The Féile An Phobail which we’ve recently enjoyed has many benefits, but outstanding among these must be that it encourages us to think. Most of us, of course, can think without being plugged into a Féile; but our thinking can fall into a pattern and even a rut, and getting heaved out of that rut sometimes requires outside help. The Féile, I have found over the years, provides that help.
This year Eamonn Phoenix, for example, provided it at a discussion around the shrinking unionist majority. He described the early days, as unionism cast about for a version of partition that would suit it. The original option of a nine-county Ulster was quickly rejected for one fundamental reason: numbers. Or as some like to call it, on the basis of a sectarian head-count. In a nine-county Northern Ireland, the balance between Protestants/unionists and Catholics/nationalists was too close to equilibrium, and would have resulted in an instability that would leave the state ungovernable.
And that, Dr Phoenix explained, is where we’re at now. We are at the point in terms of numbers – unionists/Protestants and nationalists/Catholics – that unionists, back in the 1920s saw as impossible to sustain. So strongly did they believe this, they abandoned the many unionists in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, deeming it a price that had to be paid for a state with a permanent unionist majority.
Another Féile event with thought-power: the West Belfast Talks Back discussion. Alex Kane was a panelist and is on record as having said in the past that 99% of unionists, in a border poll, would vote with their hearts and not their heads, and likewise nationaliss/republicans.
There’s a truth in what he says: the extremely silly idea that a large section of nationalists now see themselves as “Northern Irish” is Belfast Telegraph poppycock. Face the nationalist/republican population with a referendum and see how Northern Irish – aka status quoers – vote. Alex and others might receive a giant shock.
But but but. Alex has now moved back a bit from his 99%-heart position, and says there’s a portion of the unionist electorate that would be open to new economic arguments for Irish unity, in the wake of Brexit. He couldn’t be righter.
There was a time when unionists boasted that they’d eat grass before they’d accept anything smelling of an all-Ireland. The grass option was soon dropped and the money grabbed.
Think about it this way. If you were a unionist and you were told “Vote No to Irish unity and your salary will be halved within five years”, would you respond “No chance!” ?
There might be about five mentally –bewildered unionists out there who’d still vote No, but that’d be it – the rest would factor in the economic cost and vote Yes. Likewise if your average unionist was told that voting for reunification in a border referendum would mean a salary instantly doubled, all except the nutty five would murmur “Yipee!” and vote Yes.
I’m using these extreme hypothetical situations to emphasise a point: economics will of course matter in any border referendum. It’s not everything but it is something and we’d be fools to think otherwise. Gregory Campbell once told me that the prosperity or otherwise of the south of Ireland mattered not a whit to unionists: they didn’t consider reunification during the Celtic Tiger years and they won’t consider it in the less prosperous present.
George Galloway made a a more relevant point in his Féile talk. “If it is the case that the majority of the people of the six counties want to remain in the EU, then they have an opportunity to do so by reuniting the country.”
But but but, you’re saying. These are all pro-Irish unity contributions to the Féile – where are the counter-arguments of unionists? The answer is “Nowhere”. Unionism was invited to West Belfast Talks Back but unionism found a way of being terribly busy at that time and unable to attend. The fact that they stayed away tells you how confident they are in their own argument.
Every year I say it: the Féile shows that people here have an appetite for serious political discussion. It’s just a pity that we don’t get opportunities to so engage year-round.. And it’s even more pity that unionist politicians still are afraid to argue their case in a public forum. Most nationalists/republicans want to hear what the unionist case is.
But instead unionism is backing itself into a corner where it sits huddled, fingers in ears, humming “God Save The Queen”. Come on out, guys and gals. You’re our fellow-countrymen. Together we have so much to contribute in a new Ireland.