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12 April 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 8:35am

A united Ireland is further away than you think

Although unification is a way off, Northern Ireland is in dire need of strong political leadership – and fast – if the Stormont institutions are to be saved.

By Scott Gilfillan

Much as he did in life, Martin McGuinness has divided opinion in death. This should hardly come as a surprise, for while there is little doubt that his transformation from paramilitary to peacemaker was pivotal to the peace process in Northern Ireland, there will always be some who can never forgive or forget the brutal methods he employed as an IRA commander. In contrast to this perennially polarised debate, however, a consensus appears to have emerged in recent weeks over McGuinness’s political legacy and what it means for Sinn Féin. By abandoning the bullet in favour of the ballot box, the narrative goes, McGuinness succeeded in creating a political path towards what he and his party always dreamed of: a united Ireland.

On the face of it this is a seductive argument. After all, McGuinness leaves behind an electoral landscape in which Sinn Féin appears better placed than ever to pursue its ultimate goal. Thanks in no small part to Arlene Foster’s bungled handling of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, the 2017 election left Sinn Féin just one seat shy of becoming Northern Ireland’s biggest party at last month’s Assembly elections. In addition, the unionist majority at Stormont was wiped out for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1921. Then there is Brexit, and the fears of a return to a ‘hard border’ that come with it. Since Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, the prevailing view is that a hard Brexit will push the province inexorably towards reunification. Just like in Scotland, it suddenly seems inevitable that one divisive referendum will lead to another – a prospect that looks even more likely now that British ministers have confirmed Northern Ireland would automatically remain in the EU if it voted to join the Republic.

In these times of political upheaval it would be foolish to rule anything out, but there are a number of critical flaws in this analysis. The first is the assumption that nationalism in Northern Ireland is a monolithic beast – that a united Ireland has somehow become much more likely just because nationalist parties now outnumber unionist ones in the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly. This is to confuse the historic and fundamental differences between the strands of Irish nationalism that the SDLP and Sinn Féin represent. While it may be true that both parties today share the goal of securing a united Ireland by peaceful and democratic means, this is no guarantee that they will be able to agree upon a shared path towards that outcome if the Assembly is restored. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s electoral history suggests that these two old rivals for the nationalist vote will struggle to find any such common ground.

Take, for example, the 2015 general election to the UK Parliament, when the SDLP emphatically rejected Sinn Féin’s call for an electoral pact to counteract an agreement between the DUP and the UUP to field only one unionist candidate in four Westminster constituencies – a deal that the then SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell decried as a “sectarian carve-up”. Although the SDLP had little to gain from such a pact, its refusal to contemplate one ensured both unionist parties made important gains at the election that followed. Of the four constituencies covered by the unionist pact, only one – Newry and Armagh – was still in nationalist hands after the election, with the DUP winning back Belfast East from the Alliance and the UUP snatching Fermanagh and South Tyrone off Sinn Féin for the first time in fourteen years. Had the two unionist parties managed to agree upon a unity candidate in Belfast South, where McDonnell held off the DUP challenge by just 906 votes, the outcome could have been even worse for nationalists. In the short term at least, the decision to put unionism before party appeared to have paid off.

While the UUP in particular may pay a heavy price for such political cynicism, the 2015 pact achieved its aim of maximising the unionist vote at Westminster, and with it Northern Ireland’s influence over the British government. Two years on, both unionist parties are reeling from the bloody noses they received at the last Assembly elections. Yet far from forcing them apart, the surge in support for Sinn Féin’s brand of nationalism is likely to encourage greater cooperation between unionists in the future. After all, if the DUP and UUP were happy to do a deal in 2015, when much less was at stake, what would they be willing to do to avert the prospect of a post-Brexit referendum on a united Ireland?

