Nationalists must set out a vision for unity

By David Adams

This article first appeared on 3 December 2009

The leader of the SDLP, Mark Durkan, is a decent, fair-minded man who has a wicked sense of humour and is excellent company. All of which makes him if not quite unique among the political classes, then close to it.

He happens also to be one of the most capable and responsible politicians in Northern Ireland. And, unusual again, he prefers thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis to lazy, platitudinous soundbites.

This tendency to detail hasn’t endeared him to a media that increasingly favours the simplistic over the complex. Its response has been to caricature him as a long-winded bore, which says more about modern journalism than it does about Durkan. Unfortunately for his party and beyond, Durkan has signalled his intention to stand aside as SDLP leader after next year’s Westminster elections. Hopefully, the new leader will continue to choose detailed explanation over headline-grabbing banalities. Never mind what the media prefers, clarity is what the people of Northern Ireland need.

Over the past year or so, Durkan has been calling for democratic nationalists in Ireland to come together to ‘set out a 21st century vision for unity’. His successor should continue lobbying along those lines.

The Belfast Agreement allows for the possibility of a united Ireland, so it makes perfect sense for responsible nationalism to determine what kind of unitary state it envisages, and, more precisely, to consider how unionists could be accommodated in it. It is one thing to talk in abstract terms of desirability of an all-island state, but another to specify how, or whether, it could actually work. If nationalism is serious about unity, it has a duty to explain to unionists precisely what it has in mind.

Those who believe that, if it comes to it, the six Northern counties could simply be tacked on to the Republic, and unionists would fit neatly in with a 32-county version of how things are in the South at present, are kidding themselves. That would be a recipe for perpetual instability across the island.

Yet, apart from periodic, non-specific utterances about ‘creating an island of equals’, this seems to be the extent of Sinn Féin’s post-unity thinking. They do have a half-baked notion of how to get to a united Ireland, which involves chipping away at the morale of unionists in the hope that sufficient numbers will tire of the hassle, allowing the rest to be dragged over a 50 per cent-plus-one line into an imagined unitary utopia. (Mitchel McLaughlin claimed in a radio interview last year that his party’s greatest achievement was keeping unionism in a constant state of upheaval.) But Sinn Féin hasn’t given the first thought or care to what would result if they did manage to bring almost a million reluctant unionists into a united Ireland For them, getting there is enough, whatever about uniting Protestant, Catholic and dissenter on the way.

In fairness to Sinn Féin, none of the southern-based political parties has been forthcoming with anything like a detailed post-unity plan either. The Éire Nua document, authored by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill in the 1970s, remains the only serious bid by any strand of nationalism or republicanism to address the issue at all.

Responsible nationalism must move beyond advocating a united Ireland simply because nationalists believe it to be in the natural order of things, and begin to acknowledge that it must be designed to accommodate, and then be sold to, unionists.

Unity would bring with it huge economic implications (replacing the National Health Service provisions that Northerners enjoy not least among them), but more importantly, the South would have to undergo fundamental administrative and attitudinal changes to fit with Northerners.
At present in the Republic, there is, to say the least, no clear separation between church and State, particularly in relation to healthcare and, more crucially, education. Would the new citizens be expected just to go along with this state of affairs? There also remains a strong undercurrent of anti-British sentiment in the Republic. In light of this, how would the British identity of a substantial number of its citizens be respected and upheld (as opposed to being merely tolerated) in any future unitary state?

What I have written here only touches on some of the practicalities that need to be addressed. It also takes for granted that a majority of people in the Republic would agree to reunification. This is hardly a safe presumption to make, considering the political and social stability they enjoy at present, and the type of problems Northerners would inevitably bring with them.

Given the provisions of the Belfast Agreement, Mark Durkan is right to call on nationalists to move beyond meaningless rhetoric and set out their vision for unity. Whatever that may entail, one reality towers above all others: any future unitary state would have to accurately reflect and dutifully protect the full diversity of its citizenship.