As conversations in Ireland progress on how and if a united Ireland is achievable, our leaders need to ensure that their positions on unification are balanced and veer away from comparing either community in Northern Ireland to distasteful regimes.
In a wide ranging interview on RTE 1 on 7 September, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar informed RTE that he believed that a United Ireland was likely in our lifetime, and that Ireland was on the path to unification.
However, during this interview, an Taoiseach likely ruffled many feathers in the North when he compared people singing Irish rebel songs at a festival to songs sung by confederacy supporters in the United States.
An Taoiseach noted that
“in a united Ireland there is going to be a minority, roughly a million people who are British. You judge the success and the quality of a country by the way it treats their minority. And that is something we are going to think about. Because what is a republican ballad, a nice song to sing easy words to learn for some people, can be deeply offensive to other people.
Bear in mind in the southern states for example, when people sing about the confederacy and Robert E Lee, they think it is an expression of their culture and so on, that’s what they say, but that is deeply offensive to black people. If we are going to unite this country, then we need to think about how our words and the songs we sing.”
It is undoubtedly true that unionists do find these songs offensive, and that people will need to consider how singing songs like these will impact on the Unionist community in a future united Ireland. In addition, it is unlikely that middle ground unionists will consider changing their views on a united Ireland if they perceive, whether accurately or not, that people in the south who sing rebel songs are sympathetic to the IRA.
However, while Varadkar calling for people to consider how words and songs impact on Unionists is something to be valued, the same consideration must be taken for the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.
The idea that singing Irish rebel songs is comparable to singing songs supporting a regime built on slavery and which, following the American Civil War imposed laws which severely restricted the rights of the Black community in southern states is deeply offensive to the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.
Words matter, and it is likely that many nationalists will feel less understood by the Irish government if comparisons like these continue to be made.
The comparison of nationalists to confederacy, and Unionists to the black minority in the United States is particularly striking given the history of discrimination against the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, where the first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland in the 1960s were even inspired by, and modelled after, civil rights protests by African Americans.
A united Ireland will incorporate not one but two new communities into Ireland; unionists, and nationalists who have themselves spent a century as a minority community. Both will need to be welcomed into a United Ireland in a spirit of reconciliation. A balanced approach to reconciliation will need to be taken when speaking about either community, and when considering how badly a similar comparison of loyalist marches or songs to those supporting the confederacy would have been received, it seems that this balance is not currently being achieved.
Peter Lonergan is a policy analyst from County Monaghan originally, but now lives in Brussels. He is a member of BXL-Irish Unity.