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On the other side of the political divide, there seems little prospect of the SDLP and Sinn Féin coming together to advance the cause of Irish nationalism any time soon. The explanation for this runs deeper than the enduring political differences between the two parties. In today’s world of ever-narrowing nationalisms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand what nationalism actually means in Northern Ireland. Times have changed since the days when religion was an automatic indicator of where one stood on the question of a united Ireland. Over the last decade or so, the emergence of a uniquely ‘Northern Irish’ national identity has begun to challenge the once inextricable link between religious denomination and political affiliation.

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The development of this new identity is one of the unintended consequences of the Good Friday agreement, which enabled people who were born in Northern Ireland to choose if they wanted to be British citizens, Irish citizens or both. This fostered a more flexible understanding of national identity among the generation that grew up without first-hand experience of the Troubles than those who witnessed their darkest days. As a result, many younger people in Northern Ireland today feel neither wholly British nor wholly Irish but rather a complex amalgamation of the two, with no particular affinity to either. Over the last decade this has led to the rapid growth of the cult of ‘our wee country’ – the idea that Northern Ireland is a fundamentally different place to the rest of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Throw into the mix the shared European identity brought about by membership of the European Union and it becomes possible to feel part-British, part-Irish and part-European all at once. This is what it means to be Northern Irish today.

The generational shift in Northern Irish identity is best exemplified by Holywood-born golfer Rory McIlroy’s decision to pull out of the 2016 Olympics. A Catholic by birth, McIlroy recently told the Irish Independent that he resented having to choose whether to represent Britain or Ireland at the Games: “All of a sudden it put me in a position where I had to question who I am. Who am I? Where am I from? Where do my loyalties lie? Who am I going to play for? Who do I not want to piss off the most?” When asked by Team GB’s gold medal winner Justin Rose if he felt he had missed out, McIlroy replied that he would have felt uncomfortable on the podium listening to either the Irish or the British national anthem. “I don’t know the words to either anthem,” he explained, “I don’t feel a connection to either flag; I don’t want it to be about flags; I’ve tried to stay away from that.”

McIlroy’s words will resonate for many of the generation who don’t remember the Troubles and reject the rigid national and religious identities wrapped up in them. The “poster boy of the post Troubles generation”, McIlroy demonstrates how the old assumptions that all Catholics support reunification no longer hold water, while it would be equally wrong to presume that all Protestants in Northern Ireland are slavish supporters of the union. The reality today is much more complex, and it makes a united Ireland in the near future much less likely.

But what of Brexit? Surely young people in Northern Ireland will reconsider the benefits of a united Ireland when faced by the prospect of an end to borderless travel and the freedom to work anywhere in the EU? Brexit is certainly a threat to these rights, but that is precisely why it is likely to accelerate the growth in dual citizenship in Northern Ireland – and with it Northern Irish identity. After all, the only way for people in the province to guarantee that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will not impact upon their existing freedoms is to ensure they hold both a British and an Irish passport. In that sense, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where it will actually be possible to pursue the ‘have cake and eat it’ policy trumpeted by Boris Johnson in the lead up to the referendum – a situation that will only strengthen the idea of Northern Irish exceptionalism. Of all the uncontrollable forces unleashed by Brexit, this may prove to be one of the most significant.

Whatever happens over the next few years, one thing at least is clear: for a generation grown accustomed to devolved government at Stormont, a return to direct rule from Westminster is not a sustainable long-term solution to the current political crisis. As with all nationalisms, the growth in Northern Irish identity has gone hand in hand with an increased desire for self-determination and political accountability at a local level. It therefore behoves all political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as the British and Irish governments, to find a way through the current impasse towards the restoration of the devolved institutions as soon as possible. Such a herculean task will require astute political leadership from all sides. Unfortunately, there has been very little evidence of that in Dublin, London or Belfast of late.

