‘I think it will happen and I think Britain will be pleased.’
So replied Liam Neeson to Sky News’s political editor, Beth Rigby, when she asked him in a recent interview what he thought about the prospects of Irish unity.
‘I think it could happen, but everybody has to be appeased,’ he added.
‘The Protestants in the North of Ireland have a strong voice – I hear them, I know where they’re coming from — and they have to be respected.’
This is a familiar refrain from what I am minded to categorise as ‘moderate nationalism.’
The desire for Irish unity is strong, but immediately sublimated to placate Protestant-Unionists, or, in Neeson’s unfortunate term, to appease them.
‘I support a united Ireland,’ goes the response, ‘but only if there’s not a return to the past.’
I think the concept of moderate nationalism helps to explain the roller-coaster polling we have seen, with some surveys showing support for Irish unity around 30% and others having it in the low-40s.
If polling questions frame Irish unity as an immediate likelihood, moderate nationalists are less likely to back it, favouring it in the longer term and with as much prior agreement as possible.
Now it is, of course, a good thing to see as much agreement as possible before any constitutional change takes place. At the very least, it is prudent to socialise the prospect ahead of any vote, so that those who do not wish to see it happen can at least become acclimatised to the reality that it might occur.
But let’s be clear: The responsibility on those seeking Irish unity is merely to assemble a majority large enough to vote for it. There is no requirement to win over – certainly not to appease – the whole of Protestant-Unionism.
The reality is that any vote for change will leave a sizeable minority of unionists on the losing side of a border poll. Such is democracy. Ask any British Remainer.
At which point, we have a basic right to expect the losers to accept the result (as United Irelanders will have to do if it goes against them). If not with good grace, then certainly with equanimity.
Now, as I mentioned above, there is an additional point – one made, ironically, by both moderate nationalists and many unionists.
The Unionist Threat of Violence has hung around like mildew throughout Northern Ireland’s existence, stymieing efforts at political reform from the Edwardian period onwards.
It has latterly reappeared as part of the protests against the Northern Ireland Protocol, with ‘mainstream’ Unionism only too happy to see the threat of violent disturbances by Loyalists focus everyone else’s minds on the consequences of frustrating them.
However, losing a border poll is not an excuse for violence, or the all-too-common threat of it.
It also means United Irelanders should not be inhibited by discussing Irish unity or planning and campaigning for it.
The ‘principle of consent’ in the Good Friday Agreement underpins any change in constitutional arrangement.
But it is not a ‘principle of appeasement.’ There is no Unionist veto if a border poll delivers a result they do not like. United Irelanders do not need to stoop to conquer.
A simple numerical majority of 50%+1 is enough to secure change. Obviously, campaigners will aim for that figure to be as high as possible, but anything above that threshold is window-dressing.
The essential point is that while it may be sensible and desirable to obtain as much convergence as possible between Catholic-Nationalism and Protestant-Unionism before any alteration to the constitutional firmament in Northern Ireland, it is not and never can be a precondition.