Subscriber OnlyCommon Ground

No true republican should wish for the failure of Northern Ireland

One important truth has emerged from Andrew Trimble’s thoughtful TV documentary

Like the majority of people in this State, I believe in republican government. And I favour an Ireland in which all Irish people — North and South — are happy to share their sovereignty within the European Union rather than have the island divided between the Republic and the United Kingdom. Similarly, opinion polls in the Republic consistently favour a “united Ireland”.

Equally, I have no appetite for the creation of a unitary socialist republic, the stated aim of Sinn Féin. Why not? I don’t want to live in the hard-left republican state that they and other hard-left groups in this State want to create. Sinn Féin, despite their present drive for political respectability, has consistently allied itself with Marxist revolutionary groups internationally, including Colombia’s Farc, Castro’s Cuba, the Basques’ ETA and others.

As I watched Andrew Trimble’s thoughtful and gentle television documentary on changing attitudes to political, social and denominational identities in Northern Ireland, one truth emerged. The old rigid sectarian and political segmentation in Northern Ireland is mutating into something new and potentially greater.

Protestant majoritarianism is finished there as a political force. Census figures show that Catholics now outnumber all other Christian denominations in the North. And there appear to be Catholic majorities in four out of the six counties and the city borough of Belfast. Northern Ireland has changed hugely from the time of Carson and Brookeborough.


That is why I have a significant problem with the current focus in the media on the issue of whether or not to have a Border poll. This State signed up to the Belfast agreement and the people on both sides of the Border approved that settlement in referendums. The British-Irish Agreement which forms part of that settlement is a solemn international law treaty recognised by the United Nations.

That settlement establishes beyond argument that if a majority of people in Northern Ireland appear to favour a united Ireland, the British government is obliged to hold a Border poll which can give effect to their wishes. There is no obligation to conduct a series of periodical Border polls just to test the wishes of the voters in Northern Ireland. That is the deal that we all signed up to.

It seems clear that a present majority in the North does not want to end the union. All public opinion surveys confirm that position by a wide margin. But that may change and there are signs of change happening.

The problem with keeping the “constitutional question” front and centre is that it reinforces, rather than diminishes, polarising tendencies in northern politics. That suits parties who thrive on polarisation and marginalises parties who wish to park polarisation in favour of pragmatic co-operation and reconciliation based on politics that focuses on matters of mutual interest.

So, while I have no problem with newspapers, including this one, conducting academic research and polling on issues such as flags, anthems, Commonwealth membership and other symbolic possibilities, North and South, it risks keeping constitutional issues simmering — or even boiling — to the detriment of pragmatic co-operative politics and progress in detoxifying the legacy of sectarianism in the North. In any event, it seems to me that progress towards a new political alignment on this island is highly unlikely to take the shape of an Anschluss-type, big-bang transition from partition to a unitary, socialist republic.

Unlike the reunification of Germany which followed the collapse of the Soviet-dominated East, it seems to me that change in this island will be more gradual and probably more confederal. The political island is more likely to be shared by its two parts than fused into a single, unitary state that must be redesigned from scratch changing the colour of post boxes.

That brings us to a very important issue on the agenda. Traditional unionist opposition to North-South co-operation and economic integration is pointless and counterproductive. At the same time, traditional Sinn Féin thinking that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity which need not and cannot be saved from its inherent tendency to economic and political failure is equally pointless and counterproductive.

Sinn Féin poll slump: ‘tide not gone out for them just yet’

Listen | 31:06

True republicans, myself included, should not merely aspire to the social and economic success of the North but should commit themselves to that as the immediate priority, rather than placing each-way bets on its failure. Political reconciliation does not mean abandonment of political aspirations, but it demands prioritising of political activity and language to create the possibility for genuine realignment in the politics of this island.

A new northern political anthem needs less clashing of cymbals — or symbols — and more harmony, if even with counterpoint.

The success of the Belfast agreement for the people of Northern Ireland requires far more now than reluctant ambivalence about its value or potential.