UNIONISTS in Northern Ireland have retreated to the political ditch, again. The shades of Carson and Craig are abroad and the dismal drums of loyalism beat out defiance among the Protestant hills. The writing is on the wall, including a sick threat to hang Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. There is fear and loathing among paramilitaries, whipped up by the irresponsible, and sane minds must work hard to avoid a gathering storm.
Alex Kane, a former Ulster Unionist press officer, points out there are more non-unionist councillors on the 11 local councils; more non-unionists at the Northern Ireland Assembly and more non-unionists won seats at the Westminster election in 2019. For the first time in 100 years the unionist community of Northern Ireland is in the minority and there is a strong possibility Sinn Féin will be returned as the largest party at the Assembly elections next year. The clamour for a border poll is growing, despite valid reservations in Dublin and among northern nationalists who fear a vote will plunge the province into chaos and violence after 23 years of peace and progress under power sharing. Only the British Secretary of State has the power to call a poll, if he considers it likely to produce a majority for Irish unity. There is now much debate about the definition of ‘likely’.
Hugo MacNeill, chairman of the charity, British-Irish Association, argues that neither the time nor the circumstances are right because: “A crucial element of the Good Friday Agreement has not been achieved, the promotion of mutual respect and understanding between the communities in Northern Ireland and across these islands.” Frankly, this was always a pipedream and is impossible to measure. Calling a poll is fraught with more practical problems.
There are considerable consequence for the UK and the Republic. The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 made it clear that Westminster has no ‘selfish or strategic economic interest’ in Northern Ireland but it cannot offer people here a vote and refuse the same to the people of Scotland where it does have a selfish and strategic economic interest. The people of the Republic would have to approve of unity and many will think twice at the enormous cost to the post-Covid taxpayer and the prospect of inheriting thousands of Protestant hotheads who have a history of violence. Nationalists in Northern Ireland boycotted the last poll in 1973 and unionists are likely to boycott the next one if they think the numbers are stacked against them. The UK’s departure from the European Union, leaving Northern Ireland with one foot in the EU Single Market and a customs border in the Irish Sea, has already infuriated unionist diehards. Some would live and die in a wasteland, so long as it was a British wasteland. They are the mirror image of republican diehards who would also live and die in a wasteland, so long as it was an Irish wasteland.
I am proud to come from a unionist background. My grandfather was a founder member of his Orange lodge, Glenkeen Lol No 360, and took up arms with the Ulster Volunteer Force to resist Home Rule in 1914. Yet he fought alongside Irish nationalists in the trenches of the Somme. He made his home in the unionist village of Upperlands in County Derry. Beyond the hill lies the nationalist village of Swatragh which was the family home of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey. I always joke that it is a mercy there is a hill between them but the two communities live in peace with respect for each other’s traditions. When I think about the conundrum that is the Irish question I think about my grandfather sitting by the stove at his home in Carson Villas.
Bob Neill was a decent man and voted for partition because he believed it would secure a more prosperous future for his grandchildren. He was right. The Irish Free State, under a pious Éamon de Valera and the Catholic Archbishop McQuaid, descended into poverty and intolerance and was a nation in which I always felt an outsider. But that was the last century. The modern Irish Republic is a prosperous and enlightened country and I am proud to carry its passport.
The time has come to set a date for a new border poll. My generation should have the opportunity to vote on our grandchildren’s future. The debate must start now. Northern nationalists must lay out clearly how a United Ireland will respect the nationality and culture of those who will always be British and detail how the new Ireland will absorb Ulster’s economy, protect its National Health Service, reform its bloated public sector and splintered education system. There must be guarantees about state pensions and benefits. They must show generosity and face down the diehards in their midst. Unionists must stop saying No and recognise the political reality that is staring them in the face. They must make the Good Friday Agreement work in both letter and spirit and endorse what Seamus Mallon called a ‘shared home place’. They too must show generosity and face down the diehards in their midst.
The Republic’s political establishment must set out a clear road map to a form of unity which will ease the fear and loathing in Carson Villas and make clear that it is prepared to govern this island in partnership with Northerners from a British tradition. Under the Republic’s political system a united Unionist bloc would always hold the balance of power. Britain’s political establishment must endorse this road map and ring-fence finances and political resources which will help to make it a reality. The European Union and the United States also have an interest in supporting the creation of a prosperous, inclusive and tolerant society on this island, one which we can all be proud of and where our grandchildren can prosper in peace together.
A border poll is the only means of testing public opinion but people must know in detail what they are voting for or rejecting.
The Good Friday Agreement was a hard-won and an honourable settlement which has my wholehearted support but it is madness not to consider alternatives now the numbers game is moving relentlessly away from the compromises of 1921 and 1998.
© Maurice Neill 2020