Posted: 2021-04-21

It is an inescapable fact that in the next 10/15 years Unionism will be an electoral minority



CHRIS Donnelly, educationalist and political commentator, was spot on when he said on the Stephen Nolan Show on Radio Ulster on 1st April that no matter how Sinn Féin apologised about the Bobby Storey funeral it would make no difference to hardline Unionists and Loyalists. 


He went on to say that Sinn Féin had undoubtedly made a major mistake in the debacle surrounding their involvement in the funeral and that more importantly, they need to address their own shortcomings in appearing arrogant and above criticism. Sadly, this whole foray has come at an unfortunate time especially when the debate around a United Ireland was gaining some impetus.


The Claire Byrne Show in March on RTE1 debated the question: A United Ireland What Would It Mean? Many anticipated an explosive discussion between the likes of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Tainiste Leo Varadkar,  the DUP MP Gregory Campbell, Alliance MLA Naomi Long, Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, and others. However, viewers were left surprised and impressed that the show produced a balanced and measured debate.


Mary Lou McDonald pointed out that, between the Brexit vote and the subsequent N.I. Protocol and the Covid pandemic, the issue of the Northern Ireland border had been thrust into the spotlight in a way that it had not been before. Leo Varadkar agreed and both of them also concurred that it was important to start a detailed conversation with all political, economic, social and cultural groups on the island of Ireland as to what a new Ireland could possibly look like. 


Their main difference was around setting a specific date for a border poll. Unsurprisingly, the two main Unionist/Loyalist representatives were the most negative about having a discussion to consider the consequences of Irish Unity. Jamie Bryson, who once remarked that he would rather ‘choke on his own blood’ than be part of a United Ireland, said it didn't matter how a ‘New Ireland’ is packaged or what is done to try to accommodate unionists: “a New Ireland, an Old Ireland or I can't believe it’s not a United Ireland Ireland, is never going to be tolerable to unionism”.


Gregory Campbell made similar comments, and while he acknowledged that a border poll was inevitable as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), he was nevertheless unimpressed with the need to consider the possibility of any new all Ireland dispensation.


It is an inescapable fact that in the next 10/15 years Unionism will be an electoral minority and it can't go on saying no, no, no to meaningful discourse about future working relationships that may lead to a united Ireland. 


Many Unionists/Loyalists still fail to accept that the GFA gives legitimacy to the desire for reunification and that this aim will be decided by discussion, debate and a democratic vote via a border poll when the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland deems it appropriate to call it.


Also in March this year, the Fianna Fail TD Jim O'Callaghan delivered a speech at Sidney Sussex College, England, outlining his thoughts on the political, economic and legal consequences of Irish reunification. He is to be commended for producing a 24-page paper that is the first overarching analysis of what a new united Ireland might look like. 


O’Callaghan speaks respectfully of unionists and their tradition but argues that they would have more influence in a united Ireland than in the UK. Currently, they have about 1% influence in the political structures of the UK but would have 11% in a new Ireland, thus having a greater influence in the governance of a new united Ireland than they enjoy in the governance of the UK. 


The paper also proposed other interesting ideas. The new state would have two national languages and a regional system of policing that would include An Garda Siochana and the PSNI.


There should be a 10/15 year phasing out of the current up-to-£10bn UK government subvention with EU regional development funding accessed during the transition period. A high-speed rail system between Belfast and Dublin could be built and extended to other cities.


Religious references or affiliation should not form any part of a new constitution. It is acknowledged there would be contentious issues around flags, emblems and anthems which it is suggested that could be dealt with outside of the political framework through an all-island citizens assembly.


While O'Callagan's paper does not fully address every possible scenario it does provide at least a template for a rational, meaningful discussion as to the merits of contemplating a united Ireland.


Sinn Féin needs to be a bit savvier in their role in any future campaign and debate around a possible border poll and what a new Ireland would look like and not be viewed as ourselves alone but as part of a broader civic national movement that is respectful of all traditions in attempting to build Irish unity.  


Roger Kelly, April 2021