Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Words in Patrick Kielty article explaining why a united Ireland is inevitable: 1,600 ... References to nearly a million unionists who oppose unification: 1

The Co Down-born comedian is doing what the politically committed invariably do when faced with facts which they don't like: they ignore them

Patrick Kielty predicts Brexit will lead to a border poll and Irish unity by 2025
Patrick Kielty predicts Brexit will lead to a border poll and Irish unity by 2025
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Does anybody have a clue what Morecambe and Wise thought about the 1973 referendum on joining the EEC? Probably not. Celebrities back then were not expected to make pronouncements on the great issues of the moment.

Those were the days. Now the rich and famous routinely bombard the benighted masses with their ready-made solutions to the world's problems and no one even sniggers when they do.

Latest to join the crowded ranks of showbiz leaders-in-waiting is comedian and TV presenter Patrick Kielty, who has written an article in the Guardian, predicting that Brexit will lead to a border poll in Northern Ireland and that this poll will, inevitably, result in Irish unity by 2025.

Normally, one could put this down to another case of Brexit Derangement Syndrome, a useful term coined to describe the condition whereby people are so discombobulated at the prospect of leaving the EU that it makes them take leave of their senses. Most luvvies seem to have it bad.

Unfortunately, in this case, there was one small detail that the local boy-done-good forgot to mention: namely, that there are nearly a million people in Northern Ireland who identify as unionists, as British, and who, according to all opinion polls and studies, don't want Irish unity.

Actually, that's not strictly true. Kielty did mention unionists. Once. That's when he included, with barely disguised contempt, the Democratic Unionist Party, with its "blood-red lines", on a list of those shepherding the country into a "no-deal" Brexit. Other than that, his article was a unionist-free zone.

That "almost half" of the population of Northern Ireland "sees themselves as Irish" got a mention all right, but the existence of more than half who don't had to be inferred by omission, as he bored on predictably instead about Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Sign In

This is what the politically committed invariably do when faced with facts that they don't like. They ignore them.

Inconvenient voters who dare to believe in things that upset the narrative are simply erased from sight.

Historically, there are plenty of precedents. Czech novelist Milan Kundera once recalled how a particular leader, who fell foul of the communist regime, was, after his execution, removed from all official photographs.

The only problem was that, in one of them, they neglected to take out his hat, so it was left floating in mid-air as a testament to the stupidity of airbrushing history.

The way in which the existence of nearly a million unionists is being left out of the increasingly feverish predictions of impending Irish unity is the local equivalent.

Just because you can't see them doesn't mean that they're not there. Their bowler hats are still floating in the air.

Many of those who identify as British may be desperately worried about the future. They may harbour regrets about leaving the single market, or losing other benefits of EU membership.

But they're still unionists. They haven't suddenly abandoned their sense of self in favour of some shiny new Irish identity.

Nor is pretending that they don't exist a wise way to go about persuading them of the argument for a united Ireland. As for the snide, Leo Varadkar-style reference to the "precious union", did he really think no one would notice the contempt? Patrick Kielty's concern that violence might return to Northern Ireland in the event of a "no-deal" Brexit is understandable. His father was shot dead by loyalist terrorists in Dundrum, Co Down in 1988, when the comedian was just a schoolboy.

He has spoken movingly about the effect this had on him, both at the time and since, and recalls returning recently to his home village, where everyone in the pub agreed that no good could come of Brexit for Northern Ireland.

He's also not wrong to be frustrated that the border did not feature more prominently in the 2016 referendum debate. Ulster was ever an afterthought in deliberations across the water.

But the fact that he chose to express his misgivings in such divisive language is profoundly depressing. Kielty was part of a generation which was determined to challenge the sectarian divisions of the Troubles.

He mocked both traditions with equal savagery. He showed people how to laugh at those on the other side of the peace line, as well as fear them, and, more importantly, how to mock themselves.

He was able to do that by standing aside from the fight, like a Greek chorus commenting on the action. His words carried a moral, as well as a comic, authority.

His contribution yesterday about the inevitability of a united Ireland was utterly different in tone. It was not a sardonic comment from the sideline, but a dispatch from someone who's pitched himself right into the front line of the battle.

This is one of the tragedies of Brexit: it has kindled intransigence even in those who honourably resisted the lure of tribalism through the darkest days.

It's having a similarly divisive effect in Britain, but there it doesn't matter so much. In the rest of the UK, Brexit can be characterised, with some justification, as a stand-off between an arrogant metropolitan elite, which thinks it knows best, and a discontented electorate, which feels ignored.

Here, the divide carries an added edge of danger, because it intersects with multiple other fault lines of identity and history. All Kielty's criticisms were directed at those who want to leave the European Union. There was condemnation of London, but none of Dublin's role in fanning the flames; there were hard words for the DUP, but none for Sinn Fein, which is shamelessly exploiting Brexit for its own sectarian ends.

Unionists are not responsible for what unelected EU empire-builders in Brussels are whispering in the ear of the Taoiseach, or the threats which are being made to lock Ireland out of the single market if they don't impose a hard border.

It's fair enough to blame one side more than another for what's gone wrong; everyone has a right to take sides. But they can't expect to be regarded afterwards as the same honest broker if they do.

Wishing to overturn the result of a democratic vote is not a moderate position. Wanting to honour it is not extremism.

The lesson of Patrick Kielty's early career is that the most powerful contribution a comedian can make to a fractured society is to help people see their common humanity, rather than fixate on what sets them apart.

To make them laugh together, rather than yell at each other.

That's still true, even if he's tragically forgotten it.

There are enough angry and bitter people preaching to the converted in Northern Ireland.

We don't need another one.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph