Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

There'll be no united Ireland and the Union is safe - so let's retire the rhetoric and move on

By Malachi O'Doherty

No man's land: The old Dundalk Road outside Newry. The hut on the left marks the border between north and south
No man's land: The old Dundalk Road outside Newry. The hut on the left marks the border between north and south

There is not going to be a united Ireland. Perhaps that needs to be spelled out more clearly; there is no conceivable prospect that the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland will merge into one.

Well, perhaps in the sense that it is possible the Lib Dems will hold the majority after the next general election, but in the real world of politics, where calculations are made on the basis of rational interpretation of known preferences, forget about it.

Less than 4% of the population wants it now, according to the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll. The issue is not immediately a question of whether that small number of people imagine that Northern Ireland could continue to function as an appendage of a calamitously crippled southern economy.

This is not about whether they are crazy, or have astute insights that trump what passes for common sense everywhere else.

The crucial factor is not their wisdom, or the nobility of self sacrifice of which they are capable; it is their numbers. And there are not enough of them to make any impact on the direction of political change here.

The Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll also puts dedicated united Irelanders on a par with the Green Party and predicts that the new NI21 will tower over them as a pinnacle of political achievement.

There are others who would wince at the prospect of unity tomorrow, but would like to see it in about 20 years. They are about one-in-five of the voters here; indeed, almost one-in-three, if you factor out those who don't know, or never think about it. What this means is that the aspiration to Irish unity serves as a palpable aspiration within about a third of the population of Northern Ireland. This aspiration colours their political choices and describes their hopes, but confronts a stark reality.

It is not going to be met and that a fatuous and ungrounded dream of an impossible future should tailor anyone's voting is as pointless as planting your X beside the candidate who has the strongest faith in Santa Claus.

Except, we know it doesn't work like that, really. Post-Agreement politics is predicated on the notion that most people belong to one of two communities.

The fantasy that a united Ireland might be nice some day is a defining characteristic of one of those communities and that is its political relevance.

Similarly, there are unionists, no doubt, who would like to consolidate the understanding that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley; that the nationalists can go and live south of the border, if they want to think of themselves as Irish, but that isn't going to happen either.

Pure Land Unionism and Pure Land Nationalism are defunct political ideas in a polity that continues, by reflex, to honour both.

What this means is that, in literal terms, describing people here as unionist or nationalist is as shaky as calling them Protestants and Catholics.

The political labels serve no better to describe their hopes for the future than do the religious ones describe their heart-of-heart's theology.

But, of course, the two communities still remain. The people who inhabit them may not have predictable positions on the border, or on Justification by Faith, but they are still recognisably Prods and Taigs.

They are still inclined to think of themselves as more Irish than British, or the other way around; their spirits lifted more by the sight of one flag than the other, one anthem than the other. The question for political parties is what possible relevance these chimerical heart-warmers have to the practical decisions they have to take.

Well, there are issues like housing in north Belfast that have to be considered within equality laws and the dangers of friction between communities.

But, surely, the best lesson for all of them is to stop winding people up on issues that have no future.

The next time unionists, or an Orangemen, tell you they are ready to defend the Union, tell them to give your head peace. The Union is safe without them.

The next time a republican tries to rattle your nerves by anticipating Irish unity and urging change that appears to lead towards it, just pour yourself another cup of tea and turn the page.

But here is a horrid thought: that the two main parties of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness (left) are founded on hopeless dreams; that our electorate is defined by allegiance to those dreams and that those parties can only survive by encouraging the electorate to align themselves up on opposite sides of a question that has no substance.

What that implies is that the system we have, the Good Friday Agreement, may have been adequate for putting to rest the fractious tensions of the past, may indeed have remedied them, but provides no basis for viable, sane politics in the future. Not if it is going to bring us back again and again to questions that are actually settled.

What we need now is for the leadership of unionism and nationalism to own up to the reality of things as they are – the Union is safe, there is not going to be a united Ireland and to discard the shibboleths and move on.

 

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