Inevitable, for 100 years





Since the foundation of Northern Ireland nationalism has seen the existence of the Province as temporary and therefore refuse to ‘accept’ partition. Partition, in nationalists’ eyes, was(is) means through which Britain maintained a presence in Ireland for its own ‘selfish and strategic interests’; and Unionists were (and still are) their ‘patsies’.

Legally speaking partition was to be temporary: this was the position of the London Government, quite possibly to avoid an argument. For Northern Ireland to be close to a century old, must therefore clearly depress nationalists. Instead of viewing Northern Ireland as a success, it is therefore essential to label it as a ‘failed’ entity based on historic grievance laid at the door of political Unionism.

To imagine that Northern Ireland would be still in existence nearly a century later, would would have been simply ‘unbelievable’ in 1920.

Michael Collins, the notorious IRA director of ‘operations’, negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which accepted partition. He treated it as ‘a means to achieve Irish freedom’.

Unsurprisingly Nationalism will seek to use the anniversary, much like that of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, to inspire and rejuvenate its voter base. The fact that events are used by the nationalist political elite to arouse their voter base comes as no surprise. Most recently, evidenced in the collapse of Stormont – supposedly over the RHI debacle equality, rights, respect and Brexit: varying to appeal to some group or others’ particular ‘identity’ crisis; a very Sinn Fein notion of broadening its appeal by presenting multi-choice excuses to justify pulling the plug Stormont ‘wisely’.

Since the 1960s nationalism has sought to gain political ground by discrediting the governance of Northern Ireland and political unionism, building on grievance after grievance: obliquely providing cover for those justifying the terrorist campaign launched against the people of Northern Ireland by the Provisional IRA; an error being repeated with Brexit by those who ought to know better.

For republican terrorists the campaign of violence and terror was of course an extension, a natural progression, of the campaign for civil rights. Apparently the 60s civil rights campaign was unfulfilled until 1998 with the Belfast Agreement (according to Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey) – most commentators would date that earlier around the early 1970s.

1998 is currently being presented as having been a stepping stone to Irish Unity – not for the first time – a United Ireland was meant to have been inevitable by 2016.

‘Unity’ has and continues to be promoted by Nationalism as inevitable. The main argument for it being inevitable was always down to demographics. Today this has been seen to not be the case and many opinion polls over the last decade or more has seen self-identified nationalists as being broadly supportive of maintaining the Union (see ‘Not Spooked’ published November 2017).

Given the events of the last number of years, from the collapse of Stormont in 2017, the result of the Referendum on membership of the EU, RHI and any other excuses (please write them on a post-it), political nationalism will always use events as a means to achieving their objective of a united Ireland or ‘overthrowing British rule’. All very predictable, but not enlightening. All very triumphalist, not very persuasive.

Nationalism talks of a united Ireland, a phrase picked up and endorsed by the media, instead of the future of Northern Ireland because the phrase ‘united Ireland’ makes it all sound more inevitable and that it is, of course, the road we are travelling, with no other exit.

Talk again of a new Ireland, united and free from the interference of Westminster. This is despite the fact that Northern Ireland receives the greatest level of spending per head of the population in the entire United Kingdom, £11,042 per head (21 percent above the UK average).

No one talks about the future of Ireland which, if it subsumed Northern Ireland, living standards in Republic would perhaps fall by 15%, while remaining in the EU is no guarantee of Ireland’s economic model, the not inconsiderable national debt (still higher than Greece) would inevitably increase, and opinion polls show no appetite for the sort of ‘Solidarity Tax” hike that Germans are still paying (!). As Philip Larkin has suggested on This Union recently, the nationalist/republican ideas of “unity” are fogged in a green mist rather than rational clarity – something to which political unionism needs to pay far more attention.

As Philip Larkin also notes, there is the issue of a Referendum in the Republic of Ireland, if a ‘Yes’ vote emerged in any Referendum in Northern Ireland. The result of which was highlighted a number of years ago by the former SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt (himself a southerner) to require a similar Referendum in the Republic: the Belfast Agreement made changes to the Irish Constitution with respect to Articles 2 & 3, which had previously made claim over Northern Ireland; a referendum is required on even minor changes to the Republic’s Constitution.

Overall, what is presented as inevitable isn’t. The republican/nationalist road to a “United Ireland” is a rocky one for which it is ill prepared, and while emphatically stating its certain destination its lacks a substantive case for a United Ireland, providing only rabble (or rebel) rhetoric that belies a roadmap that is both contradictory and incoherent.

The only thing inevitable at this point in time is nationalist expectation in contrast to hard reality.


Dr Andrew Charles: political historian.