Partition became a reality embraced on both sides of the border by a counter-revolutionary dispensation that set out to normalise the British imposed settlement. Reflecting establishment positions, mainstream print and state media provided a means of dissemination and reinforcement. Post-partition one of the first BBC Directors in the north, Gerald Beadle, sought to persuade the Unionist government that the BBC could act ‘as their mouthpiece’ (Cathcart 1984:37). Beadle himself became part of the unionist upper strata through membership of the exclusive Ulster Reform Club, as did several of his successors who, over decades, engineered a mono-cultural idyllic representation of the north that many failed to recognise then or now.
Television and the onset of civil conflict destroyed that image. RTÉ during this period, along with numerous publications, adopted the ‘othering’ of the north as a default through demonisation, censorship and omission, entrenching views evident at the Listowel literary festival who, being appointed as curator, Stephen Connolly, from Belfast, was asked ‘could they not have got anyone Irish to do it?”
Reinforcement of establishment positions continues to the present day. While northern sports fans are unable to enter half-time competitions on RTÉ, a journalist on BBC Radio ‘Ulster’ enquired as to what other countries ‘outside the home nations’ would be taking part in the world sheep dog trials in Dromore. Partitionism is ubiquitous. Nuance and language are not value free. Seemingly benign words and phrases normalised through repetition obscure specific power dynamics, that when threatened, seek to limit discussion in the public domain. It can come as no surprise, therefore, that media and political elites framed discussion on unification as controversial, despite being recognised in the Good Friday Agreement. After all, both polities emerged from partition and depend on it to exist.
To use Chomskian terminology, consent for partition was manufactured through the development of cultural norms, ‘acceptable’ language and terminologies that permeated through society. The consistent reinforcement of such norms were promoted not least by the political and media establishments in both jurisdictions, becoming embedded as a consequence. Any alternative to this hegemony accordingly threatens the tenuous fabric on which these structures exist. That two politicians from parties who accepted partition now aspire to alternate arrangements is significant.
The current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, up until recently, regarded debates and narratives around unification as divisive. The irony of his current position on unification, one of support, is that it has been described as divisive and unhelpful by the DUP and their cheerleaders. Discourse around unification, however, is changing in what Kevin Meagher from these parts described as Quite a week for United Irelanders. Whether through co-ordination or timely convergence of opinion, Varadkar stated that they would both like to see reunification in their lifetime. Facing a general election sometime in the next year to eighteen months, it indicates that parties in the south do not consider such statements as an electoral liability. Journalist Suzanne Breen rightly points out that it is not that talk of unification is taking place it is that it has went ‘mainstream’.
The hegemony of partition is being challenged by open discussion of unification going beyond a traditional republican base, as Wallace Thompson, a founding member of the DUP, recently highlighted. Changing conditions are leading to re-evaluations of previously steadfast beliefs. It is also worth recalling that Kyle Paisley, son of Ian Paisley and twin brother of Ian Jr., participated in the Seanad Public Consultation on the Constitutional Future of the Island of Ireland in 2022, along with other self-defined Ulster British and unionist contributors, as did the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
The stability of partition has been compromised since the Anglo Irish Agreement while Unionists argue that the integrity of the current constitutional arrangement has been weakened by the requirements of post-Brexit agreements with the EU. Divergence means difference although it has always been thus. In the same paper Wallace Thompson said that unification was inevitable Peter Robinson retorted it was not. Another former colleague, Jim Wells, opined in the same publication that Thompson should have kept his views to himself.
Wells’ comments are instructive. Partition gained its strength and resilience to a large degree through advocates, or those that acquiesced, avoiding fundamental questions of it. This is no longer the case. Unification was always a legitimate aspiration, particularly so given how partition was foisted, implemented and maintained. What is taking place now is a re-definition of the national question, the blossoming of an idea whose time has come. By responding to Wallace Thompson’s interview Peter Robinson was in fact engaging in the unification debate, albeit from a unionist perspective. Conducting political argument in a dignified and reasonable manner has been proven possible by Thompson, Robinson, Kyle Paisley and others. Unification can be discussed without the loss of identity or dignity.
The fact that such a debate is taking place within the culturally Protestant community, or that the leader of southern Ireland’s centre-right conservative party openly aspires to unification, all of whom embraced partition, illustrates that partition is now under significant strain. That men and women merely discussing basic questions of well-being, accountability and democracy can challenge this hegemonic viewpoint is evidence of how brittle the constitutional status quo actually is. Democracy and the ‘UK’ are inconsistent. Brexit demonstrated how the democratic will of the people of the north of Ireland can be ignored, a place where the results of an election cannot be honoured because one party doesn’t like the result. Democratic indeed. If further proof were needed see the shameful passing of the Legacy Bill. A unilateral decision by the British government taken against the unanimous opposition of all the political parties and victims groups in the north. Devolution, while offering limited self-government, is no substitution for self-determination.
What was once disapproved has surely gone mainstream, as the scope of the national question broadens. If the suppression of critical opinion maintained partition then the mainstreaming of the unification debate will only weaken it further by virtue of the fact that it is taking place publicly at all, irreparably damaging the hegemony of partition and allowing for the consideration of alternative constitutional scenarios. Internal and wider global factors will continue to impact local politics requiring urgent attention, despite lack of government in the north. Critical issues that transcend artificial borders such as the environmental crisis and ecological collapse simply cannot be effectively addressed on a partitionist basis. All Ireland solutions are required for this and many others. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s comments will be welcome amongst unification advocates and his government are in a unique position to spearhead the process of change with all the resources of the state at their disposal but as Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, once said ‘you are what you do, not what you say you’ll do’.
Around the time of Varadkar’s comments Patrick Keilty was preparing for his inaugural appearance as host for RTÉ’s flagship Late Late Show. Kielty, of course, from County Down, had amongst his guests two public figures from the north. Professional footballer James McClean, from Derry, is the most racially abused player in English football because of his refusal to wear a poppy. IarUachtarán na hÉireann, Mary McAleese, from Belfast, was also a former RTÉ reporter with direct experience of censorship and bias towards the north. While Kielty marks the beginning of a new era for that programme, can it also be the harbinger for a cultural shift in Ireland and the dismantling of old prejudices and animosities? Undoubtedly, if partition was created it can be disassembled, if partitionist mind-sets can be manufactured then they can also be reversed and old certainties remoulded as new beginnings.