Belfast Telegraph

Eoghan Harris: Why harp on about a united Ireland when it only frightens Protestants and risks peace?

By Eoghan Harris

Every country has one fatal flaw. Britain's is the mindset that produced Brexit. Ours in the Republic is an obsession with an outline mental map marked 'United Ireland'.

For the past two months the three biggest political parties in the Republic have been flying kites for a united Ireland, echoing coverage of the same topic in The Irish Times.

Gerry Adams began with pressure for a border poll.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny followed with an EU speech calling for a united Ireland within Brexit.

Last week Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin told us his party is bringing out a white paper on the same subject.

Fine Gail minister Leo Varadkar rightly railed against raising a united Ireland at this time as it "alienates and causes enormous fear among unionists, who are still half the population in the North".

But Leo was being too cute in ignoring the fact that his own leader, Kenny, had led the way and in lumping Fianna Fail in with Sinn Fein.

In fact, Martin showed far more sensitivity than Kenny by refusing to speculate on any time frame for unity.

Last week Martin told The Irish Times that "the unionist community go back into their trenches if they feel there is a threat or acceleration towards unity".

Martin's white paper will propose 12 concrete ideas to help cross-border relations before any referendum.

Unionists should note that, unlike Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail is not trying to ramp up tribal tensions. In fact, the white paper will help to clip the green plumage of two beaky birds.

It both robs the Shinners of their sole monopoly on united Ireland rhetoric, and muffles green Martin critics.

Martin's white paper is the political equivalent of using the Irish Army in 2016 to steal the Shinners' thunder.

In an ideal world Martin would not have to bring in any white paper on a united Ireland except in the unlikely event of a near unanimous call for unity by Northern Protestants.

But since Gerry Adams and Arlene Foster between them have forced the united Ireland nonsense back on the agenda, we have to ask ourselves three questions.

Do a majority in the Republic want it? Do a majority of Northern Protestants want it? Do even a majority of Northern nationalists want it?

Every poll reveals the answer to all three questions is always "no". But let's go through the motions again.

Does the Republic want a united Ireland? Polls say a majority would like it, but only a minority would pay for it. And no wonder.

Leaving aside the security bill if there were loyalist resistance, how could the €10bn a year needed to replace the British subsidy to Northern Ireland be raised, except through taxes?

Asking whether we'd like a united Ireland is what I call a Mars Bar query. Like a Mars Bar? Yes, please. Like a Mars Bar laced with prussic acid? No, thanks.

So why keep harping on about a united Ireland when it raises fears among the Northern Protestants? Isn't there something immoral about risking the present fragile peace to satisfy a primitive nationalist pathology about Northern Protestants?

This brings me to my second question: do unionists want a united Ireland? You all know the answer to that.

But some of us still subscribe to a nationalist myth that comes close to a pathology: that unionist beliefs are based on nothing but bigotry and they can be bought off or forced to lie down by the Brits.

Time was I shared that myth and that pathology. But the Provo murder campaign forced me to change my mind.

Put a face on most Northern Protestants and they look like Rory Best or Andrew Trimble, British and Irish, ready to lay their bodies on the line for Ireland or Ulster. When will we give up the delusion that unionists suffer from false consciousness - that in the crunch they will clutch the tricolour, fold their tents, go silently into the night?

Rev Mervyn Gibson, grand secretary of the Orange Order, asks us what republicans would do if the roles were reversed.

"It's like saying to Irish nationalists: 'Can we buy you back into the Commonwealth?' I am a unionist; that is my birthright. It's not something I sell, buy or trade."

Finally, do Northern nationalists want a united Ireland? Here, we in the South seem out of touch with the new confidence of Northern Catholics.

Gone for good are the old sectarian problems of local representation, discrimination in the allocation of local social services and access to higher-level education. All were essentially reformed by the end of the Wilson-Callaghan era.

Patten was a great victory for the SDLP on policing.

Take just one symbol of the new prestige of Northern nationalists: the sole Northern Irish judge on the British Supreme Court at the moment is a Roman Catholic, Lord Brian Kerr.

This new nationalist confidence is reflected not just in the Assembly results but in conservative attitudes to reunification.

The most recent poll conducted after Brexit showed that only 43% of Northern Catholics support a united Ireland.

All of which adds up to a picture of fragile peace in spite of Sinn Fein's efforts to torment the Arlene Fosters of unionism to retreat into tribal mode.

Meantime, in the Republic, Martin is aiming to lead Fianna Fail in the Jack Lynch tradition of pluralism rather than the Charles Haughey tradition of trying to bully the Prods.

Let's recall that on November 19, 1985, Haughey had the following harsh words for unionists: "When we speak of the need to secure the agreement of the unionist population, that agreement applies to the new arrangements for, but not to the concept of, a united Ireland."

Basically, Haughey was saying what is always present in the subtext of a Gerry Adams speech: that in the crunch unionists could be bullied by the Brits and ourselves into a Republic.

Contrast that regression with Lynch's earlier Garden of Remembrance speech of 1971, when he took Irish nationalists to task with grim good authority.

"Perhaps the national majority need to examine their consciences in relation to the national minority," he said.

"Have our political concepts been sufficiently wide to include them? Do we agree that as John Hewitt writes, they have 'rights drawn from the soil and sky' which are as good as any title held by any previous migration into Ireland? Let us today rededicate ourselves to reconciliation amongst Irishmen."

Last week Martin echoed Lynch's sentiments by constantly stressing the principle of consent. Consent is the only firm foundation for the unity of minds and hearts that must precede any unification.

Let's never forget that Wolfe Tone and his Northern Presbyterian comrades Thomas Russell and Henry Joy McCracken did not found a society for a united Ireland, but a society of United Irishmen.

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