Irish unity and how to get there

This blog first appeared as a column in The Andersonstown News

There are times when being a never-never unionist must be hard. Like, when you fume as you watch Bobby Storey’s funeral; and when, months later, your blood-pressure breaks the glass after Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) finds, as it did a while back, that the PSNI acted properly in its handling of the funeral. What is the point in having a HMICFRS report if it delivers a report like that? What is the point in having a PSNI if it doesn’t do what you want it to?

And if  recently has been hard for the never-never unionist, how will s/he cope with the next five years?

Because some uncomfortable facts must be digested. There is a growing Catholic/nationalist population and a dwindling Protestant/unionist population. The tide keeps rising. Which is why we’ve  seen both unionist parties dump their party leader, in the belief that this will somehow halt the tide of nationalism.

As unionism panics, what should nationalism be doing? Well, we might model ourselves on Scotland. In  2014, the Scots produced a thoroughly-researched, 600-page document describing in detail what an independent Scotland might look like. Nichola Sturgeon and her team, post-pandemic, will be assembling a more up-to-date document that presents their dream of independence in the cold prose of planning.

Nationalists north and south need, without delay, to get down to the same degree of planning, showing what the dream of a reunited Ireland would look like when some flesh is put on its bones. Whether that’s done at political level or through citizens’ assemblies or both or by other means completely is not important. What matters is that nationalists make clear that their dream is one that is realistic and has foundations in the real world.

If such a planning group were assembled, it seems reasonable that Sinn Féin, the only party that has  consistently worked for a reunited Ireland, should be involved. But its voice should be just one of many.

You ask ‘What about never-never unionists?’, Virginia? Of whatever shade, they should be encouraged to bring their perspective and values to the discussion table. If they choose not to and opt instead to shuffle towards the cliff edge with both eyes closed, there’s not a lot we can do. But the hope is that, as the planning reaches decisive points, more and more well-maybe unionists might choose sanity and join in the planning of all our futures.

A reasonable question some nationalists ask is “What if there is no response from unionism, what then?”

That will face nationalism with an unhappy situation. It will mean they have failed in their task of impressing on unionism how their culture and identity could be protected in a new state.

If, despite repeated invitations to join the planners, unionism remains sullen and silent, nationalists will have to accept that and try to find ways, over time, of  showing that their invitation is warm and genuine.

And what about those areas where unionism would be seen as  particularly militant, such  as the Shankill or East Belfast? If they haven’t already done so, the Dublin government should address the need for jobs and a decent future in such areas. There are those who’d prefer to repeat until the bitter end “Never-never: we’d rather eat grass”; but there are many more who’d ask themselves “Do I want to spend my life without prospects, or will I choose this opportunity to build myself a meaningful life?”  When you’re earning a decent living and doing a satisfying job, it’s amazing how little time you have for lobbing petrol bombs at police.

Assuming that all those things have been done and that an encouraging present and a promising future is on offer, then democracy and its enforcement kicks in. Is it democratic that any  small, reactionary group should dictate Ireland’s future?  Any such attempt should be exposed for what it is: an attempt to deny the wishes of the majority of Irish people.

Rather than fume and cling to never-never over the next five years, unionists have the opportunity to abandon begrudgery and accept the hand of those whom unionism  once despised. That way, nobody loses.

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