The quest for a United Ireland (UI) has long been a matter of the thrill of the chase, like a dog running after a car. But as a UI grows more plausible the question must be asked: when the dog catches the car, what does it do? A UI is now being talked about as a real possibility, but as it becomes more probable, discussions around it should be treated with realism. A UI would have ramifications for everybody on this island. It would lead to the creation of an entirely new state and it would necessitate a massive culture shift.
There are a multitude of factors why a UI is becoming a genuine possibility, including Brexit and changing demographics in Northern Ireland (NI). With the Republic’s economic and social evolution and European Union (EU) assurances that the six counties would immediately become members of the EU in the case of a UI, it is a much more attractive proposition than it was a few decades ago.
An Interim report released late last year by the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland suggests that referendums on Irish unity should only take place with a clear plan for the future. If we can learn anything from Brexit it is that you cannot ask people to vote on such an important and complex issue with a simple Yes/No referendum. It is not enough for voters to be asked whether they support Irish unity; we need to have a clear model of what a UI would look like for voters to support or reject. Britain has demonstrated that the other way leads to chaos, the last thing our island can afford.
“If we can learn anything from Brexit it is that you cannot ask people to vote on such an important and complex issue with a simple Yes/No referendum.”
A UI would necessitate compromises, it will mean the merging of armies, police forces, healthcare, and education systems. National curriculums will be subject to change, our nationalistic histories taught differently. The position of the Irish language too, could shift. The Republic currently emphasises the language’s importance in public sector jobs and it is a mandatory subject in schools, but this might not be the case in a UI. There are huge economic questions to be answered, and a UI will be a new country, with a new flag, anthem, passports, and political system. We might even rejoin the Commonwealth. However, these issues are covered elsewhere.
What has been talked about less in conversations about a UI is culture, and specifically what it means to be Irish. We need to work towards a large culture shift if we are going to take reunification seriously. Specifically, a UI is a country that would require the proper incorporation of unionist voices to be created fairly, to be a place where unionists could feel safe. However, unionist voices have not typically been well-respected in republican circles.
Ironically, the very politicisation of Irish culture that was intended to push Ireland closer to independence may be one of the largest obstacles to reunification, as it created an Irish identity that is frequently incompatible with being British. Many citizens in the Republic consider themselves “more Irish” than those in the North, as though Irishness can be distilled into the language you speak, the customs you follow, or the songs you sing. As though Irishness is not divided equally among all on the island.
“A UI would necessitate compromises, it will mean the merging of armies, police forces, and healthcare, and education systems.”
A UI would be far more British than the Republic currently is, and concurrently would have to be far more tolerant of what is seen as “Britishness”. During the cultural revival of the late 19th century the identity of “Irish” was manipulated by the Gaelic League and others to be in direct opposition to “British” in an attempt to counter the anglicisation of the country. For example, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) banned its members from participating in or watching “foreign games” (hockey, soccer, rugby) and no GAA member was allowed to be a member of the British security forces.
This cultural manipulation resulted in a distinction being made between the “real Irish” and the “West British” and was carried on past independence. This exclusive cultural interpretation shuns those who are “not Irish enough” as though Irish and British are incompatible. One of the more ridiculous manifestations of this manipulation of identity was when in 1938 Douglas Hyde, who was the founder of the Gaelic League, a longstanding patron of the GAA and, at the time, President of Ireland, was banned from the GAA because he attended an international soccer match between Ireland and Poland. The “foreign games” ban was not lifted until 1971, the ban on membership of the security forces was in force until 2001.
“The nationalism that seeks to get rid of the border conversely makes it harder to unify the island.”
Last year a planned commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was cancelled. Sinn Féin, the island’s loudest political party to support Irish unity, was especially vocal in its condemnation of the event. The boycotters spoke about the members of the RIC as the faceless soldiers of a colonial power, instead of as Irish citizens in their own right. In a UI we would have many communities with long links to the British state’s policing. These communities and their ancestors were and are no less Irish for their links to the British state.
Such exclusionary attitudes are unhelpful and unrealistic in the face of a real UI. The nationalism that seeks to get rid of the border conversely makes it harder to unify the island. Unionists do not disappear after unity, and many feel justified anxiety about republicanism. It is not even certain a UI will happen, at least not in the near future. Last year’s opinion polls suggest a border poll would fail to pass if it went to the ballot boxes. However a UI is now being spoken of as a serious possibility, and that is exactly what it is: serious. If it is to be discussed, it should not be thrown about as a political slogan, but discussed in pragmatic terms with sensitivity, and a sense of self-awareness that Irish republicanism has been lacking.
A UI would necessitate a significant cultural shift in the Republic especially. Everybody on this island has a right to their Irish culture and heritage; there is no “correct” way to be Irish. Being British and being Irish are not mutually exclusive identities; they are inextricably linked, and that needs to be recognised. The work to shift our cultural understanding of what it means to be Irish must begin now. It should be done alongside other practical, material preparations for a UI. If we want to create a stable foundation upon which this island could be united, we need to foster cultural tolerance.