Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: With so much at stake we are not even having the right debate on the way forward

Our concentration on identity rather than well-being is harming the union, argues Malachi O'Doherty

This will come as an appalling prospect to some but it is likely that Ireland will be a single jurisdiction some time in the future
This will come as an appalling prospect to some but it is likely that Ireland will be a single jurisdiction some time in the future

By Malachi O'Doherty

This will come as an appalling prospect to some but it is likely that Ireland will be a single jurisdiction some time in the future. Many will want the credit for that to go to the republican movement and the IRA campaign which it continues to honour, but the trend towards unity has much more to do with Brexit and demographic change.

With the decline of the Protestant population which supports the unionist parties and the unionist ideology, the question of which union to belong to will become a simple pragmatic one. It is conceivable that Britain will go back to being a country with a wonderful health service and a welfare system that provides a real safety net while Ireland will get caught up in foreign wars, its economy drained by commitment to a European army. But what's your own thinking on this?

Which do you think is more likely?

So, let's for a thought experiment imagine that Britain has left the European Union or is still arguing about how to get out or what terms to trade on, and a northern majority has pulled the plug on the UK, with the assent of the people of the Republic.

Of course there will be some who will say that we need to stay in the UK for the sake of the NHS, but since Northern Ireland's stake in the NHS has been declared last week to have 'collapsed' - not my word - you can see the weakness in that argument.

Perhaps one of the big Sinn Fein contributions to unity will be their wrecking the health service here by refusing to govern.

But imagine we are 10 years into a united Ireland, say in 2040 or 2050. I'll be 99 in 2050 if I'm not dead, so it won't mean much to me.

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But imagine that this united Ireland has stabilised and is in good standing with its neighbours, likely to be getting on particularly well with Scotland, both of them taking for granted their independence of England.

A whole generation will be growing up with little sense that uniting Ireland was ever a big deal.

The concept of nationalism dies when the question of what nation you are part of is resolved and no longer bothers you.

We will write our history on the basis of a presumption that Irish unity was simply inevitable, the natural order of things and probably with some bewilderment that anyone ever doubted that, the trajectory towards it having been so plain. It was always going to be demography and pragmatism that decided the issue. The only way to keep Northern Ireland British was to make sure that it had a better health service, better schools, better housing and better welfare.

How are we doing on that front?

Politics will not be about identity but about the practical management of the state and its relations with the rest of the world.

Or will it? Will we, like England today, agonise so much about who we are that we damage our own self interest?

Well, at least England's doing that should be a warning to us.

We have been told that the coming election is a Brexit election. It is a single issue general election in which the people will decide whether to take Johnson's 'oven ready' deal or Corbyn's waffle.

But the Labour party has changed the whole nature of the debate and made it about Identity versus Wellbeing.

The Labour Party manifesto prescribes a massive expansion of the state to retrieve public services and real welfare provision.

It says, in effect, let's agree that we want a country in which the poor are provided for, people are housed and we have a robust health service, and then we can have another discussion about Brexit and see how important that really is in this context.

If, as Dominic Cummings claims to have discovered, Brexit is the cry for help of a whole stratum of society that has been ignored, then let's look after those people and see if their panic subsides.

But where do we stand on that?

Northern Ireland agonises constantly about Identity over Wellbeing.

The health service is in horrific decline because people dying in agony is never the first concern of our big parties. It never is when Identity comes first.

Our local parties still think it is all about Brexit.

Both of our nationalist parties have been friends of Labour but neither is even articulating in its election literature the need to stand with Labour at this time.

Michelle O'Neill's theory for saving the NHS here is to get an Irish Language Act first. Corbyn's is to tax the rich. We are not even having that discussion.

The SDLP thinks it is better to have John Finucane sitting in the house rather than Nigel Dodds sitting in the House of Commons.

That only survives as a tenable policy if the only argument is Brexit.

An alternative argument might have been: send Nichola Mallon to Westminster to vote for Corbyn's revolution. Let's be part of real change.

Even losing but sending a message through a few hundred votes that we care would have been some contribution.

If Corbyn's revolution - really McDonnell's - goes through it will be historic, comparable to the creation of the welfare state in the first place.

What it says is that the UK can recover its dignity by a different route than through a chimeric Brexit.

It will probably fail because the English working class is inherently pessimistic. It put Thatcher in power because it believes that life is hard and ought to be hard.

It could only choose a Labour party that would merely moderate that vision, not overthrow it.

It likes simplistic lies like 'take back control', 'oven ready Brexit' and 'nanny knows best'.

Our failing locally is that we don't even join the debate. If our unionists even really believed in the UK they would be putting forward their own ideas on how to shape it for the future.

How is it being part of Britain to be absenting yourself from discussion of core British interests.

Maybe that's why GB cares so little about Northern Ireland, because Northern Ireland doesn't care about GB.

The laugh of it is that Labour's vision of a UK in which services are restored is the only route to saving the Union. Without a health service I can rely on as I grow older, what use is the Union to me?

Chuckyheads marching for Unity can kid themselves that they are taking us to a new dawn.

If it's happening, it is happening despite them.

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