Social cohesion: can there be a united Ireland without a united Northern Ireland?

Despite the current turmoil at Westminster or even the more mundane matter of the not unrelated cost-of-living crisis, the constitutional question is never far from being the main concern of many in Northern Ireland. But for at least the immediate future, would it not be better to reflect more on social cohesion than on geographic unity?

Geopolitical regions are of course social constructs. They reflect certain perspectives and judgments in making particular groupings and, like every modern region, the social complexion of Ireland, both north and south, is a product of its past. Invading Anglo-Normans would become Hiberno-Normans, eventually assimilating into the larger Gaelic society to become even ‘more Irish than the Irish’. Some would become Protestant, but most remained Catholic and would chafe under Anglo-British rule. Yet in the north, the Anglo-Irish and staunchly Protestant Scotch-Irish would eschew all things Gaelic and become Ulster Unionists.

Perhaps the most obvious historic difference between Ulster Unionists and Irish Republicans, the other main socio-political group in Northern Ireland, is religion. Indeed, this carefully delineated region was established to provide the larger of these two groups with what has been described as “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. While the creation of this six-county state is frequently cited as a textbook example of sectarian gerrymandering, its consequences are seldom considered purely in terms of social health. Indeed, the creation of Northern Ireland might represent the antithesis of ‘social cohesion’, which the Council of Europe defines as “the capacity of a society to ensure the welfare of all its members, minimising disparities and avoiding polarisation”. Or more plainly, the opposite of equality and inclusion.

Social equality was the theme of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2009 book ‘The Spirit Level’, which has the self-explanatory subtitle of ‘Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’. As the authors note, “the relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance”. Although not as extreme as the United States, the world ‘leader’ in inequality among developed nations, the United Kingdom is shown to have the highest indicators of social dysfunctionality of any of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Sweden almost always does best.

Early Scandinavians were also among the pre-Norman invaders of Ireland. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Viking raiders began to settle around several Irish ports. Dublin, or Dubh Linn, Old Norse for ‘black pool’, would become one of the most important centres in the Viking world. Recent DNA analysis has shown that Ireland’s Vikings mostly originated in the region we now know as Norway, whereas those of the Anglo-Saxon era Danelaw tended to be of Danish extraction. It is not clear what this meant in practice, however, both came from a radically different, non-Christian tradition to others who would colonise medieval Hibernia. Nevertheless, all of Ireland’s pagan Vikings would eventually become Christian Norse-Gaels.

From their earliest raids in AD 795 until the Battle of Clontarf in AD 1014, Norsemen played a significant part in the formation of Ireland north and south. Beginning in the 830s, a notable transformation in Viking behaviour becomes increasingly evident. Rather than just transitory raids, evidence of organised Scandinavian settlement begins to emerge. In AD 840, a Viking fleet over-wintering at Lough Neagh, establishing a longphort from where they pillaged and slew or enslaved bishops, priests, and scholars. In AD 841, the Annals of Ulster record that “the heathens were still on Loch nEchach”. The precise location of the Viking stronghold is unknown, but ‘Oxford Island’ is a reminder of their presence, a name derived from the Norse ‘Ost-Fjord’ or East inlet. Nordic placenames have an added importance as, apart from their genetic material, little physical evidence remains of the Viking’s two century sojourn in Ireland.

Viking placenames are mainly on Ireland’s east or south coasts:

  • The Skellig Islands off the coast of Kerry
  • Wicklow on the east coast of Ireland
  • Howth on the north side of Dublin Bay
  • Dalkey on the coast, south of Dublin
  • Leixlip on the river Liffey, west of Dublin
  • Lambay, a small island off the coast of Dublin
  • The Saltee Islands off the south coast of Wexford
  • Smerwick on the Dingle peninsula in west Kerry
  • Dursey Island off the coast of Cork
  • Strangford on the northeast coast near Belfast
  • Carlingford on the Irish Sea north of Dundalk
  • Wexford at the southeast corner of Ireland
  • Waterford on the south coast of Ireland

The Irish language has borrowed heavily for words relating to commerce and seafaring, two of the more peaceable activities associated with Vikings. The Irish words for ‘peddler’, ‘tax’ and ‘market’, for example, all come from Old Norse. It is the same for such nautical items as ‘rudder’, ‘anchor’ and ‘rowlock’ while the Irish words for ‘fishing-line’ and ‘cod’ have a similar provenance.

