The South’s blindspot for Northern Nationalists helps nobody

Southern silence following the recent abuse of Northern nationalists in public life lays bare an uncomfortable indifference to the plight of the North’s nationalist community.

The first month of 2022 has been less than positive for Northern Ireland. The year’s arrival was inaugurated by the wildly sectarian claims of an “elite nationalist network” dominating Northern society, and that journalists, academics and lawyers of a nationalist background have been misusing their professions to advance republican politics. These claims were put forward by former senior UK cabinet minister (and now Baroness) Katherine Hoey, and publicly praised by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson.  Unsurprisingly, this throwback to the cross-community attitudes of the 1930s has resulted in the abuse, by both social media trolls and employed columnists, of vocal nationalists in public life (including most prominently QUB Human Rights Professor Colin Harvey) and was followed by intense criticism within the North. Yet the silence this episode elicited in the Republic is most noteworthy here a silence reflective of Dublin’s long-standing failure to take into account the concerns and aspirations of the North’s nationalist community.

Initially, one might well baulk at such a statement. Did the Irish government not play a central role in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement? Was it not Dublin that fought tooth and nail to retain the Northern Ireland Protocol and prevent a hard border on the island? This all may well be true, but it does not, unfortunately, refute the point. While the pursuit of peace is indeed worthy of praise, consecutive Irish governments have long exercised an essentially partitionist approach to Northern affairs, intervening seriously only when the stability or existence of the Northern state itself is at risk. Huge political capital is accordingly spent preventing the erection of border posts on the island, given fears of the violence and associated instability they might engender. However, long-term aspirations of Northern nationalists that are less immediately threatening to the continued existence of Northern Ireland such as the introduction of an official Irish-language act for Northern Ireland or the right to be regarded as Irish only and not British when born in the statelet receive next to no attention from most politicians in the Republic, who seem at best to view such issues as little more than potential controversies not worth the trouble, and more generally as outright annoyances.

“More concerning is the hostility with which Northern nationalists are often greeted south of the border when voicing their concerns.”

While the absence of any support from Southern figures for those of a nationalist background suffering abuse in this latest episode is particularly abhorrent, it is by no means an aberration. The failure, now a full century after partition, of the Republic’s two traditionally largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to stand candidates in Northern constituencies hardly screams engagement with the community. More concerning is the hostility with which Northern nationalists are often greeted south of the border when voicing their concerns. A legacy perhaps stemming from the Troubles, many prominent figures in Southern life exhibit a dogged refusal to discern between fairly generic nationalist viewpoints and support for the violence of the Provisional IRA. Whether it be the indignant response of many to Joe Brolly’s recent suggestion that many in the South blamed Northern nationalists for the violence of the Troubles, the accusations of terrorist sympathies laid at Irish Examiner Political Correspondent Aoife Grace Moore by former Senator Eoghan Harris, or claims of a “Belfast Cabal” running Sinn Féin it is clear that for some in the South the very presence of those born north of Newry is an unwelcome intrusion.

“The often-repeated claim that a United Ireland is a more British Ireland is accurate. Yet, it is also a more Irish and republican Ireland by essentially the same amount.”

This adopts its most ludicrous form in the approach now being taken by the Irish government to the (increasingly probable) prospect of reunification. Southern discourse surrounding the possibility of a United Ireland is, understandably, often focused on finding ways of making constitutional change appealing to unionists. Yet, in this focus on the concerns felt by unionism with regard to Irish unity, it is impossible not to notice the near-complete lack of discussion as to how Northern nationalists may conceive of reunification. For all the (necessary) talk of symbolic changes to the Irish flag and anthem, or questioning of the official status of the Irish language on account of NI’s unionist population it is often ignored that an equally large proportion of the Northern Irish population is currently campaigning for exactly more public representation of Irish/ nationalist culture and the expanded rights of Irish speakers.  The often-repeated claim (by, among others, Fianna Fáil’s latest Northern Ireland committee appointee Ned O’Sullivan and contributors to this very paper) that a United Ireland is a more British Ireland is accurate. Yet, it is also a more Irish and republican Ireland by essentially the same amount.

This, again, is by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. However, it poses danger as the prospect of reunification approaches ever closer. Those in the North of a nationalist background cannot be expected to vote mindlessly like identity-driven drones for a United Ireland in which they remain invisible, and to assume this would be to commit the very same sin made by Baroness Hoey and the leader of the DUP.  Unless those of us in the South begin to demonstrate publicly our interest in, and support for, the daily concerns and long-term aspirations of Northern nationalists, then the risk is run that any future referendum held on Irish unity will flounder not on a failure to reach out to its opponents, but rather on a shameful and avoidable refusal to come to terms with those who ought to be its biggest supporters.