In Dublin, the Fine Gael-led minority government is weak after narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence tabled by Sinn Féin in February. Indeed, the emergence of Sinn Féin as an electoral force south of the border has significantly complicated the Irish government’s role in the peace process, making it more difficult for Dublin to mediate disputes in the north without provoking criticism from Sinn Féin TDs in the south. With Taoiseach Enda Kenny under pressure from all sides in the Dáil and grappling with the impact of Brexit on the Republic, a proactive intervention from Dublin seems unlikely any time soon.

Meanwhile in London, Prime Minister Theresa May continues to devote very little attention to events in Belfast and has still only visited the province once since assuming office. Despite history showing that direct engagement by the Prime Minister and Taoiseach can help resolve apparently implacable differences in Northern Ireland, May has steadfastly refused to intervene in the ongoing crisis, instead leaving it up to James Brokenshire, a loyal but ineffectual lieutenant from her time at the Home Office, to find a way forward. Contrast this approach with that of her Labour predecessors, who understood the dangers of remaining aloof when the Stormont institutions faltered.

Why, then, is May so reluctant to intervene? This is what many Labour MPs wondered during a Commons statement by Brokenshire last month, when he was asked several times to explain why the Prime Minister was not considering a more active role in the talks. His inability to say anything convincing in reply betrayed an increasingly obvious explanation: the Prime Minister simply cannot afford to upset Northern Ireland’s unionist parties by getting too closely involved. With such a slim majority in the House of Commons and the Brexit negotiations just around the corner, May is increasingly reliant upon unionist votes to counteract the moderate Remainers on her own backbenches.

The hard-line stance she has taken on investigations into British army killings during the Troubles is one indication of her desire to keep the DUP onside. Another is her unwillingness to arbitrate in the dispute over Arlene Foster’s role in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal. Add to that the disastrous Conservative-UUP alliance brokered by David Cameron in the lead up to the 2010 general election, his courting of unionist votes in anticipation of a hung Parliament in 2015, and the two right-wing, pro-Brexit Secretaries of State he dispatched to Belfast during the coalition years and it is easy to see why trust in the British government has eroded among the nationalist community since the Tories came to power. Unlike the previous Labour government, which strenuously guarded against creating any impression of favouritism in Northern Ireland, Brexit has now made it impossible for May and her ministers to act as impartial mediators – a profoundly dangerous state of affairs for the peace process.

Things are little better in Belfast, especially since Martin McGuinness’s death. Whatever one’s view of McGuinness, there is no denying that he was a masterful politician who successfully protected his party’s interests while advancing the peace process. As one of the last of the Good Friday generation to depart the political scene, he will go down in history alongside David Trimble, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson as one of the titans of Northern Irish politics. Much has been made of how Michelle O’Neill’s appointment to succeed McGuiness as Sinn Féin leader in the Northern Ireland Assembly has marked the end of “the age of the IRA old boys at the top”. Her elevation certainly marks the end of an era in that sense, but what really matters is whether she is up to the task of leading her party back into power-sharing. If she cannot succeed in that, there is no chance of her pulling off the much more difficult task of securing a united Ireland.

If the example set by Arlene Foster is anything to go by, O’Neill may have her work cut out. Foster has struggled to fill her predecessors’ shoes by falling into the trap of allowing relatively minor issues to derail her leadership and put the future of the peace process in jeopardy. Unlike Paisley or McGuinness, she has also failed to maintain the precarious balance between pleasing her party and placating her political opponents. Her incompetent handling of the RHI scandal has not only created a political crisis that Sinn Féin has been eager to exploit, but also demonstrated the rapid decline in the calibre of Northern Ireland’s political class.

It remains to be seen whether O’Neill can rise to the occasion as her predecessor did. This will mean accepting that Northern Ireland has changed in ways that the previous generation of politicians do not understand. It means putting aside petty political differences and focusing on what people from all sides of the community really want: a return to devolved government as soon as possible. Above all, it will mean accepting that, Brexit or no Brexit, a united Ireland remains as far away as ever.

Scott Gilfillan is parliamentary assistant to Bridget Phillipson MP and a PhD candidate in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science

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