English Old Norse Irish
anchor akkeri ancaire
boat bátr bád
sheet/sail skaut scod
rudder stýri stiúir
thwart popta tochta
fishing-line dorga dorú (dorgha)
ling (fish) langa langa
cod (fish) porskr trosc
market markadhr margadh
penny penninger pinginn
button knappr cnaipe
shoe brók bróg
beans baunir pónair
enclosed plot/yard gardhr garrdha

Table 1. Irish loan-words words borrowed from Old Norse

Uí Ímair is Old Irish for ‘descendants of Ivar’, the legendary Ivar the Boneless in this case, also known as Ivar Ragnarsson. From the mid-9th century, a Norse-Gael dynasty of this name were centred in the Kingdom of Dublin from where they reigned over much of the Irish Sea region from the Hebrides to Northern England, stretching as far south as York. Ivar the Boneless was reputedly head of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ that invaded England in AD 865. Silkenbeard, also known as Sigtrygg Olafsson, a descendant of Ivar the Boneless, was head of the Uí Ímair between AD 995 and AD 1036 and son-in-law to Brian Boru, King of Munster.

By the end of the 9th century, the descendants of Vikings were established as Kings and Queens in several regions across Ireland and some of these, including Silkenbeard, clashed with Brian as he sought to become the first High King of all Ireland. The battle that took place at Clontarf on Good Friday AD 1014 was described in the Irish annals as the “slaughter of the Foreigners of the Western World” by the Christian Irish and has passed into folk lore as the birth of a nation. As with most origin myths, however, the facts, like the outcome of the battle itself, are a little less clear cut.

Clontarf was, at best, a pyrrhic victory. Nevertheless, unlike Ethelred the Unready the previous year, defeated by Sweyn Forkbeard, the Irish did not collapse in the face of “the Norse tyranny”. However, far from being eradicated, the decedents of the Hiberno-Norse founders of Dublin and other towns across Ireland remained a significant presence long after AD 1014. Indeed, their influence was felt as far afield as Iceland where a new Norse-Irish identity emerged. But it would be the descendants of a different branch of Norsemen who would dictate the next chapter in Ireland’s history.

The arrival of the Anglo-Normans during the late 12th century set the country down a meandering path leading to where it is today. Ireland, both north and south, evolved under the sway of what would eventually become Britain. Now, almost 1000 years later and in light of the latest Northern Ireland census statistics, there can be little doubt that the people of Ireland once again stand at a crossroads. On this occasion, however, they are better placed to be the masters of their own destiny.

In the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the British and Irish Governments acknowledged that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland turned on the consent of a majority of its people. The 1998 Belfast Agreement enshrined the duty of the Secretary of State in this process, to call a border poll when it was judged likely that a majority would be supportive of Northern Ireland forming part of a united Ireland. However, it is difficult to imagine how a chronically divided Northern Ireland would happily form part of a united Ireland.

We could, perhaps, do worse than get in touch with our inner Viking! Not so much dwelling on the traditional propensity towards rapine, pillage and plunder but more on the Nordic package of social welfare and economic systems. This combines features of capitalism, such as a market economy and fiscal efficiency, with generous social welfare in areas such as state pensions and medical care. This ‘Nordic model’ contrasts with the winner-take-all ‘American model’ of capitalism, which has been so enthusiastically, and disastrously, embraced by the current British government. There would, however, be one major stumbling block to Northern Ireland’s adoption of the Scandinavian paradigm. As discussed above, social cohesion, is pivotal.

An engagement with politics is considered an important factor for social cohesion. Voter turnout in Scandinavian has traditionally been high, figures over 85% are not unusual. In the United States, on the other hand, turnout rarely exceeds 60% of the electorate. And these electorates expect very different thing of their representatives. While Trumpian razzamatazz might be acceptable in the United States, Scandinavian politicians are required to behave like ordinary citizens and have interests beyond politics, what Denis Healey’s wife Edna described as his “hinterland”. In Northern Ireland, overall turnout for the 2022 Assembly election was 64%, a figure more in line with the United States than with Scandinavia. There was, however, a distinct east west divide. Fermanagh South Tyrone, at 69%, had the highest average turnout while North Down had the lowest at 48%. Turnout for Local Government is even worse, sitting in the low 40s in some District Electoral Areas of Belfast.

Another indicator of social cohesion is the amount of social capital a community possesses. This has been defined as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively”. An example of this might be hearing of a job opportunity through a friend-of-a-friend. In Northern Ireland, however, there are two distant and largely separate communities. A teacher working in Wheatfield Primary School in West Belfast, for example, would be unlikely to hear of a vacancy at Holy Cross Girls’ Primary School by word of mouth, or vice versa, despite being geographically adjacent to each other.

On the world stage, interest in the concept of social cohesion has waxed and waned. However, if Northern Ireland is indeed at a constitutional crossroads, it might now be time to consider what benefits its application might offer this beleaguered state. The present choice is between a dysfunctional Northern Ireland within a United Kingdom and a dysfunctional north within a United Ireland. Clearly, despite some thinking on this matter that ranges from wishful to magical, neither option is good. As any poll on a united Ireland looks to be some years off, perhaps we could best spend this time focused on “minimising disparities and avoiding polarisation”.


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