Belfast Telegraph

Peter Shirlow: Irish unity is more complicated than simply addressing unionist fears

Those who want a united Ireland have to spell out how everyday issues such as healthcare, pensions, public service and cost of living would be affected, argues Professor Peter Shirlow

People unite when they have something to cheer, like Shane Lowry winning The Open last Sunday
People unite when they have something to cheer, like Shane Lowry winning The Open last Sunday

By Peter Shirlow

Last week Senator Mark Daly brought forth his paper Unionist Concerns and Fears of a United Ireland: The Need to Protect the Peace Process and Build a Vision for a Shared Island and A United People.

Unfortunately, it plays into a certain reading of the pro-Union community that is one of fear and more fear. It invokes the idea that Irish unification is about unionists and their doubts, qualms and uncertainties. It always appears strange when the promotion of a united Ireland is based upon analysing opposition to it as opposed to any blueprint, road map or outline of what it would actually mean.

Of course, it is difficult to deliver such a blueprint as advocates of Irish unification do not possess a unitary voice. Some call for a border poll and would take unification with 50+1, while others state that electoral consent would need to sit at around 60%.

The recent civic nationalist event in the Waterfront Hall highlighted that division between those who urged for a border poll and those who were much more cautious. For Sinn Fein, calling for a border poll is an objective and also important to keep anti-Agreement republicans at bay.

Hosting one would probably end in a pro-Union majority of some 20%-25%. That would make it even harder to keep those who vociferously demand unification on board. Brexit was supposed to - and may yet be - the game changer.

Sleeping nationalists were to wake from their slumber and in so doing would awaken to the realisation that their energy was now to be behind the Irish unification project.

The election that followed the various turmoil that Brexit had caused suggested something very different. Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit grew while republicanism, nationalism and unionism stalled.

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A significant share of the electorate had awoken and it would seem that their energy was to be placed around issue based politics that concerned remaining in Europe, environmental challenges and the impact of universal credit and other forms of economics and policy that marginalises the poor and the young.

The latter in particular seemed to show signs of moving out of traditional identity based political choice.

Being pro-unification or pro-Union means many different things to different people. Senator Daly's next report could possibly look at the diversity of northern and southern pro-unification opinion.

Why are some angst-ridden that a united Ireland is not just around the corner while others can wait? Why does that division exist? Surely anyone who is serious about Irish unity would wonder why some are passionate and others are much less ardent.

Senator Daly's does help open up debate (although the omission of women is puzzling) as a site of reconciliation and it is vital that southerners learn more about unionists, but we must ensure that unionists are not presented as merely angst-ridden as that does not accommodate the various forms of pro-Unionism and the diversity within.

Those who are pro-Union are Catholic, Protestant, dissenter and also migrants. Many want to know about issues such as the NHS, pensions, job security, level of public service and the cost of living.

Around a third of citizens in the Republic have free healthcare compared to 100% in Northern Ireland.

Some who advance a united Ireland propose that a free healthcare system would be introduced, but they never factor in how they would do so against likely opposition from the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and the private health insurance providers.

Uniting Ireland has as much to do with issues such as that as it has to do with wagon-circling unionists. Indeed, it always seems peculiar that the debate on unification places unionism so primarily within the conversation. An irregular approach which ultimately leaves little space for the voices of nationalist and republicans.

Is unification simply a project tied to persuading unionists to change their mind? If so, that project will remain limited if it is tied to examining those who impede as opposed to hearing the case from those who desire constitutional change.

In reality many pro-Union supporters do ask these question and in so doing mix curiosity with interest, but they do not approach the question simply through fear.

That does not mean that they are flirting with the idea as the vast bulk would, even after such debates, vote to stay in the United Kingdom.

Ultimately, we were born into our identities and although we may even soften or harden them, few cross the Rubicon of constitutional choice.

If we seriously support reconciliation and wish to support the peace process our starting point has to be that we live in a diverse society and that even within the predominant communities there are multiple voices and approaches. The starting point is always a stocktake.

The result of which is that society has changed. More mixed marriages, both communities support of marriage equality and enjoy increased socialising across the ever artificial sectarian divide.

Our politicians have to engage with the softer and more positive thinking forms of identity because ultimately that is where you will find the majority of the people.

The week ended with evidence of those shifts. Shane Lowry, who seems like the ultimate person of the people and who found success without over-complicated training and over-thinking, was to bring tears to many eyes.

As he walked up the 18th, to claim the biggest prize of his life, several waved Irish flags. The very flag that was illegal in Northern Ireland up to 1985 and led to the Tricolour Riots of 1964 was waved with enthusiasm as all around sang Ole, Ole, Ole.

Few cared, and why should they? The people do unite when there is something positive to cheer.

Professor Peter Shirlow is director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

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