In November 2022 Ireland’s Future, a non-party political group supporting Irish reunification, hosted an event in the Ulster Hall. What was remarkable about this event was that one of the panels consisted entirely of men and women from a Protestant/ unionist background. The group consisting of a business man, southern politician, author, a British veteran and journalist provided crucial critical perspectives of the unification debate. All of the above supported calls for a border poll.
It is difficult to quantify the strength of numbers of, what Brendan O’Leary refers to as, ‘cultural Protestants’ engaging with the unification debate. However, it is happening. Panellist Claire Mitchell, spoke of exploring her own heritage and links to the United Irish radicalism of the late eighteenth century, a history that appears to be forgotten or ignored by many of today’s culturally Protestant community. Glenn Bradley was a serving member of the British army and member of the Ulster Unionist Party. His view of thirty years of conflict challenged the republican position, yet this did not prevent him from advocating for unification.
Westminster recoiling from unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement right up to the Windsor Framework, along with being taken out of the EU despite the democratic wishes of the people in the six counties, has opened a space for the ‘united Ireland curious’. Of course unionists will counter by stating that the EU referendum was a ‘nation-wide’ democratic vote. But with political power heavily skewed towards England, was it really that democratic? Surely, the result in the north must count for something?
Likewise, pro-unification advocates would argue that the economic case has already been won alongside a majority of votes in the last council election going to pro-unity parties, setting a significant milestone. Lobby groups like Ireland’s Future, along with university projects and political parties are building a case based on factual data that offer compelling arguments for unification. For example, John Doyle has debunked the ‘South can’t afford us’ argument through his work on the subvention, one of the major counter arguments of unionism.
But of course unification is more than facts and figures. There are deep attachments on both sides of the debate that must be examined, particularly those from a pro-union stance. What would reunification mean emotionally and psychologically to unionists Do unionists fear the retribution of the resurgent Catholic? That they will be treated as second class citizens in their own country reminiscent of the unionist treatment of Catholics post-partition? The dispossession of lands and property confiscated from the native Irish from Elizabethan times? The diminishing of identity or the loss of dominance and privilege? Far be it for any nationalist or republican to answer any of these questions. Yet devoid of quantifiable research making the case for ‘the union’, it is in the psychological, emotional realm that unionist-counter arguments are made.
As such, many unionist fears appear to be based on perception rather than fact, but no less real. Looking southward offers a glimpse of how Unionists may be treated in a unified country. Donncha Ó’Beacháin in his article¸ The Dog that Didn’t Bark: Southern Unionism in Pre and Post-Revolutionary Ireland, establishes that far from being discriminated against southern unionists negotiated with the Free State government and went on to play an active part in politics, particularly in Cumann na nGaedheal, predecessor of Fine Gael, as well as a ‘disproportionate role in the economy, finance, banking and large scale farming’. With the disentanglement of the Catholic church from state complete what has emerged in the south is a secular, modern and outward looking society where religion is a matter of personal choice and increasingly irrelevant to public life. Politics is ‘normalised’.
Inevitably, there are those who will seek to exploit legitimate fears for political gain, or who wish to wind the clock back to the days of the one party state, where Catholics knew their place. Demographic realities and diminishing numbers make this scenario increasingly unlikely. The lords and dames of modern day ‘Big House’ unionism, along with MP’s with big salaries and bigger expenses, find it easy to trumpet flag politics being financially secure.
‘Project fear’ has been a successful electoral strategy for unionism, particularly the DUP, which requires a bogeyman. Sinn Féin, the IRA, the southern government, the EU, any and all will suffice depending on the context. However, decision making based on emotion produces the errors of a malleable and easily manipulated public. Of course agency can’t be discounted and much of the pro union rhetoric may chime with individual beliefs yet when the constitutional question is removed from the table and assessed objectively is the union really delivering for the people in the north most loyal to it? It has and does certainly deliver for a small minority while many of the poorest communities are working class unionist. It is highly probable that there are more within the culturally Protestant community considering constitutional change but receive no airing because of the dominance of unionist political parties and self-appointed community gate keepers.
For united Irelanders it is important to reach out to those cultural Protestants and unionists. Accommodating those of a British identity beyond mere tokenism will require generosity, yet this should not mean privileging that same community above others. Rather, giving unionists an equal stake in the country where they will enjoy being treated no better or worse than anyone else will ensure that the lessons of the past have been well learned, and that a fairer society can emerge. This will be difficult for a community raised on exceptionalism to grapple with but one that is essential regardless of the constitutional future.
Despite recent history nationalists and republicans are not the enemies of unionists and loyalists, political opponents perhaps, but that is entirely different. The British economy is a basket case and the north is at the bottom of that basket. Together with a broken political system a new, better way has never been needed more. Creating a constitutional alternative requires bravery and generosity on all sides of the debate with the articulation of culturally Protestant hopes and fears best articulated by them. Feasibly a stronger voice can emerge from that community to do just that, building on the example set in the Ulster Hall, November 2023.