Summary: Irish reunification will require difficult compromises for nationalists if there is to be any hope of accommodating unionism
The Good Friday Agreement was built on the foundations of the common memberships of Ireland and the UK in the European Union. Given Brexit the foundations of that agreement have been dealt a grievous blow. Hence it is necessary to contemplate whether new constitutional arrangements can be forged to secure peace in an agreed Ireland. This must include contemplation of the possibility of Irish unity.
In the North of Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party have already delivered two of the greatest contributions towards a United Ireland of any political organisation since the Good Friday Agreement. First their sweaty, fevered dreams of Brexit backfired spectacularly when, in significant part as result of their ham-fisted triumphalism, Boris Johnson, as should have been expected, betrayed every promise he ever made to them. So instead of the renewed Protestant Supremacy of their dreams the DUP have got a customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain.
Second, and more fundamentally, the DUP’s botched Brexit shenanigans have demonstrated to their electoral base the depth of English contempt for them, their culture and the sacrifices that they have made for the Crown over the past decades and centuries.
Paradoxically, this may not have been a total surprise. Culturally, both the unionist and nationalist communities in the North of Ireland have more in common with Scotland than with the English or Welsh. So, after Scotland’s departure from the UK, Northern Ireland will be in even greater cultural isolation than it currently is, perpetually subject to the disdain of a patronising Little Englander elite.
The greatest barrier to Irish reunification remains the factions of extreme Irish nationalism. These ultras have, since the 20th Century, hijacked the Irish flag as a partisan symbol all the while undermining its national meaning with their fratricidal campaigns.
The Irish tricolour asserts that the nation is composed of two traditions: the Irish nationalist green, and the British loyalist orange, and that the nation is only complete when these traditions are united together by the white of peace.
Nevertheless, some of the most vehement flag wavers of the past decades have not been prepared to follow the logic of what Irish nationhood must mean given the different cultures and heritages of the peoples of the island. Rather they want all vestiges of the unionist tradition expunged from the island of Ireland and all to accept their uncompromising visions of their utopian ideals.
Of course, it is the very nature of utopian ideals that no one can ever live up to them. But this does not stop a few self-appointed guardians of the flame from deciding that that any shortfalls in their ideals of perfection should be dealt with by abuse, and sometimes violence.
But there can be no single Irish cultural identity. By the first half of the 21st Century there are not just the Orange and Green traditions in Irish society. There are also important mainland European ones, most notably perhaps the Polish-Irish, and there have long been important African-Irish and Asian-Irish communities, enriching every county of the country with their presence.
But perhaps the most urgent priority in Irish reunification must be in better accommodating the unionist tradition. And there are some obvious and immediate steps that Ireland could take towards this end.
For a start Ireland could re-join the Commonwealth. This is a proposal that will certainly bring forth frothing fury from many of the flag wavers as a betrayal of the most fundamental ideals of their particular and personal notions of Irish nationhood. Indeed, when the unimpeachably Republican Fianna Fail TD Eamon O’Cuiv suggested this in 1994 that is exactly the sort of response he received.
However, building a nation requires more than fundamentalist worship of an imagined past. We have seen the Brexity chaos and destruction that such idiocy brings.
Instead the Irish nation as a whole needs to recognise that if we are ever to be truly united then the unionist tradition must feel respected and at home within the New Ireland. That is not something that will ever be achieved by singing “Up the ‘Ra”, and by implication celebrating the wounds inflicted on that community by IRA violence. But it might be brought a small step closer by measures that demonstrate the respect for the symbols and traditions of the unionist community. It is also notable that states as varied as India, Tanzania and South Africa see no compromise in their national ideals by membership of the Commonwealth. Neither will an independent Scotland. Surely Ireland can show similar self-confidence.
Second Ireland could establish a mechanism for proper representation of the North in the Seanad. Over the past decades Taoisigh have on occasion appointed individual Northerners to the Senate. But it has hardly been a consistent practice. It must surely be within the bounds of possibility to do better than this. For example, it should be a straightforward matter to empower individual councils or all the collective councillors in the North of Ireland to elect a panel of representatives to the Seanad. Put simply, a united Ireland means some sort of elected representation of the North in the Oireachtas. Steps can be taken to move in that direction immediately.
Of course, before there is a united Ireland there will need to be much more talking and agreement on constitutional structures with which people can live. Consequently, the SDLP’s idea of a forum for discussion of this is a positive initiative. One must hope that the Irish government will also lead on this, perhaps through the establishment of a citizens’ assembly on the subject composed of people from all 32 counties.
Perhaps a new Ireland will need a new flag to represent all traditions of the nation, old and new. Perhaps not. But one thing is certain. It is tough decisions and compromise which will bring about a United Ireland if it happens, not flag waving.