What do unionists call themselves the day after a border poll, if there is a vote in favour of a united Ireland? Commentator Alex Kane was grappling with that question the other day in the pages of the Irish News:
‘I’m told my identity won’t be lost: “Did Irish nationalists trapped in Northern Ireland after 1921 lose their identity?” is a question I’m often asked. No, but they were helped by the fact that reunification and an independent Ireland were always a possibility.’
He has a point.
A change in the constitutional position on the island of Ireland would be permanent. There is no equivalent mechanism to hold a referendum if the population of the six most north-eastern counties of a new, single Irish state wanted to leave and rejoin Britain.
There are two reasons why not.
The first is that Irish unity would only ever have come about because a majority living in Northern Ireland chose it. It is hard, if not impossible, to envisage building an alternative majority to reverse that decision, especially as the Irish Republic, with its higher standards of living, greater employment prospects, and double-digit growth, is surely a better option to all but die-hard refusniks.
Even then, how many would genuinely look back fondly on a golden age that never was and vote to bring Northern Ireland back into being? (Probably not farmers, who would be counting their blessings at the restoration of EU payments).
The second reason is that if we had arrangements that mirrored the consent principle in the Good Friday Agreement – which promises a referendum not only in Northern Ireland but also one in the south – then people in Great Britain would logically have a vote about whether they wanted to take the place back.
I am sure that I don’t need to spell out to Alex how that would pan out.
No thanks guys!
All of which brings us back to identity. What are Unionists if there is no Union?
Ethnic Brits? Northern Protestants? It is not clear what these terms would mean in practice, but perhaps the bigger question is how would a people, who felt out of tune with the state they now find themselves, ever fit in? Alex again:
‘In the event of a win for the pro-unity side it could take decades for the new constitutional entity to find stability, let alone find a coherent united identity. Particularly if the victory is a paper-thin one.’
This is unionist wishful thinking, and perhaps a marker of how poorly they understand contemporary Britain.
Indeed, let me introduce Alex to post-Brexit Britain, a sour, brittle place with deep cultural divisions pulling our politics in extreme directions.
In fact, welcome to Britain at any stage; a patchwork of (mostly) good-natured rivalries. A hotch-potch of identities based on class and creed, with some mixing and some not. We have learned to live with our divisions and work around them.
I often find myself explaining to people in Belfast that if you really want to see an example of community segregation, come and visit any Pennine mill town, with discrete White and Pakistani communities living entirely parallel lives.
Of course, only a fool would not want to see as much consensus as possible around constitutional change. We all want to see a so-called ‘agreed’ Ireland, but it is not a prerequisite for a united one. Moreover, it is an unrealistic and unreasonable expectation to ever expect it to be.
Another of Brexit’s unintended consequences – carried, of course, with 52% support – is to establish a brilliant case law precedent for a simple numerical majority in a future border poll.
That said, I totally understand the reluctance of Unionism’s political representatives to offer the cold shoulder to talk of Irish unity and to question what their place within it would be. There is not much point in them existing if they do not argue for the status quo.
Yet the conversation still goes on, and there is no veto on change.
How unionists respond is ultimately a matter for them. For now, there is an empty chair at the table. Over time, I am sure figures from the broader unionist community will sit down, even if it is only to spell out their red lines.
The point is not for everyone to agree with everyone else on everything. What is valuable, however, is building a rapport. A measure of predictability. Political differences are usually accommodated rather than overcome. And that is fine.
A united Ireland will succeed and unionists – or whatever term we eventually settle on – will find their place in it.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division,’published by Biteback