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Unionism, identity and Irish unity

13 January 2021

Jennifer Todd reflects on the principles and paradigms that we use to think about conflict and about unity.

After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Irish unity was to depend only on a democratic vote in a referendum in each Irish jurisdiction. Can Irish unity offer to unionists the ‘effective political, symbolic and administrative expression of their identity, their ethos and their way of life’, which has been a principle of nationalist politics since the New Ireland Forum Report of 1984? Unionists don’t think so. Seamus Mallon hoped that nationalists out of generosity would wait until unionists were able to accept the idea of unity. The shared island project of the (2020–) Irish coalition government also wants to postpone discussion of unity until there is more agreement on it.

But what if unionist identity is dependent on British state belonging, such that it could never be accommodated or expressed in an independent united Ireland? Does that identity give unionists a moral veto on unity for ever? Since the 1980s, nationalist politics on the island has affirmed the Two Traditions Paradigm: the right of nationalists and unionists to effective expression of their identity. John Hume used it to help achieve equality in Northern Ireland, and it was taken up by successive power-sharing executives. Can it now be used to block an agreed pathway to a united Ireland?

In fact, the Two Traditions Paradigm was never fully coherent. Identity as perspective on the world is of irreducible value—it is personal and rooted and also reflexive and responsive to change in circumstances and relationships. Identity as groupness—group solidarity, belonging and ownership over institutions and states—does not carry such value. To paraphrase Hume, the Irish can stay Irish and the British British, but the group-based assumptions about what being Irish and British entail have to change if we are to reach a position of mutual respect. 

An alternative New Ireland Paradigm recognises the dissonance between identity as perspective and identity as groupness. It sees the real task as being to create institutions where identity as perspective can be voiced and identity as groupness can evolve in ways that allow for future accommodation and mutual respect. This allows us to sift out the different aspects of unionists’ concerns.

Here I look solely at the concerns that touch on identity—security and economic prosperity, health and welfare need separate treatment. Unionists—for well over a century—have worried about their minority status in a united independent Ireland, their relationship with a nationalist majority,  their place in an Irish political culture that downgrades their forms of (British) cultural capital, and, today, their role in a society where no-one appears much to want them. A united Ireland would have to ensure not only that their everyday practices and their long-standing linkages to Great Britain are legally protected but that their perspectives are no less valued and validated in politics, society and public culture than are those of nationalists.

Linkages with Great Britain and the cultural specificity of the north-east of Ulster would remain in all likely constitutional futures. Choices would arise about publicly-funded institutions of socialisation, from media to museums to compulsory education. From a Two Traditions perspective, the different education and other cultural institutions north and south would remain, with access and opt-ins to the southern system for those Northerners who so choose. From a New Ireland perspective, the ideal would be to generalise linkages and choice throughout the island, to create a complex cultural mosaic in which diverse cultural traditions would be present, intersecting and evolving in an all-island context without ownership by any national or local majority: in education, this would require reconfiguration of both northern and southern systems so that the same range of choices—from the Irish language to GCSE and the Leaving Certificate—were available to all. The most difficult issues centre on the political institutions that define the parameters of political culture and the constitution that codifies the rules of political valuation. On a Two Traditions Paradigm, an amended constitution would explicitly recognise the British (or perhaps better Protestant) people of the north-east of the island alongside the Irish nation; political autonomy for Northern Ireland would likely remain under Irish sovereignty; meanwhile national symbolism would be doubled, with British flags and British anthems alongside Irish, within the still distinct Northern Ireland. On a New Ireland Paradigm, the Irish Constitution would be rewritten to affirm an overarching and authoritative political community, made up of a diversity of national and religious peoples with due protection for minorities; possible forms of unitary state would be  explored; and state symbolism would be reinvented. There are real choices to be made here, prior to any decision about a united Ireland, and discussion and deliberation are urgent.

The sticking point, however, lies in the intensity of some unionists’ reactions. They feel that their British identity and the meaning of their past would be obliterated in any united Ireland:  they would be defined by their republican enemies, subjected to show-trials, their linkages to British kith and kin erased, their land confiscated, their home taken from them. This is ontological insecurity that cannot be assuaged by time, contact, or rational discussion. Taken literally, their fears are unrealistic. Taken symbolically, they are right that their group-construction of a state-centred Britishness would not survive in a united Ireland—it is already in trouble in post Good Friday Northern Ireland. Rather than sustain an already problematic group identity, the task is to facilitate an articulation of and respect for identity as perspective and a reconstruction of identity as groupness. Three guiding principles follow from the New Ireland Paradigm:

  1. Group identity provides neither a moral trump-card nor a political veto-right. A move away from a Two Traditions Paradigm is overdue.
  2. Open-ended deliberation on principles and institutions at once gives voice to identity-as-perspective and allows autonomous change in it. It should begin now.
  3. Giving voice to a wide diversity of perspectives can break the image of southern nationalist consensus—it is time to move on from the consensual images of the corporate ‘green jersey’, the southern ‘we’ and RTÉ’s Angelus.

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