Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Whisper it, but nationalists and unionists have more in common now than they ever have before

The only way for each community to get what it wants is to integrate, or rise above animosity

Seamus Mallon
Seamus Mallon

By Malachi O'Doherty

The crisis for the Union is plain to see, even if the last ones to show any sign of grasping it are the unionists themselves. Put simply, the first century of the Union relied on a Protestant majority. A second century must rely on something else, securing the consent of a wider population.

Yet unionism still plays to its shrinking base and trusts that the rest of us will stay on board, though we may not actually be loyal in any sense of the word as they use it.

But there is a potential crisis for nationalism as well. What if a majority in the north decides that it wants a united Ireland and the people of the Republic reject that idea?

Interest in the north is growing, even as the Sinn Fein vote sinks. The sole cause of this is the threat of Brexit, the potential departure of Scotland from the Union and the prospect of economic decline and other factors making a return to the EU more desirable.

Northern Ireland has a route back to the EU that other Remain regions like Scotland and London do not have: a border poll. The presumption of unionists appears to be that nationalists don't agonise about identity as much as they do themselves.

Identity concerns keep the DUP lashed to a suicidal Tory party, but the same DUP seems not to have considered that similar - if opposing - identity concerns might play in the hearts of those of their neighbours who identify as Irish.

That is what comes of sectarian thinking, the sense that "they" are not like "us". "They" wouldn't ditch the Union in order to feel more Irish, while "we" would stay with it and even endure poverty in order to assert our Britishness.

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And the lovely paradox in that thinking is that unionists, while clinging to the Union through all perils, trust that nationalists/Catholics will stay for no better reason than that they will be better off economically, while not actually being able to guarantee that the Union will continue to prosper.

The madness that has overtaken the DUP will likely engage historians for centuries to come, but we have problems now to think about. And one of them is how a growing interest in a united Ireland is to be catered for if - or when - it reaches a level at which a border poll could realise it.

The advice of thinkers like Seamus Mallon and Diarmaid Ferriter is that we must not plunge into a border poll as recklessly as Britain plunged into the referendum on EU membership. But how is that to be avoided?

The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that a 50%-plus-one vote will determine the outcome and that the Secretary of State must call that referendum if success seems likely.

That prescription was devised before the experience of Cameron's folly of calling a simple Yes/No Brexit referendum and was, therefore, not informed by it.

Holding a referendum on other terms would surely require the renegotiation of the Agreement, but why would nationalists anticipating success in a border poll concede that?

Indeed, why would they concede anything to unionist fears after the DUP plunged into Brexit conceding nothing to theirs. The one party that can affect nationalist thinking is Dublin.

And Leo Varadkar has already said that it is much too early to be discussing a united Ireland and that a lot of groundwork has to be done first.

Northern nationalists would have serious thinking to do if Dublin said it would not assent to Irish unity without first having a say in defining the terms of the referendum.

That alone would provide some of the shock to nationalism that is potentially inherent in the drift we are taking towards a decision. And it might be better for them to hear those doubts up-front and early in the process.

We don't know for sure that the Republic wants the north. People there will have anxieties about cost and about the potential for instability. They will worry about absorbing a million Protestants, most of them unionists, some of them very tetchy unionists.

They will at least not have to absorb Arlene Foster, for she has already decided that she will leave, perhaps to seek political asylum in an independent Scotland.

But it isn't the nationalists who will be able to assuage southern fears; only the unionists themselves will be able to do that. And why would they? They appear not to think they have any incentive to be signalling to our neighbours on the other side of the border that, come the day, they will present no bother at all and will be content to be assimilated into the new republic. Their entire political purpose is to prevent that day coming.

I would say they have brought it closer with support for Brexit, but they don't see it that way.

So, what we have is symmetry. Both unionism and nationalism face the potential refutation of their dreams: unionism by being voted into a united Ireland by nationalists, who are disinclined to concern themselves with unionist fears, and nationalism by achieving a majority for Irish unity and then being rebuffed.

But neither is thinking seriously about the danger it faces. In a perverse sense, there has never been a time when they had so much in common, or been so vulnerable to events forcing them to make peace with each other.

The only viable united Ireland is one in which unionists can be helped to feel at home. The only viable continuation of Northern Ireland's place in the Union is one in which nationalists have invested so deeply that they will not want to lose it.

And each of these prospects seems distant and ludicrous, beyond the considering of any major party.

There is no long-term future for the Union, nor any secure prospect of a united Ireland, unless the two communities here deepen their relationship with each other.

The DUP pushing for a no-deal Brexit and Sinn Fein continuing to honour the Provisional IRA both work towards the alienation of the other community.

Both can't, ultimately, have what they now want, but in the current culture of undermining each other, both damage their prospects.

The only possible route to success for either is through integrating the two communities, or at least rising above animosity.

This is bizarre, of course, but each side has to sell itself as benign and accommodating - the unionists to their Irish-identifying neighbours and the nationalists to the Republic.

The competition to prove themselves each more generous than the other couldn't start soon enough.

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