Belfast Telegraph

What the tired debate over Irish unity really needs is a sister act

The Republic should start treating northern unionists as the citizens of an equal and legitimate state, writes Andy Pollak.

As 2017 opens, only three years before the centenary of partition, I believe it is time for the main southern political parties to admit that the Republic has failed in one of its core aims: to unite the island.

For nearly a century every major party in the Republic has held as an article of faith the belief in Irish unity. And nearly 100 years after the island was divided, we are no nearer that utopian goal.

Indeed, I would argue strongly that the IRA's campaign of violence to undo Northern Ireland's connection with Britain - and thus against the unionist population which is fiercely attached to that connection - has only served to push it further away than ever.

Fifty years ago, Sean Lemass was already stressing that there would be no Irish reunification without a significant element of unionist consent. That requirement was written into the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

However, there is not a snowball's chance in hell of that unionist consent happening any time soon, despite Sinn Fein's posturing about pro-EU majorities and border polls.

Short of hundreds of thousands of unionists deciding to pack up and leave the north, it will not happen in the foreseeable future and certainly not in my lifetime (I am in my sixties).

So, why don't the south's political leaders try something different for a change? At the moment, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail's policies on this foundational issue are a paler version of Sinn Fein's: Irish unity to be achieved with as much, or as little, unionist consent as is necessary to push it over the line.

But why should this be the case? For those of us who are not unionists, but who believe that a wafer-thin majority for unity in a border poll would only mean a return to violent conflict, are there any alternatives?

I would suggest that there is one. In October, I read an Irish Times article by the young playwright Sian Ni Mhuiri, in which she wrote: "I'm not nationalistic, but Ireland is my home and I love the communities here. 'Irishness' has little meaning in itself; it has value when people who are sharing this island come together and build communities that tackle the problems we have and create a more inclusive, fair and equitable place for everyone in the Republic and our sister state of Northern Ireland."

That last phrase caught my eye. Why shouldn't we in the Republic start treating our fellow Irish people in the north as citizens of a legitimate and equal "sister state"?

After all, this is not the bigoted, discriminatory Orange statelet of 50 years ago. It is a modern region, with a power-sharing Government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence at all levels of society and the economy. Its smartest political leaders are nationalists, as are some of its top civil society and business leaders. Its health and education systems are in many ways superior to ours in the Republic.

So, here's my suggestion for 2017. Fine Gael and/or Fianna Fail should start treating Northern Ireland as an equal rather than a failed and unreformable state. "Parity of esteem" should be extended from the two communities in the north to the two states on the island.

This should help to lessen the sense of threat that most unionists suffer so grievously from. It would also make a change from the "parity of contempt" that has been practiced by most politicians and people in the two jurisdictions for most of the past century: northern unionists treating southerners as benighted and ignorant bogmen; southern nationalists treating northerners - and particularly northern unionists - as bigoted and violent extremists.

In many ways, this has already started to happen since the Belfast Agreement: I believe it's time to take it a step further by one of the major southern parties taking the courageous step of adopting it as an explicit policy.

This doesn't mean giving up on reunification. Rather, it moves the emphasis from unity coming about by the north being assimilated into the Irish state, to real unity of people coming closer together in a relationship of mutual aid and understanding.

This may sound utterly utopian, but is it any more outlandish than believing - as many republicans seem to - that unionists will roll over and accept Irish unity in the relatively near future?

And isn't it more realistic to begin to talk about how we can work together as "sister states" with important interests in common at the precise moment when external events are conspiring to raise a higher post-Brexit border between us that we will have to learn to overcome in imaginative new ways?

Such a new policy turn could move us towards a more rational alternative to traditional Irish unity: some form of confederation. I incline to the view of the late Sir George Quigley, one of Northern Ireland's most insightful thinkers, who believed that before there can be any future constitutional coming together on the island of Ireland, there must be a recognition that there are "two mutually opposed 'principles of legitimacy' which are strongly held - one nationalist and one unionist - and some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus."

He saw the model most likely to secure such consent as a confederal one, which he called the "most persuasively argued" of the three options in the 1984 New Ireland Forum report.

"On this basis, the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between north and south, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies to be specifically delegated to confederal level determined jointly by representatives from north and south."

Quigley quoted the 1984 report's comment that "based on the existing identities, north and south, (a confederal solution) would reflect the political and administrative realities of the past 60 (now 95) years and would entrench a measure of autonomy for both parts of Ireland within an all-island framework.

"While protecting and fostering the identities and ethos of the two traditions, it would enable them to work together in the common interest."

Is it time to revisit the New Ireland Forum report? A joint equal venture between sister states - could this be the basis for beginning a discussion on a new formulation of the tired old "national question"?

Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies in Armagh (1999-2013) and is a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin

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