I read a comment on a discussion board yesterday which suggested that the proposed visit of QE2 to these shores would help to pave the way towards British withdrawal from Ireland. Either the ways of international diplomacy are so Byzantine that I can’t begin to grasp them or this commentator is talking through his armpit. The planned visit would do the opposite: cement British rule in the north of Ireland, by showing that the south of Ireland accepts without demur such an arrangement.
Some say that nationalists are doing their own cause damage by opposing such visits as this. They believe that what nationalists and republicans must do is avoid antagonizing unionism, engage with it, explain to unionists what a united Ireland would look like and actively persuade them as to its advantages.
Nice idea but I don’t see it working. There are, however, a number of ways in which unionists might become convinced that their future lies in a united Ireland.
One is if British withdrawal were to take place, or plans announced that such a thing would happen on a specific date. Dr Johnson believed that the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. Likewise, were Britain to quit Ireland, the mind of unionism would be focused so sharply, it’d almost certainly find ways to live with and within a united Ireland. Opting in becomes easier when there’s nowhere to opt out to.
A second is if the prospect of being part of a united Ireland were to become more attractive – markedly more attractive – than remaining within the UK. At present the British (and particularly the English) attitude to unionists is that of a pretty girl stuck with the attentions of a suitor who has personal hygiene issues and a hair lip: she doesn’t want to tell the suitor to clear off but finds his presence inconvenient and irritating. That kind of response for long enough can tend to dent the enthusiasm of the most ardent swain. Eventually unionism might discover the emotional and financial cost of remaining in the UK is more than it can bear.
A third is if unionism decided that influencing its own future was more important than traditional ties. As things stand, the impact of MPs from the north in Westminster is miniscule to non-existent. The emptiness of the debating chamber when matters Northern Irish are discussed shows that. Within the UK, unionism is less than 2%; within a united Ireland it would be nearer to 20%. That, combined with other chafing features of continued union with Britain, might some day strike unionists as a poor bargain.
Until that day, we’re told that a referendum on continued existence within the UK is available to those in the north every seven years. So when are we going to get one? If nothing else it’d clarify whether all Protestants are devoted to the UK and whether the sizeable number of Catholic unionists claimed by such as Ian Paisley Sr actually exist.
Meanwhile, should nationalists and republicans be nice to unionists? Of course they should, but not because they want to seduce them into a united Ireland. They should treat them with respect and warmth because they’re our fellow-countrymen and women.