Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Unionists are not alone in failing to prepare for the prospect of Irish unification... nationalists will need to get their heads around new realities too

Gaelic Ireland would, for the first time since independence, have to make official space for Britishness - and it'll have to get the cheque book out, says Eilis O'Hanlon

When the Troubles began, the population of the six counties that constituted Northern Ireland still hadn't recovered to pre-Famine levels. Now, the Statistics and Research Agency projects the population of this troublesome little place is set to hit 1,939,700 by 2026, with growth in every single local government district.

That's an increase of 4% on current levels and it will be over 8% in some areas. The worrying part in the figures is that the population of working-age people is only set to grow by a modest amount, while the older population is set to soar.

It can rankle when increased longevity is treated as a social problem rather than an achievement. Older people have worked hard, paid their dues and are entitled to a healthy and fulfilling retirement.

All the same, there's no denying that it costs progressively more to provide services to an ageing population, and that infamous magic money tree never took root in Ulster soil.

Northern Ireland has few natural resources or native industries to pay for what we need. If there is going to be a united Ireland, Dublin had better have its cheque book handy. Norn Iron has never been a cheap date.

Of course, a united Ireland is not inevitable in the short or medium-term. A nationalist majority has been predicted before and we're still waiting.

This time does feel different, though. Unionism has fallen to a political minority in recent elections.

There's also the effect of Brexit. It could be that the UK's exit from the EU will lead to an economic Golden Age, making people here, regardless of partisan identity, reluctant to risk any new surge in prosperity; but it equally remains true that, for young people in particular, Brexit has been a slap in the face - and the DUP's Gung-ho attitude has added to their discontent.

In the past unionists only had to worry about those with nationalist allegiances voting for a united Ireland. Now they've managed to bring about a situation whereby even otherwise neutral or apolitical young people have a strong motive to vote for Irish unity in order to consolidate a European identity which seems to matter to them enormously.

That's before even taking into consideration the growing immigrant population, largely from Europe, which would surely be expected to vote for whatever gets them back inside the EU.

Nationalism, then, is in a confident, emboldened mood and that's chiefly expressing itself right now in a demand that unionists begin a dialogue as to how a united Ireland might work in practice.

There's a curious assumption in all this, though, that it's unionists who must figure out how to fit into a new Ireland.

There's far less discussion - if any at all - of how nationalism will need to change to adapt to the new circumstances.

That's particularly true south of the border. Leo Varadkar has been sounding out the prospect of a new national holiday to commemorate the founding of the Irish Republic in 1949.

These are not the words or actions of a Taoiseach who expects that he may have to deal with the reunification of the national territory anytime soon, effectively replacing the Republic itself.

If this was to happen, it would not be like the reunification of Germany.

People on both sides of that border may have been forced by history to live under different regimes, but they were culturally and ethnically the same. They were Germans and never thought otherwise. That is not the case here.

A united Ireland would mean the pouring of around two million people, approximately a million of whom don't want to be there, onto a population which, by the mid-2020s, would at most be only six million.

Around one-in-eight of the new Irish state would, in other words, regard themselves as culturally and politically British.

Even if that transition is enacted peacefully - and there's absolutely no excuse for any kind of loyalist resistance to such a democratic vote, any more than there was for republican violence - it will effect enormous change in the former Republic.

Gaelic, nationalist Ireland would, for the first time in its independent history, have to officially make space for Britishness after decades of downplaying, even denying, that contentious aspect of its history.

It's never been altogether clear that Irish polity, or society, grasps that fact. Insofar as they think about it at all, the great and good down south have tended to imagine a united Ireland as an enlarged version of what already exists, rather than as something new.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin is one of the few who's tried to engage in an open, constructive way with the complexities. The current Irish Government certainly hasn't. What's in store may come as a huge shock.

The education system would need radical alteration. State-wide broadcasting would undergo a sea-change.

Cherished national institutions such as An Garda Siochana and the Irish Defence Forces may look unrecognisable after amalgamation. Transition wouldn't always feel comfortable for stuck-in-their-way Southerners.

That's what made the old Republican Sinn Fein proposal for a federal Ireland of largely self-governing regions - Eire Nua - so innovative.

It was the one time that republicans ever seriously considered how to incorporate a large number of people of a different identity into a larger state in such a way that it respects their identity and protects their rights without compromising on the equally legitimate rights and identity of the majority population. Being so imaginative, naturally the mainstream republican movement rejected it outright.

Unionists would not be under threat in a united Ireland. They would not be second-class citizens. There is no appetite outside tiny delinquent political circles to get revenge for a long history of discrimination.

Rather, having unionists sitting in Dublin again, once they got over their collective sulk and took their seats, would be more like a return to an old order, pre-Easter Rising, raising the possibility of new alliances.

As it stands unionists north of the border face a monolith in Sinn Fein, partly as a consequence of the Belfast Agreement's encouragement of a sectarian stand-off; but political representation is more diverse in the Republic and plenty of it is every bit as hostile to the Provos as unionists themselves.

Sinn Fein seems to think it can just take its current support and drop it into a new united Ireland - and perhaps it would for a while. But politics would inevitably realign in interesting and exciting ways.

Unionists are not alone in failing to prepare for that future. Nationalists have plenty of thinking to do as well.

Belfast Telegraph

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