The people of Ireland fall into two groups: nationalist and unionist. Lots of people in Ireland don’t subscribe to these groups but for the purposes of the conflict in Northern Ireland there are just these two factions.
The IRA declaration of an end to the armed struggle means that the eternal political battle between unionists and nationalists in Ireland can begin anew. A hell of a lot of people turned their backs on it while people were getting killed. They didn’t want to be part of all that.
Here in the Republic the public is almost uniformly nationalist, to some degree or another, and this is reflected in Dáil Eireann where pretty much every TD is in favour of a United Ireland (UI). Equally, every shade of unionist opinion in the North is implacably opposed to the same UI.
Which is amazing as nobody, north or south, can have the slightest clue what a United Ireland would actually be.
The last time nationalist Ireland got together to decide what a United Ireland would look like, we came up with three different options: a unitary state, a federal/confederal state and joint authority. That was in 1984, long before the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
It seems to me that it is high time that we try to spell out exactly what we mean by the term ‘United Ireland’.
Precious little thinking has been done about this and no work at all on tapping into the mood of compromise with unionism that is now widespread in Ireland.
The political parties have spent all their energy on getting the GFA to work without thinking that the ‘national’ issue will not go away once a power-sharing government is installed in Belfast.
The SDLP has stolen a march on all the others. Under Mark Durkan, the party has proposed that the state of Northern Ireland will continue to exist whether its future be in a UI or in the UK.
The beauty of this plan is that both unionists and nationalists would have little to lose regardless of the future of Northern Ireland. The potential for conflict would be greatly lessened if the prospect of a UI incurred little practical change.
There’s a word for this type of arrangement: confederation. It implies two equal states on the island of Ireland with a minimal central authority. This is really the logical outcome of nationalist Ireland’s ambitions. And many down here would be only too happy to keep Northern Ireland at arm’s length.
Almost 95 per cent of people in the south voted for the GFA. They voted for compromise but I wonder if they really mean it. I had a ferocious argument recently about the rugby anthem, ‘Ireland’s Call’, with some people who voted for the GFA. They really couldn’t see why Amhrain Na bFhainn shouldn’t remain as the sole anthem played at Irish international rugby matches.
It’s simple: the Irish team represents both nationalists and unionists so the song should be neutral. If we can’t accept this compromise, think about a single Irish state where British nationalism in Ireland (aka unionism) is accommodated.
The challenge is here. The debate can begin without dead bodies in the background. What is at stake is an historic compromise between unionism and nationalism in Ireland. It’s going to make people put bones on their desire for peace and reconciliation.
Are you up for it? Could you declare your own ceasefire?