irish Story and reorganisation of Southern society?  

In fine: who are the chief drivers of the unity campaign? If they are hard-line republicans, there will be division sown in the 26 counties. 

Then there are the established dynamics of reconciliation and unification movements elsewhere. There would have to be apologies from the South for systemic discrimination and the excesses of nationalism including pro-IRA sentiments and support if it wishes to secure unionist apologies for their own past sectarianism and paramilitarism, though in his Nobel acceptance speech, David Trimble began such an apology. There would probably be calls for reparations from various interest groups, as there have been in Canada.

Are those calling for a unification debate, border poll and referendum campaign, and who are determined to dismantle Northern Ireland, aware of all this? Do they care?  And just when it seemed, certainly before Brexit (which brains bigger than mine are trying to solve), that Catholics and Protestants were coming together in a shared home place, when those of a Catholic or nationalist background could even take the lion’s share of the capital city’s administering. And the strong statistical remnants of that recent healthy confluence are there in the census returns if Colum Eastwood had looked beyond Protestant and Catholic. Who knows where this may have led in a generation once Northern Ireland was sincerely made to work and unionists no longer felt besieged?  

Do Southern unificationists realise that the current as well as past realities of Irish society will come under the lamp?   If those campaigning for a united Ireland imagine unionists require only satisfactory answers to questions posed by republicans, they are mistaken.  

What intentions are there in the South to acknowledge and reinforce the third, east-west strand of the Good Friday Agreement by giving institutional body to the reality of the daily gravitational pull of British society on Irish lives, the innumerable “British characteristics” of  Southern society?  How can those demanding a unified island separate from the UK explain away the fact that London is the cultural capital of all of Ireland? (The latest, quite unnecessary exhibit A: Louis Walsh’s insistence that Doireann Garrihy get out of Ireland and hotfoot it to the UK, her profession’s oyster. Is this not a telling intervention?) How will they respond to the claim that a new Ireland is possible only if there is a new archipelago after the Republic fully acknowledges its inextricable, mutually profitable and mutually enriching connections with the neighbouring island? 

It would have to be explained how the demonstrable extent of the Britishness of Irish culture and the intimacy of Irish-English social relations (facilitated by the generous Common Travel Area, whereby hundreds of thousands of southern Irish happily live, work and vote in the UK), could possibly justify a destabilising of the archipelago in order to found a 32-county republic. A republic, moreover, that cannot possibly be sovereign because it is a loyal EU state and will still be economically and culturally inter-dependent with the Great Britain it purports to be severing itself from.  Craig Raine’s visiting Martian on his postcards home would likely think the obvious solution would be the Republic’s acknowledgment of the peculiar deficits of Irish autonomy, its overdue reconciliation with the neighbouring island it cannot live without (and regards with mingled envy, prurience, distaste and need), and the realism of a renewed eastward direction of travel. Pollak quotes O’Leary on his unification scheme: “Our plan must expansively accommodate the prospective losers. But not too much. The plan must be sufficiently credible that Southerners will not fear for the stability of their hard-won constitutional republic.” This is a condescending example of having one’s cake and eating it. And you don’t get to control the genie once it’s out of the bottle: O’Leary’s subtitle “Making Sense” as “interpreting” is one thing; “Making Sense” as making it all sensible and thus feasible is quite another. The republic was certainly hard-won over many decades. But Northern Ireland had to be hard-won a second time over thirty recent years of terrorist onslaught.   

If we don’t pull back from this premature and disruptive campaign, I’m tempted to put a menacing traditional Chinese spin on Bob Dylan’s line in his great dark lament, “Mississippi”: “Things should start to get interesting right about now”.  I hope Southern onlookers are also listening. 


John Wilson Foster, born in Belfast, is Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia.  His latest books include The Space-Blue Chalcedony: Earth’s Crises and the Tyler Bounty (2020) and The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (co-ed., W.B. Smith, 2021).

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