And Campbell's 'we are British' dispels nationalist fantasy of persuading unionists of unity merits
We're used to watching them tear strips off each other in the Dail. But Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald called a temporary ceasefire in an RTE studio on Monday night and managed to have a civil conversation on Irish unity.
Nowhere near as much as might have been predicted divides them. If they ever joined forces in a border poll campaign, they would certainly pack a punch. You’d travel far to find two better communicators with a reach beyond their own electoral base.
The Tanaiste could be a powerful persuader among those in Northern Ireland who define themselves as ‘Other’ and for whom his “rainbow nation of British, Irish, and new Irish” would appeal.
But it’s a fantasy some nationalist perpetuate that there is a significant swathe of the unionist community – I’ve heard claims of up to 20% - who could be persuaded of the merits of Irish unity if the right arguments are skilfully made.
In the unionist corner of Claire Byrne Live, Gregory Campbell was there to dispel that myth. The DUP MP certainly didn’t hold back. “You just don’t get it, do you? You just do not get it. We are British - those three words. We are British.
“There’s nothing you can say, nothing you can do, that will change that. There isn’t going to be a unionist buy-in for something that is anathema to us,” he said.
Viewers heard from other unionists too. Lawyer Sarah Creighton and loyalist Jamie Bryson agreed in opposing Irish unity, but were at odds on likely responses if it occurred. Creighton said she hoped that it would be done properly with rights and protections for unionists who would be made to feel “safe and welcome”. She’d like to see an NHS, a welfare state, and Google paying more tax.
In the event of Irish unity, Bryson had no such wish list.
“All the economic benefits in the world wouldn’t change my unionism,” he said. “It’s not a new Ireland, it’s a united Ireland packaged in a different way. It doesn’t matter what you call it, the constitutional implications would be the same.”
In the event of a likely united Ireland, he believed there would be “at least a significant minority” in the unionist/loyalist community who would “do everything possible to resist that”.
In the pro-unity camp, Varadkar was the most creative contributor. He suggested the use of titles like ‘Taoiseach’ and ‘Tanaiste’ - “titles of Gaelic chieftains” - might be inappropriate for a nation with a million British citizens. He also proposed that a period of joint sovereignty could be put on the table to facilitate the transition to a united Ireland.
He spoke of Irish unity as “an exciting conversation”, and said the “tectonic plates of Irish politics have changed”. By contrast, the Taoiseach appeared as very much a politician of the status quo. He seemed to do his best to say absolutely nothing despite Byrne’s probing. That will unsettle a fair few northern nationalists and Fianna Fail grassroots, while simultaneously reassuring unionists that they have a firm friend in these testing times.
Byrne’s red card for Joe Brolly proved to be the most controversial part of the night on social media where there was significant support for him.
One weakness in the 85-minute show was that at times it felt like members of the professional political class talking purely to each other. Some rawer, authentic voices would have been welcome, but that can be addressed in future programmes.
In the absence of Covid, republicans would be gathering in cemeteries all over Ireland to commemorate the Easter Rising in less than a fortnight. But discussions about Irish unity are now happening outside these traditional circles: the conversation has gone mainstream.