Whether we wear an Easter lily or a poppy will still define us
This coming year is the last year of the decade of centenaries. It stretched from the Home Rule Bill of 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic to the end of the Irish Civil War and the murder of Michael Collins.
I am not sure it was a good idea to mark these anniversaries as we did. The new enthusiasm for a united Ireland may owe a lot to Brexit, but perhaps also to the celebration of the Easter Rising in 2016.
We had some reconsideration of the far greater mayhem of the First World War, but little sense of that being the point at which Ireland divided irreparably, as unionists cherished the memory of the dead of the Somme, while nationalists forgot them and honoured Pearse and Connolly instead.
Nations are framed around memorialisation of war more than anything else and the impossibility of uniting Ireland comes from the fact of traditions defining themselves by different wars.
The legacy of the Civil War was the division between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, which represented the opposing positions on the treaty, though they both revere the rebels of the War of Independence which preceded it.
A division in modern republicanism is suggested by Joe Brolly’s comments that the people of the south left northern nationalists to suffer oppression and blamed them for their own suffering.
We see that division reflected in acrimony between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein and there is no reason to suppose that it would not continue into a united Ireland.
Modern Sinn Fein will want to honour the Provisional IRA campaign, perhaps name bridges and new roads after their heroes, while some southern republicans will resent them as murderers. Joe Brolly’s comments intimate the difficulty of stitching these traditions together.
Similarly, loyalists will want to include their dead among those remembered at the cenotaph, while most who commemorate British losses in numerous wars will resent that as a cheapening of their tradition.
What paramilitary traditions in the north want is the incorporation of their own stories into the larger national British and Irish stories and both Britain and Ireland centrally reject them.
Recent polls show that the people of the Republic don’t want to change their flag, or anthem, to accommodate unionists. The polls didn’t ask how they would respond to the Provo legacy being part of the national brand.
The invitation to unionists and northern nationalists is that they come into a new Ireland on terms set by a state that already exists.
That state should be more attractive than the Catholic Gaelic Ireland of Pearse and De Valera, but it is already clear what the new fault lines will be and they will be defined, as before, by memorialisation of wars.
Such memorialisation is the most dependable marker of identity in Ireland. Whether you wear an Easter lily or a poppy locates you more precisely than whether you are (or were) a Catholic or a Protestant.
Some may take some hope from the fact that Protestants in the south adapted well, in time, to being Irish. Yet, though they may not have thought of themselves as unionists, they had family traditions extending back to empire and honoured these in their schools and churches.
The standard image of the million Protestants who would refuse to be Irish is questionable. I have spoken to many unionists who insist that they are Irish as well as British. Some were born in the Republic, or had parents or grandparents born there.
But their Irishness tends towards greater respect for the dead of the Somme than for the dead of 1916 and always will, even in a future united Ireland.
Like the Catholics in the north, who can live with the Union, their experience may be evidence that these identities are more fluid than they have seemed in fearful and angry times. Many of those Catholic families have legacies of British Army experience, too.
Part of the offer of the new Ireland is the assurance that unionists would have much stronger representation than they currently have in the United Kingdom.
But there is a feature of northern unionism that the optimists fail to take into account and that is its geographic location.
In the new Ireland, the British identity will be territorial. It will be mainly in counties Antrim and Down.
The British Protestants in the new Ireland will not be like other minorities — gay people, or Travellers, or east European migrants — spread all over the island. They will have council areas bundled together, whole towns which will bear their murals and regions over which they will fly the Union flag.
While our British Protestants will not be able to feasibly campaign for repartition, or re-assimilation into Great Britain, or an independent Scotland, they will be able to stamp their own character on their council areas and contend with central government as a territory, an enclave, demanding concessions and respect.
They will be able to consolidate a culture around alienation and grievance in the same way that nationalists did after partition.
And those parts of Belfast and Derry which serve now as republican theme parks, with their militaristic murals, are also unlikely to change.
They may even be driven to further emphasis on their local traditions if they feel these are not fully respected in Dublin.
A 50%-plus-one vote can deliver this confusion. It cannot resolve it.