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The narrative of impending Irish unity just doesn't ring true

Sinn Fein has, however, used Brexit to mainstream the idea of a united Ireland to the point where Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are happy to do their heavy lifting, writes John Wilson Foster


Some people would blame Brexit for the renewed calls for a border poll

Some people would blame Brexit for the renewed calls for a border poll


Change of heart: Ian Marshall

Change of heart: Ian Marshall

Professor Jim Dornan

Professor Jim Dornan

Some people would blame Brexit for the renewed calls for a border poll

There is a story gaining traction I first heard in the Irish Times three months ago. A unionist businessman ('born into a unionist background'), living near the border, thought that if a few more unionists like him are convinced that unification is the future, changing demographics would soon overwhelm the others.

Denis Bradley name-checked two iconic unionists to lend his narrative of imminent transformation its leading characters: the late John Robb and the Rev John Dunlop.

Gary Gibbon, Channel 4's political editor, retells the narrative in his blog - Forty Shades of Green, Fifty Shades of Orange - likewise deploying the formula of the high-profile unionist thinking the unthinkable.

First leading character is Professor Jim Dornan, "from a unionist background". Because Prof Dornan is "a world-renowned gynaecologist" now thinking of backing a united Ireland, the implication is that lesser mortals will follow suit. The moreso because his son is a film star (hence the 'fifty shades of orange').

Mr Gibbon's other leading character is Ian Marshall, former president of the Ulster Farmers' Union and now a senator in the Dail. Mr Marshall explains his change of heart: "Yeah, I'm a realist, I'm a pragmatist".

The two are meant to suggest that business and the professions are softening on the Union.

Those with vested interests hurry the story along. "Irish unification is no longer a question of 'if', rather it is one of 'how soon'," Alban Maginness told readers of this newspaper.

In another blog, Gibbon claims that "respected figures from the liberal wing of unionism are now ready to talk with the government in Dublin about Irish unity".

Is there really talk "even amongst some DUP sources" about "shifting plates" and "creaking glaciers"?

Or is this Gibbon's attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy? Presentiments of a united Ireland are a political intervention, so we should expect more of them soon.

The storytellers are splashing about in shallow water. Unionism and Irish unification, both tripped off the tongue, in reality involve, through time and space, the practice of governance, social mores, belief systems, value systems, understandings of citizenship.

I for one am not just "of a unionist background" (as though Britishness were a replaceable backdrop to Irishness) - but have a UK foreground and middle-ground too.

That does not prevent me from enjoying the complex weave of my Irishness, any more than it prevents those southern Irish born, living and working in the UK (for example, all those Irish correspondents of the BBC) from enjoying the weave of their undeclared Britishness.

Prof Dornan in this newspaper acknowledges the fine education, health care and "everything else" by which he has prospered in the UK, but finds them outweighable "if somebody offers me a good deal then I would go for it".

Prof Dornan's "good deal" might be a thinking unionist's bad dream.

But like me, Jamie's father is one of David Goodhart's "Anywheres", cushioned from political impact by moveable credentials and - though not in my case - being well-off. (Instead I have a Canadian passport.)

The landlocked "Somewheres" (rooted in time and place) would have no say in a deal cooked up by republicans and the privileged "from a unionist background".

I can see the attraction of a wholly practical approach to citizenship. An Irish passport for easy entrance to the post-Brexit EU would be handy. But would the Irish state have welcomed my cynical attitude to Irish citizenship? I hope not.

Malachi O'Doherty thinks the English who prefer poverty to being in the European Union are "bloody-minded". But this was the precise choice made by the southern Irish in 1922: they chose poverty over staying in the United Kingdom. I admire them for it. Their poverty lasted decades.

They believed their ethno-cultural identity would be honoured best in an independent country. We don't know how many of their northern descendants would make the same honourable choice, even if leaving the UK would not be "a good deal". For some of them, a border poll would be an invitation to a homecoming.

As it happened, the Free State developed in ways unacceptable to those who preferred to remain in the United Kingdom.

One strand of that society was a diehard Sinn Fein. Prof Dornan is reported as daydreaming a united Ireland in which Sinn Fein obligingly fades away like Ukip after Brexit, mission accomplished. He forgets that Sinn Fein is an all-Ireland party intent on governing the island, it will not cease to harass to its foretold consummation.

Mr O'Doherty is right to say that were a united Ireland to win a border poll, the crucial Yes voters would not be Sinn Fein supporters. But is that because Sinn Fein have via Brexit cleverly mainstreamed the idea of a united Ireland and are letting Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney do the heavy lifting?

The real cause of a united Ireland, Mr O'Doherty insists, would be that unionism is "about Protestantism, monarchy, social conservatism and reverence for the British Army and imperial history". To me, it is about things too numerous to mention but they involve culture (sans Protestantism nowadays) and when necessary, liberal reform.

Social conservatism has characterised immoderate unionism, but the error of confusing the essence of unionism with the practice of the DUP is unhelpful save to prompt people like me to explain their different unionism.

Unionism is originally about kinship and shared experience with the Scots, Welsh and English. That is why, by definition, my unionism could not have "a continuing identity in a united Ireland" as Mr O'Doherty encourages. Not because it is brittle or fragile, but because it is too big for a united Ireland.

I would be compelled to substitute Dublin for London as my capital. I would have my unambiguous British citizenship rescinded. I would inhabit an enclave, be at best a West Brit, that once reviled status now enjoyed by the Dublin elite, but secretly.

But isn't it unfair to expect nationalists to live unself-consciously in the UK while refusing as a unionist to live in an Irish republic?

Yes, but I see the UK as the preferred option because I presumptuously believe (perhaps wrongly), that many Northern Irish Catholics and moderate nationalists are less unhappy in a rapidly diversifying UK (and a more politically symmetrical NI) than unionists would be in a far less diverse and symmetrical Irish Republic.

I admit that Brexit has been the catalyst in the resurgence of border poll nationalism. But as a voter I was faced with a dilemma. To vote Leave was to create uncertainty in Ireland. To vote Remain was to remand the UK in the custody of a vast bureaucracy.

Malachi O'Doherty judges the decision to privilege UK citizenship over NI residency as offensive to moderate nationalists. That I regret, since I have always said No to any party that offended constitutional nationalists. But since I have Catholic friends who are firm Brexiteers, the judgment might be harsh.

But it is an honour to cross swords with Malachi O'Doherty, our indispensable honest broker. He implies that he too faces a dilemma, like others "of a nationalist background".

It won't be resolved by pragmatic "good deals". Nor by the DUP or Sinn Fein. That leaves a joint and public exploration of the shared and unshared cultures that create the dilemmas. The impending sea-change narrative just does not ring true.

John Wilson Foster is emeritus professor of English, University of British Columbia

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