For some years now, Sinn Fein’s representatives have been spouting platitudes about accommodating unionists in an “agreed Ireland”. The party’s latest bout of navel-gazing is prompted (it claims) by the aftermath of of the EU referendum. Brexit, Sinn Fein says, “changes everything”, including the assumption that unionists will necessarily oppose “Irish unity”.
In its new document, Towards a United Ireland, the party proposes a series of ideas to recognise the “unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity”.
Alex Kane does a good job of debunking the view that unionism, or Northern Ireland as an entity, can survive Irish unity. I agree with him. Unfortunately, though, the notion that the political divide in Northern Ireland centres on identity rather than sovereignty is deeply ingrained, and not just among nationalists.
Over the past few decades, Sinn Fein has changed the way it talks about unionists, either because its ideologues genuinely think differently or just because its propaganda has become slicker.
The brutal slogan ‘Brits out’ was first given a polish so that, in theory, it omitted Ulster unionists, who were merely under the misapprehension that they were British, whereas they were actually Irish. Then the Shinners recognised, in theory at least, that there is something that sets unionists apart from the rest of the “Irish nation”. Gerry Adams, for instance, made the sanctimonious admission that “we (republicans) need to look at what they (unionists) mean by their sense of Britishness”.
This document seems to suggest that Sinn Fein thinks “they” mean, holding a British passport, having a “relationship” with the royal family, feeling an affinity for “loyal institutions” and, it is even implied, learning in separate schools. All of this amounts to the “recognition of a unique identity”, that could find constitutional form in Sinn Fein’s fantasy ‘United Ireland’ through the survival of a Stormont Assembly, whose powers would be devolved from Dublin rather than Westminster.
It hasn’t occurred to republicans, or they dare not contemplate, that Northern Irish unionists’ Britishness comes from a rational, defensible and deeply felt political allegiance to the United Kingdom. This allegiance cannot be accommodated in a united Ireland, because its substance is Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the UK and the sovereignty of the parliament at Westminster. Take that away and you are left with the baubles of a national identity outside a nation state.
It’s understandable that Sinn Fein and other nationalists think this way, or, at least, present their arguments this way The Belfast Agreement defined a political struggle over sovereignty in terms of identity.
Sinn Fein sold the deal to republicans on the basis that it transferred power from London to the island of Ireland and secured recognition for Irish nationality. Only now are the hard edges of sovereignty in Northern Ireland reemerging, as Brexit shows that Westminster’s authority was not diluted at all by the Good Friday Agreement.
Unfortunately, unionists have often defined their politics in terms of identity as well. Certain politicians popularised the idea that the Belfast Agreement represented a defeat for unionism, on that basis. Unionist parties were often happy to stay at the margins of UK politics, using national debates to air parochial concerns and extract more money from Westminster. The goal of putting Northern Ireland at the centre of UK politics and UK society was marginal, at best.
In fact, ideas not unlike Sinn Fein’s proposals have even been discussed at the fringes of loyalism, and perhaps beyond. The notion that Northern Ireland as a political entity could or should endure outside the UK is not uncommon.
After almost 100 years of its existence, a distinct Northern Irish identity does exist, and it has political expression through the devolved Assembly at Stormont. That doesn’t mean that it can survive autonomously. Politically Northern Ireland is defined by its place in the United Kingdom.
The idea of becoming a devolved region of a 32 county Irish state, with the same old parties retaining their stranglehold on power, is horrifying. No amount of Orange parades, Prod schools or symbols of royalty could make it any more palatable. We would be better taking our chances in a unitary Republic, where something like a mature political culture has developed.
And if Northern Ireland did leave the United Kingdom, be under no illusion, Ulster unionism would be no more. There might remain Ulster protestants, people with a British cultural identity and even British citizens, but they would not be unionists. Without the United Kingdom, or at least the prospect of reviving the United Kingdom, unionism does not exist.
It’s simple and axiomatic, but it clearly bears repeating, Northern Irish unionism is the political belief that Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom. While it is affected by issues of identity, culture and symbolism, it is not defined by them. Let’s by all means have a discussion about the border, but don’t pretend that unionism can be accommodated in a United Ireland, or that the essence of the issue is anything other than where sovereignty lies in Northern Ireland.