I recently wrote about the consequences of stating uncomfortable truths, and how you could have the flesh lashed from your metaphorical bones for daring to speak one. And I instanced Mary Lou McDonald and the outrage that followed her following a banner with the slogan ‘England Get Out of Ireland’. For my money, the banner goes straight to the heart of the historical Irish question, and we’d be fools to try and forget it.
We’d also be fools if we didn’t face another uncomfortable truth: if there is ever to be a time when England gets out of Ireland – in short, when Ireland is able to become one country and govern itself – if and when such a time comes, we will have a truly challenging question to ask: what place will the 900,000 unionist minority have in such a new Ireland?
The answer to that lies in now, this day and every day before the hoped-for day of Irish reunification. What anyone who cares about Irish reunification must do is work at relating to unionist people. It’s actually quite easy to live one’s life here without having anything to do with the other community, But if we’re going to put our money where our mouth is, we must find a way of talking respectfully and treating respectfully those who are unionist in their affiliations.
It won’t be easy. There are unionists, just as there are nationalists and republicans, who are total stinkers. You wonder how their mother ever loved them so much, she didn’t drown them at birth. But it is an indisputable fact that most unionists are decent, honest people who respond to civility and friendliness with equal civility and friendliness. When you start relating to people, it’s amazing how your political thinking can make a significant shift.
Martin McGuinness used to say that his meeting with Queen Elizabeth didn’t make him a royalist, and that his friendship with Ian Paisley didn’t make him a unionist. Which is true. But it does open the doors to relating to your political opposite as a human being, and when that happens, all sorts of interesting conversations and actions can result.
I’ve been conducting interviews in recent days for a book about the border and Brexit, and among those interviewed are people who are firmly unionist. Dare I say it? I found myself liking them as much, and sometimes more than, the people I interviewed from a nationalist/republican persuasion. And once you begin liking someone, it changes what is possible.
The alternative to interaction with ordinary unionists? Sometime over the next ten years there’ll be a border poll and it will probably be won by nationalists/republicans. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, unless we act now, we’ll be trying to drag a significant unionist minority kicking and squealing into a new Ireland of which they want no part. Which would be, as the good Lord Denning said in a different context, an appalling vista.