Everyone should join the conversation about  a new Ireland

Posted By: January 30, 2021


Denzil McDaniel. Columnist. Impartial Reporter. Enniskillen. County Fermanagh. Friday, January 29, 2021

When the British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan made his famous “wind of change” speech in South Africa in 1960, the UK was a colonial power and he was making it clear that his Government wouldn’t stand in the way of African countries gaining their independence from Britain.

The idea that the “wind of change” would mean the break-up of the United Kingdom wouldn’t even have been on anybody’s radar, never mind that of the then Prime Minister. Too ridiculous, never in a million years.

Sixty years on, another Tory, former Chancellor George Osborne is warning that the future of the UK is the “central political issue of the coming decade.” This is no fringe opinion, Osborne was in Government a few years ago and remains a major establishment figure.

Indeed, as serious talk continues of the “disunited” kingdom, in his article in the Evening Standard he makes it clear that Westminster’s priority should be keeping Scotland and warns: “Northern Ireland is heading for the exit door” and he adds “it pains me to report that most here and abroad will not care”.

It’s a much more stark analysis than the more benign quote of Secretary of State, Peter Brooke who said 30 years ago that Britain had “no selfish economic or strategic interest” in Northern Ireland.

Osborne’s thinking alone should be a wake-up call for Unionists, but there are other factors in the dynamic that mean the “wind of change” in this part of the world is blowing ever-stronger. Unionists tend to fear change and often retract from conversations about it, but surely such are the different circumstances now that doing nothing is not an option. Or at least it is an option that will leave Unionism exposed to the icy wind of change blowing around it.

It’s seemingly a perfect storm. To the west, this Johnson Government has shown it cares little for Northern Ireland nor shows it any sensitivity; and its English Nationalist hue appears to be alienating the Scots and Welsh more and more. Brexit, it is predicted, will have the effect of pushing Northern Ireland into a greater economic relationship with Dublin.

And internally, the demographic shift has seen massive change with Unionists not holding an overall majority anymore.

Does all this automatically mean a united Ireland? Of course not. But it does mean a serious debate has started—and will continue to gain momentum.

Predictably, and perhaps understandably, the take-home headline from the Sunday Times story about a LucidTalk poll at the weekend was that “a majority within Northern Ireland now favors a Border poll.” But this story goes much deeper than that.

For starters, LucidTalk themselves point out the figure was 50.7 percent, and given a margin of error the best that can be said is that people are divided about 50/50 on the issue. That’s significant in itself. And while such polls usually come with a “health warning”, consistent polling has shown a number of important trends that mean we are in an “Overton window” that is a time when previously unthinkable ideas are now being seriously considered.

Consistently, only about half the population of Northern Ireland say they want to remain in the United Kingdom, while the percentage of those saying they are definitely committed to a united Ireland varies from 30 percent upwards. Those who will tip the balance, either way, are the “don’t knows” and it would also seem that younger voter are more open-minded.

My own view is that a Border poll will happen at some point; it is only a matter of when not if.

Some Unionists recognize this and are urging their community to be confident and be ready to make a case for staying within the UK. Others are in denial and try to ignore reality.

But instead of fixating on a poll, there is a much broader conversation to be had of what a new Ireland will look like.

It is, perhaps, already a new Ireland; it’s certainly a very different place from the one I grew up in. Greater diversity in terms of new communities north and south, greater social tolerance of difference, and so on. And less reliance on wrapping yourself in a flag.

The Latin phrase “Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis” translates as “Times are changed, we are changed with them” comes to mind because we have changed over the years. We all need to engage in how we might accommodate all voices, all cultures and beliefs, and those who do not conform to the norm.

There is a massive conversation to be had as to what kind of country we want in the future. Constitutionally, it doesn’t have to be a limited binary choice of a united Ireland or stay in the Union. There are various options, not least the idea of a federal system with different parts of the island governed differently with a degree of its own autonomy.

The conversation about a fairer Ireland within a new structure must include how health services could be run, how the education systems could co-operate, how an all-island economy could benefit everyone, tourism, the arts…. Pensions, even. What sort of new Ireland would we be voting for? And how could we afford it?

This week, Patricia MacBride told the Ireland’s Future group: “If you’re facing into a unity referendum everyone has to feel their rights would be protected whether Ulster British or Nigerian Irish.”

That’s a good reflection of where we are and how we should go forward.

And the debate should be respectful; mention the economy and other such matters of mutual interest and certain factions lapse into boasting about which side is vastly superior while the other is a basket case. Follow the evidence.

Goodness knows with all our problems, there is no utopia on either side of the Border, but there is tremendous potential in an all-island approach, however, that is configured constitutionally.

I consider myself culturally Irish, and I have often heard many Protestants say privately that they know both communities here have much more in common than that which divides us. And yet, our political system perpetuates division; as does our education and housing.

As regards approaching the future, it would be utter folly of the Unionist leadership to ignore change and to absent themselves from the debate. But the leadership of Unionism, in general, has been poor in terms of being visionary and seeing the big picture; the RHI debacle, the negative message over the Irish language, the woeful handling of Brexit, and the disastrous handling of education in a pandemic crisis are just a few symptoms of how they tend to shore up elements of their own support base rather than reach out. Indeed, the latest Nelson McCausland “the whole gay movement” tweet offended many and showed how out of touch many are within political Unionism.

The image of McCausland, Ian Paisley Junior, and Sammy Wilson is a brand of political Unionism that hardly inspires modern civic Unionism or indeed the Unionist population at large which is resourceful and more forward-thinking than the leadership portrays.

The debate within Nationalism has already started and is gaining momentum. I recall two years ago, Tommy McKearney was quoted at a speech at Donagh as saying that years ago a united Ireland was an aspiration, now it is an expectation. And Brexit has only increased that expectation.

I would hope that Nationalists who say they want all voices to be heard and that they want to listen to Unionism are genuine in that and that the tone of the conversation will be respectful on both sides and will not have a predetermined outcome.

In the MacMillan speech in South Africa [mentioned] earlier, he said this:

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

Perhaps you should read the quote again, and replace the term “this continent” with “this UK”.

Change isn’t just coming, it is here and everyone should have a say in what their country will look like as we go forward to share a small island.