I’ve yet to read Paul Gosling’s book with the vaultingly ambitious yet carefully ambiguous title “A New Ireland: a new Union, a New Society.” Judging from the discussion and its antecedents from the Holywell Trust, it makes an important contribution to enriching the debate on the future of the island. But the logic of ideas seldom reproduces easily in politics. Political will is something else entirely. Broadly there are two contrasting approaches to the future: to follow the logic of harmonisation and integration to wherever it leads; or attempt to force the issue by the challenge of unity referendums. Although there are excellent reasons for continuing to fudge, I think before long, underlying pressure may force academics and politicians to come off the fence on this one. In those circumstances unionists and indeed the main Westminster parties had better have their arguments ready. Paul is right. Logic and political order is more apparent in Dublin (give or take the odd problem in forming a government) than in London. Irish unity as a concept is far easier to grasp than the confusions of UK devolution and the future of the unitary state. Aside from the constitutional, marshalling the economic arguments has only just begun. Already complex over Brexit, they will not be made any easier by the fallout from Covid.
Remember that Irish unity is not only how nationalists may see it as two parts of the island more or less logically coming together ; it involves the trauma of cutting the British link. I quibble without dismissing the point about the degree of British indifference. Looking back on the Troubles, the Troops Out idea never caught on as did opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The attitude prevails of Britain grimly doing its duty. After 20 years, patience maybe wearing thin. Yet the single most notable act of Westminster in 20 years in relation to NI was the passage of abortion and equal marriage measures with cross party support in the teeth of DUP opposition. Admittedly the circumstances were special both at Westminster and Stormont. But MPs recognised a difference between their view of the interests of Northern Ireland’s people and the opinions of the DUP. Whatever it was, it was not indifference. It was closely followed by the most successful British operation in years to restore the Assembly- and this at the height of the Brexit crisis.
Attitudes to the Union as a whole are fluid and in transition. Paradoxically NI’s place in the union is marginally strengthened by becoming less exceptional as one of the four “nations” referred to rather desperately in Covid briefings every day. Paul may be right, that English pressure may require a recasting of the Barnett formula; but pressure to preserve the Union may prolong it. The Conservatives may not want to give up the Union so easily. Would casting off Northern Ireland make it easier or more difficult? Covid simply increases the dilemma. Paradoxically perhaps, the constructive participating behaviour of NI’s non unionist MPs enhances NI’s reputation. If somehow we get past the withdrawal agreement without a smash (a big if), NI’s special status in the single market may turn out to remarkably uncontroversial as it is so much in the interests of the whole island to make it work. I see it as a Big Bang political issue rather than a running sore.
Paul’s book presents a valuable and civilised challenge to both British and unionist opinion to join the debate or start their own. Unionist denial although historically remarkably successful in their own interest is an inadequate response to changing demographics and public attitudes.
Academe, think tanks and politicians in Ireland should also pay close attention to British political developments over the next couple of years and pitch in with their ideas, the Holywell Trust included. The future of Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole have places within it, whatever the final outcome. The Dublin establishment might be happy to agree.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London