Belfast Telegraph

Brian Walker: Why this talk of united Ireland is dangerous

The creation of a pan-nationalist citizens assembly on Irish unity could deepen divisions and lead to conflict, argues Brian Walker

Eamon de Valera
Eamon de Valera
Careless words: promotion of Irish unity in the 1940s by John Costello (pictured) and Eamon de Valera backfired and led to the anti-partition campaign collapsing

By Brian Walker

The last couple of years have seen revived interest in the idea of Irish unity. Sinn Fein has called for a border poll, while other southern politicians and commentators have expressed support for a united Ireland.

Recently a public letter signed by over 1,000 people from all parts of Ireland, called the Ireland's Future group, claimed that discussion of reunification had moved centre stage and urged the establishment of a citizens' assembly to discuss the future.

It would be well to recall another occasion 70 years ago when strong efforts to promote an anti-partition agenda were made by nationalists, north and south. This proved a complete failure with unintended consequences.

In November 1945 northern nationalists founded the Anti-Partition League, with the aim of ending partition through putting pressure on the British government, by propaganda at home and abroad and by seeking outside allies. The League won the support of the southern government and party leaders, but little action until 1948.

In early September 1948, in Canada, John A. Costello, head of the inter-party coalition, announced the government's intention to repeal the external relations act and to declare a republic. He also stated that he considered himself prime minister of all Ireland, 'no matter what the Irish in the north say'.

All this led to an added focus on partition as the parties sought to prove their republican credentials. At an anti-partition rally in Scotland in October 1948, Eamon de Valera warned unionists that they would have to choose to be Irish or British, and, if their choice was not the former, he urged: 'In God's name will you go to the country that your affections lie in.'

The opposition to partition became even more strident, after the British government announced its intention of introducing an Ireland act, giving new guarantees to northern unionists, even though this act was a direct outcome of the Irish decision to declare a republic.

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In early December 1948, Lord Rugby, British ambassador to Dublin, observed that 'each party must now outdo its rivals in a passionate crusade for Irish unity... no leading politician dare to appear reluctant to join the anti-partition bandwagon or to seem doubtful about the wisdom of giving it a shove'.

On January 27, 1949 Costello called a public meeting of the leaders of the southern parties, plus northern nationalist representatives, to protest against partition and to provide support for anti-partition candidates at the forthcoming northern elections. It was agreed to establish a new anti-partition body to be known as the Mansion House Committee and to raise funds to help these candidates with a country-wide collection outside churches on the following Sunday.

Careless words: promotion of Irish unity in the 1940s by John Costello (pictured) and Eamon de Valera backfired and led to the anti-partition campaign collapsing

Such events had an important influence on unionist circles in Northern Ireland. By early 1949, the Unionist government faced strong challenges not only from the heightened anti-partition campaign, but also from a revived labour movement. At the 1945 general election Labour candidates had won 113,413 votes and four seats.

On January 21, 1949, Sir Basil Brooke, the northern Prime Minister, called a general election. In his manifesto, he attacked Costello's decision to declare a republic. Labour candidates urged that voters should concentrate on economic and social matters.

On January 28, 1949, however, the press reported the meeting of the all-party Mansion House Committee in Dublin and its declared intention to support anti-partition candidates in the north, including 'the holding of a national collection in all parishes on Sunday'.

The following Monday, a banner headline of the Belfast Telegraph read 'The chapel gate collections. Dublin, Limerick, Donnybrook lead...'

An Irish Times reporter on January 29, 1949 warned that this southern move was probably 'worth 60,000 votes to unionists' and quoted an anonymous northern nationalist who stated that: 'Those fellows in Dublin are playing party politics, and that is not going to help us'. His prediction proved correct.

This direct southern intervention with such clerical undertones had considerable impact, but not as intended. It became the focus of the unionist campaign, and helped lead to the withdrawal of some independent unionist candidates and to the collapse of the Labour vote.

The result was a stunning victory for Brooke. The Unionist Party increased its representation from 33 MPs to 37, while the Labour movement failed to hold on to a single seat. Nationalist seats fell from 10 to 9.

This anti-partition campaign failed completely. Of course, the whole project was ill-conceived and ill-timed. That is true about recent efforts to promote widespread support, north and south, for a united Ireland.

As in 1949, the creation of a pan-nationalist front will only lead to a pan-unionist front.

The middle ground will disappear as will attempts at reconciliation.

Such a development would likely mean that Sinn Fein and the DUP sweep the boards at forthcoming elections. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement will be in jeopardy. A united Ireland arising out of such circumstances would be a heavily contested and potentially violent place.

Recent response in the south, however, suggests that this danger may have been averted. Important voices, in the press and among political leaders, have challenged current efforts to ramp up the subject of a united Ireland and have pointed to the dangers of such an approach at this time.

In the Sunday Independent, on November 10, journalist Eoghan Harris criticised the letter from the Ireland's Future group, pointing to the complete absence of unionists among the over 1,000 names on their list. He wrote that it was 'likely to lead to further tribal tension because it is basically stirring the sectarian stew'.

Crucial has been the reaction of the leaders of the two main parties. Unlike in the late 1940s, they have not rushed to join 'the anti-partition bandwagon' and have avoided allowing party rivalry to influence their approach.

In the Dail on November 25 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was asked by the Sinn Fein TD Martin Kenny about the call from the Ireland's Future group to establish a citizens' assembly. He rejected this proposal, questioning if any of the one million unionists in Northern Ireland would attend. In their absence, he declared that it would be a 'pan-nationalist assembly' and not one for all the people of Ireland.

In his remarks, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin opposed this citizens' assembly. He stated that the point of the Good Friday Agreement was to 'stop an endless focus on a binary constitutional choice from destabilising society'. He criticised Sinn Fein and urged the return of an Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland as the best way forward.

In the Irish Times on November 29, journalist and author Stephen Collins commended Varadkar and Martin for their efforts to rebuff this proposal for a citizens' assembly to pave the way for a united Ireland. He wrote: 'Nothing could be more dangerous for both parts of Ireland in the unstable political atmosphere generated by Brexit than the emergence of a pan-nationalist front pressing for the realisation of the first national aim.'

Hopefully, in late 2019, in contrast to 70 years ago, more politicians and citizens will seek to promote their aims in ways that avoid deepening of divisions and unnecessary conflict.

Brian M. Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast and author of the recently published Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities and Commemoration, published by THP Ireland, price £14

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