Belfast Telegraph

Memo to Michelle O'Neill: we're all 'west Brits' now

The Sinn Fein northern leader's refusal to recognise that Northern Ireland is part of the UK masks another huge republican blind spot: how British Irish society really is

By John Wilson Foster

The legal challenge to the UK Government on the circumstances by which a border poll can be called broadens the front on which the campaign for a unified Ireland is being waged.

The plaintiff was accompanied in a Belfast court by Fianna Fail Senator Mark Daly, author of Uniting Ireland and Its People in Peace and Prosperity, a report feverishly detailed in its imagining of a unified Irish society.

Like that of the local human rights professor who anticipates a "profound dialogue" and "pluralist conversation" on the way to unification, the sky in Senator Daly's world is of a different colour from that in Sinn Fein's, if I can steal from Norm in Cheers.

Both surely know that Sinn Fein is the pack-leader in pursuit of an overnight unified island and unlikely ever to accept the role of rabbit. Senator Daly is no doubt a thoughtfully sincere man, but he would find Sinn Fein a formidable obstacle to island amity.

On the constitutional issue, Sinn Fein does not 'do' dialogue, or conversation. That might, after all, expose the cracks through which the light gets in, to borrow Leonard Cohen. Better dogma than debate.

Instead, the inevitability of Irish unity is magical thinking, like poor Hamlet's belief that thinking doth make it so. Democrats should robustly reject what in theology is called teleology - the idea that events are designed to unfold towards a pre-determined conclusion.

But the predestined nature of a sovereign, 32-county Irish republic was born with the party. The Easter 1916 proclamation was intended to short-circuit the tedium of reform, persuasion, compromise and consent and cut to history's chase.

The current campaign keeps the faith. In 2009, Justice Richard Humphries entitled his book Countdown to Unity and in an afterthought gesture to exchange of opinion subtitled it Debating Irish Reunification. Justice Humphries is quoted by Senator Daly throughout.

This one-two of magic and reason, inevitability and possibility is a feature of Irish republicanism beyond Sinn Fein's party walls. The plot-spoiler first sentence of the Daly Report is: "Ireland needs to prepare for a united Ireland."

The premise of the campaign is that at the behest of 19% of the Northern Ireland population who told the QUB/UU Life and Times Survey in 2016 that they wished to live in a united Ireland, the 66% who said they didn't should about-turn and march into an all-Ireland Republic.

They should forgo participation in a 65 million-strong society to join a (at best) guardedly hospitable nation of four-and-a-half million and swap London for Dublin as their capital. Dublin is a great city and Irish artistic culture a marvellous thing that I have spent my career studying. Even so, one of us should have gone to Specsavers.

Unionists are assured by Senator Daly that their British identity would be "protected" and "cherished" in a unified Ireland. If you need protecting, why go there (memo to nationalist authors of manifestos of persuasion/coercion: lose the word 'cherish', which began its Orwellian career in the 1916 proclamation)?

Sinn Fein also has promised us (though they are really speaking to those doughty architects of east Belfast bonfires) that they will accommodate our British identity in their united Ireland. Said the spider to the fly.

May I cut to the chase myself? From my quiver of reasons why I don't wish to live in an independent, unified Ireland, let me pluck merely one. Ninety-six percent of primary schools over the border are owned by and under the patronage of religious denominations, 90 percent of them owned and run by the Catholic Church. End of.

Amid the rising tide of international theocracy and the retreat of secularism and humanism, how likely am I to agree to accept even its relatively mild Irish backwater?

Those who campaign for a united Ireland should think twice. They seem to have no idea that the current Republic would have to reinvent itself so extensively to resemble secular and Protestant-shaped Britain that a united Ireland would be virtually pointless.

Neither the current nor envisaged public-policy Republic could possibly accommodate my British identity. It simply doesn't have the cultural storage space.

Which brings me to another report which has, indeed, thought twice. It is entitled Coming Clean: Preparing for the Archipelago, and its premise is that the united Ireland campaigners are looking through the wrong end of their binoculars.

It pursues the logic of Senator Daly's telling recommendation that to encourage the unifying of Ireland, "there is a need to recognise the inherent British identity on the island of Ireland as a whole".

If Brexit has stirred Irish nationalists, Coming Clean suggests it is because it has exposed the extent to which Irish society and culture are inextricably entangled with the UK's. Brexit is showing how closeness to Britain since 1922 has underpinned Ireland's sense of independence.

After Brexit, what then for Ireland? Inside the belly of the EU whale.

The report reminds us of the constant interaction between the islands - free movement of people (a cosy two-member Schengen Area), a common labour pool, the UK market for Irish products, the passage of Irish goods across Britain to the Continent - on balance significantly to the greater benefit of the Irish than the English.

It quotes recent headlines from The Irish Times: "Brexit burns Ireland's British bridge to EU markets". "Brexit may lead to later abortions for Irish women". "Brexit could decimate Ireland's horse racing industry".

These Brexit headaches for Ireland flag the bilateral intimacy of the two societies, underwritten historically by the often shared pain of experience, for which the Great War can stand as a noble monument.

It is arguable, we are told, that the economic logic of Brexit is Irish co-withdrawal from the EU, as Ray Bassett, the former Irish ambassador to Canada, has recommended. Since Ireland is rightly proud of its advanced information technology, we could call it Exit.ie.

The mutuality of popular culture goes without saying, but the report says it. English soccer is a huge and intrinsic component of Irish culture. The most watched programme on TV3? Coronation Street. The streets of Dublin were empty when Prince Charles married Diana - those caught without a TV were glued to shop windows.

It is on the whole an asymmetrical relationship. I remember the poet James Simmons' mischievous couplet from 30 years ago: "Why are the TV aerials in Dublin so high?/To eavesdrop on England, that's why!"

Much of the high culture of the south, as the report notes, comes from Europe and the United States, but chiefly from the UK.

Those celebrated Irish professors in Oxford and Cambridge know it very well, as do the brilliant commentators in Irish newspapers who enjoy their privileged two-passport lives, while jealously guarding the single-passport lives of their fellow citizens.

Why not, the report asks, come clean and become a participant rather than eavesdropper in the wider culture of the archipelago?

The best of Ireland's writing is already a proud part of the canon of British literature. Ireland could become a net cultural contributor, the report claims, if it overcame the retro Little Irelandism that Sinn Fein promotes. And, instead of the southern Irish regarding unionists as enemies, the report recommends seeing them, in a radical change, as cultural point men on the archipelago during the reset time the Republic will need after Brexit.

There is even a cultural theory behind this: Professor Edna Longley's concept of Northern Ireland as a cultural corridor.

The run of the unity argument, the report concludes, is awkwardly uphill. Instead of talking about the British identity inside a unified Ireland, it would answer us better to speak of the Irish identity inside a more closely knit, post-Brexit archipelago.

That identity would hardly need protecting, because it can well look after itself - and is already rightly cherished everywhere.

The post-Brexit onus is greater on nationalists to think north and east than on unionists to think south. Unionists need to promote the archipelago less than nationalists need to acknowledge it.

Coming Clean declares that not only is unification not inevitable, but its advocates repress the decades-old lie of the land.

John Wilson Foster admits he wrote Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (Irish Academic Press, 2009), but won't be drawn on Coming Clean

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