Divided we stand

Notes from the Western Periphery


McDonald and Varadkar’s different approaches to Irish unification are telling

In recent years debate about a united Ireland has gradually moved out of the shadows into the political mainstream and is no longer confined to extreme nationalist or republican groups. But while talking about Irish unification has become politically respectable, its desirability and the means through which that goal might be achieved remain contentious.
The recent conference on ‘Ireland’s Future’ held in the 3Arena in Dublin gave a flavour of how the debate is progressing.
Why do we want unification? In her speech at the 3Arena, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald set out her reasons. It’s pretty inspirational stuff. The most important conversation of our generation. Immense opportunities. Seize the day. Exceed our own expectations. Build our nation anew. Move on from the two reactionary states on the island, riddled by inequality and greed. A common purpose under the banner ‘No one left behind’. The defenders of the status quo have had their day. It continues at length in that rousing fashion.
The speech was greeted with rapturous applause.
It was something of a relief to turn to the more cautious, balanced and sombre speech of the Tánaiste and soon to be Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Imposing a dream can appear a nightmare to those who dream differently. Cross-community and cross-border engagement falls far short of what would be required in a unified Ireland. The current devolved institutions should continue to operate, but hopefully be more effective and co-operative. We cannot impose our will on the unwilling. Perhaps we could move gradually to a more complex Good Friday Plus Agreement, in much the same way as the EU evolved from initial simpler institutions.
The Tánaiste was booed by some of the audience who presumably preferred Sinn Fein’s exciting dream.

Dangerous dreams
We Irish have a tendency to believe that our problems with Northern Ireland are unique and our past oppression and suffering unforgivable. The Penal Laws. The savage suppression of attempts to be free from colonisation. The genocidal Great Famine. The iniquities of partition. In the post-Good Friday era, the ‘unreasonable’ behaviour of those in Northern Ireland who cleave to a British affiliation.
But the sad truth is that similar and worse experiences have been repeated globally throughout history and continue into the present day. A bit of international historical perspective might be helpful in our debates and warn us that dreams can be dangerous when they come true.
The case that weighs heaviest on our minds today is that of Russia and Ukraine.
The political paranoia that drove Russia to invade Ukraine was inspired by a fear that their near neighbour’s turn to the west after Maidan (The Revolution of Dignity in February 2014) threatened to make Russia more vulnerable. Does that sound familiar?
Until the post-WWII era Britain feared that Ireland might be a backdoor to invasion. Think Humbert and the French landing of 1798. Think Roger Casement, Erskine Childers, and gun running in 1916. But whatever residual fears the British continue to harbour – to the extent that they even notice us – I do not believe that they fear us as a base for an EU invasion to reverse Brexit. They are noisily self-immolating on their own without any external interference!
The arbitrary land divisions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after WWI created many states that had mixed ethnic populations. The situation of the Sudeten Germans was used by Hitler to whip up nationalist fervour and led to the conquest of Czechoslovakia and ultimately to WWII. The former Yugoslavia, made up of a patchwork of different ethnic groups, tore itself apart in bloody civil war after the death of Tito in 1980.
A characteristic of such multi-ethnic states is that their peoples seem to live in harmony together until one day they do not. Breakdown often comes when one group tries to oppress the other (as in Bosnia), or when an external state fans the flames of ethnic tensions that lie beneath the surface of everyday life (Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1938).

Fanning flames
It could never have been said that the two ethno-religious groups in Northern Ireland lived in harmony with each other, but the absence of mass migration suggests that they preferred to live uneasily with each other than live more easily elsewhere. Of course, everything changed in 1968 when the initial civil rights marches morphed into a civil war, goaded by the incredibly rough behaviour of a sectarian police force supported by an army schooled in imperial rule.
One is left with the dreadful realisation that if Stormont had been a bit smarter and empathetic, Northern Ireland might have evolved in peaceful prosperity.
Sinn Féin are to be admired for their hard work and dedication and the fact that they take seriously the economic and social evils that beset our country. They would not be long about solving the housing crisis. They are also good strategists and might just bring their collective minds to bear on the development of our own neglected northwestern region.
However, my problem is that right now their unification rhetoric reminds me too much of Putin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany and Milosevic’s Serbia. The Sinn Féin leader’s speech risked fanning those flames. I hope that we have the good sense today that Stormont lacked in the late 1960s.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.