Coming down from the fence

THERE is a growing consensus in academic circles that a referendum on Irish unity will be held sometime in the next decade. The latest polling undertaken by the ARINS Project, a joint initiative of the Royal Irish Academy and the University of Notre Dame in the United States, suggests the majority on either side of the border welcome this.

Journalism requires me to be impartial though readers know I am a harsh critic of political violence, British ignorance and Irish indifference. However it is time for me to come down from the fence. I will be required to do so should this referendum take place in my lifetime. My views have some value for I find myself in the middle ground which holds the key to the outcome of any poll. They are shaped by my past but I am not bound by it.

My paternal grandfather was a mill worker in county Derry who was born at the height of the Home Rule Movement. He was a founder member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and was wounded at the Somme with the Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was also a founder member of his Orange Lodge and though he died before I could ascertain his views there is no doubt he was a committed unionist. My father was born a year after partition, was wounded at the Battle of the Rhine with the Royal Engineers and worked for the Imperial Civil Service. We discussed Irish affairs regularly. He would not join the Orange Order and had great affection for the ‘Free State’ and its people, tempered by a deep distrust of the Catholic Church. We spent holidays in Donegal, Mayo and Cork and he read the Irish Times. He voted for unionist moderates.

My maternal grandfather was from farming stock in Tyrone. He left Ireland to make a new life in Canada but returned before partition to work on the railways. He married a Scottish Sabbatarian but she was a gentle and generous soul who provided for her elderly relatives and created a happy home for 11 grandchildren. Like my mother they expressed no strong views about Ireland’s future. Mum was appalled by the violence which swept Northern Ireland in 1969 and feared for her children. My parents were neither deeply religious nor overtly political. They allowed me to grow and develop my own opinions. I am grateful for the liberal and tolerant atmosphere in which I was raised. They were proud of my Masters degree in Irish studies but journalism was my true education for it allowed me to meet people of all viewpoints across Ireland and beyond.

I am in favour of a referendum because I believe my generation should have an opportunity to express an opinion on the issue of unity, because everything else has failed and there is a chance it might deliver a solution with the political stability necessary for my grandchildren to prosper. I could be persuaded to vote yes and will accept unity if this is the will of a clear majority of people in the six counties and the republic. However I also believe a great deal of dialogue is required before any question is put to the people and there are many issues which require detailed answers from both the British and Irish governments.

Positive factors could be created for me if these questions were answered and consensus underpinned by international guarantees and goodwill. I cannot vote for unity unless I know what shape the New Ireland may take and how it will deliver for my loved ones. Prior to the 2014 referendum in Scotland the Scottish government published a 607-page guide covering a wide range of issues. An Irish equivalent would be longer.

Negative factors have largely gone including the long campaign of genocide undertaken by the provisional IRA. The Republic has matured into a modern, secular and prosperous member of the European Union though it is far from Utopia. It has achieved economic diversity and shaken off the influence of the Catholic Church over social policy. Much of the corruption which blighted public life has been exposed.

Push factors were created by Brexit which sought to rob me of my European citizenship and which will damage the long term interests of Northern Ireland. I believe the British political system is in dire need of reform to create a fairer and more federal nation but it is incapable of change. First-past-the-post voting favours English conservatives, fosters division and places power in the hands of dangerous radicals like Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Farage or reckless careerists like Boris Johnston and Liz Truss.

Ultimately, I am not opposed to unity but I need to know what form it will take and what will become of cherished institutions like the National Health Service and education system that my forbears helped to create. I want to know about the security and generosity of pension and welfare provision in any future Ireland and what concessions the people of the Republic are prepared to make to respect those who value their British identity. I have no time for Orangeism but will stand up for the rights of those who do and will protest at the glorification of the provisional IRA. There can be no Bobby Sands airport.

I have no ‘selfish or strategic’ interest in remaining in a UK which is facing economic decline and determined to drag Northern Ireland along for the ride. I have no desire to be part of a nation where my kinfolk have no influence or are used as pawns in the xenophobic games of English nationalists. But I will not swap a flawed British polity for a flawed Irish one. 

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could make an honest contribution to Ireland’s future by outlining the circumstances which will trigger a referendum. The Taoiseach could make a constructive contribution by sponsoring an all-Ireland forum where my questions and many more can be addressed.

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